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What kind of story is the most entertaining for you? For a vast majority of people, nothing beats a good-triumph-over-evil plotline or a glitter-filled romance comedy. For others, a retrospective look at our world through the eyes of intriguing protagonists hits the spot. For maybe even fewer anime fans, it’s the treat of a masterfully constructed tragedy that satisfies our curiosity for how bad things can get for a cast of unfortunate, but otherwise perfectly likeable characters.
Thus, Honey’s Anime brings to our esteemed readers a list of the top ten anime that fits best in the tragedy genre. Although there is no doubt that a number of our selections will upset even the most optimistic anime viewers, be certain that every series and film are the brainchildren of great storytellers with an unmalleable message forged in their creation.
10. Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April)
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: October 2014 to March 2015
Yes, you read that right. What is possibly one of the best anime series that finished airing in 2015, makes it to the tenth spot of our list, both in recognition of its merits and in respect of the competition it faces.
Kousei Arima is a genius pianist who suffers from a mental condition that claimed his will to play, and has since withdrawn into a life of bore and dullness. However, his meeting with eccentric schoolmate and fellow musician, Kaori Miyazono, tears him out of his shell as he witnesses her adventurous style of performance on the violin, giving him the drive to once again step onto the stage. Thus begins Kousei’s path to facing his traumatising past, and coming to realise the joy that Kaori brings to his life, even when it becomes increasingly clear that the time they have together will not last.
Your Lie in April is a straightforward tragedy story that incorporates many of the common manga tropes, owing much to it being the adaptation of a very successful manga series. Among a charming teenage cast of characters dragging along an admittedly feeble protagonist, Kaori’s character arc shines particularly brightly in being a glorious struggle of a strong-minded individual. A1 Pictures certainly put in their all in making this a gorgeous-yet-heartbreaking experience by bringing each and every of the characters to life, putting in absurd details to the show’s iconic concert scenes.
Even though the series makes it to the tail-end of our list, many fans certainly find its emotional highs no less affecting than any of the other entries. If anything, Your Lie in April may be the show that most viewers will find to be the most poignant among shows that are, by a hair’s difference, better written and constructed.
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 2005 to April 2005
Among the famed trio of Kyoto Animation adaptations of Key’s visual novels, namely Kanon, Air and Clannad, it might come to the surprise of a few readers that the summer-themed, Air, fits the most closely to the conventions of the tragedy genre. As thus, even though Air is often seen to be weaker adaptation and the less well-crafted anime series by its own merits, it speaks volumes about the height of the emotional response it elicits from viewers for it to make a list of the best tragedy anime in existence.
Instead of just a teenage high school-goer, Air’s protagonist, Yukito Kunisaki, wanders around Japan in search of what his family informed him of as the ‘Winged Maiden’ as part of fulfilling his ancestor’s long-term wish. In one hot summer day, his travels bring him to a seaside village for a fateful meeting with Misuzu Kamio, of whose house and family he eventually comes into the care of. As he grows accustomed to life with the kind locals and contributes to solving some of their personal problems, he realises that the Winged Maiden he searches for may be closer than he thinks.
Air is definitely not the most consistent of shows, suffering from pacing issues due to its short 13-episode run despite adapting a formidably long visual novel. As one of Kyoto Animation’s earlier anime productions, it also lacks the studio’s characteristic polish found in every show since the first season of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi. Instead, it is a show that steadily builds momentum towards one of the greatest endings in anime to date.
8. Kidou Senshi Zeta Gundam (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam)
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: March 1985 to February 1986
Anime fans of the post-90s era might have come to think that the Gundam franchise is all about giant robots fighting in space. However, once upon a time, Gundam was really about showing the tragedies of war and how people, both soldiers and civilians, change because of it.
Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, the second major entry to the franchise and the first sequel to the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, follows the trials that Kamille Bidan faces after being forced out of his space colony home into a fight with a dominating military force from the Earth Federation. His journey with the Anti-Earth Union Group as part of the resistance force captures his maturation into an adult, facing both the harshness of reality and the hypocrisy of the world around him.
As much as newer Gundam series like to show off their dazzling robots, legendary director Yoshiyuki Tomino makes his mark in anime history by telling a frank story of indiscriminate loss as part of war. Even though Kamille is a prodigious pilot and his fellow comrades are more than capable, the real tragedy of Gundam lies in their constant inability to protect what comes into their sight. For anime fans who want to experience one of the important building blocks to modern anime tropes, and one of the Gundam series that best embodies what the franchise was originally about, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is sure to be a great choice.
7. Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: April 2011 to June 2011
Even beyond anime and manga, Japan is unusually adept at constructing tragic storylines that have less to do with seeing the tragedy play out, but rather see their characters through dealing with suffering and loss. A more recent iteration of this is the very popular AnoHana, an A1 Pictures show dealing with a group of friends who through circumstances have grown distance from each other by the time they became high school students.
Jinta Yadomi is a shadow of who he used to be in the past, having decided that school was not worth his time, he spends most days playing games at home. One day, he wakes up to find a strange girl in his room, of whom he immediately, albeit unwillingly, recognises to be a ghost of his past. It is shortly after that Jinta chooses to once again face his childhood and come into terms with what he has lost.
