Bodies of Writing

Matthew Tan

Violet Evergarden, directed by Taichi Ishidate (Kyoto Animation, 2018).

Introduction

Netflix and human dignity do not usually go hand in hand, but in the days of coronavirus-induced lockdown, I find myself logging into it in a desperate attempt to distract myself from the agitation and the boredom. In the “liturgy of spending an eternity finding something to watch” that ensues, I usually go to the anime section as my first port of call. Most anime offerings are shallow or crass, which makes the good ones stand out all the more. They not only provide magnificent artwork, storytelling and character development; they also give unexpected insights about the human condition, the virtues, and faith. Further still, watch an anime film or series attentively enough, and it could give a lens through which to peer into the depths of your very soul. 

Violet Evergarden, Taichi Ishidate’s quiet and beautifully animated 13-episode adaptation of the steampunk light novel series by Kana Akatsuki, does all of these.

Synopsis

Violet Evergarden focuses on the titular character, who begins the series as a brutally efficient and emotionless former soldier. Following a devastating war, she struggles to transition back into civilian life in the fictional country of Leidenschaftlich, a name which translates directly from the German as “passionate”. As will become evident to the viewer, the country’s name will become a significant backdrop for the drama which will unfold for the series’ protagonist: for it seems that passion is the very thing that is absent in Violet.

Violet’s biography begins as an orphan with no known origin. She is found by a group of soldiers who attempt to rape her, but they quickly wind up dead by her violently efficient hands. A coldly aristocratic naval officer, Dietfried Bouganvillea, brings her back to the capital Leiden and, like a tourist coming back with a cheap souvenir, nonchalantly gifts the girl to his brother, Major Gilbert. Dietfried cynically advises Gilbert to just “treat her as a tool” and not become too attached to the silent and expressionless orphan. At the beginning of her biography, the orphan is denied, and devoid of, humanity. She knows and says nothing, save one thing: to be a soldier that kills and receives orders to kill. Set against the backdrop of war, this tool is the perfect gift, and her efficiency in cleaving souls from their bodies, in one engagement after another, gives the girl her raison d’être

At the same time, Gilbert is nothing like his brother and does not heed his advice. Instead, the Major treats the traumatised orphan as a person—an efficient superweapon, but a person nonetheless. Gilbert gives Violet a name, a place in his unit and, in what would drive the whole series, he gives her love. In a major battle, a bleeding and incapacitated Gilbert gives Violet her final order: “Live and be free”. Before he disappears from her sight and ours, Gilbert utters the words that will become Violet’s new raison d’être. He tells her he loves her.

Those words awaken a thirst in Violet, but there is a massive caveat: she does not know their meaning. Post-war, Violet is still devoid of human expression, but those words and her quest to understand them leads her to find work in the CH Postal Company run by Gilbert’s friend, Lieutenant Claudia Hodgins. Violet takes on the role of an auto-memories doll, a ghost-writer for members of the public who either cannot write or find themselves unable to express their thoughts in their own minds, let alone on paper. 

This is not an obvious career choice for Violet, who has pretty much lost her own identity because of the war. The loss of her purpose in living and her mode of self-expression—a life spent taking life with her own two hands—is painfully symbolised by the fact that Violet has lost both of those hands as a result of the war: leaving her with a pair of silver alloy prosthetics. They perform the function of biological hands, to be sure, but they also symbolise that liminal space that Violet now occupies. She is leaving her past life as a weapon of war, and commencing a new war—the war for her new self. 

A Major’s Smile

On the surface, the mechanical appearance of Violet’s hands reflect her initial mechanical personality, evinced by her lack of facial expression, as well as her often insensitive matter-of-fact statements. These betray Violet’s initial inability to conceive of a world outside of the wartime one, where everything is a mission, people only relate through orders, and she is but a tool that can be discarded when of no further use. 

In spite of her vacant visage, one thing keeps her from hermetically being sealed off from the world: the memory of Major Gilbert. More so than her role in the postal service, it is Gilbert who acts as the pivot of Violet’s biography. What makes Gilbert a theologically rich figure is the way he parallels what the Mother does in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Love Alone is Credible. Von Balthasar puts it this way:

After a mother has smiled at her child... she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty sense-impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou.

Violet has neither father nor mother, but every act of kindness by Gilbert—from giving her a name and buying her a brooch simply because she likes it—is a smile upon an orphan who is alive, but barely living. Gilbert becomes the lynchpin for Violet’s whole existence, and his final smile to Violet, coupled with his final words, poignantly condenses what he showed her in their life together in his unit. Gilbert’s love stirs in Violet the beginning of her life: not as a weapon, but as a person. 

