What's The Best (And Worst) Anime Ending You've Ever Seen?by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
It's a simple question with a deceptively difficult answer: what's the single best anime ending you've ever seen, and which one is the worst? A good ending can redeem an otherwise mediocre show, or bring something that's soaring to new creative heights crashing down to earth. We asked our team of critics what the best (and the worst) anime ending they've ever seen was, but we're dying to hear from you! Once you've perused our critics' picks, head on over to the forums and let us know which anime endings impacted you the most (and don't forget to tell us the worst one you've ever seen!)
Jacob Hope Chapman
BEST: Cowboy Bebop
I promise I'm not trying to be the amazing walking and talking human cliché every time we do one of these staff editorials, but no matter how well known it may be, sometimes I just have to gush about perfection when I see it. I've seen the ending to Cowboy Bebop dozens of times now, and I love it just as much as ever today. It's not so much that Bebop has a "perfect" ending, but more that it does such a great job of convincing the audience that it "had to happen" despite all evidence to the contrary.
Bebop's finale isn't just a sobering tragic end for its poor noir hero, it also puts every one of his past adventures into new perspective. Much like the Blue Crow bar the gang is drawn toward throughout the Jupiter Jazz episodes, Bebop's world is a cold place warmed by momentary "sessions" of different sounds and styles from a lonely band. In a jazz bar, this band would be made up of the performers that gather to play together before parting at the end of the night. For the crew of the Bebop, every episode is a new song in their own fleeting set list, counting down to the end of the night when they must all say goodbye. This parallel leaps out even more through the name of the bar itself: the color blue and the crow are heavily tied to Spike's character, as emblems of longing (blue) and death (the crow) that hang around waiting for him to wake up and face the terrible consequences of his past. While Spike has always been apathetically suicidal (leading his friends to think he's cool and careless with no fear at all which couldn't be further from the truth), the longing and death that haunts him eventually turn into a longing for death itself.
In the events before the series began, when Spike decided to sacrifice his entire life to run away with Julia, but she chose to stay behind so he wouldn't be killed, a strange paradox was created. Julia intended to give Spike his life back, but just running away without any closure left him feeling like he had nothing left to live for. The odd sequence of "easy come easy go" vignettes that follows for Spike's makeshift family of Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein, encompassing all sorts of tones, genres, and little endings both happy and sad, only equal out to zero in his own eyes. (One of his eyes is literally stuck in the past, since it was shot out during his escape from the syndicate and replaced with a hollow fake that gives him nightmarish flashbacks.) At the start of each new episode, whether he made off with a fortune or barely escaped death last time, Spike always starts off in the same place: unable to care if he lives or dies because he's completely unable to connect with Jet and Faye without thinking of Vicious and Julia instead. It's as if one song in the session has ended and another has begun, but the sunrise on the last day of his life still waits as always, just outside the jazz bar of the Bebop.
So when Spike tells Faye he has to die at the end of the series in order to feel alive again, he's telling the truth. In his own mind, starting over again seems impossible. He was already too obsessed with his own past to see any way forward, but now that he's found Julia and lost her all over again, he's even more determined to fall backwards into death and accept what he thinks he deserves. His "blue" is finally gone, and all that remains is to face the "crow." Of course Spike is making the "wrong" decision from a practical perspective, but Cowboy Bebop has never argued otherwise. Spike's actual reality never mattered, no matter how much it changed for better or for worse. The prison of his own subjective reality is what determines his fate, and we believe in it too because we've seen every new opportunity pass him by like just another dream, episode after episode after episode.
We do, however, get a glimmer of hope through Faye's reaction to Spike's decision. She was stuck in his same rut and headed down his same path, until she was forced to confront the dead-end emptiness of trying to return to her own past. She can't stop Spike, but she can learn from his mistakes and decide to start forging her own future outside of the dream, even if it means waking up into a world without him. Through its focus on dual natures and outcomes, Cowboy Bebop both embraces the fatalism of its chosen genre (film noir) while offering the opposite perspective (the different genres of each episodic session that show the happier futures of characters who chose to brave the unknown). Spike "had" to die because he believed it so strongly and the entire series was built around ephemeral episodes he was never meant to stay in for long. At the same time, Faye's parting monologue makes it clear that emotions and assumptions are powerful forces that divide us and create these fatalistic narratives of what "had to happen" in our own lives, when the world is filled with so many more possibilities.
