Why do I Love Sad and Dark Anime?

I’m often playfully teased as being the guy that loves dark stories and tragic characters in my anime. I always say that if an anime can make me cry, I’m guaranteed to like it. This is most commonly associated with the interest I have in characters who suffer with tragic back stories or worlds that are bleak and desolate. I find myself elated whenever an anime makes me cry, and trying to express the reason why was actually a bit more complicated than I thought. This blog delves into my mind and explores why I, and possibly other otaku out there, enjoy depressing or grim anime.

Intellectual Stimulation

Johan and Tenma debate the value of human life amidst the final battlefield in Monster.

The primary reason I enjoy dark anime is because they are often psychological in nature and methodical with their storytelling. Anime being dark is essentially a state of mind therefore, the anime tends to be smarter simply be being so focused on a particular mindset and tone the whole time. I really enjoy any story that makes me think, and I tend to dwell on more serious subjects that dark anime often examines. When I witness a tragedy come forth in an anime, I feel a sensation of growing stronger or wiser. I sense that I understand more about people by seeing the different types of agony one can go through. It makes me able to sympathize with a lot more people. I like to be there for people I care about in times of celebration, but more importantly I take pride in comforting my friends in their times of depression. Knowing the many different angles and causes of sadness helps me relate to depressed people much easier. I am a firm believer in everyone getting a benefit of the doubt. If someone irritates me, I like to assume that my actions may have reminded them of something horrible from their past.

Darkness is not Evil

Stein’s Gate is very dark, yet represents very honorable qualities in every character.

I also find myself defending the true nature of dark anime alot. To many, they just associate it with being overly violent. Being grim does not necessarily mean having multitudes of gory moments. It’s doesn’t equal cranking up the violence and having the characters despise the world. A truly great dark anime simply makes you feel sentiments that are often on the negative scale regardless of how much shock value there is. Sadness, horror, shame and other negative emotions all harbor themselves in a dark anime and violence is often a part of it, but it’s not what keeps the engine running. It’s not the beating heart of a dark anime.

Others connect dark anime with evil tendencies, as if it’s a world where being evil is a virtuous quality. The relations between the two words are numerous, but there is a clear line that many overlook. I don’t consider all evil characters dark, in the same way that I don’t perceive all dark characters as evil. Darkness is fundamentally an absence of light. It’s not proactive in taking the light away, rather, it is a result of the lack of light. Typically, evil is a common result of darkness, but it’s not always the case. I enjoy dismal moodiness without too much care for evil characters. What I actually enjoy is the struggle of characters lost in the darkness that are on the brink of turning evil. It doesn’t really matter which way they end up, but I am completely enthralled by the complications and inner psychological struggles that eventually lead to the path of good or evil. I relate to struggle almost more than anything. I think it’s one of the most prominent constants in this world.  A character that deals with a dark past or setting is putting up a fight simply by existing, and I find that noble in a twisted way.

A Touch of Realism

Criminals doomed to a life of mediocrity revolt against successful college students in Psycho-Pass.

I am delighted with fantasy worlds and the sense of wonder and adventure they can stir up inside of me. However, I enjoy realistic qualities within those worlds, especially when it comes to characters. Characters are the bridge that lead me from my world to the world in the anime. There has to be something I can relate to, connect with, or understand in order to draw me in. In a slightly nihilistic view, I see the world as a pretty dark and violent place. When the setting of an anime isn’t portrayed in that sense, it does feel a little unrealistic. This doesn’t mean every anime universe should be stricken with complete desolation and chaos, it just means that a world with problems that are well realized comes off as a stroke of mastery in creating something realistic for me to connect with. That is why when a character suffers, they seem to humanize which, in turn, makes me interested in their persona even more.

Powerful Emotions

Tomoya recalling fond memories of his wife for his daughter in Clannad.

Simply put, I like powerful anime. I savor the moments that thrill me with adrenaline or shock me with surprise. Most of all, I cherish an anime that can make me cry.  To me, in a work of art, the portrayal of heavy hearted sorrow is much stronger than the visage of happiness. However, in real life, I do consider true bliss to be the strongest thing making this a difference of reality. I prefer to watch anime that makes me feel something, it doesn’t matter what. I prefer to take my emotions on a ride, and nothing is as drastic or heart pumping as when I finally start to get overwhelmed with emotion. It’s moments like that where I can reflect with myself and others because my mind is in a wild state of understanding.

