Violet Evergarden and the Lost Art of Letter Writing

Violet Evergarden AnimeI’ve never received a letter. Most likely, you haven’t either. Our digital age killed letter writing with email and social media. Is it odd that I feel nostalgic toward letters? I spent a good bit of my teen years hanging out with WWII veterans. They told me of their excitement when they received letters from their girlfriends (most married and stayed together for 50+ years). Most still had the letters with the elegant penmanship of the time.

Seriously, it seemed everyone in the 1930s and 1940s had elegant handwriting. Of course, some letters weren’t for my gaze. Where else do you think the Internet got some of it’s raunchiness?

I remember the wives’ grins as they spoke of the anticipation and worry. They spoke of elation when the letter finally arrived, and how letter writing helped them fall in love over distance and time.

So when I saw the anime Violet Evergarden, I was all in. The story takes place in an alternative world during their World War I. The country falls into such dire need for manpower that they take to training war orphans. Violet is one such orphan. She becomes attached to her commanding office, who is a father to her. But during a mission he is wounded and she loses both her arms. When an artillery shell strikes the building they are in, they become separated. Violet survives and wants to find him.

One of the Major’s war buddies takes her in and arranges for her to have prosthetic arms. The arms work much like Fullmetal Alchemist’s automail. They are beyond the technology of the time, but I didn’t find it any more jarring than automail. Well, she begins work as an Auto-memory doll, women who write letters for people.

The new job requires Violet to travel around the country (setting up the anime’s episodic structure), and it requires her to face her brutality and suppressed emotions about herself and the war.

Violet and the Letter Writing Crew

Violet and the Letter Writing Crew

As you can guess, letters shape the main structure of the anime. Much is said about the power of letters in people’s lives. And from what I’ve seen with my now-passed friends, it’s true. Perhaps the Internet and the proliferation of immediate writing has blinded us to the power of writing.

When you think about writing, it is a miracle. I can write or type squiggles that put at least a portion of my thoughts into your mind. It’s like telepathy or mind-melding. But immediacy is the problem. As Violet Evergarden suggests, it takes time to perfect a letter. My friends admitted to taking time to draft a letter. It wasn’t something they dashed off. Even when it was, the act of writing with a pen on paper forced them to sort their thoughts in ways we can’t do with our keyboards.

You’ve seen how some of my blog posts here are garbled. That’s even after I re-read and revise. Good writing takes delay, and most of our problems online would dissolve if publish buttons didn’t immediately publish. We need a time delay–like the time it takes to write a letter with pen and paper–for online writing.

Most of my articles here wait in the queue for at least a few weeks before you see them. Some wait for months. This bit of time lets me approach them with a fresh look and gives me time to reconsider some of my touchier topics. Likewise, I believe social media posts, tweets, shares, whatever should have a delay timer. Perhaps 15 minutes. After you hit the publish button, the system will wait 15 minutes before asking you if you are certain you want to publish the post. This gives emotions a chance to cool, such as waiting for a letter gives some distance between replies.

The world Violet Evergarden paints unfolds slower than ours. I don’t want to cast the past in an ideal light–it had problems we do not have now–but the slower pace would do us well. We cannot slow down and savor in our instant world. I’ve written about how anticipating can help us enjoy anime better. Well, anticipation can help us enjoy our relationships better too. Letter writing and the waiting it requires allows us to slow down. In my own life, I find absence does make the heart fonder.

Violet from Violet EvergardenAbsence allows us to overlook people’s foibles easier. They aren’t so grating. In fact, we see this a bit in Violet Evergarden. Some of Violet’s coworkers chafe with her presence, but as she travels more, they begin to miss her. They also see her internal changes more clearly. That’s the rub. When you live around people daily, you become blind to them. It’s much like how you can drive the same street for years and never notice that small book shop.

While I’m a technologist in addition to be a librarian, I believe we need to unplug and slow down more. At least, I know that I need to do so. But it takes effort. Unlike Violet’s world, we have instant choices for communication. They are not wrong of themselves, but if you are like me, you don’t use them in healthy ways. I’ve mindlessly lost many hours in Facebook, Tumblr, and the Internet at large.