"The past is the past and the future is the future. A man is a man and a woman is a woman. The present is the present. I am who I am and you are who you are. That's all there is to it. Does it really matter? Or do we just think it does?"
It's so rare and difficult to create a piece of fiction that uses its entire structure as an argument for its own ideas, but Cowboy Bebop pulls off this brilliant and challenging conceit inside a mainstream action adventure that all audiences can enjoy. Cowboy Bebop sculpts a "perfect" ending, sneaks in an argument about its own imperfection, and never stops being awesome along the way. That's what makes it a timeless classic.
WORST: Master of Martial Hearts
It's hard for something to earn the booby prize of "worst ending" when it was never any good to begin with. To be disappointed by something, wouldn't you have to be impressed by it first, even if only a little bit? Well, Master of Martial Hearts forced me to consider the following: if you're already watching something that feels like the bottom of the barrel and then the bottom falls right out, have you not reached unfathomable new lows? I'm now a firm believer in endings so bad they can make a worthless show worse.
Master of Martial Hearts should be just another clothes-exploding Battle Vixens fanservice anime. At a measly five episodes, it doesn't have the runtime needed to become anything else. Barely animated teenage girls in various types of fetish costumes will kick and punch each other in pursuit of some goal (in this case the "Martial Heart," a magic wish-granting artifact macguffin), the heroine will eventually win it, everyone will learn a valuable lesson about friendship and teamwork while shaking their nipples around, The End. Simple, right? Well, the creative team over at Studio Arms decided this entry in the genre needed a shocking twist to just curdle the milk in everyone's perfectly forgettable Cheerios. What results is madness.
As its insane leap from one-line fanservice episode descriptions on Wikipedia to a horrifyingly long wad of snuff description for episode five might tell you, the already-bad Master of Martial Hearts somehow jumps the shark on a rocketship and blasts straight through the moon. There is no Martial Heart. Every single one of the heroine's friends are really bitter enemies who created this entire plot to ruin her. All the opponents she's faced in the past were good people with sympathetic reasons for fighting who have now been reduced to braindead babbling sex slaves. Something about evil clones of her love interest. Something about intergenerational feuds. Then everything goes up in flames and the heroine, irreversibly corrupted by all this tragedy, marches off to torture yet another traumatized woman in a cut-to-black Sopranos ending.
If the writers were out to shock their audience, they definitely succeeded, but I'm at a total loss as to what they thought anyone would get out of this incredibly dark turn besides a feeling of sick betrayal. This was an OVA: you were only going to see this ending if you had already paid for their product, and anyone who purchased Master of Martial Hearts was just looking for a little low-rent fists n' fanservice satisfaction. Forget the curdled milk example from earlier, this is more like eating that bowl of Cheerios and finding out at the end that someone had peed in it after eating their own big bowl of asparagus. Master of Martial Hearts: a box of stale cereal with a baaaad prize at the bottom.
Best: Neon Genesis Evangelion
Storytelling often comes down to a creator's mastery of tension and release. Can a story get an audience invested, to the point where they're right there with the characters, feeling the slow boil of their emotions. Can that investment be maintained through rising tension, as the situation shifts and the audience gains a greater understanding of the world and characters. Can the various fragments of investment all come together in a graceful way, such that the audience feels a finale is exactly as climactic as it's supposed to be. And finally, can the story reward that investment, offering an ending that seems not just satisfying, but like the only way that story could truly end.
Neon Genesis Evangelion passes all of those initial tests with flying colors. Ostensibly a story about strange creatures known as angels that must be held off with giant robots, it's really a story about depression and human connection, and about the impossibility of truly understanding another person. Shinji Ikari fights the angels because it's the only way he thinks he can make people value him - Asuka Langley Soryu fights the angels because it's the only way she can value herself. The two are thrown together through circumstance, and don't make for easy housemates; while each of them clearly wants the other to validate them in some way, they're each too broken and insecure to be able to connect with the other.
