Which Anime Made You Cry?by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
A few weeks back we ran an interest piece on a survey of adult Japanese anime fans about anime that made them cry. That got us thinking – which anime, in the long history of our team of critics, have managed to get the waterworks flowing? Anime as a medium has moments of soaring emotion and deep sadness, and the personal connection people have with the stories anime tells all but guarantees you're going to start tearing up at some point. We polled our team of critics to find out which moments from anime got them to start sniffling, with one rule: no Grave of the Fireflies. That's like cheating!
What we really want, though, is to hear from you! Once you've perused our staff picks, we'd like to know which anime made you cry. Head on over to the forums and spill it!
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the ending of Revolutionary Girl Utena, Silver Spoon season 1, Madoka Magica, Wolf Children, Wolf's Rain, Sunday Without God, Mahoromatic, Trigun, and Clannad: After Story
You should watch Revolutionary Girl Utena twice. The first time, you experience the story as it appears at first glance – the heroic Utena Tenjou encounters a parade of problem children employed by the dark embodiment of her own princely aspirations. It's almost too easy to accept Anthy Himemiya's role as the Rose Bride, the passive source of Utena's power and the reason the duelists pursue her, at face value. She fades into the background so well, speaking only in terse agreement and hiding behind her shining spectacles. But that's all undone in the show's conclusion, where she's revealed as a duplicitous figure who adopted this posture to manipulate others. It's a shocking moment that calls into question all of Anthy's previous actions. Utena is left for dead, and Anthy clutches a bloodied blade while her master watches over the entire scene, vindicated. But at the last moment, Anthy decides that she values her relationship with this girl over her gilded cage. She abandons her master and sets out on her own, leaving him powerless. Even though the anime is named after Utena, it turns out to have been about Anthy's journey towards freedom.
On second viewing, the show is more about how Anthy expresses herself. It reveals her as a figure with complex agency, varied emotions, and a barely-suppressed yet cavernous sense of anguish. Knowing the conclusion ahead of time, Anthy's story becomes a tragedy about a woman whose suffering and victimization drive her to become complicit in a destructive system. Her relationship with Utena begins as concealed malice, develops into pity, and eventually blossoms into genuine love, liberating Anthy from the toxic emotional patterns that had consumed her life. It's not so much that Utena "rescues" Anthy, simply replacing her brother as a superior storybook prince for the princess. Rather, Utena's inspiration leads to Anthy saving herself. The show ends on Anthy alone, walking away from her abuser on her own two feet, triumphant and happy. The tragedy blooms into a victory for an individual who survives to extricate herself from the most dire circumstances.
Anthy's journey is by far the most emotional I get thinking about anime. It's a bittersweet transformation. In the beginning, I feel sorrow over her situation – she's a person totally suppressed, betrayed by her own good intentions, and turned into a willing tool by the very agents of her suffering. But by the end, that's all been turned around. She liberates herself, setting out on a path that isn't dominated by the oppressive societal structures that otherwise hung over the show. Anthy moves from a position as a reprehensible character (the evil child-killing witch of folklore) redeems herself, and achieves the opportunity to become a healthy, happy person.
There are many anime that make me feel deeply, but when I'm at my lowest, I think about Anthy and feel consoled. Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those works I love to the point where I feel that it makes up a part of my soul, and that's for Anthy.
Few opening and ending sequences so tenderly feature a character who is doomed to be killed and eaten by the other characters, but that's Pork Bowl in a nutshell. From wriggly piglet to roly-poly porker with loyal, affectionate eyes, Pork Bowl makes more of an impression on viewers than any livestock should. Armed with a name and a friendly personality, it's impossible to see him only as the primary ingredient in bacon, pork, or ham.
Silver Spoon places an uncomfortable focus on a topic most of us would rather not ever consider—that a large portion of our diet is made up of living things. By treating the short life and death of Pork Bowl as a eulogy, Silver Spoon reminds us of the consequences of our decision to eat meat, but also that it's OK to be conflicted about that.
