「「戻って来ない」」 (‘Modotte Konai’)
“‘Never Coming Back'”
A comment last week talked about how Violet Evergarden was using a ‘reverse Haruhi’ structure in terms of light novel order versus anime episode order, and that’s an interesting comparison to explore. For those who didn’t watch Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, it aired its episodes in a non-chronological order. It seemed to delight in shuffling up its timeline but it didn’t do this just for kicks (…mostly). The thing was, the source light novels the anime adapted were just one narrative arc and then a short stories collection, and if the anime used that structure without change it would hit the climax basically half-way through the season and then spend the rest of it on essentially omake episodes. You can see how that’s not really the best viewer engagement, so the anime team shuffled the light novel chapters around, spacing short stories in-between the plot-centric episodes. What made this actually clever was that the series was designed around this non-linear structure; tension in the series flowed naturally in this order, and even character development progressed according to episode order, causality be damned. So although later DVD releases will organise episodes by chronological order, I would always recommend watching Haruhi in broadcast order. There was a method to the madness, and holistically it made sense.
The Violet Evergarden light novel also doesn’t strictly follow a chronological order either. As I noted last week, it started largely episodic, starting with Violet already an established and renowned amanuensis. While doing that, it dropped hints about her circumstances, setting, and backstory here and there and gave readers a bit of time to piece things together before dumping Violet’s heavy past on us. Like in the Haruhi anime, Violet Evergarden the LN seemed to know that it couldn’t sustain full plot all the time, let alone straight from the starting line, and therefore spread out its narrative over the short stories. Violet Evergarden the anime, though, seems to be out to unravel that structure and straighten it out. Sure, it’s still hiding a few cards up its sleeve, but for the most part it presents itself chronologically, interrupted only momentarily by flashbacks, starting with how Violet got into the Auto-Memories Doll (do you prefer ‘Auto-Memories’ or ‘Auto-Memoir’?) profession in the first place. I’m not sure how I feel about this direction yet, mostly because it’s common wisdom that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, and I think the light novel’s structure would have worked out fine. Perhaps the anime team was wary that a gentler start would lose audience share and wanted to show more of its hand so that fickle, anime-watching couch potatoes won’t tune out after a single week — this isn’t a novel, and it’s easier to turn the page than to come back to a TV show weekly. There is some merit to this thinking, since despite the title Violet wasn’t actually even the protagonist for the first few chapters of the light novel, just a recurring character, while the anime spells out very clearly that she’s the important person in this story. I think the extra subtlety is actually an advantage, though, since mystery is the very best audience hook, and Violet is definitely more interesting the less we know about her. Make us want to know more about her by using her less, keeping her enigmatic for as long as possible. As I talked about last week, trying to sell us on a character at the start of a story is very difficult. It’s hard to make us care about a stranger so quickly. So, leave a trail of bait for the audience, make us want to follow it because we want to peek through the cloak mystery surrounding the character, and then endear her to us along the way. Themes and setting can come first, with characters working their way in later.
I’m not going to say the anime is ‘doing things wrong’ per se; we’ll see more of how the anime plays with the ordering and what its long-term effects will be further down the line, so let’s talk about this episode now. As with many other anime series, episode 02 is a slower one, pulling our focus back to do more of the introductory work. In particular, we learn more about what these ‘Auto-Memories Dolls’ are all about. Here I must confess to a bit of trickery I did when I wrote the preview, which in my defence I only did because the LN did it too. The Auto-Memories Doll robots are these things. An entire industry of female amanuenses sprang up because of them and take their name. But they are not one and the same. The ladies at Violet’s company, like Cattlya Baudelaire (Endo Aya) are flesh-and-blood humans (that said, more in this later). We see that they’re a high-class, white-collar profession, aloof to the manual labour of a mere postman. We see what their work entails. And we see that their pride is not without reason, for the work is not easy. Turns out, most people are terrible communicators, and this should be taken as a reflection of the difficulty of communication. It seems that most of the clients of Auto-Memories Dolls want them to write what they mean, not what they say, which is a complex barrel of fish (…that was a weird metaphor. Think of a barrel full of an imaginary number of fish). Evidently more to this profession than mere typing skill, requiring also the skills of both mediator and translator.
Enter Violet. She seems as unsuited to this job as one can possibly be. This episode makes a clear point of distinguishing Auto-Memories Dolls of the past and present, inviting comparison between mere machines and actual people. The machines are probably good enough for simple speech-to-text, but evidently there was demand for a more human touch. And here we have Violet, who lacks the human touch in more ways than one. When I talked about Violet Evergarden really being a robot story at heart, this is what I was talking about. It matters little what the truth of Violet is, whether she is biological or mechanical. What makes human is in the mind, and there Violet is lacking. What is wanted in the Auto-Memories Dolls is discretion, subtlety, an ability to read the subtext — all skills that Violet lacks. But the mark of intelligence — be it human, be it artificial — is the ability to learn, and our protagonist is at least willing to try.
More on that next week, I expect. We still seem to be in prologue-mode right now (no OP/ED, for starters), but once we get out of that our horizons should expand a bit. When I read Violet Evergarden I always considered the stories of her clients more important than her own, or rather, they form an important part of her own. It is when Violet starts to receive them that her story will begin in earnest.
Full length image: 39.