Violet Evergarden‘s side story film is a tragic remnant of the skill of many Kyoto Animation artists whose lives were cut far too short, but also a bright look towards the future by a new generation of creators who now more than ever are meant to become leading voices at the studio.
Violet Evergarden Side Story: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll is a landmark work that never wished to be one. First conceived as two extra episodes for the TV series in OVA form, this side story only ended up becoming a feature-length film because the staff heading the work were so invested in its world that they went overboard with it. In contrast to that, its other unintended reality is much more tragic: having been essentially completed the day before the Kyoto Animation arson attack, it’s the final taste of an era of the studio that was brought to a cruel end.
The last uninterrupted brushes by Mikiko Watanabe, who at 35 years old already competed with anime’s all-time greatest when it came to evoking convincing reality with unashamedly painterly work. One final chance to see mechanical work by Hiroyuki Takahashi, an artist so detail-oriented that his coworkers would sometimes notice him using a magnifying glass to draw the smallest intricacies of the mechanical drawings he specialized in. The film contains the closing contributions of a handful of the studio’s most renowned animators, as well as the fingerprints of newcomers whose careers were cut tragically short; equally impactful at a studio built on the premise of constantly rearing new talent. Although some of the team’s work will be released posthumously in the future – look no further than Watanabe maintaining the title of art director for Violet Evergarden’s upcoming sequel movie as pre-production progressed simultaneously alongside this film – this was the last showcase of a brilliant group of artists’ uncompromised vision.
And yet, even as you factor in those heartbreaking developments, Violet Evergarden Side Story isn’t a tale of mourning – if anything, it’s the opposite. Cleanly split into two halves in a way that’s very telling of the origins of the project, its two central themes are juxtaposed. The first half, which is all about learning to treasure the past without being crushed by its weight, follows the pattern seen in most episodes from the original series; the titular character is sent on a mission to help a client, and in the process, both of them experience some growth with love as a catalyst.
However, things are a bit different this time around, with a more mature Violet taking the leading role as she tutors Isabella York… who is revealed to be Amy Bartlett, an illegitimate orphaned daughter of an aristocrat family. She lived an impoverished yet fulfilling life alongside Taylor, another orphan she adopted as her dear little sister. But when the Yorks barged into their hut and promised to give her little sister a better future if she agreed to follow them, Isabella reluctantly parted ways with her and joined the aristocratic family. Tortured by the decision she made that day, those regretful feelings last until she meets someone with a similar past like Violet and she learns how to cope with them. Having grown immensely close with Violet as well, Isabella reaches the conclusion that while certain relationships might be fleeting, their consequences can still last eternally. It comes to a bittersweet ending: the wind blows on both Isabella and Taylor’s faces… and then it stops, which the storyboard commentary confirms to represent the insurmountable wall that separates them – but not their feelings.
After a touching ending like that, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a follow-up. And not only does it come, but it also flips the script and refutes that message to a certain extent. In contrast to the first half, this latter part is obsessed with the future. From its constant remarks about the big technological advances that have occurred in the three-year timeskip to the final thesis itself, it’s all about moving forward. And that’s where a bit of a rift opens up between original author Kana Akatsuki and debuting chief director Haruka Fujita.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean there is bad blood between the two, as Fujita has even explained a touching anecdote with Akatsuki sending her a letter as if they too were part of Violet Evergarden’s world. And yet it’s true that they don’t see quite eye to eye, to the point that the director expressed worries over whether her interpretation of Isabella was too different from how the author had envisioned her. Comparing this final act of Side Story not just to the preceding one but the TV series, it’s easy to see how that dissonance manifests, even with Fujita never making an active effort to depart from the source material.
This second tale does away with many preconceptions. It puts a slightly older Taylor in the spotlight, as she storms into CH Postal Company to fulfill her dream to deliver letters, hoping to hand over as much happiness as she received when Isabella sent her a brief note at the end of the first act. This puts Violet in a side role, as it’s everyone’s beloved mail carrier Benedict who looks over Taylor and allows her to fulfill her dreams: not only mentoring her but also locating Isabella, who had been cut off from the world after getting married off to another wealthy family. That’s an unsurprising development for Akatsuki, whose somewhat antiquated writing quirks have raised some eyebrows despite the undeniable fact that they fit the time period of the series. But Fujita, consciously or not, addresses those in a way that really changes the aftertaste of the work.
In the same way that Fujita’s execution underlined the romantic undertones of Isabella’s feelings for Violet in the first half, her appearances in the second one scream heartbroken. Isabella changed her hairstyle to match hers, her plushie is adorned with the pendant she grew fond of because it looked like Violet’s, and it’s even facing out the window (a detail the director confirmed is related to the protagonist’s growth, incidentally). She’s wearing an outfit reminiscent of hers as well, complete with a black parasol – a look that feels as if she were mourning a lost love. After receiving Taylor’s letter reminding her that they’ll always be sisters, though, we see Isabella face her future wearing a bright white dress, as if it were a wedding gown; just like how Violet had shown her the way to come to terms with the past, it’s Taylor that unfreezes her present so she can walk into the future. This time, the wind doesn’t stop blowing.
Fujita actually considered letting the two meet at the end, but decided against it since she found this ending more evocative.