Growing up, I used to horrify my little sisters by referring to our dinner as its former name. “Would you please pass the bull,” I might say. “This is good pig.” But even then, I never considered the trusting, pet-like innocence of livestock until watching Silver Spoon. For most of us, it's unpalatable to consider that a majority of the human race is made up of carnivores, and those voiceless, packaged slabs of meat at the supermarket aren't going to remind us otherwise. Only a few people—the shrinking global population of farmers—constantly have to face the grisly truth. While many of his classmates are numb to the process, Hachiken, who comes from the big city of Sapporo, compels everyone to consider it anew. When he sees the tiny runt of the piglet litter, it's no different to him than any other helpless animal, so he feels compelled to nurture it, give it a name, and to work harder than he ever has to give Pork Bowl a fighting chance. This city boy's first brush with the mortality of livestock makes a huge impact on those around him. “If I can't eat pork anymore, you'll have to take responsibility!” his friend fumes.
But don't get sentimental just yet. Hachiken isn't taking care of Pork Bowl to help him evade the slaughterhouse—his fate is already sealed. Instead, Hachiken is working hard to make sure Pork Bowl will be meaty enough for human consumption, instead of just discarded. Even more bittersweet is Hachiken's decision to purchase, prepare, and serve Pork Bowl himself. To city-dwelling supermarket shoppers, Hachiken's work might be no different than if he were planting corn, harvesting it, and preparing it for the table. But for characters and viewers who have known sweet little Pork Bowl, it's a little more complicated. “Why does it have to taste so good?” Hachiken moans, considering Pork Bowl's smiling snout and pure adoration of his caretaker. Eating Pork Bowl (in pork bowl form, no less) is not a criticism of meat-eating, but a reminder of the hard work and sacrifice that has to take place for us to get fed.
I am so used to stories like Charlotte's Web, where the pig escapes his fate because it's too painful to imagine otherwise. Pork Bowl's transition from cuddly companion to main course is a tearful one, but also a story that teaches us to be grateful, not only to the animals who give their lives so we can live, but to the farmers who have had to harden themselves to prepare them.
I didn't used to be a guy that cried at TV shows, or movies, or much of anything really. I didn't think this was a sign of “strength” - crying feels satisfying and cathartic and honest, it just wasn't something my body tended to do. But whether I've gotten more in touch with my emotions or just become more of a softy or whatever, the last few years have for some reason included “learning to cry” among their life lessons, and Madoka Magica is probably the best example of this, because it was there for every stage of the process.
I first watched Madoka Magica when I was getting back into anime after some time off, in 2012. I watched it in a couple weeks, and I was very formally impressed by it, but I didn't exactly think it was a show “for me.” The characters felt a little too distant, and though its story came together well, it didn't move me. But the show stuck with me, and I just kept thinking about its sad, triumphant character journeys, so when I rewatched the show to introduce it to friends, it hit harder. It helps that Madoka is a show that deeply rewards rewatching; character arcs like Homura's and Kyouko's only really make sense in retrospect, once you have the full context of their stories. Sequences that come off as ominous in the first run, like Homura's early behavior towards Madoka, are now revealed as tragic inevitability - and Kyouko shifts from an antagonist to one more person trying to help others avoid her fate. I got pretty stuffed up when I rewatched Madoka, but I didn't cry.
Then I saw the whole story again, in theaters, for the film releases. A friend asked me beforehand who my favorite character was, and I realized as I thought about it that it was Kyouko. Madoka's the beacon of hope in the series, and Homura is the secret protagonist, but it's Kyouko's journey that I found most poignant and beautiful. Everything Sayaka eventually suffers, Kyouko went through before - though we never see much of Kyouko's past, her every trial is clear in what she tries to prevent Sayaka from becoming. When the films finally returned to that climactic moment, as Kyouko stands in the flames and whispers “I know. You didn't want to be alone anymore” to herself as much as Oktavia, I cried. That moment felt like true understanding and sacrifice. That was the individual connection in the face of tragedy that every scene of that series rallies for. That's the human heart, right there.
