Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden)

Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden) 2018

Hopefully the awful news from Japan about Kyoto Animation isn’t the only reason you’ve heard of this series (or any of their other works for that matter) but it’s hard to talk about Violet Evergarden without the spectre of tragedy looming over – especially as much of the show itself already deals with loss and grief.

And I’m not really able to avoid it myself of course – I could have reviewed Violet Evergarden months ago but I put the review aside and have come back to it only now, not long after the attack… so I can’t help feeling like my timing has ended up being quite poor. Still, I don’t want to avoid talking about the series now because there’s a tiny chance someone who hasn’t already heard of Violet Evergarden might hear about it from this review and want to check it out.

So here we go – what kind of show is Violet Evergarden?

In brief, it’s an episodic drama interspersed with action and war flashbacks. More than that, and its core, I think it’s a love story, though one that is more married to Violet’s struggle to understand and reinvent herself, rather than a love story where two characters fence or fumble with their feelings.

In fact, Violet is a lot more robotic (at first) than you might expect from a typical leading lady but there’s a reason for that of course. And while seeing her learn how to be human again is kind of the main draw, she is at times needlessly submissive, as her ghost-writing job lands her in the role of maidservant a few times.

And yet, due to her sense of duty and (generally) accommodating temperament, the series seems to romanticise that submissiveness. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s the vaguely WWII-era setting that has her merely fitting the role women were forced into for much of the time.

Placing those aspects aside, I still enjoyed Violet’s trials and the colourful range of characters and places she encounters and wow, the art is so beautiful throughout; it’s clear Kyoto wanted to have the settings be just as romantic as the storylines. I’ll watch the show again just for some of that scenery (and costuming) – which I’ve not really been able to capture here but I’ve given it a shot!

Having Violet work as an Auto-Memory Doll (essentially an ‘on demand’ letter writer) was an interesting sub-plot, not something I’d seen dozens of times by any stretch, and it allowed for an equal amount of comedic and sweet moments throughout the series.

At times, Violet’s personal search for her lost love wasn’t actually as compelling to me as the problems of some of the other characters she helps, but if you feel like you need a bit of action and violence to go with the drama and personal discovery aspects, then Violet Evergraden will deliver there too.

4 Stars

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo)

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo) 2008

This series from Bones & Sony seems to have had a pretty big budget – possibly in part because it was launched as part of the Playstation Network’s video downloading arm.

And so, no doubt everyone involved really wanted it to succeed – and while Xam’d felt visually impressive and is definitely a really distinctive show complete with compelling characters, it doesn’t feel like it’ll ever become a ‘classic.’

Doesn’t mean I though Xam’d was bad either, but some of the elements have never really come together for me.

Mainly, I feel like the main antagonist/destructive force was not foreshadowed (or even introduced) early enough and afterwards, I was left with little knowledge or kinda even little interest in the creature. The human villains were more interesting, as were there heroes – but a touch more on that below.

The other aspect that felt underdeveloped was the grounding of most exciting events that take place in the story; there’s war and religious conflict chugging along in the background but with little to contextualise it in place or the history of the world, even (for the most part) when the main cast brushes up again/is pulled into those struggles.

Aside from that I enjoyed the variety of the cast, the setting and the magic – along with the oft-times disturbing ‘humanforms,’ creatures which all benefit from imaginative and bold designs.

Probably above and beyond that, there were a lot of intersecting character storylines that kept me going – main character Akiyuki’s personal struggle with being thrust into a role he didn’t seek of course, but the story between his parents or the shifting loyalties amongst his friends, and the mysterious past of Ishuu and her ship’s crew (she’s a somewhat acerbic character whose role hovers between ‘postal delivery captain’ and ‘smuggler’).

Worth watching if you’re happy to let yourself be swept up in the visuals and the characters I reckon, but not a series where you’ll be stunned by big reveals or a thrilling plot, because despite the complexities of the storylines, there’s just something missing for me when it comes to tying everything together.