In Evangelion's original ending, any hope of actual dramatic catharsis was dashed by the last two episodes, which instead directly interrogated the character psychologies the entire series had been establishing. It was a bold choice, but not necessarily a dramatically satisfying one - but in the film End of Evangelion, those emotions were finally framed in the climactic terms they deserved. In a sequence that seemed something like a communal nightmare, Asuka tore into Shinji across their apartment, demanding he react, demanding he acknowledge her humanity. And Shinji, unable to connect with anyone in any sort of healthy way, lashed back in turn - grabbing her throat, he raised her up above himself, choking the person he wanted to reach as piano keys signaled the end of the world. That moment of violence in pursuit of connection is the most cathartic single image I've seen in any medium, a tragedy in pursuit of honesty that summed up everything Evangelion was trying to say. End of Evangelion continues from there, but that single moment will always represent Evangelion's ending to me. It leaves the viewer empty and complete, struck with nothing left to say.
Worst: Sword Art Online
If a great ending synthesizes everything great and important in a show into one moment, then an impressively bad ending clearly must embrace all that is bad in one. And Sword Art Online's ending certainly accomplishes that, offering an almost staggering demonstration of every problem the show had. If I were to sum up a shortlist of Sword Art Online's major failings, it'd probably run something like “Kirito is a bland power fantasy, all the women are helpless damsels, the writing attempts to turn hack melodrama into emotional catharsis, and the villains are all ridiculous looney tunes.” The end of the series embodies every one of these lovely quirks, featuring a scene where Kirito rushes to save a woman who's spent a good dozen episodes in a cage as the villain cackles and licks tears off of her face. Then Kirito saves the girl, and the audience is expected to cheer as he actively tortures the villain. It's a tour de force of terrible writing and downright frightening writer psychology, a very special sequence that will live in my memory long after most of Sword Art Online's other qualities have faded. I mean, tear licking. The licking of tears.
BEST: Fushigi Yugi
These days, Fushigi Yugi is often regarded as a cheesy relic from the ’90s, but when I watched (and repeatedly re-watched) it as a young teen, the last thing on my mind was how well the show would age. Miaka Yuuki and her best friend Yui Hongo are transported to a magical medieval version of China via the translation of an ancient book and become central figures in a war between nations. Although Miaka begins the series as a klutz with an unnatural appetite (not exactly the most original teenage girl protagonist), she undergoes significant character growth as she matures and learns the importance of self-sacrifice over the course of 52 episodes and several OVAs. Miaka's romance with her Celestial Warrior Tamahome may have been a little hackneyed and melodramatic at times (and far too many men fell for Miaka throughout her journey), but the relationship added a layer of sweetness and emotional depth to the proceedings. More important than the romance is how Yui wound up on the opposing side of the war after being manipulated into doing evil deeds by Nakago, the series’ primary antagonist. What teen hasn't thought things weren't fair? It's easy to see how a naive teenager like Yui could fall under the spell of an evil (and devilishly handsome) man and come to blows with the person she once regarded as her best friend.
Although Fushigi Yugi seems poised to end at the halfway point, the show pulls the rug out from under the audience as Miaka's goal of summoning the god Suzaku and receiving three wishes becomes almost impossible to fulfill. As a result, the stakes become higher, the antagonists more frightening, and the obstacles even harder to surmount, but Miaka and her Celestial Warriors almost accomplish the impossible—only for Yui and her band of Celestial Warriors to steal their thunder and summon their god, Seiryuu.
The finale brings Miaka, Yui, and some of the “characters” from the book to the real world, and Yui finally realizes that Nakago has been deceiving her all along. It seems too late to do anything to save the world or Yui, but Miaka refuses to give up hope, ultimately saving both the world and her best friend from the forces of evil. Moved by Miaka's love for her, Yui uses her final wish from Seiryu to provide her friend with the opportunity to summon Suzaku and defeat Nakago. Despite the plethora of fantastical elements that are at play here, the fate of the world ultimately hinges on the emotional connection between two close friends—not even two star-crossed lovers. Satisfying, clever, and a little bit schmaltzy, the conclusion to the Fushigi Yugi TV series remains my favorite anime ending.
