Now that the introduction is done and the titular character has wrapped up her training, Kyoto Animation’s aces have come to deliver the strongest episodes of Violet Evergarden to date. We’ll look at the wonderful episodic stories storyboarded by Yasuhiro Takemoto and Naoko Yamada, explain how a new influx of young creators came into play, and try to make sense of this spectacular yet confusing production.
Key Animation: Nami Iwasaki, Hidehiro Asama, Kota Sato, Ryo Miyaki, Chika Kamo, Shinpei Sawa, Yuki Tsunoda
─ Fully switching to episodic tales has so far done wonders for Violet Evergarden. Her growth is now an organic result of these adventures rather than the one main goal to sluggishly move towards to, which wasn’t all that compelling if you don’t find Violet herself to be an interesting character yet. Of course, it helps to have the likes of Yasuhiro Takemoto in charge of episodes like this. The show’s careful acting had already made sure to present Iris as amicable yet a bit haughty, clumsily trying to put on airs. Tripping because she wasn’t used to the heels she wears to appear like the modern city Doll she promised to be was one of the neat ways to showcase that, and Takemoto made sure to bring back that focus on footwear: immediately admonishing, the release of her true character when she’s at home, and a final reminder that she hasn’t achieved her goal that also serves to contrast her change in attitude compared to her arrival. Poking at personal flaws in a gentle manner, especially if they’re born from immaturity, is very much Takemoto’s thing. There are many wonderful details like this scattered around and his personal flair is also inescapable, but I believe his best gift to the episode is the seamless communication – a bit ironic in a show about the struggles to convey feelings! Takemoto’s efficiency never feels mechanical, but rather born out of the confidence he’s gained as a director over a long time. His storyboards have perfect flow and waste no time in reiterating feelings he knows he’s already gotten across. While I personally love getting lost in the idiosyncrasies of anime creators, sometimes it’s good to remind oneself that fancy quirks are often their tools to convey something, not the actual goal. And few can capture emotions as effortlessly as Takemoto!
─ I have no intention to join the discussions about adaptation philosophies, though considering the one I’ve found most impressive in recent times is DEVILMAN crybaby – a series that barely features any of the events from the original yet captures its soul better than any other animated version – you can guess where I stand there. All I want to add is that literally expanding Violet Evergarden’s world with locations like this episode’s sums up the approach taken by the main staff.
─ I usually bring attention to the key animation staff and their work at the end of these posts, but there was an unusual enough development this time around to give a certain someone more priority. After her contribution to this episode, Chika Kamo is the latest artist promoted to key animator at KyoAni. I talked about the previous newcomer Tomomi Sato a year ago during Maidragon’s coverage (check out her fascinating graduation short LADY RAND LAND if you haven’t) and to find other cases we have to return to 2016, so you can tell this isn’t a common development. It always is a noteworthy one though, since all the studio’s work being animated exclusively by their employees means that each addition to the family really counts. In Kamo’s case we don’t have fancy student work to showcase her skills, though you can at least check her practice exercises as a newbie when she started training at the studio. And beyond that, KyoAni’s habit to show the art of in-betweeners and all sorts of minor staff means that Kamo’s pleasant drawings had already stood out before her promotion, as it tends to happen. We know for a fact that other newcomers will be making their official debut, both as new key animators and in-betweeners, to the point that Violet Evergarden will end up being even more loaded with young talent than usual.
─ As nice as that is though, allow me to be a bit harsh on a young staff member. Yuki Tsunoda is hardly an experienced animation director; she got promoted for High Speed! and has since then supervised the animation process in a handful of occasions, often assisted by other people. She’s done a good job even with designs as intricate as Futoshi Nishiya’s ones in Koe no Katachi, but Akiko Takase’s outrageous work on this show was too much for her to handle. There are multiple rough shots in the first half that don’t live up to the show’s exquisite standards, and even some sequences that are otherwise impressive pieces of animation come across stiffer than they should. In the end this episode is still a very impressive production, and I noticed no complaints so this might be a non-issue if you’re not an animation dork like myself, but it definitely wasn’t as impeccable as usual. Though rather than Tsunoda, I’d place the blame on the management – had she been accompanied by another supervisor, she could have increased the polish and corrected the slightly lacking cuts.
─ With that complaint out of the way: hey, there’s plenty of animation here to enjoy! Takemoto is known for making the best out of the resources he’s given, so it’s no surprise that his episode is full of beautiful sequences. The animation star this time around is Nami Iwasaki, whose work I believe includes some of the most emotionally charged sequences involving Iris – the way she falls in this clip is low-key excellence – and also some sequences around the end, which have her characteristic hair swaying. And despite not being as fancy as a similar sequence in the second episode, Violet’s greeting makes her feel appropriately breath-taking when compared to Iris.