Sad Moments can be Beautiful

Garden of Words has a brilliant art style that brings out all the raw emotion from the characters.

There’s a couple aesthetic qualities about sadness that really win over my adoration. One is the typical music you would hear during a heart breaking scene. It sounds very pleasant, even if it’s doleful. Once the strings start swelling or the piano starts echoing, I am utterly enraptured. I’m in a heightened sense of immersion that makes everything that happens exponentially more effective. When the music cues a mournful scene, and if it’s strong enough, then that particular moment will be deeper imprinted in my mind as a beautiful thing.

Memna saying goodbye to her friends after their journey in Ano Hana

The second trait of sorrowful moments I love are tears. My favorite artistic quality of anime characters are their hair and their eyes. The eyes in particular are the most expressive part of anime, and that’s something rather unique to anime in general. When you combine those gigantic colorful eyes with the sudden flow of tears, it actually constructs a very striking sight. Tears are, at the very least, visually interesting. When you think about it, it’s the most drastic change your body can inflict upon itself. You can’t suddenly change your hair or your skin tone. The only other things your body can do is get goosebumps, flex your muscles, or move your limbs, but none of these are quite as unique or emotional as when your eyes start to water, redden, and tear. It’s a subtle, yet evocative transformation that is endearing and stunning, despite it’s depressing origins.

The Most Effective Sadness

Iroh embracing Zuko abandoning all the problems they had with each other for the sake of love in Avatar.

There is a difference at the very base level between crying over a sad moment in an anime, and being broken hearted in real life. Tears that stem from a work of fiction have slightly different effects to me.  When I tear up over a moment in an anime and regain my composure I can immediately look back on it as a work of art. And whenever I observe a great work of art, even if it makes me depressed, it also makes me joyous. I love creativity. I adore the creative process. Whenever something creative finds it’s way to my heart, I can’t help but admire it at the same time.

So if I enjoy this melancholy, and am wondering why I do, then I have to figure out what kind of situation gets me down quickly or more often than anything else. It didn’t take me long to realize exactly what that is. It’s the simple concept of unexpected tears. Whenever strong characters who seem like they’ll never shed a tear, finally break down, it penetrates my heart faster than any other downcast occasion. Whether it’s for a cheerful reason or a despondent reason, when a character starts crying that’s been putting up a false bravado, I find myself staring wide-eyed at my screen, completely oblivious to things around me. It’s as if I’m watching a massive pillar crumble into a sorry pile of rubble. However, this is only accomplished if their reason for crying is also emotional and well written. If you just have your macho protagonist cry in a pathetic attempt to gain my pity, it doesn’t work that easily.

Sympathy

Kiritsugu murdered his own father as a kid for the greater good, yet innocent people are still dying, from Fate/Zero

So why do I like characters with horrific back stories? Is it because I enjoy hearing about people having traumatizing pasts? Hell no. However, in showing a character with a dark past or getting caught in a sad moment, you gain one very important thing that connects me to a character more than almost any other, and that is the wonderful feeling of sympathy. If you can make me feel sorry for a character’s grief-stricken situation, I will continue to be emotionally invested in that character just for their well-being. When a character falls from grace, I keep watching them in hopes that they’ll get back up. I love developing a bond with characters, because it’s what makes the anime come alive. If a character actually has me wishing for a better future for them in a completely fictional world, then that is a character that will keep me coming back to the anime time and time again.

Cliche Moments do not Work

There is a type of sadness that doesn’t affect me, however, and it never has. Melodrama and cliches are the two most common attempts to move a viewer, and the least successful. When something seems miserable simply for the sake of having a woeful moment, it actually just bothers me. The scenes will look similar at first glance, but the trick lies in the writing. You can tell when the anime makes a purpose or reason for a tragedy rather than just wanting to shove a despair-filled moment wherever they feel like. It’s an elegant craft to have a part of an anime have any emotional impact. It can be done unprofessionally which would fill me with too much annoyance to have room for anything else.

