暁佳奈 (Akatsuki Kana) | 201 pages (上巻) + 379 pages (下巻) | KAエスマ (KA Esuma)
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
William Wordsworth, 1798
Why do we write? Is it to connect? Is it to convey indescribable emotions to as many people as possible?
These questions have always been asked and floating about in writing conferences I’ve attended. Writers ranging from the twenty-three year old young adult writer who wants to empower everyone they know to the grandfather writing about his memories of the wars he had valiantly served in. They may not know a lot about the publishing industry or even write, but they have a purpose to write.
They want to tell stories. Stories that mean something to them and hopefully other people.
But what about everybody else? We buy their books and might get inspired to do the same. We may agree with their messages and advocate them in our own ways. But for the rest of us, reading these passionate writings do not make us participate in more. We would find them to be fine books and then move on.
This trend of apathy has affected how we normal people write, especially in the realm of letters. It feels like a few years ago, we wrote compassionately and words, not tweets, mean something to us. At least, according to fiction. I remember in the film Amelie the titular character meets her landlady who missed her late husband dearly. The woman thought he was a rascal who sent her wonderful love letters but she kept her letters anyway. Amelie decides to forge a letter by him and send it to the landlady. The landlady cries and feels touched, kissing the fake letter and realizing she still is in love with him after all these years.
Meanwhile, when I go to the mailbox, I don’t expect touching letters of love and dreams but envelopes stating that my credit card bill is due. But I don’t question it when characters write letters to each other, even in modern settings, because I am swayed by the romance and the sentimentalism in these letters. To read them is like peeking into their private lives. The senders have something they need to say and it is quite fascinating to figure out their reasons for communicating like this.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are famous examples of epistolary novels which dig into this desire, but they also serve as reminders how dated this whole genre is. Nobody writes letters anymore. Contemporary epistolaries have tried to overcome this by using instant messaging and other mediums, but they don’t possess the strong emotional power of the handwritten word. The tactile touch of the paper and the ink inscribed can bond an intimate relationship between sender and reader. Unless you are writing to Grandma, writing letters isn’t something you might do in normal circumstances. Especially in Chinese and Japanese, it might be easier to type these words on the computer and send them through the virtual space.
You rarely see it today except in fiction. Convenience has stamped out the artistic patience required to write letters. We miss it dearly, but we actually don’t miss it and instead move on with our busy lives.
But what if the romantic activity of letterwriting is still part of our lives? No more 140 character tweets, just a handwritten letter that you can read over and over again? What kind of society would that be?
Speculating that retrofuturistic world is Akatsuki Kana’s Violet Evergarden, a book where heartfelt letters find their ways to their destinations through the titular character. Instead of following epistolary conventions that have pulled the genre down, the book looks at the messenger in the eyes of the senders and receivers. She types or handwrites the letters her clients want to send and makes sure they arrive safely. Her job is flexible. If someone wants to write a script for a play — the premise of the first short story — then she will be glad to dictate for them. That is a “letter”. If a boy in a war zone wants to tell his loved ones that he might die, she will be there and ready to fend off enemy soldiers. There are no situations where she cannot be available. If you ask for her, Violet Evergarden, an Auto Memories Doll, is at your service and will be ready to write your letters.
This peculiar yet charming premise must have caught the eyes of the Kyoto Animation Esuma judges. The contest, plagued by a dearth of even the most decent content, did not have a grand prize winner till Violet Evergarden. Even till now, the book is still the only grand prize winner. The judges were impressed by how well-written this was and agreed that this book had a beautiful purpose that needed to be shared with everyone. As of this writing, the anime adaptation is still in the works and the staff seems to be taking much care into crafting it.
But there is fear from the outside, especially in the West, that this is just some “light novel”. KA Esuma’s works that got adapted include Chu2Koi, Phantom World, and Kyoukai no Kanata. Even the biggest of KyoAni fans knew that those aren’t their best works. Nothing of that ilk matched Hyouka‘s adaptation and the Euphonium main series is still in everyone’s mind. They are helped by the fact they are novels, not light novels. A grand prized novel in KA Esuma means as little as McDonalds offering vegetarian meals.