Regardless of your takeaway from the unspoken parts, Violet Evergarden Side Story is an uplifting tale brought to life by a core staff who embody hope; quite literally so, since we already highlighted the aforementioned Fujita and character designer and chief supervisor Akiko Takase as one of the most brilliant up-and-coming duos in the industry before their role in Violet Evergarden was even announced. If such expectations were placed on them back in 2017, with the studio being as peaceful as you can in this industry, you can imagine how much KyoAni will have to rely on them moving forward.
Although Takase’s career hasn’t taken many unexpected turns as of late – she’s still an animation beast who manages to make excruciatingly detailed designs gel with expressive acting – this film is very special for Fujita, since it was her first time leading an entire project on her own. Sure, she already was the series director for Violet Evergarden’s TV show, but that was always under Taichi Ishidate’s chief direction. Regardless of Fujita’s key contributions to the series, there was always someone outranking her in the project – and a director who likes to have an active hands-on role at that. But for the first time, no such figure hovered above Fujita in Violet Evergarden Side Story. An exciting time for her and fans alike, as we now have gotten to see what she’s like when she has the final say in everything, with no real need to back down from her vision. And the results are a whole lot of suspicions being confirmed, as well as some fascinating new insight.
All fans who held Fujita as an heir of sorts for Naoko Yamada were likely pleased by her work here, which demonstrates how comfortable she feels with those heavy expectations. Fujita has never hidden which director at the studio she looks up to the most (despite never working with Yamada on one of her feature films), and with Violet Evergarden Side Story, she continues to show just how thick that influence is. The stylistic quirks in storyboarding come as no surprise – those constant leg shots to demonstrate mental states and power dynamics – but it’s interesting to see that even her attitude as a project leader is closer to Yamada’s than any other director at the studio.
For starters, she made the choice to solo storyboard the film despite this being her debut, much like Yamada does anytime she has the opportunity. However, once her blueprints and written notes for every shot were laid out, she took a very Yamada-like stance by giving staff members (sometimes vague!) advice rather than orders, showing flexibility in cases where they wanted to adlib elements too. That includes accepting Ishidate’s technical advice, listening to fledgling director Minoru Ota when he decided to alter the climax with swaying flowers on Isabella’s feet… or even trusting Yamada herself, since she was invited as one of the unit directors as well.
That said, framing Fujita as a New Yamada does a disservice to both of them. For all their similitudes as directors and even in their character, this project also makes some fundamental differences in their approach more obvious. Yamada, for all the thought she puts into the form, has no moment-to-moment goals for her casts. Barely any director can match the genuine spontaneity of her characters, and it’s through the accumulation of those real “useless” scenes that she creates something meaningful in the end. On the other hand, Fujita’s every character action is as calculated as her technical decisions, all geared towards a specific goal in character growth. That does make her a very efficient storyteller, arguably a better fit than her mentor for Violet Evergarden’s episodic emotional rides, but it’s also a mentality with drawbacks she’s aware of. Fujita herself commented that she was mindful of the need for breathing room, since she knows she has a tendency to rush forward in that desire to make every move meaningful. In the end, I believe she succeeded, though it’s amusing to see that even the visceral shot at the start with Taylor feeling the wind had a narrative goal.
And frankly, talking about Fujita exclusively in relation to other creators feels wrong. Regardless of her unashamed reverence for her mentor, she’s already a director with a very specific vision. The kind to push for a cinemascope aspect ratio because she believed it fit the nature of this story – it did – even as she wasn’t able to put why into words. And just as importantly, she’s a thorough project leader who follows up on decisions like that to the smallest details.
Since standard storyboarding paper has 16:9 panels, Fujita put together an amusing homemade template – look at the subtle mismatches and the handwritten KyoAni disclaimer – so that everyone could see every shot exactly as she’d envisioned it. In the one instance where a short scene from the TV series was inserted to show Violet’s growth, she actually asked the staff to draw new elements for the scene, since she saw the new AR as not just contracting vertically but growing horizontally. While she may be a newbie director with obvious influences, all these anecdotes are telling of her bold, personal approach. Haruka Fujita won’t need to hide behind anyone’s name to become one of KyoAni’s new creative leaders.
At the end of the day, Kyoto Animation has a long history of directors with similar traits. They work as a group in every project, managing essentially everything in-house, and much about their style is informed by the studio’s culture of uncompromising acting in the first place. KyoAni won’t stop being a studio that focuses on their characters above all else – not now, not ever. And yet, they’ve always had an array of artists who approached their works from different angles, leading to rather different eras in their output depending on who the leading voices were. From the chameleonic veteran directors who learned to adapt to other people’s frameworks during the studio’s subcontracting era to the newer generations who’ve only experienced KyoAni’s wildly successful independent era and have grown to stand proudly for their more specific visual demands. From their incredible animation efficiency of old, to the Horiguchi-led soft revolution, and now the dense linework that dominates most of their works. The goals rarely change, but the paths constantly shift.
And right now, having lost many of those leading voices, the studio is in a dire need for newcomers to rise and keep ensuring diversity within a studio that’s otherwise secluded from the anime industry as a whole. While it’s a heavy burden, Fujita has proven she’s ready for the challenge and that she’s one to face the future with optimism. Once again, I don’t think she’s willing to let the wind stop blowing.