Yeah, I cried. It feels good to cry - it's a sign of really connecting with what a character is feeling or saying, and that's about the best thing you can hope for from show. Madoka helped me find that, and that's one of the many reasons I love that show.
While there are plenty of ways to draw strong emotions out of an audience, I have a personal weakness for scenes that change a character's world in a way that they don't feel prepared to deal with. That intimate, unguarded moment when life forces someone to move on or take a step forward can be very powerful, and Wolf Children manages to pull off that sensation more than once during its two-hour runtime.
For me, the first big hit comes with the death of the wolf man early on in the film. Killing off a likable character is one of the most common ways to squeeze teardrops out of a viewer's eyes, but it's the understated way in which the scene is presented that gets to me. We don't see the death happen, and there are no teary-eyed close-ups when Hana finds the body being fished out of a river by the crew of a garbage truck. Even the sound is distant, with the rain coming through louder than the characters’ voices. We get the sense that the wolf man's death is completely insignificant to the world at large, which makes Hana's isolation in the task of raising her children feel even more daunting. However, it's the scene after this one that really hits home: a somber Hana taking the wolf man's driving license out of his wallet, propping it up as a kind of makeshift portrait, and vowing that she'll take care of the kids. She's clearly unsure of how she'll manage to get by, and there's something powerful in the contrast between her shaky confidence and the certainty of her promise.
The movie's other tear-jerking moment comes near the end, and to me it's the more powerful of the two. For most of the film, we watch as Ame and Yuki try to figure out who (and what) they want to be while Hana works to give them the chance to do just that. Ame eventually chooses to follow the path dictated by his wild wolf side, and it's their parting of ways that ultimately hit me harder than any other scene in the movie. Hana laments that she still hasn't been able to do anything for Ame, which the audience knows is wrong.
After all, we've just spent two hours watching Hana dedicate herself to taking care of Ame and Yuki. To think that she still doesn't feel like she's done enough is more I can take, and this scene makes salty waterfalls stream down my face every time I watch it. It ends on a triumphant note though, with Ame showing just how much he's grown over the years. Whether Hana realizes it or not, she's already succeeded in fulfilling her promise and the time has come for everyone to start new chapters in their lives. Instead of moving on from the death of a family member, they're taking a step forward into their own futures. It's a small and subtle change, but it works like a charm.
Sure, choosing Wolf's Rain for a list of biggest anime tear-jerkers seems a little too obvious at first blush. The show's notoriously brutal finale plays out over four episodes and dwells at length on the tragic deaths of every single member of its cast, which includes five lovable wolves, three lovable humans, and one lovable flower-creature. (You might also throw in a couple tears for the villain if Darcia's tragic tale gave you any sympathy for the devil.) But Wolf's Rain didn't turn me into a big blubbering baby because of the more typical cheap shock value or random cruelty that might accompany a fantasy apocalypse. What struck me instead was the contrast between its world's frosty detached atmosphere and the tenderness and warmth it allowed all its characters, even in death.
From Cher's abrupt plummet down a crumbling cliffside to Kiba's lonesome trudge to a paradise just out of his reach, none of these last moments are fair to these characters, but they're all meaningful as capstones to their lives. At the beginning, all their journeys were lonely and full of sorrow, but by the end, they've found love and acceptance in one another, which is incredibly powerful even in the smallest degrees. Cher and Hubb repair their marriage by finally connecting as equals. Quent and Hige are finally able to forgive themselves through the unconditional love of Toboe and Blue. Tsume and Kiba let go of their own pride and insecurity to support others above themselves. All of these things happen at the very end of their lives, but it still gives them an eternal sense of peace in place of their rapidly dying dream of paradise. The show insists that no good thing can last forever, but even if your happiness only comes in the twilight of a life filled with mistakes, the incredible change it brings to your heart is more valuable than any "unchanging" ideal.