Amidst the genuine concerns, I do believe that Violet Evergarden isn’t that much of a light novel. It is more like a science fiction novel, similar to 菅浩江 (Suga Hiroe). Both of their writing and approaches to settings are emotional and they never forget they are dealing with human characters. The best of Akatsuki’s writing appears in the first short story available to read on the web for free:
This is a honest examination of a father who dearly misses her daughter as he struggles through with the play. There are no frills to appreciate, just the bare naked grief he is feeling. What’s more: there isn’t very much about Violet.
Her role in this two volumed novel isn’t to be the star of the show for the most part. She takes a step back and allows her clients to control the third-person narration’s perspective. This is a novel about her clients struggling with the art of letterwriting. Each of their stories show their desire to communicate, but they tend to lack the courage to express themselves fully. Their interactions with Violet however allow them to understand who they truly are in the inside and why they want to tell someone they love them.
You can see this novel as a collection of linked short stories presented in a long story format. Violet travels around the world — not too different from キノの旅 (Kino’s Journey) and ツナグ (Tsunagu) — and tries to accede to their sometimes selfish requests. What makes it unique is that each story also follows its own rules — its own genre conventions — and can’t be resolved in a lazy, template way. It almost feels like Violet is going into different books thanks to how settings can vary wildly.
The narrators of each story reflect a deep understanding of the place they live in and compare their habits to the cold, emotionless Violet who remains objective in the background. Indeed, they could be quite antagonistic to her because she has stepped her foot into their lives. It is this peculiar interaction that forces the narrators to rethink their ideals and places in society, which then propels them to finish writing the letter with Violet in a week — the deadline for the contract Violet works under. Through this experience, the characters mature and learn a bit who they really want to be.
This doesn’t mean Violet is not learning about herself either. She is an emotionless robot who is trying to understand what humans are feeling. Her cold guile shows how she is honest about the world and communities she is in. Her disinterest in learning about them actually makes her a more affectionate character as she takes her leave. People are touched by her role and empathize with her not making their situation look one-dimensional. There is no need to cry for their suffering in the eyes of Violet; she nods and moves on.
The most powerful stories happen to be related to the military and war. It is the inhumanity of it all that can tear every facet of communication apart. Emotions and language are ripped into pieces before the very eyes of the reader.
These war stories do not come out of nowhere as Violet has a dark past; she was once in the military. People speak of her assassination skills and could not exaggerate how deadly she might be, despite her innocent-looking face. If she is ordered to kill, she will kill without hesitation. She is born to be ordered around. There is no meaning to her existence and purpose in life if she has no orders to assassinate anyone. It is her life to be a pawn of the empire.
This is why she has to experience the everyday occurrences and emotional phases of life according to the people who do care about the doll’s well-being. A young prince of the empire, Gilbert, possesses Violet after his older brother hands her to him out of disgust over her inhumanity and begins to feel this way. She is not meant to be a mass murderer. She is supposed to live normally like anyone else. Not a slave but as a human. He wants her to not fight and murder. A beautiful, innocent woman shouldn’t do that. Violet Evergarden now reveals itself as a heart-wrenching love story with themes of sentience and consciousness explained through the emotive powers of language in letters.
The romance between Violet and Gilbert is genuine, almost a cry for mutual understanding despite the problems. She wants to understand him and he wants to comprehend her. They have difficulty expressing to each other, just like any of the characters who have asked Violet for help. They cannot write letters to send off their feelings; they have to face each other every day and directly tell them their feelings. It is this regret that brings the narrative to the present time. Violet wants to know how she can express herself by observing how others struggle to convey too. This is the start of her emergence to human consciousness and the beginning of a beautiful fairy tale.
This is what I love about the first volume of Violet Evergarden. The concepts and the themes the novel is juggling with isn’t something light novels and maybe some mainstream novels would dare to approach. They fear the concept could be cheesy or even naive. However, Akatsuki Kana does not seem to care. Her writing possesses an emotional power that can make readers gasp, even if they know they are reading a simple, straight story. There are so many fleeting moments that can touch a cold heart and there are endings that make you want to smile. Happy endings can exist today and be refreshing against the dark, abrupt endings of novels today. It is an optimism long forgotten and a sentimentalism that is not afraid to blush its cheeks in the midst of a serious plot.
