I want to start by talking about a single shot in Violet Evergarden’s debuting episode.
Violet’s reflection in the clock implies two things: her current state of mind, as well as certain potential, if one takes into account Violet’s first real display of agency in this scene.
A clock as a tool for telling time is mechanical and rigid by nature, its function defined by a single need. Violet was a child soldier who has known nothing but to take orders and acting on them: her function defines her, encroaching her behind a transparent cage.
This shot lasted a total of eleven seconds, with the second hand counting down every single one of them. To have this shot last such an extended amount of time (I’d wager that this is the longest uninterrupted shot of the whole episode) very much solidifies my belief that its intents are more than a passing aesthetic choice. Rather, this shot’s dual function depicts Violet’s obstacle as being her rigidity, while the ticking clock hand also adds a sense of ambient motion: Violet’s story is about to begin. The clock is ticking.
Sleight of Hand: Guiding The Visual Narrative
Violet Evergarden’s cuts are dripping with ulterior motives; angles of presentation that are chosen almost as if to hammer the audience with what it’s trying to say, rather than having the characters spell it out. Although…it is also here where Violet Evergarden showcases its devotion to character performance. In other words, the sacred ‘show don’t tell’ mantra isn’t being utilised for a cheeky sleight of hand magic trick: the show doesn’t let the characters spell everything out, because the characters themselves don’t want to.
I am confident that every person watching this scene will realise that Major Gilbert is dead in less than a minute. But the scene drags on uncomfortably, through tangents and avoided questions, as Violet’s enquiries kept waltzing closer to the dreaded centre of the tragedy. Her beloved Major is killed, and she’s either oblivious to it, or has chosen to deny the truth. Neither possibility is pleasant for the visiting (& retired) Colonel, who’s obviously trying to let the girl down easy.
The entire scene is a vehicle for character familiarisation, as the audience starts to properly read the situation and settle into the character’s opening functions in the narrative. Claudia constantly shifting his hands in and out of his pockets is yet another instance of the show’s devotion to character acting. The camera’s contrasting close-up frontal shots of Violet’s relentless interrogating is almost tragic when the unspoken words all but confirms the reality of the Major’s death. And to top it of: the portrait shot of Violet as she was told that leaving with Claudia is the Major’s orders, and it fading into a shot of Claudia out of focus behind the car window is but salad dressing to the show’s confidence in its visual storytelling.
Violet Evergarden is a gorgeous show (understatement of the century). Its visual depiction of a distinctively Victorian setting is enhanced by stunning background and architectural design, all the while the camera’s constant search for new angles to bring the world to life hides even more ambience to the storytelling. Before the title card even appears, we are treated to an extremely busy but seamlessly blended together flyover sequence of the countryside and port of the post-war Telesis, which doubles as an oh-so-blatant metaphor of letter’s romantic definition: delivering unspoken feelings to faraway lands.
Rhyme: Rule of Three
Violet bites something on screen three times over the course of the episode, and this internal rhyme of the seemingly unrelated ended up delivering the bulk of the emotional turmoil in the episode.
Sure, Violet biting the ears of a puppy doll in the car may be an escaped glimpse of childish nerve; a sliver of emotion that still resides in a forcibly retired human weapon, but then she says that she chose the plushy, because she remembered being called ‘Gilbert’s Dog’ once. Ouch.
The second time was Violet using her teeth to put on a pair of gloves. This instance is largely inconsequential, but it does serve as the mental footnote for the audience, since the camera linger at the deliberate nature of the animation, although we are still not sure why (or for that matter…why Violet’s hands are mechanical to begin with). We can guess that wartime injuries were what gave her the hands, but the show eventually takes this seemingly habitual gesture and charges it with performative drama.
The camera in this scene is slotted behind the darkened fence, while Violet and Gilbert chatted in a gorgeous garden: a passing shot that invokes guarded emotion, which mirrors Violet’s own bodily gesture. Her fear of losing Gilbert’s approval is such that she’s willing to throw herself away rather than continuing living without it. Which brings the show’s internal rhyme to a close: a limbless Violet desperately biting off the uniform of a dying Gilbert, evidently trying to get to the wounds.
For the tragedy to take place in the midst of such architectural and cultural grandeur is very much reflective of the personal narrative Violet Evergarden is waiving. Violet does not know how to act out Gilbert’s final orders to live on and be free. And so the show sets this predicament up as the main overarching narrative, boldly framed with Gilbert’s last words to Violet: “I love you.”
Feel free to leave if you smirk at the story of a girl trying to find the meaning of love. Such a story, set against the backdrop of a post-war, decidedly fantastical Victorian world, is unabashedly deliberate in its passion. Violet’s fortunate stumble into the job of a professional writer of letters (confusingly named Automated Memory Dolls), during a time when a lot of people lack the basic literacy skills to express their feelings through writing, is just an adorable detail that adds legitimacy to the narrative. Like a 40s Hollywood romance, Violet Evergarden puts passion, grandeur and performative sparkle first. All it needs now is a proper Max Steiner musical score to REALLY get our hearts trembling (Although the series composer Evan Call is already doing a decent job with the music).
Violet’s resolve to understand the final words of Gilbert is neatly framed by the opening episode, which I understand took significant liberties with the source material. And as I’ve just explored: the show’s tying of its visual sleights of hand and character performance is paramount to its sensual delivery. It is my hope then, that the staff working with director Taichi Ishidate is aware of their successful formula, and have continued with it throughout production.