Monday, July 9, 2018

Violet Evergarden and the Emotionless Girl

I started watching Violet Evergarden this weekend. I'd been meaning to since it came out, but I'm not a regular Netflix subscriber so I waited until there was enough content in general for me to "binge" on for a month before unsubbing again. (I just don't watch much of what Netflix has to offer. A good binge is about 15 hours of TV and then I'm done for a year.)

Violet Evergarden is about an emotionless teenage soldier who does not know what to do with herself now that the war is over and her superior officer is no longer with her. I'm only up to the third episode so far, but it's pretty clear that he didn't survive. Normally I dislike such important information being withheld from the protagonist in the name of kindness, but in this case, even though I think it's a bad idea, I can understand why Hodgins is reluctant to tell her. The titular Violet considers herself a tool, and tells him that a tool that is no longer useful should be thrown away.

She initially thinks the major has cast her aside because she lost both of her arms, and they've been replaced with mechanical prostheses. Hodgins is probably afraid that if she knows the major is dead she will self-terminate, so he informs her that her fighting ability is no longer needed since the war has ended. He lets her know that the major asked him to look out for her, and he takes her away from the hospital and into the city.

At first, I thought that Violet was an artificial creation, not because of her arms, but because she has so many "does not compute" moments. When Hodgins takes her to the major's relatives, the Evergardens, it's with the understanding that they'll become her new parents and look after her. However it doesn't work out when Violet bluntly says that she has no need to replace parents she never had and she will not be a replacement for the Evergardens' lost son. It's not that Violet is trying to be cruel, but she literally does not understand what the point of her being in their household is.

Hodgins ends up lodging her in the attic of his business, where he gives her a job. For her it is like taking on a new assignment in the military, which she understands how to do. However, as expected, she goes about it mechanically and without breaks. Hodgins runs a private postal company and her first day she ends up delivering mail well into the evening without understanding that it's possible to leave things for the next day (and this mail wasn't supposed to be delivered until morning).

Eventually, Violet asks to be moved from the delivery room to the Auto Memory Doll department, which is a fancy word for a typist who will put together a dictated letter specifying the client's message the way they intend say it, even if it's not what they're actually able to say. Many people in Violet's world can't read or write, so they rely on the Auto Memory Doll to compose important letters that they can't send themselves.

The animation is beautiful, and the series does a fantastic job at showing how a person says something can change the meaning of their message. The Auto Memory Dolls have to read between the lines because what their client tells them isn't always what they're saying, and Violet thinks that if she becomes one, she can finally understand the last words the major ever said to her.

Unsurprisingly, Violet is terrible at this. The first time she tries a letter, her client is a wealthy young woman who has the attention of a eligible young man in her social circle, but she doesn't want him to think she's easy to get, so she wants a letter that will prompt him to do a little more to chase her. This sort of nuance is way beyond anything Violet can do, and the resulting letter tells the woman's potential beau that she's not interested and he would have to offer more.

Bit by bit Violet grows, and by the third episode she composes her first good letter, aided by the fact the "client" (actually a classmate at her Auto Memory Doll school) told Violet exactly the words that needed to be said without intending to. The important thing is that Violet was able to pick out the necessary words from the unnecessary ones, and though the letter is brief and very much like a field report, the words themselves carried the right message, so the letter works.

But, as I was watching, other things started needling me.

It became apparent from the flashback of when Violet met the major, that she is not an automaton, but an actual girl. Though the major was apparently kind to her and taught her to read and write, he also did not have a problem training her to be a soldier and taking her on the battlefield with him. There's the implication that he might not have had much choice in the matter (seeing as she was some kind of shady "gift" from his brother specifically to become a tool on the battlefield), but female soldiers seem to have been unusual since nearly everyone who meets her describes her as being "like a soldier" as though it's not possible she ever could have been one. It seems like she never should have been deployed, let alone as some sort of crazy bodyguard/aide to the major.

Also, there's the fact that the major's last words to Violet, after telling her she should live and be free, are "I love you." Violet doesn't understand what that means, and wants to become an Auto Memory Doll because she thinks if she can discover how to read other people's feelings she'll know what the major meant. (Keep in mind she's a teenager and the major is probably in his late 20s and this gets rather squicky.)

What I find most surprising, is that when Violet tells this to people (and boy does she tell just about anyone who's willing to hear her life story) nobody tries to explain it to the poor girl! They just kind of look at her sadly as if there are no words. I realize they might not be able to give her a good explanation, but nobody will even do the dictionary version. Hodgins might be reluctant, given that he's aware of her history, but Violet's new friend Luculia has no reason not to say something as simple/asinine as "It's when somebody really cares about another person."

Lastly, a thought occurred to me as I was watching. I've seen a number of stories now about emotionless girls who need to be "fixed" in some fashion, because girls are supposed to be full of emotions, right?

I wondered, how would this story have played out if Violet was a boy? If a teenage boy came home from war, damaged and unable to express emotion, would anybody be going to this length to see that he's well cared for? Or would it be assumed that because he's a boy, it's all right for him to not understand his own emotions or how to read those of others?

All the Auto Memory Dolls are women. There are no men among them.