Another thought that has worried me for some time is if I am shutting myself off from being affected by the standard emotional scene. Is it ever going to get to the point where a character’s death simply doesn’t invoke my emotions anymore? Will I ever associate the world with darkness for so long that my eyes adjust and think it can be even darker? From what I’ve seen so far, the answer is fortunately a no. Sometimes, I’ll watch the same scene again months later and be more moved by it than the first time. Similarly, other times scenes that didn’t make me sorrowful the first time, actually did so the second time. Sadness has a difficult to trace foundation. It’s dependent on your mood when you watch the anime as well as your most recent thoughts about the characters or situations in the anime. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where a dispirited scene simply isn’t sad anymore, but if that happens, then I’ll definitely need to revisit this subject again.

Am I Sad and Dark?

Okabe succumbing to his torturous fate in Stein’s Gate.

Do I have depression or wield an under-appreciative view of humanity? Yes and no. My state of happiness is in a constant flux. I possess things that I am incredibly ecstatic about, yet I’m missing certain aspects that I deem as necessary to being satisfied if I were to die. I’m content right now, but when looking to the future, I wouldn’t be happy if I died today. I have too many dreams I plan on accomplishing in the future. Will I ever feel that life is finally sufficient enough and I can rest in peace? Maybe not.

Homura confessing her emotional destruction that she inflicted on herself trying to save Madoka in Madoka Magica.

On the other hand, I also wonder if I have a dark mind. Growing up, I was into gore, but I grew out of my fascination for it, yet I still enjoy shows that don’t hold back on their violence or maturity. Even so, that’s not what I enjoy the most about dark shows. What I truthfully enjoy is that the writing feels more alive when it’s from a moody point of view. I love poetry that attacks the world and statements that are forced out of people who suffer which seek to display the world for what they really view it as. It’s much more dignified than an author who portrays the world in a positive light that simply overlooks the darker traits of the world.

Is the World Sad and Dark?

Homura observing the world that literally disgusts her, and has ruined what she loves most in Madoka Magica.

I’ve met a lot of depressed people, or those who have a history of it. I’m partial to thinking that the world is inherently sad and that what really divides us is our desire and ambition to crawl out of this despair and make the best of it. From the moment we’re born, we’re ticking clocks counting down to our inescapable death. If we die instantly after being born, it’s not a happy death in any way. Therefore, I like to reason that we are born in complete sadness, symbolic to the fact that we enter the world bawling our heads off, and that everything we gain in our life is sought to increase our happiness from nothing to whatever we can manage to get our hands on.

I also think the world is rather dark purely based on what goes on in the world if you open your eyes. This world has a devastating shadow that looms across it’s entire surface. There are crimes that are so heinous that I can’t even fathom where these types of desires come from. But I’m a student of all human nature, including the violent and brutal human nature. As an intellectual, I am interested in what I can’t understand, particularly with psychological and emotional aspects. It’s easy to understand happiness and other positive things, but it takes either experience, or a well crafted dark story to understand the turmoil and despair that exists in this world as well, and I’ll take a story over experiencing it first hand if possible.

Despair and Delight

Lucy, on the brink of sadness, uses it as a means of inspiration rather than trepidation in Fairy Tail.

So now that we’ve observed essentially everything about my thoughts, reactions, and effects of sad anime. It’s time to get down to what makes a sad anime so enjoyable to me. What really makes a sad scene truly evocative and masterful to me is being skillfully placed amidst a range of other scenes that consist of different moods or tones. I am a huge fan of all-encompassing anime that have a healthy range of humor, darkness, sadness, and action. While I enjoy the desolate and heart-wrenching scenes the most, it’s because of their juxtaposition against the cheerful scenes or the action scenes that make them so astounding. All of these elements work together to increase every quality of the anime. Sorrow can give emotional weight to an otherwise meaningless fight while a disdainful setting can make the rare glimpse of delight seem all the more like a refreshing breath of fresh air.

Hope and Strength

Edward Elric is a tragic character who never loses grasp of what really matters in life, from Fullmetal Alchemist.

So then, it’s not really the horrific tragedies by themselves, is it? Additionally there is something even more important that ultimately helps me conclude why I enjoy this type of anime. That is the dual qualities of hope and strength. When a character hopelessly falls into an unbearably horrible position that comes close to tearing their heart into pieces, that is quite obviously a very depressing experience. It’s what happens after that, however, that decides if this is truly going to be the moment I’ve been waiting for. That is when the character, instead of laying down and dying, makes a desperate grasp for inspiration and becomes more motivated and stronger.