It is such a wonderful book that makes me want to love more and more as I write this post.
But I can’t.
This novel when taken as a whole is so flawed I cannot recommend this book to anyone. Nobody. Even people who are interested in it.
Starting from the first story in the second part, the narrative flops over and features very little of the letterwriting element. The stories begin to be less about words and more of action. New characters that don’t feel related to the overall setting of the book are introduced as “regular characters” and you don’t see them interact much anyway. I can’t be bothered to talk about them because they aren’t important at all.
By this point, I also got sick from the writing. It suffers from purple prose, a disease that could have been whetted out by proper editing. Like Sakuraba in Lollipop, Akatsuki likes to go overboard with the writing. Her plots are so barren they resemble movie pitches, which sometimes help pack a punch. However, she likes to load the stories with more words they don’t need and the pacing feels padded out. This problem begins in the fourth short in the first volume and will resurface throughout the second volume in descriptions and even dialogs like an eyesore.
青年の視界の中に、突然ダークレッドのリボンが飛び込んできた。緑と青と白。それしかない世界に飛び込んだ赤。彼の流した血以外の赤は青年の前をふわりふわりと風に流されて飛んでいる。反射的に手が伸びた。天からの贈り物のように飛んできたそれは青年の手の平にゆっくりと掴まれる。飛んできた風の方向に首を捻った。人影が見える。自動二輸車を囲むように立っている数人の人影。一人がその場から離れてこちらに走ってきた。(p. 103, vol 2)
The descriptions are beautiful and evoke a somber atmosphere, but it gets annoying to read these kind of descriptions over and over again. It is too deliberate and slow to be enjoyable and they all read the same too.
しずくを纏った木々や草むら、雨上がり特有の匂い。夕焼けとは違う光で世界を包もうとする太陽。その朝日が降り注ぎ雨達に煌めきを与えている。とある孤島のとある宗教団体で崇められていた少女の誕生日と儀式はそのような晴れやかな日で迎えることができた。(p. 162, vol 2)
Her attention to wind and light is commendable and beyond many debut novelists’ ability, but the phrasing is awkward and she abuses her poetic ability to the point everything that sounds fanciful and beautiful becomes monotone. Even the better of her stories (i.e. the war stories) would suffer from needless elaboration on war strategies:
「先程、こうした事態を専門とする部隊が居ないという発言がありましたが皆さんはお忘れでしょうか。ライデンシャフトリヒ特別攻撃部隊は戦時から遊撃部隊として幅広く活躍してきました。小規模人数での潜入が必要な条件は役割配置が決まった者達が居ます。いま、動けと言われば我々は即時行動が出来ます。私の職位として現場指導をすべきではないという意見もあるでしょうが、部隊はまだ私の扱いの元にあり、私は大佐成りたての身分です。私は私の有効性を証明します。駒として考えてください。海軍を動かし、うまくいけば早期解決に導く潜入を果たす駒です。もし私の部隊が失敗しても待ち構えているのは我がライデンシャフトリヒ陸軍の派遺部隊。私はこの事件が北の腹いせだけとはとても思いません。何か……裏で他のことが動いている気がしてなりません。一つの罠ではなく。二重三重にも罠を仕掛け、他の企みがある場合それも潰さざるを得ない、圧倒的な勝利が求められていると、感じています。」 (vol 2, p. 275)
You don’t even see these plans being actualized, so they don’t matter at all. None of these details ever appear again in the story. They do a poor job at fleshing out the world because ironically, her settings also feel unfinished despite all that too. The kingdom Violet and Gilbert serve in has zero descriptions, even though you know the politics and some of the technological level. There are wars and other countries, but they are not explained. It’s just tedious.
I actually hated reading this book. There were times when I decided to drop the book for other types of media and then groaned if I remembered to return to it. There are parts that would be extremely boring to the point I wonder why I’m reading this and then there are parts that are gripping. I would believe this was when the story became really good — until I flip to the next page and find out it just ended that way.