Letters have an intimacy that social media lacks. Handwritten letters are human. You can see handshakes in the writing, tears staining the page, excitement in the way the pen gouges the paper. Typed letters, particularly on a typewriter (Do you know how to use one? I had to write reports on mechanical typewriters) are a little less human, but they are still friendlier than a computer-printed page. Computer-generated text is just too perfect, too sterile. It lacks many of the human errors that give items life and character.

Of course, I’m waxing nostalgic here. Typing on a mechanical or even an electric typewriter can be a pain, especially if you are a poor typist like me. But the tactile feedback is wonderful.

Violet Evergarden is a great anime you should watch. It’s not without problems. Sometimes it lays the emotions on too heavily. Violet’s relationship with the Major sometimes feels more like a relationship with a lover than a father, leaving you feeling uncertain which the story wants to show.  But on the whole, I enjoyed the story, but I’m a sucker for Data-like (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) characters. You should also consider writing letters or, at the least, writing a journal. A journal is just a letter to the future you. Consider ways to slow down and unplug, even if it means watching less anime online.

Christian Parental Concerns and Anime’s Fan-service

Christian parents and their anime fan-service concernsAnime’s fan-service makes many Christian parents hesitate for good reason. Many in the anime community share the reservation of parents I’ve spoke with. Fan-service is a blight on anime, and it’s a negative reflection on the anime community. It doesn’t help storytelling. Let’s look at how fan-service and Christian ideals clash and whether or not Christians can safely watch anime containing fan-service. Fan-service involves scenes and situations that shows off a character’s body. Typically, it focuses on female characters and showing their breasts, bottoms, legs, and other body parts. It can involve scenes of accidentally grabbing a breast or seeing up a skirt. Fan-service can reverse and focus on men in similar ways. Finally, fan-service involves long camera pans of technology like tanks, mechs, and other technology.

Fan-service titillates and panders to the audience’s desires. It’s used to make strong characters, usually female, appeal attainable. Upskirt views, swimsuit displays, cleavage shots, and other forms of objectification allows the audience to visually possess a character and build a fantasy around that character. Waifuism often uses fan-service as a part of its fantasy. Other types of fan-service exist, but the sexually-focused types, which are the most common, concern the parents I’ve spoken with so that is what I’ll focus upon here.

Christianity teaches against objectification and lust. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul states sexual immorality goes against God’s intention for the human body and urges Christians to flee sexual immorality. Jesus states lustful thoughts are the same as the act of adultery (Matthew, 5:27-28) and tells Christians to remove such from their lives. However, lust is different from momentary titillation.  Titillation is a fleeting response to something like fan-service. Lust, on the other hand, is a self-focused state of mind. It is a craving that consumes your thinking and drives you to attempt to sate it no matter the consequences (only to have it return). Many today, however, believe lust involves the momentary sexual desire we feel when something sexy appeals to our senses. Lust goes further. It is a habit, a state of mind, that goes beyond the moment. Lust comes from embracing momentary self-focused desires whenever they arise. This waters the seeds of lust. Fleeing from it–because we really can’t resist them–waters a different type of seed. Lust involves seeking these fleeting moments instead of fleeing.

The end result of a male character ogling

The end result of a male character ogling

Anime’s fan-service constitutes as lust when we seek it out and dwell on it. Momentary titillation is a normal part of the human body. It’s hard to look at a good-looking person, plate of food, and other physically appealing things and not feel desire. The body is wired to want such things, and the momentary wanting isn’t necessarily sinful. It’s automatic and makes us seek things like food that we need, but when it rules our every action, that’s where lust comes in. Selfishness sits at the heart of the problem. Now, anime fan-service seems harmless. After all, fan-service is just drawings of people that do not and cannot exist. However, it creates a habit of self-focused titillation that can morph into the habit of lust.

