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The First Anime That Made Us Cry

by Anime News Network Editorial Team,

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Anime News Network's editorial team is digging deep into their repressed anime memories to trudge up the moments that left them in tears. Below are some of the most affecting moments, from major character deaths to bittersweet plot twists, so beware of spoilers.


Kevin Cormack

Phoenix 2772 – Space Firebird

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Apart from infrequently broadcast Battle of the Planets episodes on terrestrial TV, my mid-1980s Scottish childhood didn't overflow with anime experiences, let alone any particularly tear-jerking examples. When I was but a wee laddie of six, my mother worked three part-time jobs to keep our young family afloat. One job was in our small highland town's sole video rental store.

She'd periodically bring home movies for me to watch — that's how I first saw the original Star Wars movies — out of order. Let me tell you that The Empire Strikes Back does not make a good end for the trilogy. My mum's choices of movies were sometimes odd. After watching 2001 — A Space Odyssey through to its deeply surreal, psychedelic end, she turned to me, confused, and asked, “What was that about?” Lady, I thought to myself, I am only six years old. What do you want from me?

One time, she brought home the unusual-looking animated movie Space Firebird 2772 to watch together. To say this was a scarring experience would be an understatement. Imagery from this beautiful but batshit film has stuck with me and burned into my mind for almost four decades. Co-written and co-directed by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka himself, Phoenix 2772 — Love's Cosmozone (to give its full Japanese title) is an anime-original entry in his career-spanning Phoenix cycle of stories that explores heady concepts like the meaning of life, death, karma, and reincarnation. Sounds like ideal material for a kids' movie, right? Right?

Phoenix 2772 opens with a ten-minute-long dialogue-free montage where we watch protagonist Godo grow from a literal test tube baby to a young adult man. He's raised by the attractive female android Olga, who, in typical loopy Tezuka style, is his mother figure and love interest. Godo is enrolled in the pilot academy and, in one of his tests, is instructed to shoot a group of cute, furry, harmless, sentient alien creatures by his bully of a teacher, Volcan. When Godo refuses, Volcan murders every one of the creatures himself, while they scream and scramble to escape. It's horrifying. As a little kid with a love of animals, I found this deeply upsetting, yet I continued watching.

Subsequent scenes are no less disturbing. Godo's sent to a prison mine in Iceland run by Dr. Black Jack. Life there is cheap, and prisoners die running and screaming from superheated lava eruptions. Eventually, Godo finds himself on a spaceship in search of the titular Phoenix, joined by a trio of funny alien animals who play instruments and dance during a number of cute musical interludes. They all die horribly when Godoh's attack on the Phoenix drives it berserk. Oh, and Godo's android lover Olga is burnt to a crisp.

Despite the Phoenix eventually calming down, sort-of-fixing Olga, and offering Godo a peaceful planet to live on, Godo wants to save the dying Earth, so he fills his ship with much-needed fresh alien vegetables to feed the struggling masses. Unfortunately, Earth has other plans: the ship (and vegetables) plunges into a fiery crevasse, and the entire planet erupts as deep fissures split open on every continent and EVERYONE DIES. Yes, it wouldn't be a proper Tezuka sci-fi story without deep existential nihilism. By the end of Phoenix 2772, I was a traumatized wreck. It's a wonder Tezuka never put me off anime for good. Perhaps my lifelong attachment to the medium is my failing attempt to exorcise the demons Tezuka permanently installed in my tortured soul.


James Beckett

Metropolis

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I'm not sure when it happened, exactly, or what spurred it on, but at some point in my childhood, I developed a deep-rooted anxiety about memory loss that is still with me to this day. It would wreck me any time a character in a story would forget who they were or be unable to recognize the faces of their loved ones. Anyways, so far as anime goes, picture this: 

You're Young James, and you've recently discovered this overwhelming sense of dread over how much a person's sense of “self” can be obliterated if they just happened to lose out on the genetic lottery and develop Alzheimer's or if they smack their head the wrong way tripping down a flight of stairs. Also, at that same time, you've just discovered how far and wide the world of anime stretches beyond mere Pokémon, which is mostly thanks to the shockingly bountiful collection of cool DVDs at the library two blocks away from your new house. In the summer of 2004, while browsing the stacks, you spot an intriguing DVD with gorgeous box art featuring an angelic girl with blonde locks set against the backdrop of a mechanical science-fiction dystopia. It is called Osamu Tezuka's METROPOLIS, and you bring it home to see if it satisfies your cravings for badass mecha fights and pretty cartoon girls who would want to be your friend and/or smooch you if they were real. 

