Anime has a well-earned reputation for stylized action and lighthearted moments. However, there are many entries that evoke a deep sense of melancholy and loss.

Transformers: The Movie traumatized a generation of young viewers raised on the animated weekday adventures of the robots in disguise. Kids accustomed to the consequence-free rivalry between the Autobots and the Decepticons suddenly were confronted with the big-screen slaughter of Optimus Prime and his allies. For many, the 1986 film served as a gateway to more mature content found in the mainstream anime that had migrated from Japan to the United States. However, the emotional gut-punch of the death of Optimus Prime pales in comparison to some of the saddest anime.

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Here are just some of the most profoundly devastating anime in the history of the medium.

Robotech to the Emotional Depths of Sad Anime

Roy Fokker in Robotech
Roy Fokker in Robotech

A year before the release of Transformers: The Movie, fighter pilot Roy Fokker died a heroic death in Robotech, the anime series created for U.S. release by stitching together five Japanese shows.

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However, Roy was a supporting character. And, although his loss in the episode “Farewell, Big Brother,” was more visceral, it was also less resonant. Robotech nevertheless established for its young audience that anime took greater risks than American animated series, which at the time were largely used to market toys.

Lynn Minmei was introduced as protagonist Rick Hunter’s love interest. However, despite how much the series devotes to their implicit courtship, the two are not destined to be together. The space opera is encased in layers of uncertainty, eschewing convention with rigid discipline, resulting in greater nuance and unexpected emotional reactions. In the tradition of the best, and saddest, anime, Robotech invited viewers into the minds of its characters by incorporating inner-dialogue into the narrative.

The series never flinched in its depictions of war, and often framed its pursuit in allegorical terms full of dissident iconoclasts and a duty-sworn military apparatus. The potential loss of civilization loomed large in Robotech, at a time when nuclear destruction was a very real fear.

Berserk is one of the saddest anime, with the most heartbreaking betrayal

Today, Berserk exists in multiple iterations, all based on Kentaro Miura’s renowned dark-fantasy manga. Debuting in 1997, the original anime consisted of 25 episodes, 23 of which followed the exploits of mercenaries known as the Band of the Hawk. The main character, Guts, was a sword for hire who drifted from one battle to the next, devoid of any nurtured aspirations. The band’s leader, Griffith, eventually evaluates Guts’ battle prowess, and he’s brought into their service. This somewhat-involuntary initiation resolves over the course of their collaboration into true respect and friendship.

After many decisive victories, the Band acquits itself as a significant force in the regional political landscape. Guided by the tactical brilliance of Griffith’s second-in-command, Casca, the Band is loyal to their leader — to the point of zealotry. However, Griffith’s ambitions and momentary lapse of judgment brand them as outlaws, which results in his capture and subsequent torture. Griffith is little more than a tongueless husk when the Band rescues him a year later. Still, the mercenaries swear to fight in his name, and protect him with their lives.

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A quartet of powerful demons selects Griffith to become its fifth member, but only if he sacrifices his loved ones. He not only accepts their offer, he also assaults Casca while Guts is forced to watch. Guts loses an eye and a forearm in the struggle but is unable to stop his former leader. The series ends with Guts vowing revenge and setting off into the wild to exact his penance. As brutal as the dismemberment of the Band of the Hawk is, Casca’s assault is stomach-churning.

Guts saved Griffith from unending torment only moments earlier. And now he’s repaid for his loyalty with unspeakable atrocities. The shift takes place over the final two episodes, and nothing in Berserk to that point suggested that Griffith was capable of such treachery. Granted, Griffith always made clear he would let nothing stand in the way of his desires. But this evil moment is beyond anything the audience was prepared for. It remains one of the most reprehensible acts in fiction.