But real talk, there weren't any pretty words for the experience when I first watched the show. When Cher became the first casualty and I realized she wouldn't be the last, I bawled so hard that I actually got into the shower to hide my big loud shameful boo-hoos from the rest of my family. (Yes, exactly like Tobias in Arrested Development.) The remaining three episodes were just a series of pause-button-and-purge for my eye sockets, from Tsume confessing his feelings to Toboe post-mortem to Hige comforting Blue as she drifted away and don't even get me started on that epilogue. Wolf's Rain was brutal, but it was also beautiful, and I find myself relating to new emotions and experiences alongside its wonderful cast every time I put myself through its tale again.
It isn't all that hard to make me tear up – but it is more difficult to make me truly cry. So while I've shed a tear or two watching everything from Tamayura: Hitotose to The Seven Deadly Sins, there's only one show that I can think of that had me a bawling mess with puffy eyes and a stuffy nose the next day: Sunday Without God, or, as we call it in my house, The Show Which We Shall Never Speak of Again. While I knew from the first episode that this was likely to be a melancholy series, I did not expect it to hit me so hard in not one, but two different story arcs.
Given the premise of the story – that God has abandoned the world and therefore no one is able to die unless laid to rest by a Gravekeeper – it isn't a stretch that it would be sad, especially since the heroine of the story is a Gravekeeper herself, which means she will continually meet people only to say goodbye. That begs the question as to what actually makes death sad – is it the loss itself, or is it something else? That's too philosophical to really get into here, but often it is the moments we will no longer be able to share with the deceased which truly causes us pain.
That feels true for what makes Sunday Without God so heartwrenching – Ai may get one day with her father as her father, but then she will never get to do that again. The endless day that traps the students must end with the acknowledgment of a death that will cause that day, and those day-to-day activities, to say nothing of a person, to vanish forever. Yes there are memories, but memory fades and becomes unfaithful to the reality of events, as the school arc proves. As Terry Pratchett said, the town you just drove through is still there in the rear-view mirror, but it gets less distinct the farther away you go. Sunday Without God acknowledges those losses in a strangely gentle way, encouraging you to see the sorrow in a manner that's more effective than any tortured symbolism. The story gets you to think about loss, sorrow, and the weight of memories. It almost encourages you to explore sadness without being aware of the fact that the screen is blurry because of your tears.
Watching Ai lay her father to rest reminded me that no matter how long I wait, there are some voices I will never hear again.
For me, the answer is obvious: Mahoromatic – Automatic Maiden episode 12: “At The Scenery I Dreamed One Day”.
Emotional anime content doesn't always come from the usual suspects. A prime example is the finale of this first series about an elite female combat android who, upon retirement, chooses to live out her remaining operational time serving as the live-in maid for a middle school boy. Although this mostly results in the expected nudity-laced semi-harem comedy antics, there is often an underlying sadness to the content (e.g., each episode concludes by counting down her remaining days) and the premise is less frivolous than it seems: she chose Suguru because his father had been collateral damage on one of her missions, but what started out as penance results in a surrogate family situation. Unfortunately an old enemy who cannot let past conflicts go won't leave her alone. That leads to a final showdown, one which she is losing badly until Suguru intervenes. Suguru being endangered as a result forces her to draw out her ultimate weapon, which she hadn't wanted to use because the net result would be the same: it would shorten her remaining lifespan and leave her unable to remain with Suguru.
A hero/heroine who must burn themselves out to protect a loved one is a common storytelling trope, but this is one of the very rare cases where it has consistently brought me to tears. Crucial to this impact are an expertly-used musical score and the careful, deliberate way the series sets up the circumstances and characterizations leading to this point; this is no cheaply-earned manipulation. However, another key to the scene's full impact is the way that it also completes humanizing the enemy android Ryuga: he was so overwrought with warrior's pride that he had blinded himself to there being other measures of a warrior's mettle. Realizing that he had ingloriously forced Mahoro into a no-win situation just to assuage his pride opened his eyes. Relenting right before the final blows were struck allowed him to acknowledge his difficult lesson learned. For a triple-whammy, a gentle and lovely song plays in the background as Mahoro flies home afterwards with Suguru, tears streaming into the night sky as she promises to always stay with him, a promise that she knows she can't keep for long. It is a beautiful, achingly touching moment which caps what is, for me, one of anime's most moving half-episodes.
