Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for Violet Evergarden anime.
So there’s this one movie quote from this one movie critic about how there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie.
However critical a war film’s themes happen to be about conflict of war, if the anti-war movie in question features some violent spectacle, the anti-war messaging is undermined out-of-hand. If only for those moments of cinematic violence, there will those audience members that will instinctually enjoy them because the violence itself is enthralling to watch. The anti-war film that includes warfare becomes a thematic paradox at best and cinema-narrative dissonance at worst. I would like to believe that I’m self-aware enough to appreciate the messages in an anti-war media while taking in exciting moments of warfare. However, I also think it’s a legitimate complaint to accuse certain shows that highlight the tragedy of war that they are betraying their own themes of how awful war is by including scenes that celebrate fighting of any kind and for any side. In Code Geass, for example, massacring unarmed civilians is bad, and yet fighting in giant robots is awesome. In Hellsing: Ultimate, on the other hand, the show makes no bones about its characters loving war holistically, characters basking in both the spectacle of civilians dying in droves and their own men being torn to shreds.
While there are few, if any, anti-war media that would get around the near-impossible encirclement set by this quote, Violet Evergarden is a decent attempt at breaking out. The show mainly focuses on the lives of characters affected by the war, after the war. The few times that the show illustrates past war moments are mostly spent on soldiers being contemplative, frightened, or desperate… hardly empowering stuff. The notable and understandable exception to this trend of omitting violent spectacle is Violet herself, the blood-streaked, barely-teen soldier maiden of the battlefield. Similarly, while Violet Evergarden doesn’t fully overcome the well-worn and somewhat exploitative anime trope of the beautiful fighting girl, the Kyoto Animation adaptation does make a decision in regards to its female heroine that admirably tries to circumvent the worst of that stereotype. In their original conceptions, the beautiful fighting girls (also known as the bishoujo fighting girls) were those female characters who were both badasses in combat and unambiguously feminine. Violet, our female character here, is depicted during her tour of “duty” less as a cutesy warrior and as more a feral animal.
That wasn’t always or even originally the case for Violet Evergarden. Kyoto Animation, the studio responsible for animating Violet Evergarden, released two different character concepts of Violet to the public:
(1) the one reflected in an earlier Promotional Video (PV)
and (2) the other that starred in the actual TV anime.
The character designs of the two Violets, and specifically the two war-time flashback Violets, are dissimilar from each other in important ways. Both Violets have long, blonde hair, but the former Violet’s hair appears far more well-groomed and noticeably primped — an intricate hair braid running down the side of her face — compared to the latter Violet’s hair, more disheveled and wild-looking even whilst tied up — strands stringy and frayed as if having rolled and mucked through a battlefield. The former Violet’s military attire is more neat and embellished compared to the latter Violet’s spartan and oddly-fitting soldier uniform. The dull military greens and yellows of both these Violets’ clothes signal the wearers as people who belong to regimented armies. The PV Violet comes off, however, emits this stately and innocent aura, nipping cutesily into her emerald brooch. By contrast, the TV anime Violet projects this pathetic and damaged image while biting viscerally into her green rock.
What’s also noticeable about Violet in the PV that’s absent in the TV anime is this enormous anime battleaxe. The Violet Evergarden Light Novels (LNs) includes this somewhat superfluous and totally over-the-top woman-with-weapon image of Violet brandishing a huge axe while fighting. For a story that purports itself to be serious about its anti-war messaging, the image of a beautiful fighting girl swinging around a giant-ass battleaxe is not only super silly. It also screams spectacle, which according to the standards set by the aforementioned quote in the introductory paragraph, is counter-intuitive to the intentions of anti-war media. You’ll have people who will enjoy the spectacle of a war maiden swinging an massive axe for its own sake. Framing any violent moment during any violent conflagration as exciting instead of a downer could be seen as thematically dissonant. Enjoyment of such spectacle defeats the purpose of a film criticizing the concept of war. Compared to the LNs and the PV, however, the TV anime forgoes having Violet use this axe in the war altogether. Instead, war-time Violet sticks to a simple bayonet.
Enormous battleaxe or simple bayonet aside, Violet is shown in her flashbacks as being very proficient at killing people. Spraying crimson from exposed jugulars onto grass like glistening dew, Violet darts through stalks of grass and reeds to slit people’s necks in mesmerizing spectacle, flames from broken lanterns illuminate the face of Gilbert Bougainvillea’s emotionally mal-developed ward. It is an aesthetically pleasing sight, even while her caretaker Gilbert looks on, aghast. I won’t contest that this graceful killing spectacle can’t be taken for violence for its own sake, but fluid murderous display is tempered by the sequence of other scenes before and subsequent, demonstrating Violet’s much more pitiful and tragic qualities. In every other context outside of war, she is this ragged little thing who bears little regard for her own safety and dignity, snapping at whoever she perceives as threatening — the price paid for a girl looking so great while fighting. The more emotionally intelligent and mature she becomes after the war, the more emotionally haunted she becomes by her previous killings, leading to a disturbingly detailed scene in her military retirement of her trying to choke herself to death using her prosthetic arm.
Beyond the war, in moments where Violet does employ her super-soldier skills to incapacitate attackers, her last and greatest opportunity to demonstrate herself as a female badass ends in frustration instead of catharsis. Enemy soldiers charge at her with bayonets on top of a moving train, and try as she might to take them out without killing them — the ability and ease of which was eminently doable for her if she was allowed to kill — she fails and is ultimately subdued and knelt to be cut down by a saber. We’ve seen her perform superhuman feats in prior episodes, and yet she refuses to perform them in the moment where it seems to matter most. When they want to, the writers and animators of Kyoto Animation can produce amazing moments of fluid animation coupled with powerfully nuanced storytelling. Some of that movement, cinematography, and writing was on display in this final episode of the anime. Everything that informed the anti-war messaging of Violet Evergarden until now comes to a head, between soldier men who wish for war due to the outrage of their sacrifices being cruelly and callously forgotten, and a once forsaken Violet who no longer wishes to see others forcing these sacrifices onto otherwise kind and loving people.
Violet survives this episode. She survives without Gilbert, and yet Gilbert survives through her. His physical absence pains Violet, however, and that shared experience of having lost a loved one allows Violet to empathize with others pained by the absence of their own loved ones. It is through this empathy that the show’s small moments of exhilarating to frustrating violence, however entertaining in their own right, receives a anti-war context that is expressed through its female protagonist. From a emotionally numb and casually brutal Violet, we progress to an emotionally wracked and reluctantly coercive Violet, and finally reach a Violet who has moved beyond her war-time past for a peaceful and rehabilitative life of ghostwriting letters. Even if not totally (because of those, again, impossible standards), Violet Evergarden is a comprehensively anti-war anime. It avoids including violent spectacle where its thematic ambitions can afford to do without it. It sympathizes with those affected by the tragedy of war, and induces empathy in one of the people responsible for propagating it. It relieves a beautiful girl of her fighting orders, and doesn’t strip her of any existing beauty for it.