3 Stars

Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyū)

Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyū) 2002

I still feel sad that fans will never see another Satoshi Kon film – but at least I can always re-watch the ones he made.

Millennium Actress is one that’s sometimes described as a mirror of Kon’s far darker Perfect Blue, but this film is not really a stroll in the park either, as it’s quite sombre, even at times heartbreaking.

Millennium Actress is a drama that doubles as a sort of love-note to cinema itself (and especially Japanese cinema).

It has love, jealousy, bitterness and desperation mixed together, presented via a blend of reality and a seamless integration of clips from films that feature actress (and main character) Chiyoko, whose search for a lost love spans decades across the course of the film.

The way her recollections and stories bleed into the present and then in turn incorporate the interviewers as well, is awesome.

If you enjoyed the uncertainty of ‘what is real’ from Kon’s later film Paprika then you’ll probably like Millennium Actress too, though it’s not science-fiction/thriller.

In fact, if you don’t like dramas/films that have a deep focus on character/are heavily intertextual*, then you might not like this at all, now that I’ve started on the comparisons 😀

This is also the first to feature Susumu Hirasawa on the OST of a Satoshi Kon film (a relationship that continued for several collaborations) and introduced me to his work. One of my favs from the film is below:

5 Stars

*Heaps of the references were well beyond me, but if you’re a student of the film history of Japan, you’ll probably recognise some parallels with the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine.

Fractale (Furakutaru)

Fractale had some interesting concepts and nice animation… but really wildly inconsistent tone and approach to some of the themes.

Fractale (Furakutaru)
2011

At times there were nice dashes of humour (and you can see the fingerprints of Laputa and Nadia Secret of Blue Water here) but the flickering from violent to moé elements, to super-creepy then high-spirited adventure, and then philosophical… it was really jumping around too much for me.

I have read that director Yutaka Yamamoto (the guy who has been quoted as saying adult anime fans who were obsessed were ‘handicapped’) claimed that he wanted to “overthrow the ‘moé anime Yamamoto Yutaka’ image” and it seems the director felt pressure to do just that… and maybe that’s why the series really missed the mark, for me. Supposedly he’s retiring again this year?

I don’t think Fractale pulled off that true sense of adventure or the gradual reveal of the darkness either – even the ultra bright colour palette seemed to clash with the more mature moments.

Anyway, I’m not sure I could recommend Fractale for fans of those other texts I mentioned in the end… because it seems that those comparative aspects were meant to function more as a cloak for the attempt at deconstruction.

I do think that Fractale had some genuinely funny moments and I did like a lot of the character design but ultimately, too many great ideas just weren’t explored deeply enough for me, or worse, were sadly mishandled.

2 Stars

Perhaps the best shot in the series for me.

Children of the Whales (Kujira no Kora wa Sajō ni Utau)

Obviously I’ve been digging through my memories for some of the reviews thus far but ‘whales’ is a short series from 2018 that I saw recently – and I found it hard to settle on a star rating this time.

Children of the Whales (Kujira no Kora wa Sajō ni Utau)
2018

There’s a lot to enjoy: a distinctive ‘textured’ art style and memorable, oft-times difficult characters for one.

The series also features a pretty fascinating setting (isolated folks living on a mud whale that sails on sand) and great world-building that drew me in more and more with each episode… but in the end, I just couldn’t get on board with the ‘child soldiers’ theme.

In the fictional universe there is something of an explaination via the emotion/empathy-draining whales that protect the people as much as they harm then, but still, transforming such a large portion of the inhabitants of the world into sociopathic drones wasn’t one of the compelling aspects for me.

I’m 50/50 on whether I’ll watch any possible season 2 episodes, though it doesn’t look like it’s been given the go ahead.

2 Stars

The design here I love – it’s fascinating and somehow disturbing too, more so via close ups in the following episode.