There is a tension in our world. It pulls on us when we hold tragic headlines in one hand and an old friend’s letter of good news in the other. It tears at us during goodbyes that we don’t want to say. We wake up every day to news of wars and marriages, orphans and restored families. The strain between beauty and evil, between what is and what should be, is constant. We’ve heard that love is the answer, but do we really understand what it means? What kind of love can heal those wounds? We ache to be whole, and that longing drives the story of the Japanese anime series Violet Evergarden. While it is only an echo of that great love story, this series is a powerful and beautiful illustration of redemption that reflects truths about the life-giving love that God extends to us and how we, in turn, can give such a gift to others.
Violet Evergarden presents a place that we’re familiar with, a world that is both heart-breakingly beautiful and ugly. In gorgeous animation, it shows soldiers returning from war, changed and broken. The main character is one such soldier, but Violet has never known life apart from war. Kidnapped as a child and forced to become a special weapon for the army, she understands little about emotions or what it means to be human. Though her experience may be far from the average audience member’s life, the question that drives her is one that resonates with all of us: what is love? She’s haunted by the last words of her commanding officer, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, the man who raised her. As he was dying, he told her I love you.
Desperate to understand what that means, Violet decides to take the job that he arranged for her to take after the war. She goes to work for Mr. Claudia Hodgins, a former lieutenant colonel and friend of the major’s, taking on what seems to be an impossible job for her. Her new life as an Auto Memory Doll requires her to write letters for other people, taking their ideas and feelings and translating them into words.When we understand that love is multi-faceted and that it uncovers hurts, we move closer to understanding how love redeems.
Playing well into her job title, Violet even appears to be a doll. Emotionally crippled by her harsh life, she is unexpressive and almost robotic in purpose. War, too, has left her with mechanical prosthetic arms. She is a fast and accurate typist, but true emotions and understanding escape her. Many characters comment on how doll-like she is due to her proper, distant tone and mannerisms. Her Auto Memory Doll uniform, a twist on a Victorian style dress, also adds to her unreal quality.
To many people that she meets, Violet is not a person, but a thing. Her past life has given her other titles: the “battle doll of Leidenschaftlich,” a “war tool,” and “Gilbert’s dog.” When Gilbert’s brother, Dietfried Bougainvillea, introduces the ragged girl he captured, he explains that she doesn’t have a name, saying that she’s not a child but a weapon. That moment is when her journey begins. Dietfried shoves her to the ground, but Gilbert pulls her into his arms. Love is what turns Violet from a thing into a person, a transformation that is represented in Japanese as ningyō to ningen (人形: “doll” to人間: “human”).
For Violet, love begins with a name. Shortly after they meet, Gilbert gives her the name “Violet.” The impact of this action is immediately obvious—she speaks for the first time. His gift is both identity-affirming and inviting. He tells her, “Violet, you’re not a tool. You should become someone that matches their name.” With that, he tries to open a different future for her besides killing, one that is alive and growing. Her name also invites her, in essence, to become part of the story, to become involved with the lives of others. Almost every character in Violet Evergarden has a flower worked into their name. Claudia, Cattleya, Iris, and Erica become Violet’s family at the Auto Memory Doll company, and she meets others such as Ann Magnolia and Leon Stephanotis through her work. As a part of his provision for her after his death, Gilbert arranges for Violet to live with his family at Evergarden House. So while she does not take his flower-inspired last name (Bougainvillea), she takes the name of the household.
The power of naming and its redeeming quality resonates in Violet Evergarden, but it’s clear that Violet’s journey has only just begun when she is named. As Gilbert is dying during the last offensive of the war, he tells Violet that he loves her, a revelation that only adds to her confusion and anguish. She asks, “What is love? I don’t understand.” The word, ai (愛), is clumsy in her mouth as she breaks it into two syllables rather than one. It’s clear she’s never heard the word before.
From a Christian perspective, love has many facets. It can be found in both the beautiful and broken parts of life. God demonstrated love in His creation of the world and in the nativity of Christ, moments of triumph and passion. But He also showed His love when David was running for his life and hiding in caves, when Lazarus died and left his sisters weeping, and when Christ died a bloody death on a splintering cross. His presence in the world is love, mediating between the perfect world that was created and the fallen one we live in. Though we can only understand His love in pieces, He gives us many illustrations of love through various relationships. These facets of love are echoed in Violet Evergarden as Violet learns from and is saved by people in her life.