Of course, all of this depends too. I don’t feel titillation whenever I see fan-service in a story. I feel annoyance and even anger at mishandling a character. Christianity leaves room for individual differences, but it also cautions us to be careful not to delude ourselves about our strength. Fan-service may not affect me, but it may affect you. If so, Paul would urge you to flee. It takes self-awareness and a desire to pursue other, longer-lasting types of self fulfillment. However, there is pressure from sections of the otaku community to consume fan-service and to think in selfish ways.

I want to be clear. Not every aspect of the anime community encourage lustful views or other views contrary to Christianity. Much of the community is warm and positive. Likewise, waifuism doesn’t always have sexual components to it. For many, waifuism is a way to step out of self-focus. It allows people to learn how to step outside their views and into that of another. Of course, it can also foster self-projection. Everything can be used by God to pull people closer to Him, but sin can also distort those tools too. Waifuism can encourage compassion or encourage lust.

Christian parents have their own balancing act to perform. Teens compose anime’s main audience, hence the rather tired high-school setting. Forbidding anime wholesale will only encourage the teen to go behind the parent’s back. It also prevents the teen from accessing anime’s stories that can be uplifting or help the teen through a rough patch. Anime often addresses teen-identity problems and problems in friendships in helpful ways. Fan-service can also be used as satire to point out problems within anime and how we view clothing. Nudity can also be used as a character trait–showing innocence of a character–such as Holo in Spice and Wolf.

Our lives are formed by the stories we live within. For example, we live in a world that believes in the story of resource scarcity, and it impacts how we view life. Likewise, anime and its fan-service can impact our views of the world–for better or for worse. Fan-service is designed to appeal to our base instincts rather than cultivate a more God-focused perspective. But fan-service can allow for a teaching opportunity, such as this article. I’m not a parent. I can’t offer any true advice. However, a shared interest in anime can allow parents and their children to bond and discuss issues like fan-service and the nature of lust. The stories we consume shape our thoughts. Many people downplay anime as mere entertainment, but it contains messages that we consciously and unconsciously add to our characters. We do the same with movies, books, and the stories people tell us. Anime, like all stories, has positive and negative messages. It’s up to us to decide what messages to consume and which we need to flee.

Felice Beato and Kimbei Kusakabe, Photographers of 1800s Japan

Kusakabe Kimbei - Girls shhowing the back styleThe mid-to-late 1800s marked a shift in Japanese history: the Meiji Restoration. The old guard, the Tokugawa Shogunate, with their isolationist attitudes were overthrown, and Japan began a miraculous modernization movement. When you consider the shift, it is amazing. Japan went from being primarily agriculturally-based in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US forced Japan to open to trade to the modernized military juggernaut of World War II just 86 years later. Most of us focus on military developments during this time, but the arts also flourished. Photography entered Japan just as woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, were the main form of popular art. Ukiyo-e laid the groundwork for Japanese photograph and their lovely hand-colored work.

Photography entered Japan through Nagasaki, the only trading port where the Tokugawa government allowed foreign traders, in 1848 (Gartlan, 2006). In 1854, photographer Eliphalet Brown Jr. return with Perry and took the first known photograph in Japan (Luppino, 2009). Soon after Japan opened, other photographers invaded, and they discovered a culture open to their art. The subjects of ukiyo-e–actors, geisha, sumo wrestlers, and landscapes–became popular subjects for the new tourist photography market. The port city of Yokohama became the center of this new industry. Almost 90% of photographs exported from Japan at the time came from Yokohama (Luppino, 2009). At the time, Westerners were fascinated by Japanese culture. Photographers saw the business opportunity of providing souvenir photos for tourists and selling photo books to people in Europe who weren’t able to travel to Japan. Felice Beato was the first to capitalize on this interest.