WORST: Arata The Legend
Despite Yuu Watase's impressive catalogue, only three of her series have received anime adaptations. Unfortunately, Arata The Legend, the most recent Watase-inspired animated offering, is the worst possible introduction to the author's work. This 2013 Satelight-helmed stinker attempts to cram 24 volumes of its concurrently serialized source material into 12 episodes. (Fushigi Yuugi used 52 episodes to adapt 13 of the 18 manga volumes—the rest were covered in OVAs.) Like Fushigi Yuugi, Arata is about a teen (Arata Hinohara) who embarks on an epic journey after being transported to a magical world. One-cour series based on yet-to-be-completed manga often adapt a small portion of their respective parent series, leaving the door open for sequels. While Arata sort of starts out this way, the rushed pacing and jarring creative liberties taken in the latter half ensure that nothing makes sense in the end.
There's some ill-defined deep-seated hatred going on between Arata and his rival/former friend/bully Kadowaki, who's rushed to the magical world of Amawakuni toward the end of the series. Upon his arrival, Kadowaki is hardly fazed by the whole “existence of an alternate world” thing and immediately focuses his attentions on engaging his old adversary in a magical sword battle. The lofty quest to rescue an injured princess (? It's never quite clear) and save the world from the forces of evil that was touted at the beginning of the series is all but forgotten, but at least Arata's sword gets purified or something and Kadowaki is itching for another fight someday. This is undoubtedly meant to tease a second season, but given the litany of narrative changes that occurred by this point, any additional anime would have to be largely independent of the source material. Arata doesn't meet half of the characters he's supposed to fight/befriend, and the alternate world Arata who took the original Arata's place in the real world (it's complicated) barely gets any screen time. Worst of all, Watase's comedy, which is one of the most enjoyable things about the manga, is almost completely absent. As far as teen-gets-transported-to-a-magical-world-and-fights-ex-best-friend Watase series go, Fushigi Yugi is superior in every way.
BEST: El Hazard OAV
I have to admit that when I think of a “good” ending, I immediately equate that with a traditional “happy” ending, where the girl gets the guy and they ride off into the sunset with the certain knowledge that everything will be just fine. It's old-fashioned of me, perhaps, although I'm not opposed to the girl getting the girl or the guy getting the guy or, for that matter, a non-romantic ending – what I really want at the end of a story is the reassurance that things will work out. While numerous shows do deliver this promise, the one I always go back to is one of the first I actually saw in its entirety: the original OAV of El Hazard.
Part of what is so effective about this finale is the way it returns to the beginning. Bookending is a technique that I've always enjoyed, as it brings about a sense of both closure and purpose to a story, and the fact that El Hazard draws inspiration from The Arabian Nights' Entertainment, which also uses a framing device, makes this work especially well. When the story begins, we see hero Makoto meeting Ifurita, a mysterious woman who clearly knows (and loves) him, and she makes a reference to Scheherazade's thousand and one nights before sending him to the world of El Hazard. There, among other things and people, he meets an Ifurita who does not know him, and it soon becomes obvious that this story is about whatever allowed her to find him at the beginning of the series in the first place. While that gets into questions of interdimensional time travel and other issues far too serious for this show, it also sets up a nice fate element to the implied romance at the beginning. That is fulfilled when Makoto and Ifurita do develop feelings for each other, culminating in him humanizing her in a way she's never really been allowed – before sending her off to find him, Makoto gives Ifurita his memories of school life, with her placed in them. Not only does this show how much he cares about her and wishes that she could have always been a part of his life, but it also grants her the gift of a human backstory and normal life, two things she has never had. Makoto essentially makes Ifurita feel normal and safe, which I personally find far more romantic than any number of awkward kiss scenes.
And then there's the actually ending. When Ifurita stumbles from the school after thousands of days and nights alone, she only has to wait a moment longer for an older (so that they now have apparent age parity) Makoto to appear. The final scene is their embrace, symbolizing a return to her homeworld for Ifurita and the assurance of a happily-ever-after for both characters. It isn't so much that anyone has suffered horribly over the course of the show, or that there was any deeper meaning (beyond the literary reference, of course) to the story that this finale makes right – it's more that it is a quiet moment of satisfaction, a promise to the viewer fulfilled before the story ends. We were promised that Ifurita and Makoto would reunite. They are. And for whatever reason, that promise made good stands out in my mind as one of the endings I could watch over and over again and still end up with the goofy grin on my face every time.