It's hard for anime to make me cry. I've watched a lot of weepies--Wolf's Rain, both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist, Madoka Magica--but my eyes somehow remained dry. It was my favorite character in Trigun, Nicholas D. Wolfwood, who finally broke me. I knew it was coming (I usually spoil myself on plot twists ahead of time) but that didn't matter, because it was all about the presentation. Especially toward the end of its run, Trigun was good at making a lot out of its limited budget and animation, and the same is true for Wolfwood's death sequence. It's mostly just his face, a montage of his fantasies, and visions of the other characters, but with his voiceover and the music (his sad, folksy leitmotif "Rakuen") it's devastating.
I think Wolfwood's reaction to his own death was what made this the saddest for me. It's common in fiction for heroic characters (including anti-heroes facing redemption, like Wolfwood) to greet death with serenity. We treat their acceptance of fate as a sign of their virtue and wisdom. Wolfwood tries to do this at first, but at the last moment, he falters. When he thinks of how he wants to be reincarnated into a paradise with his friends, he realizes he'd rather spend time with them here first. This makes him determined to live. Right as he screams "I do not want to die this way!" his body finally gives up, falling limp. The audience shares this frustration with him: We've only just learned who Wolfwood really is, and he's been given a chance for redemption. Of course, it's that redemption that dooms him. He rages against the dying of the light, but that doesn't stop it.
His reaction might not be common in fiction, but it seems very real. I can't imagine many people robbed of their life so young, and right on the crux of a new beginning, would die happily. It emphasizes Wolfwood's humanity and imperfection (in contrast to Vash), and it gives him a stronger connection to the audience, making it unusually tragic. The scene wrings maximum emotion out of us, because even knowing that he died doing what was right, he's still not ready, just like we wouldn't be. So when Wolfwood's death came, with "Rakuen" ending on an unresolved chord, I was blubbering right along with Milly.
When you start watching Clannad, it feels like little more than a sleepy slice of life romance series. Not that that's a bad thing if you enjoy those types of shows, as I do. The source material's influence can certainly be felt throughout, as Tomoya Okazaki encounters and helps numerous girls at his high school, all of whom are presented as potential romantic partners. Like Kyoto Animation's previous adaptations of Key visual novels, the show's tone is largely humorous, sometimes even fluffy, with each arc featuring a little bit of heartache to balance out the silliness. Still, the premiere season is nothing outside the realm of the typical (slightly supernatural) high school romance.
The established formula is quickly shaken up in the sequel series (Clannad: After Story), which finds most of the main characters graduating from high school midway through the season. Whereas many shows centered on high school students end after graduation, Clannad: After Story keeps the camera rolling well into its protagonists’ young adult years. Tomoya makes his choice—sickly but perpetually upbeat Nagisa Furukawa—and finds the familial bond he's always wanted with her and her lovable quirky parents. There's something bittersweet about these high school characters growing up, and their individual struggles to find their way in the world are relatable. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when Nagisa becomes pregnant. Having a child seems like a dream come true for the couple, but her weak body can't handle the pregnancy. Although Nagisa never once regrets carrying the baby to term, Tomoya is devastated when he becomes a single parent to his daughter, Ushio.
While Nagisa's passing is incredibly sad—and a dark moment later when Ushio is only five years old makes it even sadder—it's the moments between these two devastating events that made me cry on more than one occasion. Despite Tomoya's disdain for his alcoholic, abusive widowed father, he isn't a much better parent to his little girl. After entrusting Ushio to his in-laws, Tomoya makes very few attempts to see or contact her. Even though she loves her grandparents dearly, Ushio still longs for her father's affections. However, every time Tomoya looks at his daughter, he sees the woman he lost, which causes him to act out. (This does lead him to understand his father better, although their relationship will always be damaged.) He never properly bonds with her and falls into a spiraling depression, causing little Ushio pain almost every time they meet. He doesn't understand the importance of loving his daughter until it's too late. (Or is it?) Melodramatic though it was, the emotional pain Ushio and Tomoya experience is what moved me the most while watching this celebrated series.
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