Learning to live after war, Anime style

The Japanese anime industry has a long history of the horrors during and after war. “Grave of Fireflies” is perhaps the most famous, but I finally finished “Violet Evergarden: The Movie” and found myself emotionally moved. This post is really about the whole series, as well as the movies.

As a soldier, a veteran of the “Global War on Terror” I’ve had to say goodbye to friends. I’ve had people leave my life whole, hale, and hearty only to show back up missing limbs, shattered and trying to piece themselves together. Others, simply vanished into a name on a memorial, and a marker in a cemetery. Only sociopaths are free from the emotional toll of pain and loss as others fall, and your life continues.

Some of the themes of “Violet Evergarden” hit me very close to home. Do survivors of war have a right to be happy? Do they have a responsibility to bear the sorrow of loss in perpetuity? Do survivors have a responsibility to those who exist only in the past? Is that responsibility to mourn, celebrate, or heal? I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions, but those are all subtly addressed in “Violet Evergarden.”

If you can excuse the trope of young child soldier who is a demon on the battlefield (a trope used in “The Saga of Tanya the Evil” and “Full Metal Panic” among others) there is a deeper meaning in the character’s age. The expectation of purity, naivety, in children is something that even bright eyed 18 year old men have when signing their name on the dotted line to serve in the armed forces. Or maybe they don’t have a choice and are conscripted. But no one really knows what they are getting into, either choosing or accepting to submit to the training, the uniform, and the authority of the state. The other truth is that in losing your innocence you don’t know how mangled you became and still managed to function.

Over a decade ago I wore my dress blues in a funeral in Batesville, Arkansas while a young widow cried and her young son played. He was super cute, pudgy, playful like all young boys, and also blissfully unaware that his father would never hold him again. You can only lose so much before you become numb to loss, and the pain becomes some twisted normal existence. That level of emotional trauma is where “Violet Evergarden” starts, and we get to follow her as she acts like an alien learning to hide among humans. We also get the feeling that she is likely a high functioning autistic individual, or at least that’s what someone “overly literal, overly militant” is caricatured in cinema (much like “Full Metal Panic” in that regard). At some point, you just no longer react like a “normal person” to normal people, and you laugh when you shouldn’t, you stay silent when someone needs comforting. That leaves people in an awkward position where they have to speak up to let you know you aren’t meeting social expectations.

Violet’s initial support network is a group of fellow veterans, and veteran’s families which allows the socialization process to happen in a smoother manner than generally happens in real life. They accept her as she is, with patience, and little by little allow her to adapt back into a world without rigid order, chaotic and unfamiliar. That’s not a bad way to set yourself up for a deliberate transition out of uniform, although in Violet’s case her transition was violent, sudden, and not of her choosing. During the height of the “War on Terror” the transition of wounded out of uniform was so bad that the US Army had to stand up “Warrior Transition Units” to deal with the workload of combat wounded in a way that avoided the disgrace of how battle wounded were treated previously.

The world of “Violet Evergarden” is an amalgamation of Europe and Japan, set in a technological era roughly equivalent to World War One. The setting works for Violet’s master/commander/first love to be lost in the chaos of the final battle, only to roam free from the hospital seeking out some place that didn’t hurt too much. This allowed the plot to move slowly, before crashing down in the final re-unification, where his guilt at her pain, and her love despite it all, come through in an ending you seldom get from anime. In the end Violet finds some measure of happiness in her relationship, her work, and a place to exist in her new identity working the post office.

We can only hope every veteran transitions so well. I do know that feeling guilty for being alive is no way to live, and that learning to be happy isn’t a trivial matter. And we don’t all get a happy ending. But we can all go on learning to live better than we did.

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