It’s difficult to think of Kyoto Animation (or KyoAni) now without recalling the heart-breaking arson attack that occurred in July. Although I’m not a big fan of the studio’s Violet Evergarden series in general, I felt compelled to watch its recent spin-off movie, which finished its theatrical run in Malaysia recently, as my personal way of paying respect to them. The movie turned out to be an experience that had me tearing up more than once, and I left the cinema with an increased appreciation for KyoAni’s craftsmanship.
For the uninitiated, the series centers around the eponymous Violet Evergarden, a former child soldier who becomes an Auto Memory Doll or a ghostwriter for letters following the end of a war. Violet’s goal is to understand the words “I love you”, which were uttered by her former and likely deceased commanding officer who was the only person to treat her as a human being. However, the show is also largely about the people Violet meets and writes for during the course of her work, as well as their relationships.
Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll continues this format with its two stories. This format makes the experience not unlike watching two back-to-back episodes, albeit ones longer than the usual 20-or-so minute runtime. Both stories, however, are connected. In the first story, Violet is sent to an elite all-female academy to train a noble family’s daughter, Isabella York, in the ways of becoming an upper-class lady. In the second, a young girl, Taylor Bartlett, travels to Violet’s company hoping to become a postman, although her illiteracy poses an issue as she can’t read addresses or road signs. Violet’s co-workers show up in both stories, but the postman Benedict Blue gets the most screen time for taking Taylor under his wing.
Of the two segments, the first “episode” is the weaker one. It focuses on the relationship between Isabella and Violet: predictably cold at first before morphing into something warmer; some moments even seem to carry the subtle air of a yuri relationship. If Isabella is the reluctant princess, then Violet is her knight — elegant, charming, and likely to make some members of the audience swoon in the same way that Isabella’s peers do. Violet’s ability to excel in seemingly everything at the academy creates some laughs at first. Later, it invites impressed smiles with a finely-animated ballroom dance.
Although the two grow close, Isabella continues to have someone else on her mind. Isabella wasn’t born into the noble life, and she still remembers a young orphan from her impoverished past. Despite her own difficult circumstances at the time, Isabella took the girl in and ended up bonding with the latter. At first, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this aspect of the story. It fleshes out Isabella’s character to some extent and contributes to a nice moment, but the bond between Isabella and the girl largely feels as if it’s an accessory to the former’s overall backstory. Emotionally, I was left wanting. Luckily, the second part of Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll rectifies this issue. As it turns out, Taylor is that girl from Isabella’s past, and she remembers Isabella too. The events of the first story thus become an important foundation for the second one and give weight to the second story’s emotional moments.
While Isabella is often dour or somewhat reserved, Taylor is a bundle of joy. She provides an endearing presence, thanks to her enthusiasm, her struggle to pronounce Violet’s name, and her habit of calling Benedict her master/mentor (to his slight chagrin). Meanwhile, Taylor’s motivation for wanting to become a postman — because they deliver happiness — was unexpectedly touching for me. The main emotional punch, however, comes near the end of the second story. I won’t spoil it, but just thinking about it as I wrote this made me want to tear up.
Given how absurdly gorgeous the original series looked, it goes without saying that the movie looks excellent too. The painstaking details bring the show’s quasi-early 1900s European setting to life. Even its characters — especially their hair — are impressive to behold. Meanwhile, an overhead shot depicting drops of rain landing on and eventually forming a layer over the ground is quietly mesmerizing. There is also, of course, that ballroom dance. It wasn’t as showy or dramatic as I expected, but its realization of the beautiful, controlled grace of Violet and Isabella’s movements is deserving of praise.
The quality of the audio also left a strong impression. The metallic sound when Violet moves her prosthetic arms in the series already sounded impressive through my laptop’s speakers, and hearing it in a cinema was even better. Then there is the utterly crisp “clack” (I can’t think of a better way of describing the sound) of shoes coming into contact with the floor, which almost made one shot feel like an ASMR experience. It would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the orchestral soundtrack. I didn’t find most of the tunes to be particularly memorable (the excellent Torment track, which was in the series as well, is an exception), but they are beautiful and an utterly wonderful accompaniment to the movie nonetheless. In some scenes, they are also scarily potent in calling forth tears.
Although Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll clearly feels like a side story in spite of its technical merits, the evident care and effort that went into the impressive production is nevertheless highly commendable. And while it may be “just” a side story, it is also a memorably heart-warming experience that I don’t regret buying a ticket for. The movie may not transcend its side story status, but it’s a beautiful reminder of why KyoAni should be appreciated nevertheless.