Instead, you end up discovering a haunting and dreamlike reinterpretation of Fritz Lang's classic silent film filtered through the aesthetics of Osamu Tezuka's manga and the cinematic ambitions of its director, the mononymic “Rintaro.” Because you are twelve years old, you don't know any of this yet, of course. What is relevant to you, Tiny James, is the way the fairy-tale romance shared between the robot-girl Tima and the young detective Keiichi gets tangled in the complex political machinations brewing between the starved masses of Metropolis and the city's ruling class, led by Tima's creator, Duke Red. It gives the movie a rusty, desperate tone that causes your tiny and hopelessly romantic mind to latch on to the comforting relationship that Tima and Keiichi share all the more. This is exactly what Rintaro wants - the sick bastard - as he sends the film's heroes careening toward a tragic conclusion that manages to play on all of your burgeoning fears.

It's bad enough when Tima is forced into a position where her machine mind is consumed by the monstrous machinations that Duke Red has built to have his “daughter” take control of the throne of Metropolis. The way that Tima's lilting voice is reduced to a crackling robot monotone, the look on Keiichi's face when the spark of life in her is gone, and the growing horror that comes from watching the robot girl's flesh melt away to expose the uncanny skeleton of steel and wires underneath…all of that is already enough to make you very unhappy, indeed. This was supposed to be a cool-ass cartoon about a robot girl, dammit! Why is it making you feel things?

What breaks you, though, is when the movie cuts out all of its sound effects and dialogue in the explosive climax of the movie. Tima, no longer even recognizable as the curious and innocent girl she was just a short while ago, descends into the fiery rubble of her once proud city, and the chorus of Ray Charles' “I Can't Stop Loving You” begins to ring out as a kind of requiem. It's not fair. It's too much. You are only twelve, and you're suddenly weeping, thinking about what it must be like to see a loved one's life and memory be drained and snuffed out well before their body is gone. You're wondering if you would have the strength to let go of their hand and lose them forever if it was the only way for them to be at peace. Twenty years later, when you're sitting at a computer and working on an article about which anime was able to make you cry the most, you will be able to recall this experience with eerie clarity, because it's one of those experiences that you will likely take with you for the rest of your life. You will even have to pause for a moment before you finish writing so you can go into the other room and check on your wife, just to make sure that you can see that the light of recognition is still there when she smiles and meets your eyes.


Caitlin Moore

Fushigi Yugi – Nuriko Dies

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You know those videos you see of young children reacting to sad scenes in movies where they're sobbing at the utter tragedy of it all? That wasn't me. I didn't cry at Mufasa's death in The Lion King when I was seven. When I was in middle school, though, something shifted – maybe it was the onset of puberty, maybe Where The Red Fern Grows was so sad that it transformed how I related to stories; maybe it was something else. Either way, I became a crier right in time to get into anime and encounter Fushigi Yugi.

For all the jokes about “Top Ten Saddest Anime Deaths,” if I were to sit down and make a list, Nuriko's death would be near the top even after all these years. They were easily among the most likable characters, balancing their role as an older sibling-like figure to Miaka and Tamahome with a sharp sense of humor. Their pragmatism provided an important balance to the sweeping romanticism and borderline-histrionics the rest of the primary cast was prone to. They had a selfish streak, but it always came through when it most mattered, and when they had to fight Ashitare of the Seiryu warriors for the shinzaho, that brought them to an end.

Now, I can see all the problems inherent in the narrative. They were in many ways a stereotype, and all the jokes about their gender and sexual orientation were insensitive at best. There's a lot to be said about a character who becomes gender-nonconforming because of trauma and begins moving toward conformity as a sign that they're finally ready to move forward, and none of it is good. Plus, I now know Nuriko was putting up every death flag in the book in those final episodes.

