By: Brains, Trash Pandas Watch Anime
Date: December 8, 2018
I think some people who watched Violet Evergarden on Netflix, this year, missed the point of what the show was trying to say. This is the story of a veteran soldier’s reintegration into society, struggle with PTSD, and above all, learning to cope with what she has lost. Kyoto Animation delivers a subtle, but complex story, which reflects the reality of the subject matter, and turn Violet’s emotional struggle up to an “11“ like a big neon sign, as if to say, “Hey look! She’s dealing with some stuff here, and it’s buried deep.”
Violet has lost something. She may not completely know it, or understand what it is, but it is apparent to the audience. The reactions of other characters in the show to Violet’s prosthetic hands, are very telling of civilian response to soldiers returning home. War is an entity and animal that is hard to understand for those who have not been there.
Just like me, Violet came back from war missing something, and not even truly understanding what it is that she lost. While it was clear to the people around me when I returned, it was not immediately apparent to me. There were times when my family and friends would ask about it, and I told them that it wasn’t true, but deep down in those moments when you cannot lie to yourself, I knew something was wrong. The show makes people that have seen this trauma mourn the person they were. This sense of loss of self is something that can’t be explained. It’s almost like a form of amputation. You have phantom limb sensations of feeling something missing, but it is something that you can’t truly remember, and will never be able to place where it was supposed to be.
Violet has lost her sense of purpose and understanding of the world. She has a clear mission and purposes, which left her as the war ended. There is no “being a civilian” lecture to attend when you return. Your life that you had known for every second of every day has disappeared, and no one in the real world understands what has happened to you. The routine and hierarchy of the military is a bonding piece that allows you to know your place. That is the piece which Violet is missing.
In Episode 4, Violet’s colleague Iris Cannary is talking about being thankful her family escaped going to war, and, without realizing it, she reacts in the way someone who has made a mistake does. She looks at Violet’s gloved hand and apologizes because she knows Violet didn’t come out of the war okay. This is similar to reactions that even I have received despite not suffering the same visible injuries.
In Episode 5, we see Violet finally expand her understanding of the world and people to the point where she is intuitively reading emotions despite not necessarily understanding her own, and, in the end, we are left with a scene of her and Cattleya Baudelaire speaking on the road. Cattleya is taken aback as Violet smiles, showing a very human and genuine aspect of herself. It’s one of many scenes that depict the reaction to a veteran returned from war, during their transition back to “normal” life.
There are scenes where Violet physically uses her hands to force her expression into a smile, which can easily be seen not only as a cute thing, but also a metaphor for the repression as well as the false face that many veterans put on. At the end of episode 5, a confrontation sets the tone for the next few episodes, and in episode 6 Violet does what so many of us have done before, and questions her worthiness to be happy. With a line from Dietfried Bougainvillea, who knows of Violet’s violent past, she is deconstructed:
“With the very hand that took the lives of so many, you write letters to bring people together?”
This is important because it is a symbol of what happens to veterans and many others. We destroy and take things so often that we feel the need to return something to this world. We feel it in our core, in the place few of us talk about; this drive to give something back to replace that which we took.
Episode 7 begins with a play, which ends with the line, “Ah, I must suffer the consequences of the sins I have committed for the rest of my life.” Violet spends that episode with a man who had his daughter taken from him by illness and who came to truly understand and learn what loneliness felt like. In the end, Violet is resting on the bunk of her ship cabin, and she flashes back to things said to her by Dietfried and the man who found her and gave her to Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. She thinks back on Dietfried’s line about “the hand that took the lives of so many,” and to the key line that Claudia Hoskins delivered to her in episode 1:
“You’re going to learn a lot of things, but it might be easier to keep living, if you didn’t learn them, if you didn’t know them. You don’t realize your body is on fire, and burning up because of the things you did… You’ll understand one day, and then you’ll realize for the first time that you have many burns.”
Violet then flashes back to Major Gilbert’s final moments, and as if she were talking to him again, remembers her response to Claudia in episode 1, asserting that she was not burning. She then starts to cry, and asks, “do I have any right to live after I killed so many people as a weapon? I must have prevented them from keeping promises of their own! Promises they made to loved ones of their own! Everything I’ve done so far has sparked a flame that is now burning me up!”
This. This moment is incredibly important in ways Violet can’t fully understand yet. Some of us have had that moment after a night of drinking, or at a dark, low point where we can say these things to ourselves. These specific things. We have survivor’s guilt and we can’t let go of it all the time, even when we say we can. At the end of the episode, Violet finds out the truth. Major Gilbert is missing and presumed dead, which is something we all knew.
In episode 8, we finally see the history of Violet in a way that had been building from the beginning of the show. We saw the context for her trauma before, but now we finally see the truth of it. In episode 9, Claudia talks about the meaning behind his words, and how we cannot ever forget the past. We can see the truth in his words, that we will suffer in our own fire of trauma. However, we can learn to live with it and carry forward. In this same episode, Violet has a true PTSD moment where she breaks down into violence and anger after a nightmare, going so far as to try to end her own life, as a sort of recompense for her crimes. By the end of the episode, she has made some peace by running into Claudia’s office and saying:
“You were right. I have burns all over my body. Is that okay? Do I have any right to be a doll? Do I have the right to live?”
Hodgins replies, “you cannot erase the past, although just know everything you’ve done as an auto memory doll won’t disappear either, Violet Evergarden.” This is the truth we all struggle with. No matter what, the bad we have done will never disappear. However, the good we have done won’t disappear either.
I know I have focused on the struggle of veterans, because that is the context I know best, and is directly translatable here. However, that is not to say that civilians do not also share the same mindset. The truth is the things I am talking about here are the hallmarks of a survivor. Anyone who survived a particularly traumatic event can empathize strongly with Violet, and if you are a Survivor, this may be a show you can get a lot out of. And, also know, you need to be strong. Trauma cannot be measured with simple words and labels, as I feel Violet herself cannot be measured.
Violet, however, is not alone in the show has Luculia Marlborough’s brother Spencer also suffers from deep survivor’s guilt over the loss of his parents, and his inability to defend them. Claudia Hodgins and Dietfried Bougainvillea know this feeling as well. They show that understanding of each other in ways the rest of the characters struggle with; even in small moments, like when Claudia rescued Violet’s brooch from the black market with his monthly salary.
In closing, I would like to say to any Survivors, from one of us to another, you deserve to be happy. You do not deserve to be burdened for what you did. You did what you had to so that you could survive. Violet is an avatar for us, and she deserves to keep carrying on because Survivors are strong, and we as humans are defined by what we were, and what we have survived.