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I wear a weak smile
With weights on each end.
I faithfully labor
And greet every neighbor
To be a bulwark
On which all can depend.

Yet what I have lost
Haunts that which I’ve found.
Like one stubborn ember,
Your face I remember,
A past that burned bright
Upon life’s battleground.

They say what I know,
That I have to move on.
I still love the trace
That remains of your face.
I doubt it will ever
Be totally gone.

MPA rating:  Not Rated (should be PG-13 for some violent flashbacks and heavy emotional themes)

Although I love anime, I’m often not sure how to review films based on anime series. For example, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train was literally the highest grossing movie of 2020 worldwide, smashing records and becoming the first non-Hollywood film to top the global box office. Yet I don’t really know what to say about it. Because it’s a feature-length middle chapter for the Demon Slayer series, it’s hard to recommend it to those unfamiliar with the show, since a full appreciation of the film depends on some familiarity. It was exciting, eye-popping, a good continuation, and apparently a real tearjerker for some (not me), but its attachment to an ongoing TV series limits its appeal in my view. I feel the same for other anime films based on series, from the Steins;Gate sequel to the growing number of My Hero Academia features, which typically end up feeling decent but unnecessary.

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Obviously, that’s not always the case. I’ve sung the praises of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, which built beautifully on its original show, and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, which stands on its own just as well. I suppose it’s easier when a film comes after a show ends, rather than in the middle of its run. Anyway, it should indicate my high regard for Violet Evergarden: The Movie that I’m reviewing it at all, beyond making it List-Worthy.

For those unfamiliar with Violet Evergarden, it’s a show from Kyoto Animation based on a popular light novel series about a girl in a fictional semi-Victorian country where gas lamps exist alongside advanced prosthetic limbs. Utilized as a lethal child warrior during a horrific war, the girl is taken in by a Major Gilbert, who gives her the name Violet and hates using her on the battlefield, despite her effectiveness. In the midst of a major victory, both of them are severely injured, and the Major is lost and presumed dead. With the war over, Violet is sent to a friend of the Major’s who runs a post office, and she gradually eases into the more peaceful life of typing letters for others, a job called an Auto Memory Doll (basically a transcriptionist with a typewriter). While struggling to understand simple concepts like love and pining for the Major, she meets an array of customers who help her grow as a person.

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The short 13-episode series itself is quite good, with strong characters and emotions, but its greatest strengths are the glorious, Oscar-caliber score and drop-dead gorgeous animation. It’s honestly some of the finest, most detailed animation out there, and almost any single frame could be hung on a wall as a work of art. I will say that the script can be weak at times, often ascribing great profundity to the letters Violet writes even when they’re more earnest than deep. But the film’s poignant themes grow more affecting with time, and the largely stand-alone tenth episode remains one of the most tear-jerking episodes of television imaginable. Even the thought of it makes me want to cry. The studio could have left the show alone or stopped after the spin-off film called Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, which falls under that “decent but unnecessary” status that I mentioned before. But the studio decided to cap off the series with a finale film, despite delays from the infamous arson attack and COVID, and I’m glad they did because it’s everything I could have wanted in a conclusion (hello, 100% Rotten Tomatoes score).

It was a canny choice to frame the story as a retrospective investigation, with a young woman from decades in the future looking back on the tale of Violet Evergarden, and the woman’s connection to that moving tenth episode had me close to sobbing right from the start. The film soon jumps back to Violet’s time, after she has grown into the most popular Doll in the city, though her thoughts remain with her long-lost Major Gilbert. After accepting a job from a sick boy in the hospital who wants her help to write letters to his family once he is gone, Violet and her boss learn of evidence that Gilbert might be alive on a distant island, and they go in search of her beloved.

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There were many ways that the film could have gone wrong. Would they pull a fake-out and say it wasn’t Gilbert? Would it be a tired amnesia scenario? But the way it plays out is both touching and makes sense for the characters, highlighting Gilbert’s guilt from the war and how much Violet has grown apart from him. The eventual climax is a massive tug to the heartstrings, and I felt like the film was effective in encapsulating the overarching story and its emotions, even for those who may not have watched the series. (Even so, I certainly recommend watching the show first for the full context and emotional punch.)

I’ve always thought that the concept of an Auto Memory Doll seemed odd and quaint, like something that would be unrealistic in the real world, though that view is likely shaped by the prevalence of modern literacy and easy communication methods. The film actually addresses that head-on, with the advent of the telephone threatening the entire Doll profession. One shot of a lamplighter gazing up at a newfangled electric streetlight perfectly captured the theme of technological progress. I suppose the job of writing letters for others could be compared to something like the Pony Express, short-lived but memorable, and while the story could have been antagonistic toward such progress, it manages to show the positive aspects of both the telephone and letter-writing in, of course, the most poignant way possible.

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I can see how someone cynical could easily view Violet Evergarden with detachment and scoff at its overly melodramatic qualities. It can lay on the tragedy pretty thick at times and certainly falls under that category of anime that intentionally aim to bring the audience to tears, like Angel Beats, To Your Eternity, or anything from Mari Okada. But if you can truly connect with Violet’s journey to understand love, it’s well worth tears, and I like the fact that I’m not too jaded to be moved by it. I liked the series on its own, but Violet Evergarden: The Movie took the series’ strengths and elevated them with a near-perfect culmination of all that came before and left me with a precious lump in my throat. I feel sorry for those who don’t give anime a chance, because stories like this transcend the medium to be great films, period.

Best line:  (Daisy, the woman learning about Violet) “If there’s something I can’t tell them in words, maybe I could tell them in a letter. I want to finally tell them my true feelings. We don’t know how long we have, so I need to tell them while I still have time.”

Rank:  List-Worthy

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