When a sad anime manages to touch us, it has the potential to mold us into kinder, more emotionally balanced beings. If you trust the words of psychoanalysis and literature buffs, it has much to do with empathy and the concept of catharsis; that is, feeling the full brunt of a character’s plight and the following “cleansing” sensation produced by allowing your emotions a vehicle on which to bubble to the surface. Stories, with their wide reach and low real-world stakes, can provide a safe alternative to blowing up or breaking down elsewhere.
At anime’s disposal is a unique set of advantages for producing sad stories due to the nature of the medium. Visually appealing characters with exaggerated expressions convey emotions in a slightly different manner than an actor or characters in a book can. Creators don’t have to worry as much as novelists about maintaining an effective economy of words, much of the weight can be carried by the visuals. At the same time, they don’t need to wrestle against the set limitations that plague live-action titles and voice actors don’t need to mind the physical parts of scene delivery.
That being said, the driving force behind what makes a sad anime will bear stark similarities to other forms of media. At the end of the day, a story is a story and whether one pulls on your heart sings or not depends on how well it can manipulate certain aspects in order to strike that sweet spot between empathy and catharsis. Follow along, and we’ll do some exploring into three of the more prevalent aspects and how some specific titles use them. You’ll have to bring your own tissue box, though.
Don’t get this one confused with empathy, sympathy is merely a feeling of connection with another, usually through a vested interest in their situation. We might feel sorry for someone with sympathy alone, but true empathy allows us to feel the very same joy, pain, and anguish. Despite one not always being dependent on the other, sympathy often claims the spot as a basic building block of any good sad anime. Besides, how can you cry for someone you don’t care about?
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: April 2018 – June 2018
Yoshifumi Nitta, a yakuza member whose career is on the climb, literally crashes into a young girl encased in a futuristic capsule while enjoying a glass of wine in his expensive flat. Her name is Hina and she’s a psychokinetic with enough power to pacify a gaggle of rival thugs with comedic ease. And what does she use this great power for? Mundane yet useful tricks like helping out with construction gigs when she’s not accidentally destroying one of Nitta’s prized possessions. Hina would rather eat, play games or vegetate than do much else.
The anime is geared more towards comedy than anything, but it has several surprisingly wholesome and sad moments. Despite its genre, the characters, particularly Hina and her younger friends, are easy to get behind due to their charming personality traits in addition to that initial capital we’re admittedly prone to giving out to any cute or vulnerable characters.
Anzu, one of Hina’s fellow espers, will be the one who most likely gets you to start leaking salt water. Her character arcs center around personal development, homelessness, and community at an age where these are the last things that should be on her mind. Sure, she’s a bit brash and outspoken, but she’s also a kid trapped in a situation without real parental figures from the start, seeing her cry is almost unbearable.
Hinamatsuri PV 1
Integral to drawing on our wellspring of tears is a credible source of anguish. Some of the most painful, touching examples come from the loss of dear family members and friends, an event that’s an inevitable factor of life yet still catches many by surprise. Note, however, that harm does not mean tragedy; one or a series of minor failures that aren’t life-threatening can still leave people hurt on the inside if the matter bears enough personal significance. At a sad anime’s core, though, there will almost always be some form of hurt involved. If you find yourself asking why a certain character’s life has to suck, the creators did a good job.
- Episodes: 220
- Aired: October 2002 – February 2007
In the five Elemental Nations, ninjas clash for hegemony. Using the supernatural powers afforded by chakra, they rend apart the earth by day and commit terrible atrocities by night. Born in the midst of such a world, Naruto fights against an ill-fated childhood as an orphan. He harbors dreams of taking on the title of Hokage, the Leaf Village’s leader, so that no one will be able to deny him the recognition he sorely lacks.
Naruto, much like Hinamatsuri, is better known for its dealings in other emotions. Overall, the story maintains an upbeat, hopeful tone with a dash of action and awe true to the shounen genre. When it has its moments though, they hit hard. Sprinkled around pitched battles and aggressive befriending, you’ll find backstories and events that hold deeply dismal optics. We’ll forego spoiling the titular blonde-haired wonder’s story for the sake of the few anime fans that haven’t watched the title yet. We can say that Naruto was looked down upon for the circumstances of his birth before he could even walk, leaving him to develop extraverted attention-seeking behaviors that belie a desperate need for affection and companionship. Worse yet, Naruto isn’t the only one cast into this situation as a result of the ninja system, and when he sees another dealing with the same sort of pain, he’s quick to offer a shoulder to cry on.
The effectiveness of Naruto’s emotional scenes stems from the anime’s ability to bring in a large cast of characters that face loneliness, loss, and frustration on a regular basis. For all the world’s diverseness, many of its people are united by broken hearts.
Whether you laugh or break into a fit of sobbing when a character breaks their bones is largely an effect of portrayal. Making a sad anime isn’t simply a matter of bad things happening to characters we care about. The way that events are treated in-universe decides whether we pick up on the severity of a situation or even connect with a scene at all. Art direction has a great deal to do with this aspect; setting effects, music, shot placement. Unlike books or our own personal experiences, there’s no direct link to emotions of sorrow, so care must be taken in order to align story and scene elements in such a way that they provide us a window to a grieving character’s soul. If done correctly, we may even feel like their burdens are our own.
Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April)
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: October 2014 – March 2015
After his mother dies, Kousei Arima falls into a depressive streak that saps away his will to continue the development of his talent with the piano. All his friends can do is keep the young boy alive and relatively sound until he meets one Kaori Miyazono. She has good looks and a cheerful personality, but most importantly, the way she plays the violin heals Kousei’s wounded heart, allowing him to rediscover his lost love for music.
Being an anime with expression through music as one of its central themes, it comes as no surprise that the musical score blends in beautifully with its scene delivery. Most of the moments from dialogue to internal bouts of narrative are handled in such a way that the setting fully supports the current mood. Revealing any specifics beyond the initial description would ruin a good portion of the effect, it’s enough to say that A-1 Pictures clearly put thought into making sure that the space between us and the protagonists’ feelings would be as small as possible.
Even four years after its debut, Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso maintains its position within the top 100 most popular titles according to MyAnimeList.
Your Lie in April English Trailer
We hope that this article serves as a good jumping off point for you to take a more detailed look at the way anime can make us feel. If anyone tells you that the medium isn’t as effective as books or live-action movies at delivering tangible emotions, be sure to direct them to one of the fine examples above. And remember, if a good anime starts to make your eyes puffy, don’t be ashamed to have yourself a nice long cry. It’s not a mark of you being sappy or a wuss, but undeniable evidence that you’re a person who has the capacity to care for others. We can only imagine that the creators would be overjoyed at the prospect of their labor having a place in your heart.
In any case, if you have any recommendations for good sad anime or insights into how our favorite shows get us to bawl like children, be sure to let us know in the comments.