The latest season of Attack on Titan dropped early this year, adding some crucial character transformations and backstories that make the anime more depressing than ever. However, melancholy in the Japanese animated format is not new as is evident from classics like Grave of the Fireflies and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Just like how Pixar movies are notable for their emotional tones, several anime movies and shows have gone on to redefine human sadness in their unique ways. The beauty of anime is such that raw and realistic emotions can be explored across several genres. For instance, Steins; Gate is a sci-fi coming-of-age tale while Your Name is a tragic romance with fantasy elements.
10 Neon Genesis Evangelion
Right from the start, the lead character of Neon Genesis Evangelion Shinji Ikari struggles for acceptance from his hardened father. While he and his fellow teenagers also deal with their adolescent struggles and parental issues, they are also forced to take on the responsibilities of fighting the “Angels” and saving the world.
The sadness plaguing the teens doubles up, especially in the last two episodes that take a more surrealist and metaphorical route to approaching the inner demons of the characters. Even though it is based on a manga, the anime deviates largely from the original towards the end as creator Hideaki Anno famously used the anime and Ikari’s story arc to deal with his clinical depression.
9 Grave Of The Fireflies
Set during the horrors of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies is arguably one of the saddest and hardest anime movies to watch. In its essence, it is a survival movie dealing with the journey of two siblings who have lost their parents and home in the war. As they struggle to survive in the violence-ridden countryside, the elder brother still tries to be as optimistic as he can for the sake of his younger sister.
The wholesome moments of bonding between the hopeless protagonists is bound to tear up the most stone-hearted of viewers, especially towards the tragic third act.
8 Attack On Titan
On the surface, Attack on Titan seems to be focusing on a conflict between the humans and the creatures known as “Titans”. But as more is revealed about the origins of these Titans, the anime delves into some depressing character arcs. Much like Hajime Isayama’s original manga, loss becomes a recurring theme throughout the series. While some characters lose loved ones (with haunting visuals such as the Titan devouring protagonist Eren Yeager’s mother in the pilot episode), others lose their ideals and sense of purpose.
Much like Neon Genesis Evangelion, the battle between humans and monsters also incorporates the battles these characters have with their inner demons. With no binary of good or bad being watertight, the characters of Attack on Titan are riddled with grey areas.
High-school animes are known to be emotional as they cover the changing friendships and relationships of the adolescent characters. Clannad covers similar territory while focusing on a high-schooler’s final year of graduation but its sequel season Clannad: AfterStory even ends up covering the jump from teenage to adulthood.
And with adulthood, comes adult issues. Financial instability, death, illness, and emotional stress all rear their ugly head throughout the anime making it a quintessential entry in the pantheon of depressing animes.
6 Elfen Lied
Elfen Lied starts with two students coming across Lucy, a naïve yet mysterious girl who later turns out to be a superpowered being who is programmed to be a serial killer. As Lucy’s origin unravels, she is revealed to be a part of a brutal government experiment that continues to impact her current mental state.
The sci-fi thriller anime series doesn’t hold back on its violence. At the same time, the bloodshed isn’t glamorized and it comes with a price. Lucy wishes to lead an ordinary life like her new friends but her dark past catches up with her, leading to some truly dark storylines.
5 Your Name
A tragic romance that spans different timelines, Your Name‘s premise is a complicated tale of “body swaps”. The two central characters don’t know each other but wake up in each other’s bodies. What starts as an innocent tale of love is changed forever by a natural disaster.
A behind-the-scenes fact about Your Name is that director Makoto Shinkai was inspired by the Great Eastern Earthquake in 2011 that caused much loss and destruction in Japan. So, despite the cosmic nature of the storyline, there are real-world implications that only make it sadder.
4 Steins; Gate
A university student and his friends discover time travel in Steins; Gate. But with the knowledge they possess, they also discover an evil organization. While attempting to stop their evil tyranny, the protagonist also embarks on a personal mission to save his childhood friend who he sees dying again and again in multiple realities.
Toward the end, the character must make some crucial decisions to ensure whether the friend lives or not. His motivations clash with the larger social consequences of the technology he explores. Steins; Gate truly proves that with great power, comes great responsibility.
3 True Tears
True to its name, True Tears is an emotional roller-coaster. Compared to the other animes on this list, True Tears is quite simplistic in its premise. It is a boy-meets-girl love story that takes different dimensions in school and at home.
When the male protagonist shares the same home as his love interest, she turns out to be quite different in proximity. In school, she is the girl he dreams of but back at home, she turns out to be quite difficult to handle. True Tears shows how transient human relationships can be at times. Unlike other anime series about romance that takes a more melodramatic approach, this one focuses on the imperfect nuances too.
2 Tokyo Magnitude 8.0
When a deadly earthquake of magnitude 8.0 strikes Tokyo, two siblings and a single mother come together to survive the aftermath. Using the personal stories of these three characters, the anime tries to convey the immense emotional turmoil that people would go through in the wake of a natural disaster like this.
Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 relies on no over-the-top theatrics to convey the destruction. The earthquake looks as hauntingly realistic as possible and the limited ensemble of characters carries some well-rounded and relatable story arcs.
1 A Silent Voice
When Shouko, a deaf girl, is bullied repeatedly in her high school, she ends up abandoning everything and transferring to another school. Years later, one of her bullies, Shouya, has a change of heart and decides to make it up to Shouko. This is the general premise of the Kyoto Animation movie A Silent Voice.
Shouko’s inner turmoil is melancholic but viewers would eventually also empathize with Shouya who is conditioned to a toxic masculine upbringing. When the two attempt to reconcile, optimism is offered in contrast to the bleak premise. However, even in its hopeful or bittersweet moments, the movie is bound to get emotional.