「「どこかの星空の下で」」 (`Doko ka no Hoshizora no Shita de’)
“‘Somewhere, Under a Starry Sky'”
An aside: every once in a while I am reminded of how impressively well-spoken seiyuu are. Of course, the anime voice-work is always high-class, but its quality bears repeating now and again. In my moments of blind hubris I sometimes take undue pride in how much Japanese I’ve picked just from listening to characters yammer in anime. But any understanding I have is certainly due more to the actors’ oratory skill than any personal language ability. In this episode, Violet pairs up with some Leon fellow (Uemura Yuuto) to transcribe a book, and her partner warns her that he dictates very fast. But then, he doesn’t go very fast at all. The fact of the matter is, people in anime speak very slowly, and very clearly. On my visits to Japan, my experience with native speakers is that they talk very fast, slur sentences together, and mesh it all with whatever local accent that best frustrates foreigners like myself. In contrast, anime seiyuu, even when doing the most emotional scenes or the weirdest voices, are always relatively… understandable. That’s something that requires training and should be commended, in addition to acting ability.
Okay, aside over. The reason I started with an aside in this post is because I’m not sure how to frame the more central ideas I have, namely a set of criticisms about Violet Evergarden. I say ‘criticism’, but this wasn’t a bad episode, per se. Rather, I have some structural issues with the anime, and those are always harder to pin down.
I’ve talked about structure a lot in regards to Violet Evergarden; check out my post on episode 02 where I discuss the light novel compared to the anime at length. As we get deeper into the series we get a better sense of the overall structure and what is being achieved with it. This week’s episode is particularly notable in that it is actually based on a chapter of the light novel, as opposed to the large amounts of original material that Violet Evergarden had been using up until now. Though, there’s still some of the adaptation twist here; this chapter shows up later in the light novel, and of course Violet’s friends are mostly an anime creation. One chapter of light novel is perhaps slightly short for an episode of anime, and so it’s understandable to want pad it out a bit with some original material. It’s the choice of padding that causes me to wonder if the anime staff entirely understands what they’re working with here.
But before we address that we need to talk about structure, in particular about plot lines. Most stories o fany significant length will have more than one going on at once, if only to make the story interesting. Having a bunch of things going on makes the setting feel expansive, allows utilisation a wide cast of characters, gives the story a sense of richness and depth, etc etc. Even smaller stories can utilise a subtext, or some metaphorical allegory. With anime, and other weekly experiences, it’s usually a simple matter of plan each episode in terms of at least two plot lines: a self-contained one for any particular episode, and an overarching one that spans across the entire series. For example, an anime about a hero journeying to slay a demon king of course has an overarching plot about slaying the demon king, but each episode may be about recruiting an ally, or acquiring a magic sword, or any number of one-off things. Even heavily episodic or slice-of-life anime, like Mushishi or ARIA, can do this with self-contained episodes that nonetheless play into an evolving world or a connecting theme. Which brings us to Violet Evergarden. Although the anime has tried to arrange its chapters into something more chronological and linear, it is still fundamentally an episodic anime. There is an overarching plot about Violet and her development. There is an episodic plot, like this episode’s one about Leon. Note the distinction here: the overarching plot may be about Violet, but the episode is about Leon, and that’s where it gets tricky. Most of the time, Violet is not the protagonist. Violet Evergarden is as much about how she and her work affect other people as it is about how they affect her. And I wonder if the anime staff fully appreciate this. In this episode, they fill in more time for Violet compared to the light novel. But again, she’s not the protagonist. Her plot line is the overarching plot line, secondary to the episode’s plot line as the former is developed over the entire series while the latter only gets this one episode (and indeed you’ll find that in the light novel many details about Violet, like her habit of eating alone, are built up over multiple chapters). More time should instead have been put to developing Leo, his story and his point of view. Focusing on Violet does her no favours; the imbalance between the two lines makes the episode feel sluggish while paradoxically making the overarching line feel rushed or even forced.
Again, not a ‘bad’ episode per se, but compared to last week’s it feels inferior, and not just because Yamada Naoko is certainly the superior episode director to Kigami Yoshiji. Perhaps it seems that all this talk of structure implies that there is a fundamental flaw in the Violet Evergarden anime and we have cause to be pessimistic. But it’s certainly one of those flaws that can be ironed out as we go on, especially if the narrative shifts towards something somewhat less episodic. We shall see. If we’re to talk of Violet Evergarden as an episodic anime, it’s best to take it episode by episode.