The old adage is that “people never change,” but that’s hardly true at all, is it? Most people, in fact, are constantly in change as they react to the joys and hurt, the happiness and pain, and the push and pull of life, and evolve as they travel through these experiences. But the ones who resist, who insist on standing still, can only watch as life passes them by.
That theme is ever present in Violet Evergarden, both the anime series and the films (a “side story” movie was previously released), as they trace the development of the titular young woman from a “tool of war” to her post-military life in a steampunk version of a country much like Belgium following a conflict much like WWI, and as she matures and comes to understand the nature of love by working as an auto-memory doll, a postal worker who helps translate customers’ intentions into letters typed with pitch-perfect wording. But while the focus had previously been on Violet’s growth, Violet Evergarden the Movie begins by showing how others around her are now moving forward while she stands still, including—and surprisingly—Dietfried Bougainvillea, the formerly cruel brother of Gilbert, Violet’s former commanding officer whose kindness and love inspired impassioned devotion in her, even after it’s presumed he died a violent death.
Violet, however, holds out hope that Gilbert has somehow survived. Violet Evergarden the Movie is a vast canvas, large enough to explore the final outcome of Violet’s search for Gilbert and showing how she comes to terms with what happened and who she has become. While the film could accurately be called an extended episode, it’s perhaps better described as a conclusion (for almost immediately, the film suggestions that this story will conclude Violet’s tale) where the stakes are higher and the plot structure more complicated. And although the anime has prepared viewers for deeply affecting content, that, too, is all the stronger in this final film: Violet will settle her feelings for the missing and presumed dead Gilbert one way or another, and we feel the heaviness of that almost as much as she does.
But a conclusion won’t come quickly nor easily. The twist and turns of this journey start with the unconventional structure of the film, which begins several generations later, with Violet most likely long dead and gone, as a young woman takes a latter-day interest in auto memory dolls. The action then turns back toward the roughly 1920s setting of Violet Evergarden and the story of a sick boy for whom Violet will ghostwrite as she, and to a lesser extent, Dietfried, deal with their own ghost.
Standing on the precipice of breakthrough for most of the two-hour and twenty minute runtime, and keeping that heightened sense of emotion throughout, the movie is at times exhausting. It is the culmination of a beloved heroine’s journey and a proud display both of how much she’s grown to become a person capable of giving and receiving love, and of the trauma she still carries from the war and particularly the violent loss of Gilbert. Voice actress Yui Ishikawa’s range is on full display as she effortlessly moves from Violet’s normal monotone voice to sobbing and screaming—she’s a treasure, helping to keep the film centered in authenticity when it could become pretentious and, with a screenplay that’s sometimes gorgeously crafted and at other times written without subtlety, unwieldy. But carried by her performance, unexpected character development and reveals, and breathtaking animation, Violet Evergarden the Movie becomes the crown of what was already royalty in anime, a modern classic.
As this story unfolds on the screen, it’s also worth considering the tale of the studio that produced it. Kyoto Animation had to postpone the film’s opening twice, once because of COVID-19, but before that due to tragedy, the arson that led to the deaths of 36 KyoAni employees. As Violet makes her way toward resolution on screen, it feels much like the studio’s journey as well, through violence and trauma into grief and—at least as can be expressed through the completion of this film—resolution. Kyoto Animation’s heroine, like the staff of the studio itself, will stand strong—after all, she and they have already been through hell and back.
Which evokes the question: Can you go through hell and actually make it “back”? Can you see the worst in humanity and still, as Violet efforts to do, learn what “I love you” means? The answer for a series and movie that is ultimately encouraging (though it always pierces your soul first) may be a foregone conclusion, but the answer isn’t any less meaningful—for Violet, for Kyoto Animation, and for us all.
Rating: **** (4/5)
Violet Evergarden opens in North American theaters on March 30th.