I don't really keep up with Kyoto Animation, but Violet Evergarden garnered enough hype to get me interested. Based on the first light novel to ever win the grand prize in the Kyoto Animation Award, it got a lot of attention for its indulgent promo video — a swirling, beautiful mess of light and motion. With Anime Expo hosting the US premiere of the first episode, I decided to give it a try.
On its face, Violet Evergarden seems like a change of pace for the studio behind K-On and Sound Euphonium and the director behind Beyond the Boundary (Taichi Ishidate); It's set in mid-century Europe, with no Japanese high schoolers to be found. The title character is a sort of teenage super-soldier (her backstory is only hinted at in episode one) who lost her arms in battle. They've now been replaced with metallic prosthetics that further accentuate her deadpan, robotic personality and give the series its most striking visual trademark. In the first episode, Violet starts a new job at a mail delivery service while an old colleague of her commanding officer tries to help her adjust to life in peacetime.
What sticks out most about the episode is its animation, which has a richness that's rare even in feature films, let alone TV. Not only do the characters simply move a lot, but there's a remarkable amount of highly detailed secondary animation, especially of hair and fabric, as well as intricate animated shadows and highlights. Usually an animation character designer would produce much more simplified designs, but Violet Evergarden's characters look almost like they came right off of a promo illustration.
Because animation involves picking and choosing when to abstract reality, this detail results in a sort of hyperreality, like an animator's version of Makoto Shinkai's nostalgia-tinted backgrounds. It's an impressive show of technical ability from the already vaunted animators at Kyoto Animation, but sometimes the effect is a little too strong, like watching an over-cranked scene in a Zack Snyder movie.
Unfortunately, the story's not much to speak of. A traumatized soldier seeking inner peace in civilian life might be more interesting if she weren't a lifeless sex doll. The anime trope of the beautiful, emotionally stunted girl who needs a nice man to help her has its fans, but it reduces her to an object that other characters act upon. Episode 1's climax does hinge on a small moment of agency for Violet, but even then it revolves around her dependent relationships with men. It's possible that this is intentional and that the series will flesh Violet out over time, but I smell typical light novel paternalism all over this.
At the very least, Violet Evergarden's first episode is a technical achievement for Kyoto Animation, and if they can keep up that attention to detail, the series may be worth watching for the visuals alone. I hope future episodes provide Violet with more chances to grow as a character, but I’m not counting on it. I have a feeling this isn't going to be the show that makes me a KyoAni fan.