The Tragic Girl in Animeby Theron Martin,
You've seen 'em before: a Tragic Girl is a female character who exists primarily to interact with, and push along the development of, the protagonist before she inevitably dies. (Male versions do exist but are much rarer.) This character type can certainly be found far beyond the realm of anime and manga; for instance, Leslie in the award-winning 1978 children's novel Bridge to Terabithia arguably fits the trope. However, it is by far most prevalent in the realm of anime, manga and related media, probably due in no small part to Key/Visual Art's refining the trope into an art form with productions like their visual novel (and later anime) Air.
If done right, stories using the Tragic Girl trope almost universally have one thing in common: they are tearjerkers to some degree. However, they can take very different approaches to getting there. Three main versions have appeared in anime over the past 15 years.
In this version the Tragic Girl dies suddenly at or near the beginning of the story but continues to have a substantial impact on the protagonist(s) and the storyline as events move forward. Classic examples of this type include Wakaba from Cross Game, Menma from anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, and Aika from Blast of Tempest. (Aika is a less pure example of this, though, because of various circumstances surrounding her.)
These are Tragic Girls who are so purely tragic that they just helplessly await their fates. Such characters can hold a lot of appeal, though, because they are usually so deeply invested with moe traits. The epitome of this version is Misuzu from Air, but Yuzuha from Utawarerumono is a less heavily emotional example.
Vivacious Girl lives her life to the fullest while she still has it. She (often literally!) drags the protagonist along for the ride while also drawing some inspiration from the protagonist. While Nagisa from the Clannad franchise squarely falls into this category (albeit in a more understated way), the most prominent recent examples are Yuuki from the Mother's Rosario arc of Sword Art Online II and Kaori from Your Lie in April. The similarities and differences of their situations warrant a closer look.
Yuuki vs. Kaori: The Comparison
While recently watching the second half of Your Lie in April, I was regularly struck by how many similarities there are between the situations of Kaori and Yuuki despite how different a tack each series takes on the same basic story elements. In both cases the protagonist of the particular story or story arc was once a master of a particular discipline, but now he/she feels constrained due to a difficult relationship with a demanding mother who wants to shape the protagonist's future to her own standards. In the case of Kousei from April, the discipline is the piano, which his mother pushed him so relentlessly on that he developed a psychological hang-up about it when she died, while in the case of SAO II's Asuna the discipline is VR game play and the problem involves school and marriage paths she doesn't want. In both cases the protagonist is introduced to the Tragic Girl through their discipline, and in both cases the protagonist is unable to resist the irrepressible energy of the Tragic Girl and lets him/herself get dragged along on an adventure within that discipline (performance of classical music in an atypical style for Kousei and Kaori, a boss raid with but a single seven-member group in the case of Asuna and Yuuki). In the process the Tragic Girl reshapes and reinvigorates the thinking of the protagonists, which allows them to stand up to their mothers (figuratively in Kousei's case, essentially literally in Asuna's case) and come to a resolution with them.
Sadly, both Kaori and Yuuki suffer from terminal illnesses and know that they are living on a limited clock, so they are trying to make the most of what life they have left; to that end their interaction with their respective protagonists invigorates them, too, as the protagonists later find out from interacting with those closest to the Tragic Girl. In both cases the truth about the Tragic Girl's health issue doesn't get revealed to the protagonist until the last third or so of the series/story arc, with the story spending much of its last third focusing on trying to milk every ounce of possible activity out their grim situations. In each case the Tragic Girl dies around the halfway point of the final episode, with the remainder involving the protagonist dealing with the aftermath.
Yuuki vs. Kaori: The Contrast
For all of that, though, the two series also take dramatically contrary approaches on several key points. The single biggest one is the tone at the end. April takes a far sadder and more depressing angle, with Kaori implied to have expired on the operating table (while Kousei is performing elsewhere) and leaving behind a confession loaded with regret. Despite her positive effects on Kousei, her story is ultimately one about wasted potential, both romantically and musically. For Yuuki, though, her demise is a loving community affair, one attended by both close friends and fellow gamers alike who came to honor one of the greatest among them, and she expires in the (virtual) arms of the one closest to her during her last few months. Hence her death is more a celebration of what she was able to accomplish and an affirmation that even a life as short and fraught with difficulty as hers was worth living after all. The potential long-term positive impact of her struggle (in terms of the crucial research data she generated) is also pointedly mentioned in the epilogue.
The other major difference involves how the illnesses of the two Tragic Girls are handled. In supremely annoying anime (and its source material) tradition, the particulars of Kaori's medical problems are left very vague. We can deduce that she suffers from some kind of chronic affliction that can cause muscular problems and dangerous seizures, but it is never named and doesn't always debilitate her until she becomes hospital-bound in the series' last few episodes. It also doesn't affect at all how she looks. In stark contrast, SAO II takes a far more direct approach. We learn exactly what afflicts Yuuki: she was born with a drug-resistant strain of the HIV virus and by the time of the story is suffering from full-blown AIDS. The story doesn't skimp in the slightest on the effect that it has on her, either. When Asuna finally sees Yuuki in person, Yuuki's body is a wasted shell, and the source novel goes into even more precise detail about her exact health problems. This is such a bold and rare move that it delivers a devastating gut-punch and makes Yuuki's circumstances all the more poignant, since it's immediately and irrefutably clear that there's no “out” for a situation like hers. (Of course, the series' premise does allow it to cheat a bit here, as the virtual Yuuki still looks healthy and acts vibrantly.)
The two cases are at odds in other significant ways, too. Whereas a thread of potential romantic love exists between Kousei and Kaori, Asuna and Yuuki's love is a strictly platonic thing. Whereas Kousei is mostly-oblivious to his other strong romantic option, Asuna is locked hard into hers. The broader storytelling approach is also substantially different, as April spreads the focus around in its second half while SAO II remains narrowly-focused on Asuna and Yuuki throughout.
Which Is The Best?
I think which between Your Lie in April's approach and SAO II's approach to the Vivacious Tragic Girl is more effective comes down to whether you prefer a more pessimistic or optimistic take on the scenario; my preference definitely leans towards the latter. Either way, though (and with other types, too), the Tragic Girl is ultimately adept at melting even some of the hardest hearts with her emotional appeal.
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