WORST: Brave 10
So that whole fulfilling the promise you make to your viewer? Yeah. Brave 10 feels like it missed that day in creative writing class. But excluding (or excusing) the fact that it wasn't a great show to begin with, it also rushed its ending to the point where it felt like it just sort of...happened. It was the sort of finale that we call in my house a “Don't Be a Tuna Head” ending, referencing the incredibly dumb final line of the LucasArts game Maniac Mansion. There's no real sense of finality, it didn't make me care about any of the characters, which even the lackluster ending to Futari wa Pretty Cure did (and about the most obnoxious ones in that case!), and it just sort of felt like the writers said, “Oh, crap, we have to end this now!” and did.
So yeah. If El Hazard gives me the happiness, bookending, and reassurance that I want in an ending, Brave 10 just sort of makes me say, “Why did I watch that?” In this case, when I say, “Don't be a tuna head,” I almost feel like I'm referring to myself.
BEST: Cross Game episode 50
Although the storytelling quality of this series about love, loss, and baseball does sag a bit in the middle, it finishes every bit as strong as it starts out – and if you'll recall, I consider its beginning to be the finest first episode ever for an anime series.
Yes, the final episode does bring to a dramatic climax the efforts of Seishu High School to win a trip to Koshien (Japanese's national championships for high school baseball), which in the process fulfills the dream that Wakaba laid out for Ko in episode 1 (and, as we later find out, for onetime bully Akaishi, too). The way it plays out, though – as typical for the series – isn't entirely predictable even if the ultimate outcome is, which makes for some great sports-themed drama. But that is only half the episode and only half of the story, as Wakaba's dream is not the only thing getting fulfilled here. A couple of episodes earlier Ko had intimated that a trio of statements he made to Wakaba's sister Aoba (whose full extent get revealed at a timely moment here) might have been lies, but as Aoba watches pitcher Ko's efforts to bring the extra-innings game home with one final display of pitching prowess, she gradually realizes that Ko actually hadn't been lying about anything – and that includes his claim that Aoba was now the one he loves the most. Hence all of the major themes of the series come together in one sublimely beautiful moment: baseball, love, and most especially an acknowledgement that the heart can't remain trapped in the past forever, either for the boy who lost his girl or the girl who lost her older sister. The remainder of the episode then shows Ko and Aoba finishing the job of formally becoming a couple in their own unique style. Wakaba will ever remain in both of their hearts, but now they can move forward together.
The way the episode elegantly wraps up everything that the series is about, while still remaining true to all of its characters, is the key to making this such a wonderful finale. Every note and line of dialogue strikes true as both leads set aside their often-begrudging appreciation of each other and finally allow their feelings to show, both to others and themselves; one beautifully insightful observation by Aoba's eldest sister is that Ko is the only person other than Wakaba who can make Aoba cry, which hints at the depth and complexity of the emotional bond between the two. Even the comical asides don't hinder multiple potentially emotional moments, and all of the supporting characters get at least a brief change to shine. All of this happens while still including baseball in the mix, too.
There are some other truly wonderful anime endings out there (Kurau: Phantom Memory’s final episode would be my runner-up choice, for instance), but for my money, none top this one.
WORST: Oreimo 2
Out of all of the disappointing or outright bad anime endings I've seen over the years, there is exactly one that I hate with a white-hot burning passion: the final episodes of the Oreimo franchise, especially the OVA commonly numbered episode 16 of the sequel series. I could probably write a whole essay spewing hate over how this is an all-time-classic example of an ending ruining what is otherwise a very good series, but the short version is that lead characters Kyosuke and Kirino, who are actual blood brother and sister, systematically (and seemingly deliberately) wreck their relationships with most of their friends so that they can be together as a couple. They even come to a scene at the end where they're seemingly getting married, only to pull back and basically say, “well, I guess we'd better stop fooling around now.” To look at it one way, they alienated a whole bunch of people for basically no reason because the writers didn't have the guts to carry through on what they were setting up. Though I'm no fan of incest stories, at least sticking true to that would have been less dishonest.