Felice Beato, Father of Japanese Photography

Yokohama Samurai

Yokohama Samurai

Born in Corfu, Italy Felice Beato (c1825-1907) became the first photographer to specialize in war photography. We know little about his early life, but he was known as an eccentric who favored colorful language and business scheming. After learning photography from his brother-in-law James Robertson–who married Beato’s sister in 1855, Beato joined Robertson on an expedition to photograph the Crimean War between Britain and Russia. The next year, Robertson sent Beato back to photograph the war’s aftermath, where Beato started his practice of arranging corpses for emotional effect. Robertson and Beato used a secret dry-plate method that allowed them to photograph in the field. The wet-plate photography at the time wasn’t suited for weather conditions and other issues associated with war photography. Their new technique allowed them to do what previous photographers couldn’t. Robertson and Beato traveled around the Mediterranean until Beato left for India in 1858 to photograph the massacre of Indian rebels fighting against Britain. Over the next 2 years, he worked as the semi-official photographer for the British army.

In the same year, Chinese tried to stop Britain’s export of Indian opium into China, and the British retaliated by attacking and sinking most of the Chinese navy and invading China. Beato traveled with the army throughout its campaign, taking photos of the aftermath of the war. His 100 photographs are the only surviving images of China before the 1870s. After returning to London, Beato decided to travel back to the Far East and settled in Yokohama, Japan for the next 20 years where he made several hundred images of Japan. Beato’s photos ranged from Japan’s landscape and architecture to its people. Considered the father of Japanese photography, his work provided the only record of the country during the 1860s.  He retained his interest in war photography: in 1871, the United States Navy appointed him the official photographer for their attack on Korea. After losing all of his money at the Yokohama silver exchange’s speculative market, he settled in Mandalay, Burma where he founded a photographic studio and sold local arts and crafts through the mail. He died in Burma in 1907 (Wilson, n.d; Gartlan, 2006).

Beato’s Influence on Japanese Photography

Felice Beato - The executioner

Felice Beato – The executioner

Beato’s studio set the standards for Japanese photography at the time, and his work shaped how Europeans and Americans viewed Japan. His work also shaped how Japan developed a new self-identity as the country transformed from a feudal society to an industrial society. Beato’s photographs helped Japan become aware of its appearance to the rest of the world. Luckily, he took Japanese culture seriously and tried to educate Westerners by adding descriptive captions below the photos. Instead of following western photographic conventions at the time, he tried to bring a Japanese aesthetic to his work. He like to photograph moments on the streets of Yokohama and arrange them in his studio when he could not (Luppino, 2009).

Beato’s studio inspired Japanese photographers to open their own studios, but the first native studios suffered from lack of resources and expertise. Shimooka Renjo (1823-1914) opened the first Japanese-operated studio in Yokohama. Uchida Kuichi (1845-1875) managed to attract the attention of Yokohama’s foreign residents but failed to get the interest of rich foreign travelers (Gartlan, 2006). However, Beato also employed many Japanese as assistants, giving them the training and connections they would need to succeed where other Japanese-owned studios failed. Beato hired ukiyo-e artists and colorists to paint photographs. In fact, Yokohama photography became associated with fine hand-colored photographs, painting details as fine as fingernails. These assistants became the pool that allowed Japanese photography to move away from foreign studios. Among these assistants arose Kusakabe Kimbei.

Kusakabe Kimbei, The Most Prolific Yokohama Photographer

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

Kusakabe Kimbei  (1841-1934) left his home in Kofu at the age of 15 or 16 to work at Beato’s studio. After 18 years of working with Beato, he set out to found is own studio in 1881 where he would produce 60% of surviving Yokohama photographs, making him the most prolific photographer of the time (Newton, 2008; Wakita, 2009). While Beato had respect for Japanese customs and tried to capture Japanese aesthetics, Kimbei used photography to capture the vanishing world of traditional Japan. At the time, women across all social classes were adopting Western hair styles and dress. Kimbei preferred to photograph tradition fashion, and he resisted Western introduced poses, such as women holding interlocked hands and other romanticized poses (Wakita, 2009). Instead, Kimbei embraced the bijinga, or pictures of beautiful women, tradition in ukiyo-e and adapted the woodblock print’s compositions.

He primarily hired geisha to pose for him for several reasons. First, social class mattered, and ordinary women wouldn’t pose because of their awareness of their class and of the wide audience the photographs would reach. Geisha were more comfortable with this because of their social status and because of their profession’s visibility. They also didn’t subscribe as readily to the concerns surrounding photography during its early years. Some people thought photography would steal the model’s life-blood, or cause a man’s shadow to weaken–I’m not sure exactly why this is a concern. Some thought every third person sitting in a photograph would die or suffer a shortened life span for each sitting they did (Wakita, 2009).