But at twelve, I didn't see all that. Nuriko was just a character I loved, who made me laugh, and who Miaka and Tamahome could lean on when needed. I didn't know anime operated on different narrative rules from American children's media, where death is for parents, villains, and the occasional recurring character. Members of the primary ensemble were basically immortal. But not so in shoujo anime, and the moment that Nuriko fell, eyes closed, after successfully fighting off Ashitare, my world changed, and I wept. Suddenly, everything had stakes, real stakes, and if Nuriko could die, anyone could. Many did, because the second half of Fushigi Yugi is something of a bloodbath, but none of the other deaths hit quite in the same way.

I've watched Fushigi Yugi several more times in the past 25 years. It's not half as beloved as I believe it should be, remembered primarily as a silly piece of adolescent melodrama best left behind in the '90s. I still love it just as fervently as I did the first time I saw it, and every time Nuriko closes their eyes on that snowy mountain, I weep as if I were seeing it for the first time again.


Christopher Farris

Cowboy Bebop – Episode 24, "Hard Luck Woman"

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Anime making you cry with a character's death is a go-to, and it's not like Cowboy Bebop has any shortage of lovable characters dying, especially in its ending. But what happens when the story needs to give some cast members a send-off before all the tragedy starts taking hold? With only three episodes left in their run, Shinichiro Watanabe and crew opted to reset Bebop's status quo, releasing adorable hangers-on Ed and Ein before they could get caught in the upcoming crossfire. But even though nobody gets murdered, Hard Luck Woman is emotionally devastating.

Though it's Ed who embodies the final emotional payoff, the episode equally focuses on Faye and her psychological car crash of a character arc gradually building across the series. Faye's search for her origin and the place where she can ultimately belong intersects with Ed's attachment to the wrecked planet Earth. This leads the pair to surreptitiously detour the Bebop to humankind's homeworld, a place the anime has been before, but never with this kind of eye towards finality. What unfolds is a melancholy tapestry of interconnected moments as Faye and Ed happen upon threads of hope that they can't help but pull on, even if doing so might unravel everything they've made for themselves thus far.

Even as it ostensibly represents an ending within the story for a couple of its characters, that idea of continuing towards a hopeful "someday, somewhere" makes "Hard Luck Woman" so quietly effective as a pre-finale piece. Faye finds as much of an answer as she was ever going to regarding where she came from—and that answer is a long-empty patch of dirt where her home will never stand again. But it's hers. She left her previous home to get there, so she feels obligated to carve out her little box of it and stay there, at least for the night. Ed's discovery is no less nebulous. She catches wind of her father and hears that he has been looking for her, at least intermittently. But when she tracks him down, their reunion is no less joyous than short-lived—being a flighty stray cat who comes and goes as they please would seem to run in Ed's family.

I didn't know how Cowboy Bebop went the first time I watched it on Adult Swim all those years ago. I think I had an inkling that it was a finite series, as I'd watched several other anime to completion by that point. So, to see Ed and Ein just up and leave truly made that impending closure clear. This is not a tearful farewell in-story; no one cries, and the characters leave without saying goodbye (save for a devastating scrawl of graffiti that Ed leaves behind). But it's an intense page-turn for the audience. As Faye lies down among all the nothing she has left, as Spike and Jet stuff their faces with hard-boiled eggs, and as Ed and Ein run off into the sunset while the heart-wrenching track "Call Me Call Me" blasts, well, the waterworks started up then, and they still do today. Faye would come back, of course, and Spike would go on to one of the most definitive finales around. But the pre-ending ending that is "Hard Luck Woman" represents Cowboy Bebop in its more hopeful side—the idea that there is a new place to belong to be found just over the next horizon, whenever it's time to get up and go look.


Nicholas Dupree

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad – Koyuki and Maho's moonlight duet

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In all honesty, there's almost definitely an anime that made me tear up before this. I've been watching anime since I was too young to know there was a difference between it and Western cartoons, and I'm a notorious sap. So there's probably an episode of Digimon or another show I grew up with that had me bawling at some point. But not all tears are sad, and sometimes the cries that stick with you are borne from being overwhelmed with so many emotions that your body cannot process them. That's the kind of cry I had as a teenager, seeing episode 5 of BECK back in the day.