Ugh. Even thinking about this atrocity leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Where's a breath mint?
There are many anime that I love with fantastic endings, but there are few where the ending defines the series to the extent it does with Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. I know many people who thought they'd dislike it if not for that final episode, and it's easy to see why: The previous saga sets up Fujiko as a sympathetic, but harmful cliché of femmes fatales. She's only as sexually adventurous as she is because of abuse as a child, because women can't choose that way of life for themselves, of course. Yet the ending subverts this with a brilliant bait-and-switch: Fujiko's memories are actually implanted by another woman named Aisha, who actually lived those memories.
Aisha was the result of an experiment to create a perfect, pure maiden. Driven insane by her father's experiments, even after he died, she longed to continue them by projecting her memories onto other women. Fujiko was the only one who survived, and Aisha believed her life of casual sex and thievery was a result of the trauma—but when Fujiko didn't succumb to the terror after that, Aisha made sure the memories returned in order to punish her for her transgressions. Aisha is a symbol—an extreme one—of all the women who, instead of lashing out at misogynistic societies, become part of them to enforce the rules on other women. Aisha wants to punish Fujiko for living the life she couldn't, and in that fury, she's come to believe that what Fujiko is doing is actually bad: "Bad girls get punished."
What's more, the finale proves that Fujiko's lifestyle has nothing to do with Aisha. She may have disguised herself as a pure maid when Aisha found her, but even that was a ruse. Fujiko insists: "Thievery and casual sex were my scene long before I met you. No matter what past anyone feeds me, I'm still myself." It's a powerful statement in favor of women's agency, especially sexual agency, and that they can develop "manly" personality traits and hobbies without being "wrong" in some way. Throughout the series the male characters ask themselves, "Who is the woman called Fujiko Mine?" And Fujiko's answer is: "Why does it matter?" We don't ask this about her male counterparts.
It's popular these days to call anime with strong female characters "feminist," but Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine actually lives up to the label: because its main theme is how that society judges and oppresses women—including other women who've bought into those messages—and how one woman overcomes it. This works specifically because it leaves this revelation until the ending, making us think the message is that Fujiko is a tragic rather than demonized figure—only to show why that, too, is reductive and sexist.
Fujiko's story is just one part of this thriller of a finale. There's also the truly tragic ending for Lieutenant Oscar, Zenigata's assistant who is in love with him, and the madcap battle between Jigen and Goemon as they keep mistaking each other for Aisha's owl-man goons. (You thought the mind control was the weirdest it could get? Think again.) All this is buoyed by Sayo Yamamoto's inspired direction; with her trademark charcoal-filled, shadowy art style, and fluid animation. Even among great series endings, few are great enough to elevate the entire series with them. That's why The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a step above the rest.
WORST: Digimon Adventure 02
Digimon fans, like any fandom, love to argue over every aspect of their shows. Still, there is one thing that unites them all: hatred for the "epilogue" to Digimon Adventure 02, and by extension, the entire "Digimon Adventure" saga of those first two seasons. The source of most complaints comes when we find out what the main characters became as adults, and it doesn't make much sense at all. They're a slapdash group of careers that sound cool to kids, and while some work with their actual personalities and interests (like Kari becoming a teacher and Izzy a researcher), others seem randomly assigned purely based on "coolness" of the character. Shouldn't the level-headed Matt, not the impulsive, hot-tempered Tai, be the "UN diplomat for the Digital World"? Why would the quiet cody want to be an attorney? All the female characters are also given traditionally feminine careers—again, usually with little regard to their actual personalities. Mimi makes more sense as a fashion designer than Sora, after all. For a group of characters we've come to know and love over two seasons, the Digimon Adventure 02 epilogue is insulting and reductive. Combine all that with some sinking of fan-favorite ships, and I think it would have been better to just wrap up the main story and let fans speculate about their eventual fates. This is a lesson later seasons of Digimon would learn; hopefully the new Digimon Tri will, too, and retcon some of the 02 epilogue's nonsense.
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