Basilisk Is Romeo & Juliet Meets Hunger Games, Only Sadder

Basilisk becomes an anime sadder that Romeo & Juliet and The Hunger Games, combined

A centuries-long feud between two ninja clans, the Iga and the Kouga, ends in Basilisk only after they’re forced into an uneasy truce beneath the shogun’s banner. But when a succession dispute ignites between his two grandsons, the old shogun tries to impose stability by arbitrarily assigning a clan to each of them. The last clan standing will determine who seizes the mantle of leadership.

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Gennosuke and Oboro, the chiefs of the Iga and Kouga, respectively, are engaged to one another. Their connection represents hope that centuries of animosity can be set aside. However, the competition between 10 of the best ninja from each family goes on without their knowledge. That is, until the mounting body count becomes impossible to ignore. Once Gennosuke and Oboro become aware, they must go along with the contest, or else risk the futures of their clans.

Basilisk unveils its merciless format in the first episode as, one by one, each of the primary characters is slaughtered in combat. Finally, only Gennsuke and Oboro remain. In honor of their love for one another, they refuse to fight. However, Oboro won’t doom what remains of her clan. She turns her blade on herself to spare Gennsuke from making a similar decision. He, in turn, commits suicide so might reunite with his true love, in a realm far from war.

Fullmetal Alchemist Is the Saddest Family Drama of All Time

Fullmetal Alchemist
Fullmetal Alchemist

Edward and Alphonse Elric are two brothers who lose their mother to illness. In the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy is an established scientific discipline with concrete rules that revolve around the principle of equivalent exchange. This maxim is both a narrative engine and a thematic cornerstone of the series. The two young prodigies use their academic understanding to attempt a forbidden rite, human transmutation, in an effort to resurrect their mother.

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The botched experiment consumes Alphonse’s body, as well as Edward’s left leg. Edward sacrifices his right arm in the process, to attach his brother’s soul to an empty suit of armor. Edward is so guilt-stricken that he spends the rest of the series attempting to recover Alphonse’s lost body.

Sacrifice, and the power it represents, are central to Fullmetal Alchemist‘s themes. Children are abandoned in pursuit of technological advancement, and genocide is a tool of indigenous vengeance. Every action is balanced by counterweight of repercussions that ripple throughout the series. The Elric brothers find a measure of redemption and healing through their good works and passionate pursuit of the truth.

Grave of the Fireflies May Be the Saddest Movie of All Time

Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies

Unlike the other entries on this list of saddest anime, Grave of the Fireflies is a film instead of a series. Nevertheless, it crafts more heartache in its 89 minutes than all of the other titles combined. The movie is based on the childhood of Akiyuki Nosaka, an artist and politician who lived through World War II. His short story of the same name inspired the cinematic adaptation, written and directed by Isao Takahata, with some notable distinctions.

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Grave of the Fireflies begins with the narrator, a boy named Seita, describing the date of his death. The audience watches his emaciated form, leaning on a pillar of a railway platform. The entire film is a flashback to how he wound up alone and discarded in a train station during the final days of the war. With his father serving in the Japan’s navy, Seita must care for his ailing mother and 4-year-old sister, Setsuko. His mother then dies in an air raid, ieaving Seita to watch after his sister.

They travel to the home of their aunt, who’s resentful of their presence and objectively cruel. Seita discovers a pair of man-made caves nearby, and convinces himself he can provide Setsuko with everything she needs. The two children set out for an adventure that reveals itself to be an exercise in misplaced hubris. Setsuko’s bright energy is animated with all of the authenticity and innocence inherent to a toddler. Grave of the Fireflies never blinks as it examines her dimming buoyancy under the rigors of starvation. Seita is willing to do anything to keep his sister alive, but neither his thieving from local farmers nor the burglary of their neighbors during frequent aerial bombings is enough to support them.

Sestuko’s subsequent death is all the more tragic because it’s wholly unavoidable. They spend their nights in laughter among the fireflies. However, Seita never confronts the hard truth: He could have gone back to his aunt’s home at any time. The children’s decay is marked by triumphs among hardships, and an incredible devotion shared in their suffering. Watching them succumb to the quiet horrors of war is more shocking than the whistling bombs that serve as the dirge of their short lives.


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