The scene itself is straightforward. Protagonist Koyuki has trespassed into school after hours at the behest of the incredibly cool girl he has a crush on, Maho. In classic teen movie fashion, she convinces him to go skinny dipping in the school's swimming pool. It's precisely the kind of poorly considered, impulsive thing some teens and many more teens fantasize about. Yet right when you'd think it would get awkward or salacious, the pair instead float in the water, stare into the sky, and start to sing their favorite song, “Moon on the Water.” And keep singing. For nearly the entire run time of the track, it's just these two characters singing awkwardly in their own little world.

Even now, years after the fact, I can't explain properly why that scene had me dribbling snot and tears onto my keyboard. While “Moon on the Water” is a nice ballad, it's not the kind of song that tugs aggressively at the heartstrings. It's not some grand moment in these two characters' love story, nor are there any big romantic gestures to speak of. The vocal performances in either language track are, being charitable, and authentically amateurish. The animation is minimal, filled with panning shots of the full moon, grass blowing in a nearby field, and the characters up to their necks in water as they sing.

Yet all of that gives the sequence a raw, powerful authenticity. There's an intimacy that permeates every second as Koyuki and Maho harmonize, caught up in the sensation of doing something dumb and reckless the way only teenagers can. It captures those rare, ephemeral moments in the dead of night when it feels like the rest of the world has vanished, and you talk into the early morning with someone about nothing and everything. The sparse score allows the endearing flaws in their singing to rise to the surface in a way that only makes them feel more natural. It's romantic, not in the sense of falling in love, but in the way you might suddenly be struck by the beauty of the world around you, aware of the majesty and magic so often taken for granted. It's simple yet immense, simultaneously specific and universal, and all of that hit my 14-year-old self with the impact of a meteor crashing to Earth.

Admittedly, the age I saw it was probably a factor in how much it's stuck with me. BECK is a work that's still great as an adult, but positively life-changing as a teenager. It hit me at just the right time in my life to attach itself to my soul, and I'll likely be humming that tune and welling up every time I look up at the night sky for the rest of my life.


Lauren Orsini

Honey and Clover

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I had just started dating a guy who happened to be the president of our college anime club. We married a few years later, but I'm telling the story out of order.

I didn't know I was going to marry him. I only knew that he stored the anime club's hefty collection of DVD box sets in his apartment, which led me to an afternoon perusing the library shelves for my next watch. My future husband was not one to make dramatic declarations, so when he casually pointed out the slice-of-life show Honey and Clover, adding, “This one made me sob,” I knew I had to watch it, too. 

Honey and Clover is the story of a group of college students, all of them artists, and the bittersweet missed connections that keep the audience wondering who among them will stay just friends. The main character is Yuta, who has a propensity to hide his feelings. He's the opposite of his roommate, Shinobu, who is outgoing and obnoxious. When both boys fall for the same girl, the short-statured sculptress Hagu, they fall into their most comfortable social coping mechanisms to deal with: Yuta shying away and Shinobu completely overdoing it. Neither boy can be himself, which (I think) is all Hagu wants. 

Their love triangle is only a small component of this tender, angsty show. Yuta, Shinobu, and Hagu are joined by Takumi and Ayumi, who have romance issues of their own. Ayumi is in love with Takumi, who only has eyes for an older widow who is definitely unavailable. As if their misadventures in love were not enough, all five of them struggle with a common enemy: their future. As college students at an art college, no less, they're all anxiously staring down the precariousness of their lives after school. "I've always been afraid of not being able to see my future. Afraid of not knowing what I want to do with my life, and not knowing why I don't know what I want to do or what I want to be,” Yuta says in episode 21, crystallizing this uncertainty. This is a story about people standing at a crossroads and which paths they ultimately decide to take. 