As much as AnoHana serves as a heartwarming reminder to the importance of childhood friendships and how they, in many unexpected ways, end up shaping how you become in the future, it also delivers a harsh dose of reality in showing how people fall apart when dealing with traumas. Perhaps the best decision that A1 Pictures made for this show is having the voice actors sing a new rendition of the classic J-pop song ‘Secret base ~Kimi ga Kureta Mono~’, leaving the viewers a bittersweet taste in their mouths, if they are not already drowning in tears by the end of every episode.
Just like Your Lie in April, AnoHana is best for fans who want something short, to-the-point, but no less emotionally affecting. It also earns extra points for doing so with more relatable characters, putting it ahead of anime in the same category.
6. Ga-Rei: Zero
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: October 2008 to December 2008
Ga-Rei was originally released as a shounen manga series in 2005, but was not particularly noteworthy from its competition. To say the least, Ga-Rei Zero, its prequel, is a completely different and a clearly outstanding beast; there is absolutely no need for one to even care about the manga in order to enjoy this anime.
Kagura Tsuchimiya and Yomi Isayama are a monster-busting pair of fighters, acting under the discretion of the Japanese Ministry of Defense. They work to contain the influence of the supernatural and paranormal events, may it be caused from monsters or people, and do their best navigating through their responsibilities even when their lives are constantly on the line, and with each other as their greatest support. As it happens, the time comes when the challenges they face grow to require a greater sacrifice.
Ga-Rei: Zero in its core revolves around the sibling-like relationship between Kagura and Yomi, whose trust transcends the borders of any conventional friendship. Thus, when the inevitable disaster begins to snowball out of control, the breakdown of what was most precious to the both of them becomes the ultimate source of drama and sets up a scenario where only the worst can happen.
Beyond the genre, Ga-Rei: Zero aptly combines well-executed action and an engaging world of supernatural-meets-modern society that few other TV anime series manages. As a one-cour show that pays careful attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship of two likeable characters as they confront disaster, Ga-Rei: Zero deserves nothing less than a best-of-the-rest status embodied by the 6th place in this list.
5. Hoshi no Koe
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: February 2002
Did you ever try making an entire half hour-long anime short on your computer, with maybe your significant other with you to voice the character of the opposite gender? Well, that is pretty much what Director Makoto Shinkai managed to do. Beautifully.
Hoshi no Koe is a simple story about a junior high school student couple, Mikako and Terao. Mikako, however, is drafted into a space expedition force and commanded to help with exploring foreign planets, thus separating the pair from anything resembling a sense of proximity. This does not stop the pair from stubbornly remaining in contact through the message functions of their cell phones, even when the time it takes for their messages to reach only lengthen with the distancer that Mikako travels…
Just like every other of Shinkai’s works, Hoshi no Koe is a story-telling wonder in its ability to convey a rich, engaging story within the timespan of an everyday dinner meal. Much of his directorial genius lies in his ability to convey meaning through symbolic objects, which in the case of Hoshi no Koe is the combination of excitement, hope and desperation that comes with the sending of a flip-phone text message and the sheer awe of perceiving interplanetary distances. In this sense, the tragedy of the short lies in a common theme in all of Shinkai’s works, albeit this time as a dramatised source for suffering: the defeat every individual person suffers when facing the invisible forces of the world.
Hoshi no Koe is an experience that has to be appreciated not only as a story, but as a sensory experience where much of the content lies in the visual cues. For a product that expands far beyond its physical limits to tell the tragic defeat of a couple’s budding love, Hoshi no Koe simply works as one of the best tragedies in anime.
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: October 2011 to December 2011; April 2012 to June 2012 (2nd Season)
What is a supernatural battle royale anime doing in a list of best tragedies in anime? Well, when an anime falls beyond the limitations of the shounen genre, it tends to do a very good job of showing why magical duelling are closer to being bloodbaths than glorified stat-checking and exhibitionist portrayals of violence. In fact, Fate/Zero depicts the personally devastating part of fighting so well that most of the characters who appear in the first episode are probably ‘not there’ by the end.
Although the show serves as a prequel to the Fate/stay night anime and visual novels, it is in itself a complete package, tracking the character arcs of multiple individuals involved in the Holy Grail War, a fight between seven historical figures from either the past or fictional lore and their respective summoners, known in-universe as Masters, for the mythical powers of the Holy Grail. Most significantly of all is Kiritsugu Emiya, a magic-wielding gunman Master who seeks to use the Holy Grail for peace purposes.
Fans of the Fate franchise, or of visual novels in general, may recognise the name Gen Urobuchi as the writer for this show; his repertoire of gritty, disturbing works rears its head in the many moments of despair faced by pretty much every single character of the show. Fate/Zero is definitely not about overcoming personal tragedy. Characters will lose out to stronger individuals or be forced to admit that their idealised perception of the world were nothing but their arrogance, and this raw portrayal of failure on many different levels to a jaw-dropping degree of proficiency, is what sets Fate/Zero above many of its peers.
3. Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku (Now and Then, Here and There)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: October 1999 to January 2000
Now and Then, Here and There is not an anime for the young or the faint-hearted. It is an examination of how, when the world turns to a terrible state of affairs, nothing will be pretty.
The world that Shu chases mysterious blue-haired girl Lala-Ru, abducted by some just as mysterious robots, into suffers from a severe shortage of water. Mother nature can no longer support even the smallest populations of people, and the human race, driven by desperation, is nothing more than a shell of when it was still gentle and kind. Such is what Shu discovers when all he finds around him are child soldiers who know nothing but violence, women who are only valued for their wombs, and adults who are driven insane by the sorry state of the world.
Interestingly, Shu is never really the sufferer in this show. He serves as both an outsider to the second world, and a sole source of morality and ideal to a society of people who know nothing of it. In contrast, it is the second outsider, Sara, who was very unfortunately abducted entirely by accident, who is the real recipient of the world’s tragedy. It is the sheer weight of seeing the dying world and the defeated characters through the eyes of our protagonist that we realise that he, just as any other person in his position, is absolutely powerless to change the course of the world. It is the fact that Shu and Sara have nothing but their innocent naivete to blame for the tragedy they face, whether it is of themselves or otherwise, that makes the anime so deeply impressive.
Now and Then, Here and There reminds us that the greatest tragedies are those that we have no control over, and are helpless to stop once put into motion. Combined with the aimless hopes of a child, persistent in wishing for the best, this anime is a achievement in brutality that few other stories can compare to.
2. Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2011 to April 2011
Two entries ago, we mentioned Gen Urobuchi as one of the biggest reasons why Fate/Zero is as awesome a tragedy as it turned out to be. With Madoka Magica, Urobuchi revels in the pleasure of writing a story with no attachment to any previous franchise and comes up with the biggest twist to the Mahou Shoujo trope in anime since its conception.
Madoka Kaname was in every sense a typical, average teenage girl until one day, she meets the cute cat-like magical being, Kyuubei. Asked to become a Puella Magi, a magic-wielding defender of justice who fights against Witches, Madoka is sent sprawling into a spiral of despair as she comes to realise that the battle against evils of the world is far more complicated and comes at a much greater cost than she could have ever imagined.
To be careful of spoilers, the most that can be said of Madoka Magica is that it is a show of sacrifice and regret, and also of realising what it means to be human. Do not let any of the show’s promotional material deceive you; the world in Madoka Magica is one that brings you along the ride with the characters’ hopes and dreams, but then chooses to ruthlessly crush them into bits through the harshness of its reality.
In creating Madoka Magica, Urobuchi comments on the foundation of Mahou Shoujo trope and leaves his own message explaining a bit of what he personally sees to be part of human nature. Humans are capable of happiness because happiness is not a constant thing; on the flipside, Urobuchi is just as happy to let us know that our desire to protect this happiness may be the very cause of the tragedy in our lives.
1. Mawaru Penguindrum
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: July 2011 to December 2011
Making it to the top of our list is a full-length show by the prolific director Kunihiko Ikuhara, possibly most famous for his work in the 90s on the Revolutionary Girl Utena franchise. Mawaru Penguindrum marks his second effort as Head Director for an anime series, bringing much of his characteristic flamboyant aesthetic to the visual appeal of the show.
Mawaru Penguindrum is not much about the events taking place on the screen as it can be seen, as taking it too literally will only lead to a senseless string of events that seem to make little sense. Instead, one has to look into the symbolic meaning of what each character interacts with in order to appreciate what each significant character arc consists of, and realise the real tragedy of the scenario. Even then, Ikuhara’s storytelling style is such that most viewers can go through the entire series without understanding half of what the plot was about.
What we can say for sure is that Mawaru Penguindrum is about Kanba and Shouma Takakura, and their efforts to preserve the life of their sister Himari, who is suffering from a life-threatening disease. Although they are siblings in a sense of the word, it is perhaps more important to note that they are a set of individuals stringed together by the invisible force of fate that leaves them no choice but to suffer through life. How this happens is by all means a mystery that the viewer has to figure out, just like pretty much every other aspect of this anime, but by doing so, one may find the creative genius that went into what is possibly one of the best anime of this decade.
Ultimately, what Mawaru Penguindrum does that sets it apart from all other anime in this list, is the mastery that went into controlling the atmosphere exuded in any given moment. Mawaru Penguindrum makes it obvious that the show is a result of a decade of pondering, and combines nothing less than years of creative ideas into a single product, one which uses almost everything that is within the limits of animated storytelling to convey a masterpiece of tragedy. In doing so, Ikuhara creates nothing less than one of the most entertaining, most memorable pieces of fiction that Honey’s Anime will ever be able to recommend.
If you are convinced, by any entries here, that tragedy in anime is more than just a way for the industry to drive the weak-minded anime fan to tears, this list has served its purpose. Anime is a form of entertainment if nothing else, and tragedy should be recognised as one of the greatest, most developed forms of entertainment across all media.
Do you agree with this sentiment? Is there another show that should have made the list? Let us know in the comment section below.