Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh
First, a positive: Violet Evergarden is beautifully animated. The artwork is glorious, each frame a delight. The landscapes are remarkably rendered: the countryside lush and verdant, the rain almost palpable. The setting is a peculiar mash-up: the costumes are sort of Victorian; the locations are vaguely European; the Eiffel Tower looms improbably over a pretty, coastal town. The effect is dreamy and ethereal; we are somewhere, nowhere, anywhere. It’s the past (because telephones are new-fangled, a threat to Violet’s job), but it doesn’t matter when. This is all about human nature, and there are close-ups a-plenty to showcase the intensity of the characters’ emotions: clenched fists, tear-filled eyes and shifting feet.
Second, a caveat: Taichi Ishidate’s film is based on a prize-winning illustrated novel by Kana Akatsuki and Akiko Takase, which has already spawned an acclaimed TV series, also by Kyoto Animation. I have neither read the book nor seen the programme. For those who have, Violet Evergarden: The Movie might well be a welcome addition to the pantheon. However, as a stand-alone, it doesn’t work.
It’s such a shame. I want to like this film. I’m so excited to be back in my favourite cinema, watching on the big screen, but the artwork deserves a better story than this. The script (by Reiko Yoshida) is an incoherent mess. An Auto Memory Doll would have done a better job.
That’s what Violet is – an Auto Memory Doll. We’re introduced to this idea by virtue of a convoluted sub-plot that is never resolved. Daisy’s grandmother has just died and, after the funeral, Daisy (Sumire Morohoshi) takes a brief break from castigating her mum (but not her dad) for being busy at work, and finds a series of letters sent posthumously from her great-grandmother to her daughter. They’ve been written, she learns, by an Auto Memory Doll, or ghost writer. Still, despite a long, expositional scene all about Daisy’s emotional connection to her family, we don’t need to worry about her. She barely features again.
Instead, we pick up the story of a famous Doll, the eponymous Violet (Yui Ishikawa). Her backstory is detailed at breakneck speed, so I can barely keep up. There’s a war. She’s orphaned (I think); she meets a naval officer, Dietfried (Hidenobu Kiuchi), who then gives her to his soldier brother, Gilbert (Daisuke Namikawa), who’s supposed to train her to become a weapon. Instead he teaches her to read and write. There’s a bomb. She loses her arms. Gilbert feels bad. She gets prosthetic arms and becomes a writer. Her writing is exquisite. Everyone wants her to write for them, including a famous playwright! She’s a whizz at expressing others’ emotions. But she can’t say ‘I love you’ in her own right. Yup, it really is that trite.
From thereon-in, it’s all soaring strings and melodrama. It’s clearly meant to be profound, but I feel like I’m looking for depth in a pebbly puddle. Violet comes across as such a drip, it’s hard to believe she ever fought in a war. She’s vapid and weepy and painfully submissive. The endless subplots (the dying child, the random playwright who cries for reasons never explained) are muddled and dull. Even her writing is hack: the letters she writes for Yurith’s family would have been better left to the viewers’ imagination, because the banality of the messages belies the story’s entire premise.
In short, this is a film for those already enamoured of the tale. For the uninitiated, it’s a ponderous bore. I spend the last hour just waiting for it to be over.