Seijirou realizing that even though he can’t see his lover’s spirit, he knows it’s still there in Mushishi

It’s not the simple act of having a bleak world with a cruel humanity. It’s having a character who harbors great qualities such as hope amidst a world full of nihilistic views. It’s having someone suffer a horrible loss only to see them saved by something graceful. It’s when Kiritsugu almost loses his last shred of humanity, only to turn into a dark pariah of world peace in Fate Zero. It’s when Envy finally realizes the true nature of her jealousy and takes her own life to assist the hero, her enemy, with his journey in Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. It’s when Tomoya finally realizes that he’s had a father there for him all along after suffering two terrible losses of life in Clannad. Hope shines brightest amongst or darkest moments and that glow is what I absolutely love. Without hope, the sadness is simply a negative force that exists only to expand the anime’s tone. Inversely, without sadness, hope is just a quality that’s not appreciated, nor does it have near as much weight to it.

The Whole Spectrum

Gon, who starts as the most inspiring and cheerful character, falls victim to the emotional weight of seeking revenge in Hunter X Hunter

When it comes down to it, the fact is that I prefer anime that can exemplify every emotion by having all of them work in tandem to reveal themselves in the strongest sense. Anime that only cover light topics or humor feel like they are only covering a small basis of the human spectrum of emotion. The same is true with purely dark anime, which stimulate me intellectually, but still don’t affect my emotions on a grand scale. My serious and logical demeanor keep me coming back to the serious anime, but that’s not my ultimate preference. It’s not just the fall of the hero, nor is it their rise. It’s when each and every moment can draw as much emotion out of me as possible. In order to do that, for myself in particular, it requires a moment of sadness, so that in the end I can better witness the majesty of everything great that this happiness was sacrificed for. It’s so that when my heart aches, it’s every beat thereafter can be felt a thousand times stronger. And when the anime stops, and I’m left with to dwell on the most saddening scenes, I can smile and take pride in the fact that if this utter depression or threatening world didn’t stop Edward Elric, Tomoya, Kiritsugu and countless other tortured characters, then it is sure as hell not going to stop me either.

Teppei, the wonderfully inspiring center for Seiren, declares his return despite his unfortunate accident in Kuroko’s Basketball.

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13 thoughts on “Why do I Love Sad and Dark Anime?

  1. For me, I think it all boils down to believability. Although I don’t have anything against happy endings, they have to be earned, which is not always the case. In fact, it’s pretty rare. I feel detached from fictional stories that are too far removed from how the real world works – not because of the genre (nothing whatsoever against fantasy!), but because character motivations are too clean and sad backstories feel just a little bit too constructed. Urobuchi is a favorite writer of mine not because his works are bloody and dark, but because he deconstructs his characters and doesn’t let them get away with platitudes or easy cop-outs. I’ve linked an article I wrote about that problem below if you’re interested.

  2. I prefer sad anime with themes that force you to think and not just tell you a moral and say “thats what the lesson is”. I don’t think its bad or anything, its just my personnel preference. What I love about anime is that it doesn’t hesitate to be serious and offers a great variety.

    • I totally agree. That neutral gray area, where the concept of right and wrong, sad or happy, or other attributes are left to the interpretation of the viewer, is a very strong factor in anime. I love how serious the anime industry takes it’s stories sometimes. They don’t let the fact that they are merely “animated” hold them back, in fact, they embrace it and use animation’s infinite possibilities to tell the most creative and ingenious stories out there.

  3. I think the principles work in a lot of media; comics, movies and novels too. The sad/dark stories tend to bear more weight, invoke more thought, help us empathize.

    I recently told a friend about Barefoot Gen: “The comic story of Hiroshima.” He was confused as to why anyone would want to chronicle the tragedy of Hiroshima in manga-form. But I believe manga is more accessible to many than, say, a history book. It helps us to view the characters as alive and deepen our empathy with them.

    • They do stretch across every medium. I think I chose anime because I’ve been exposed to a lot more of it. I watch a lot more anime than almost any other medium besides video games. But yes, totally. It’s that weight that I love experiencing. A lot of my friends don’t like depressing shows because they don’t like that “weight,” however, so I guess it’s not a universally good thing. That’s why I started thinking about this subject.

      I totally agree about that manga. I always wonder why anyone asks “why” when it comes to someone telling a story, or re-telling a story. Author’s write exactly what they want, and that’s how it should always be!

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