Because of this, Kimbei resorted to using just a few famous geisha. In fact, we even know their names: O-en, Ponta, Momoko, Tsumako, Azuma. and Miyako. However, this association of geisha and photography led to the public viewing geisha photographs as erotic works. A story in Tokyo shin hanjoki  talks about the embarrassment of young boys who were teased by other people as they tried to buy photographs of geisha (Wakita, 2009). Despite this, bijinga photos became popular. He often depicted women painting, reading, and playing instruments– the same type of scenes found in ukiyo-e. Women appeared as cultivated and traditional.

The Importance of Yokohama Photographs

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Beato and Kimbei’s work, in particular, defined the period and how people thought of Japan at the time. They provided a window for the West to look into. At the time, Japan was an exotic place few knew anything about. While the Yokohama photographs catered to this audience, they also showed a country in a state of change. Old customs fell away as new, western ideas entered and mingled with tradition. Admittedly, some photographers of this period created works that would later be used to fuel the racial profiling and ranking by those in the West. On the whole. Yokohama’s wonderful hand-colored photos introduced a level of artistry that changed how people in the West considered photography.

Yokohama’s photographs helped lay the foundation for the export of anime and manga and other Japanese media. They introduced a sliver of Japanese culture that allowed people in the West to become familiar with the culture, even if at a superficial level. Over time, Japanese aesthetics, with a little Western convention to make them comfortable, became accepted. It wasn’t such a big deal to see people in kimono. This gradual trend sped up after World War II when the United States had more direct contact with Japanese culture during the occupation. However, Yokohama and the work of people like Lafcadio Hearn, who introduced the West to Japanese stories, laid the groundwork for the anime and manga we enjoy now. Yokohama photography marks the first time a Japanese-Western product was made and exported.  Manga and anime are also Japanese-Western products. Yokohama photographs tell stories in their own way; again, as manga and anime does.

Whereas Yokohama photograph combines Western technology with Japanese aesthetics, anime and manga reverse this. Anime and manga pull Western aesthetics, particularly those of Walt Disney, and combine with them Japanese technology. Over time, this created its own confluence of Japanese and Western styles we simply call the anime or manga style.

Finally, behind the photographs are people. We know next to nothing about Kimbei’s geisha models, but we can see them. We know their names more than a century later. Yokohama photographs, although they were meant for tourists, provide a glimpse at the lives of people long gone. They provide a glimpse at their stories. While today we don’t think images are a big deal–they are everywhere, after all–at the time they were shocked, awed, interested, frightened, and inspired. They allowed people to save a memory or see something they would never otherwise see. The demand for Yokohama photos and their subject matter reveals the interest people in the West had for Japan. The uniqueness of Japanese culture captured the imagination of the time and catered to an interest in something “pure.” That is, untainted by industrialization and mercantilism. Yes, this was an idealization, even a fetishization, of Japanese culture, but it came from a genuine interest in learning how other people live. The reasons behind why a photograph was taken matters as much as the subject of the image.

All of this aside, the Yokohama photos are simply beautiful. I’ve included a collection of them for you to enjoy.

References

Gartlan, Luke (2006) Types or Costumes? Reframing Early Yokohama Photographyt. Visual Resources 22 (3) 239-263.

Luppino, Tony (2009) Koshashin” A New Collection of Early Japanese Photography Captures a Moment of Change in 19th Century Japan. Arts of Asia 39 (3) 142-149.

Newton, G. (2008). Local heroes of early photography in Asia and the Pacific. Artonview, (53), 36-39.

Wakita, Mio (2009). Selling Japan: Kusakabe Kimbei’s Image of Japanese Women. History of Photography. 33 (2). 209-223.

Wilson, Michael (n.d.) Beato, Felice. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/41130

You can find most of these photographs at the New York Library Digital Collections, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection.

Photographs