Perhaps because of these heavy themes permeating the show, the little things, the funny and small and everyday moments that give this show its slice-of-life designation, are made all the more powerful. There's a scene I'll never forget when all of the students dropped everything to help Hagu search for a four-leaf clover, their concerns cast aside while they worked as one. Later, Hagu transforms that clover into a literal honey and clover sandwich for Yuta and gives it to him as a farewell gift before Yuta embarks on a journey. When he opens Hagu's present on the train, Yuta tears into it like a starving man, tears running down his face. He's just said goodbye to his unrequited love, only to be hit with one last powerful reminder of her and his friends and that warm spring day. 

If I were to describe the entire plot of Honey and Clover, drama by devastating drama, it might make you sad. But it needs to be paired with the melancholic soundtrack to really get the waterworks going. And befitting of a show about art school, this two-season show's two haunting power-ballad intro songs are paired with surreal multimedia opening sequences that constitute art in their own rights. This 2005 vintage wears its whole heart on its sleeve, just as powerful today as it was back then. It doesn't just make me cry—it makes me nostalgic for my college days, too! It's streaming on Crunchyroll, making it particularly easy to find whenever I want to rewatch it. Because I may have married the anime club president, but the DVD collection stayed with the club.


Ken Iikura-Gross

Crayon Shin-chan

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When I saw the prompt for "the first anime that made you cry," I realized that this is a wonderful rhetorical question because of how you can interpret it. The first thing we think with a question like that is, “An anime that made us cry out of sadness.” However, people cry for several reasons, such as in reaction to comedy, joy, or just plain disgust at how bad an anime series is. But, when I think of the first anime that made me cry, it's the ninth Crayon Shin-chan film, Crayon Shin-Chan: Arashi wo Yobu Moretsu! Otona Teikoku no Gyakushu (Shin Chan - Attack of the Adult Empire), because of nostalgia.

This may seem odd as Crayon Shin-Chan began as a low-brow comedy series in the early 1990s and slowly evolved into the slice-of-life family show it's known as today. However, the films are a different beast altogether as they lean into the absurd. We're talking adventures in strange theme parks, the titular character, Shinnosuke "Shin-chan" Nohara, becoming a spy, time travel, and adventures with a dinosaur; the films are anything but slice-of-life. Despite this, the films have an underlying theme of familial love. So, where does this put Otona Teikoku, nostalgia, and crying?

At the turn of the century, a new theme park for adults opened near Kasukabe City, Saitama Prefecture. The adults of Kasukabe are enamored with the theme park, allowing them to relive their childhoods (in this case, the late 1960s to early 1970s). But the park is a ploy by the villainous leader of Yesterday Once More, Ken (not this writer), to bring Japan back to a time when "the 21st century was so bright" because "the only thing Japan is currently full of is dirty money and unburnable garbage." Ken plans to achieve this by reminding adults of that nostalgic smell.

This is an odd set, to say the least, but it allows us to understand the adults in the film are overcome with a sense of longing for their childhoods. This is exemplified through the mock town Ken and his partner live in as it's perpetual dusk–as if to remind the audience some of their best memories are at dusk when it's time to go home from an afternoon of playing with friends. It's also very relatable since, barring those who've had a traumatic childhood, many people would give quite a bit to relive their childhood. Nostalgia is a powerful drug after all. Thus, running throughout this film is the duality of the want to return to our rose-colored past or press forward into the unknown future.

This push and pull between the past and future is made clear when Shin-chan's father, Hiroshi, relives his experience at the film's version of the Japan World Exposition, Osaka, 1970 (Expo 70). For many Japanese adults in their late 30s in the year 2000, Expo 70 was a seminal moment in their childhood. Thus, when we see Hiroshi in this scene he's presented as a child, likely five-years-old. It's made better by him throwing a tantrum about wanting to see the Moon Rock (the rock brought back from the Apollo 12 mission), which brings us back to a time when we also threw tantrums. Yet, in the middle of this tantrum, we see Shin-chan telling Hiroshi it's time to go home.

While this in and of itself is a powerful moment in Otona Teikoku, it's not quite a tear-jerking moment. Yes, there is a push-pull between living in the past and living for the future–as what Shin-chan is saying is it's time to grow up again–what pushes this moment into one that's etched into my memory is what brings Hiroshi back to the present. In good Crayon Shin-chan fashion, this is a gag revolving around Hiroshi's smelly shoes. But the gag is used to heighten the next scene.