The cycle of excitement and disappointment is how I would describe the reading experience of this book. It seesaws from having some of the most engaging tender scenes in fiction to being just plain boring. The best scenes and stories end too quickly to be anything powerful because they really are just outlines for better stories while the worst drones on and on until you want to tell the book to shut up. You also never really understood what you are seeing in terms of setting. There is also zero setting detail about Auto Memories Doll aside the prologue at the beginning. It’s a book that I would describe “hit-and-miss” and really mean it.
I have never felt so much dread and hope reading this book.
Even if I don’t recommend this book, is it fair to say I disliked this book? Not really. I genuinely liked the book, despite its numerous flaws. The characters are all lovable in their own weird ways. It took me a while to warm up to the titular character, but I found myself clamoring for more. Hopkins is one of my favorite characters too because he doesn’t really go beyond what he’s written for. And when he does cry, it really does make you want to hug this macho man.
There is a lot of ambition in Violet Evergarden that cannot be ignored. The book is earnest in finding communication and love in even the worst of settings. Androids gaining emotions (and thus sentience) isn’t rare, but the approach in Evergarden isn’t just cute but honest.
However, there is one matter we have to address: Akatsuki retcon Violet’s character for one story where she becomes a badass saving some girl who was going to be offered up as a sacrifice. Violet tells her to live — an uncharacteristic scene of her and not at all thematic to the message of the first volume.
But to Akatsuki, it is. In her afterword for the second part of the book, she writes that we have to live and be nice together. If we join hands, we can make that happen.
This self-help theme does not mesh well with the war scenes that feature decapitations and traumatized characters. Or her depiction of letterwriting in volume one. Or anything.
For the few people who have reviewed the books, the second volume’s sudden turn to self-help at the end is a contentious point that nobody seems to agree upon. A four-starred Amazon review says that while the reviewer generally loved the book, he found the finale lacking in buildup and the themes nonsensical — hence the subtraction of one star. He suggests instead to not see the books as a complete novel but literally a short story collection. If you treat each story as its own seperate thing with zero connection, the books work. If you treat them holistically like a novel, then everything feels contradictory and the pacing is screwed up. This explains why there are anti-war themes in the first volume while the second features a more nuanced, positive look.
So it all comes down to how much you favor consistency of themes in a work then. How much do you need a story to be internally consistent? It reminds me of my problems with Your Name where I couldn’t figure out why the narrative had to go in such bizarre directions it made the themes paradoxical. For some people, this isn’t a problem and I would see this as a continuing bias of mine to see things as “novels”.
Even so, does that mean what she has written something with a purpose she is willing to share like all the letter writers in her story? Let’s look at how she depicts wars. Akatsuki shows how wars look the same and feel antihuman, but at the same time she glorifies random aspects of wars.
From that small snippet, what can we possibly know about her purpose? Why did she write this novel and how did the judges find meaning to it? I don’t have much to work with and this makes the books hard to understand. You really have no choice but to see it as a collection of random short stories with recurring characters and zero overarching philosophy if you want to like the book. That means you need to follow Barthes’s “death of the author” to make sense of this book as a collection.
A horrifying idea for a book about language and being clear with how you express emotions.
Even till now, I want to find a way to make this book somehow succeed in my eyes. This love-hate relationship signifies something I desperately want: a novel like Evergarden except good. We need a book like this, much like how we need a dose of Euphonium in our lives. We can’t just read depressing, nihilistic shit forever; we need a book that suggests some sort of meaning, even after the worst has come. And that could have been the purpose of Evergarden. But I can’t be sure about this letter. Who is it for and what is it trying to do?
That answer may appear in the anime adaptation and I am still feeling optimistic about it. There is a good chance the anime might be one of the best things ever. But the answer is definitely not in the book.
At the very least, I can be certain why parts of the novel are written this way. The purpose of those parts I’m complaining about, that is. “I love flowers,” writes Akatsuki Kana on her bio on the second volume of Violet Evergarden, “and I love poetry. But the most fun I have writing is war scenes. I want to be stronger.”
That may have very well been the whole review. This is a letter from Akatsuki to herself on how much she loves writing war scenes, not a letter to us readers.
I like to thank @ultimatemegax for buying me these books and not even asking for payment. All he wanted me to do as “payment” is write a review of this book, which is insane. So thank you very much!
I have written a new post on the reactions to this review so far.