Most of the episodes of Violet Evergarden focus on a particular letter or series of letters that Violet writes for others. Her experiences writing for others teach her first that love is complex. It is found in times of happiness and hardship, both in light and in dark. She witnesses blossoming love between two people in an arranged marriage, and she assists a dying mother write letters to be delivered on her daughter’s birthday for the next fifty years. She helps a scholar save decaying texts, and she takes dictation from a soldier who dies in her arms. In each place, there is love reconciling loss and joy, a love that saves.
While romantic love is one form of redemptive love in Violet Evergarden, friendship plays a greater role. We see that for ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity, God is a relational being, three distinct members that are so closely connected that they are one. From that unity, God extends friendship to mankind in an action that is unique to the Christian faith. Christ told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Friendships form a foundation for identity and support and we can see that Violet is also redeemed by this kind of love. Her co-workers, unsure how to treat her at first, eventually come to care for her like family, offering support and bringing food to her room when she reaches a critical low. When she is unsure about whether or not she deserves to live, they write her a letter—the first she has ever received—that arrives at just the right moment.
We are, perhaps, the most familiar with understanding God’s love as in the context of family. As members of God’s household, Christians are given a new name as well as a place of protection, belonging, and inheritance. Our earthly families were originally designed to reflect that truth. The most intense experience of family that Violet finds is in her relationship with Gilbert. When he first brings her to his home, she is a mute, disheveled girl. He asks his housekeeper to draw a bath and prepare new clothes for Violet, a homecoming that is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s depiction of heaven: “We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard.” Even if we have not experienced a loving home, the desire to come home is strong in all of us, to be able to come to a place where we are welcomed despite the brambles and dirt we’ve picked up along the way.
Through these different relationships, we can see that love is redemptive in many ways. It can develop or restore relationship, and it can nurture and support identity. But redemption, as the reconciliation between fallen nature and the divine, cannot be accomplished without pain. We understand, at least in some small way, the brutal torture and death of Christ as a loving choice made to redeem us. Knowing that sacrifice, we must recognize our own need, our own shattered selves. We must accept that love reveals wounds.
When Violet first comes to work for Mr. Hodgins, he pulls her aside and tells her, “You don’t realize that your body is on fire and burning up because of the things you did. You are burning. You’ll understand what I said someday. And then you’ll realize for the first time that you have many burns.” At the time, she flatly denies this. However, after her time with Oscar, Violet is forced to confront her past when Dietfried finds her and asks her with absolute contempt, “With the very hand that took the lives of so many, you write letters that bring people together?” For the first time, she recognizes what she has done and it brings her to her knees. Alone in her room, she asks, “Do I deserve to live? I’ve probably taken away so many one-day wishes.” Love exposes her wounds, and she cries that she is on fire.
By understanding that love is multi-faceted and that it uncovers hurts, we move closer to understanding how love redeems. Ultimately, love is life-giving because it brings forgiveness. God’s love in the form of Christ was to restore our relationship, to provide a way for us to be forgiven of our sins. With Christ’s sacrifice, we are redeemed if we accept the gift that is freely given, if not so easily received. Because we live in a world that is broken and full of ugliness and cruelty, we have trouble receiving—believing—such a gift. We live in the middle of the tension between what should be and what is, and that struggle is often illustrated in the stories we tell.
That tension is powerfully carried throughout the visuals of the series. Many scenes at night are softly lit by lamplight that gilds strands of hair and glitters in characters’ eyes. There are brilliantly illuminated auroras arcing over snowy peaks, flowers gently waving in the breeze, charming cobbled city streets, and gently faded memories. Just as striking, however, are the horrors of the war and the varying shades of loss that Violet discovers in the people that she meets. Just as there are peaceful meadows, there are nameless soldiers shot down as they run to safety. Just as there are sunbeams playing on the lake, there are bloodstain-streaked steps and smoking ruins. The heights of beauty are matched by the depth of the pain. And at the heart of these extremes is Violet, dying for an answer. She asks if she is worthy of living, and though her past cannot be erased, the answer is unequivocally yes. That is the answer of love.
Violet Evergarden may not sound like a conventional love story, but it is a compelling illustration of redemption, love that saves us. The emotional power of the story, drawn from the questions that we all ask, resonates with the beauty of the Gospel. Though it is a life-long lesson, we, like Violet, come closer to understanding what love means when we recognize how it redeems us and when we share love, in turn, with others.