In this scene, we are taken through a montage of Hiroshi's life. Beginning with him riding on the back of a bike to go fishing with his father, advancing to his first love and subsequent breakup, his first time in Tokyo as a student, then as a businessman, meeting his wife, Misae, the birth of Shin-chan, moving into their home, and ending with Hiroshi coming home from a day's work and his family meeting him at the door, the sequence reminds us we have more to live for than the allure of the past. It's a stark reminder that some of our best memories aren't from childhood. Rather, they come from the totality of our lives.

When I watched the scene at the age of 15, I couldn't help but be brought to my childhood and then reminisce on my subsequent life. And for me, that's what made the scene so moving. It conjures feelings of nostalgia in the viewer so that one is drawn into the scene and easily shares the emotions Hiroshi is experiencing. Then, it becomes easy to be overcome with emotions as well, and start to shed a few tears in empathy for Hiroshi.

One wouldn't expect a once low-brow, now slice-of-life family series to be so moving. But there it was on the big screen–the small screen for me as it was a recording of the TV broadcast my Japanese grandfather sent me. It surprised me and hit me in a way I wasn't expecting. But I will admit, I still enjoy being able to wipe away the tears.


Jairus Taylor

Yu Yu Hakusho – Yusuke's Funeral (episode 1)

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Despite crying at anything and everything when I was younger, I'm not quite sure what the first anime to leave me sobbing was, but I do know one of the first things to pull at my heartstrings, and it was this funeral scene. Even some 30-odd years after the show first came out, I still think Yu Yu Hakusho has what is hands down the greatest first episode of any anime, and this is a big part of the reason why. We spend a big chunk of the episode getting a window into Yusuke's life and how crummy his life seems to be on the surface. He's constantly getting into fights, his mother is an alcoholic who seems mostly apathetic towards him, and all the teachers at his school give him a hard time just for daring to show up.

Thus, when he dies in an accident after saving a little kid and is offered a second chance at life by one of the bosses of the Spirit World, he genuinely doesn't think he has anything worth living for. That all changes when he peeks in at his funeral as a ghost, and while there are a few people who aren't too broken up about him being gone, the people closest to him have decidedly more mixed reactions. His mother and childhood friend Keiko are left devastated, while his school principal Tanaka is frustrated that Yusuke couldn't stick around to make more out of his life. The biggest outburst comes from Yusuke's self-proclaimed rival Kuwabara, who barges into the funeral screaming because he's honestly not sure what to do with himself now that Yusuke is no longer in his life. 

It's a great reminder of how easy it is to miss the impact we can have in the lives of the people around us just by being there, and even seeing this for the first time as a kid, this scene hit incredibly hard and broke my heart. Part of this is also due to the absolutely incredible voice acting from the dub cast, and particularly the late Brice Armstrong as Tanaka and Christopher Sabat as Kuwabara, who both knocked it out of the park in handling the mix of emotions these characters were going through.

I've probably watched this single episode of Yu Yu Hakusho at least a dozen times at this point, and even practically having every line of that scene memorized, it never fails to emotionally destroy me. It's not just great at bringing out the waterworks, but it also does an excellent job of setting the stage for Yusuke's character arc as he decides to go for a second chance at life for the sake of the people around him and uses that second chance to mature and grow throughout the story even as it eventually pivots towards focusing on action. I still love this show to pieces, and the strength of this scene is a huge part of why it had such an impact on me.


Rebecca Silverman

I'm Gonna Be an Angel

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I don't cry easily. I tear up at the drop of a hat, but to progress to actual sobs, something needs to truly hit me in a vulnerable spot, and the place where I'm the most vulnerable is the tragedy of never being able to see someone again, no matter how much you may want to. Later series like Sunday Without God or the Ghibli adaptation of When Marnie Was There both reduced me to a weeping mess, but the first title I can remember doing that is, of all things, I'm Gonna Be an Angel. Even if you've never seen it – and I fully admit to watching it on VHS fansubs – the title doesn't exactly sound like a tearjerker, and the plot is deceptively silly: Yuusuke is living alone in his family home when he meets wannabe angel Noelle and her insane family, all of whom move in with him. But this frivolity hides a story that hits some notes of genuine emotion, and a major one revolves around the girl Yuusuke has a crush on and her dead brother.