For Violet, the mark of this new creation is a passionate interiority which the traumas of war had eviscerated. Because of this, she is driven to answer the question she asks herself in the very first episode: “I love you. What does it mean?” For Violet, these are not merely words. They plant the seeds of her very self. It is this drive to know the meaning of these words that lead her to the doors of the CH postal services’ writing department, and the role of an auto-memories doll.

A Heart Written

With her typewriter in tow, Violet is sent to travel through the land to write all manner of documentation for royalty and commoner alike: love letters, plays, diplomatic communiques, birthday notices or transcriptions of old books depicting the movements of the cosmos. In the course of her drafting these documents for her clients, she betrays the keen sense of awareness of their interior lives, the minimum requirement for any viable auto-memories doll. Another point at which the show becomes theologically rich is when the body of writing documenting her clients’ movements of the heart becomes the mirror that reflects back Violet’s own interior life. Every moment in which a client’s emotions, hopes and pains get scribed onto paper, is a moment where we witness an emotion, hope or pain being interpolated onto Violet’s person. With each dimension of human emotion Violet identifies in her clients, the doll’s inner universe expands, capturing with it the joys of new discoveries as well as the pains of old losses. 

This becomes particularly acute when a client has to deal with the theme of love, so central to Violet’s reason for being. Every dimension of love that Violet identifies as the love a client wants to express in his or her letter, also articulates a dimension of love that Violet wants to understand. As the series progresses, and as each letter gets written, we see the traumatised, emotionless doll giving way to a humanity rediscovered and restored.

What this series underscores is the crucial importance of writing (including writing mediated by mechanical and now digital means) for the formation of human persons. I believe this holds even as Plato’s Phaedrus warns us of this technology’s role in the abstraction of human personhood, community and communication. In spite of the tendency towards abstraction, we more often present ourselves to others through writing than through aural or personal contact, and identities are formed in this process of written expression, both in reality and in the minds of others. Increasingly, these scribed identities are formed independently of the identities we express with our mouths and bodies. This remove between our person and our writing is more acute in an age where smart devices are now the prosthetics we carry in our hands, and typing becomes the increasingly normalised mode of writing. We see the fruits of this remove in anonymous and increasingly aggressive emails, tweets, comment threads and text messages. Rather than a source of healing, writing has in our day become a source of warfare. This means that there may be more Evergardens in the world than we are willing to admit.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the written and the personal reminds me of the Millis Institute’s Benjamin Myers' important essay on blogging as a theological discourse. Quoting the communications theorist Walter Ong, Myers states that “more than any other single invention […] writing has transformed the human self”. Drawing upon Foucault’s concept of the “technologies of the self”, Myers explores the idea of writing as a formation of the self, “a practice that structures the way we relate to the world and to each other”. From Marcus Aurelius to Athanasius, Myers identifies an admonition to write ourselves, as a means to purify our identity, both to ourselves and before God. In his Life of Antony, Athanasius gives this instruction: 

Let us each one note and write down our actions and the impulses of our soul as though we were going to report them to each other… Molding ourselves in this way, we shall be able to bring our body into subjection, to please the Lord, and to trample on the devices of the enemy.

More than simply self-expression, Athanasius thought of writing as a form of ascetic practice, whereby the sinews of true personhood, a new creation scribed by the Word of God, comes into view with every stroke. For Athanasius, writing was the way of ensuring accountability to one’s brothers, and doing battle against a demonic foe. 

As in Athanasius’ time, Violet will in her own time come face to face with her own demons after the war, and the task of writing is what provides the purpose for which her old military prowess must be called upon again to do battle with these foes. It is not the purpose born of trauma and commands barked by a superior officer, but born forth from a new person; crafted in those hours at her typewriter, out of the reams of writing the passion of others, which in turn ignite the fire of passion within the writer. 

Conclusion

Violet Evergarden is not so much an entertainment to binge on, as an animated, steampunk-themed retreat program on which to reflect. Contrary to what the title may indicate, this is a series where the real protagonist is the task of writing, an art that must delve into the mysterious universe that is the human person. As we witness the unearthing of a personhood long buried, we are also invited to ask ourselves what unknown furrows of our own personhood are being exposed, molded and transformed by our own acts of writing. It may be that, as with the Athanasiuses or Violets of this world, that the sinews of the human person—a new creation—are being woven with every stroke of a pen and strike of a key. 

As for myself, the greatest challenge the series poses is to see the ways in which writing, made into a burden whilst chained to a workstation, can at the same time allow divine love to pierce through. An occasion when searching for the right words to throw onto my word processor can also be an invitation to the Lord, expressed in the closing lines of Psalm 139:

Search me O God, and know my heart. Test me O Lord, and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and guide me in the eternal way. 

Matthew John Paul Tan is senior lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia and works in chaplaincy formation and research at the Archdiocese of Sydney. He is the author of two books, his most recent being Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.