Key Animation: Yoshinori Urata, Fumie Okano, Sana Suzuki, Aoi Okuno, Aoi Matsumoto, Kyohei Ando, Chiyoko Ueno
Ryosuke Shirakawa, Saeko Fujita, Sumire Kusano
─ Now that’s the one thing that could live up to Takemoto: Naoko Yamada’s surprising return to television. I’d assumed that with a movie premier in two months she would have been too busy to contribute to this show, but its very ample lead time allowed this small miracle. Her presence can be felt right off the bat, and it only gets better from there. Charlotte, the princess at the epicenter of the episode, is passionate, insecure, volatile, vulnerable yet immensely strong, which is a cocktail tailor-made for Yamada. Back when she was directing Koe no Katachi she explained that she obsessed with highlighting the occasional selfishness and character flaws of co-protagonist Shouko so that she didn’t appear too angelic, because she relishes the imperfections in people. Chances are that Violet Evergarden would be very different and more to my personal liking if she led the project, but even just a taste of it had me as invested in this short romance as the citizens of these two kingdoms.
─ Episodes as densely packed as this, even if they’re not strictly eventful, are a bit of a nightmare to tackle with this format, since there are just too many things I want to mention. Flashes of Haruka Fujita‘s own style, which feel so appropriate when executing a storyboard penned by the artist who influenced her the most at the studio. The asphyxiating direction that accompanies Charlotte’s traumatic birthday. A difference in postures that says so much. The very deliberate shot of the Doll’s emblem as Violet personally decides to break their rules. All the gorgeous outfits worn by the princess, who still made sure to wear the same colors she did during their first meeting when they finally face each other again in a very familiar spot. And while Yamada isn’t much of a pragmatic storyteller, some neat narrative details like Violet noticing Cattleya’s writing from the get-go that also enhance the experience. It’s more about the heart than the narrative though, as proven by how concisely she depicted the most touching relationship: the princess and her attendant’s final moments are truly the emotional climax. Despite the personal focus though, maybe the sweetest surprise was how deeply ingrained each country’s representative flowers were into their identities – aesthetically of course, but also in what they represented. Again, much in like Koe no Katachi, her usage of flowers is meant to work on two levels: a precise reading tied to floriography, as well as an effect on the viewer no matter what knowledge they may or may not have. In this case the branding of each country was a nice touch in and of itself, and it was amusing to even see it reflect the choice of wine of the citizens in the final collective celebration. These were only neighboring regions we likely won’t be seeing again, but details as silly as that gave them a wonderful sense of identity.
─ Since I’ve moved onto the setting, we’re due another look at the backgrounds. Visiting new locations has been a blessing in this regard, as wonderful as their headquarters are. Besides the obvious technical merits, I really appreciate how easy it is to appreciate the different climate, history, and social standings in each of these new settings, just by looking at the scenery. The weekly clips showcasing stages of production finally reached the background art stage so you now can watch a summary of the whole process, from a barebones layout to the finished location on Photoshop. That’s not the only technique used however, as they’ve also been depicting some background art traditionally using poster paint – here you can see the tools on their desks, precisely when working on this series. And speaking of other techniques: this is a so-called harmony shot, drawn by an animator and then painted by the art crew. They used to be one of anime’s most emblematic quirks!
— 「ヴァイオレット・エヴァーガーデン」公式 (@Violet_Letter) February 1, 2018
─ Right about everything in this episode is gorgeous, which is something animation director Chiyoko Ueno played a big role in. I already mentioned her unparalleled level of detail when given intricate designs in a previous post, but it’s well worth noting just how much animation she seems to have corrected here; countless shots with her thin strands of hair, plus expressive acting and thorough actions that have her flair all over it. Her job is commendable in and of itself, but it becomes ludicrous when you consider there’s barely been any time between this and her previous episode. Which takes me to the next point…
─ What the actual hell is this production? I know many of you come to these posts to seek an answer precisely to that, but this is one of the most positively baffling situations I’ve encountered. Ueno serving as animation director on episodes #2 and #5 is far from an exception: Shinpei Sawa has done episode direction work for two consecutive weeks on top of his assistance on the first one and his animation duties, the small team of key animators on #5 is almost exactly the same group that fully animated #3, and in general the pool of creatives involved so far is tiny for such a first class production. I know I’ve said many times that time is key to TV anime and this project’s been granted a very generous schedule, but that still doesn’t explain why we’ve seen such a small number of creators involved. This is beginning to make me consider the possibility that KyoAni might have changed the way they approach anime production – with the addition of a new physical studio and the growth in staff, perhaps they’ve started segmenting their teams to tackle multiple projects concurrently in the same fashion as anime companies with sub-studios? Too early to say, but there’s no denying that this is a very unusual production in an already non-standard studio.
─ Since it would be rude to celebrate Chika Kamo’s TV debut on #4 and ignore this, let me end by noting that Sumire Kusano has also been promoted from in-betweener to key animator. She only did clean-up work for the episode, but considering she’s been drawing promotional illustrations for a while, it won’t take long for her to start handling her own sequences on this show.