Natsumi's brother Fuyuki is already dead when the story opens. We never meet him. But we do meet an angel with a single wing named Raphael, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Fuyuki. As the story unfolds, we realize that the two are the same person, which should be joyous…except that Natsumi never gets to know. She can't see or interact with him, leaving us to bear the burden of what might have been. We know that Fuyuki is doing well and still watching out for his little sister. But she doesn't, and she continues to mourn his loss. Around the middle of the series, episode twelve or so, Natsumi's grief returns her to child form, a reflection of the hurt, sad little girl she still is inside. She has to confront her pain and let her brother go to move forward again and maybe allow him to, as well. It's a quiet, painful moment in a show better remembered for its loud brightness, and the entire sequence is a sort of beautiful misery. Natsumi has no one to turn to in her grief, and by holding onto it, she thinks she's holding onto Fuyuki. It's achingly familiar, with a sting behind your eyes when tears threaten, but you can't bring yourself to cry them out. It makes you think about the pain you're holding on to because you're afraid of letting it go.

This is not the first time I have written about I'm Gonna Be an Angel, a series from 1999 that never got a full release in English. It's a series I think about a lot because it's so unexpected in many ways. This is one of the moments that haunts me because it's so easy to understand how hard it is to move forward without someone.


Grant Jones

Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture

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The final battle was over. The mighty villain – despite his awesome power – had been defeated. The ancient evil that was nearly released had been sealed away once again. But this victory came at a cost, as the woman our hero had grown close to across the course of his world-spanning adventures had sacrificed herself to weaken the villain and allow the final blow to be struck. Our hero was well-acquainted with loss, but this struck all the harder because he hoped this time worked out differently. Before leaving the site of the final battle, he cast aside his iconic hat and left it there to rest with her. The screen froze on a somber shot of our hero walking away, framed by beams of light, and the music kicked in.

“OO-OH AAAAANGEL!”

And in my grandparents' spare room on that early Saturday morning, young me cried real tears.

That's right, dear readers, the first anime to ever make me cry was Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture from the legendary Masami Obari. Now, I was not new to anime at this point. Based on a bit of digging and some very helpful broadcast documentation, it looks like this would have aired in late 1998, meaning I had been on the anime train for a few years already. But the kinds of anime that were being pushed – especially in the late 80s and early 90s – were seldom of the more emotional variety. This was the era of “not kids' stuff!” and the like, where violence and salacious content were a huge selling point to an American audience largely unaccustomed to animated works beyond tame half-hour toy commercials and feature-length musicals. In 1998, even Toonami was only in its early stages, when long-form serialized animated content could sustain complex plots and deeper emotional threads.

This wasn't even my first fighting game anime film. Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie was a favorite rental of mine, being a huge fan of any fighting game I could get my hands on. Sure, that was a rather serious take on the material, but I wouldn't exactly call it emotional or deep. It looked great and made sense, which put it in another league as far as most video game adaptations go, but I wouldn't describe myself as deeply invested in the cast. I expected I was in for a similar experience – some cool fights and great animation, nothing more.

Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture caught me from a completely different angle.

Sure, it had all the things I expected to see. I got to see some of my favorite characters do iconic moves and fight weirdos in strange locales. The Fury was as Fatal as I hoped! However, the film weaves in a somber element to Terry Bogard's character that I was unprepared for as a wee lad. I had no experience with or knowledge of the prior OVAs, so I was coming into this expecting the same Terry I was familiar with from the games: a bombastic brawler with outlandish special attacks. Instead, here was a world-weary warrior who had loved and lost and still kept up the fight, finding a glimmer of potential new love only to have that ripped away from him again. Mai and Andy juxtaposed with Terry and Sulia gave the film this strange mix of camaraderie and family (found and blood-related) that I was not anticipating. So when the emotional beats, cinematography, and music all aligned in those final moments, I cried for Terry and Sulia's tragic love.

Of course, I'm not the same person I was then. On rewatching a few years ago, it was clear that the melodrama was not as compelling to me as it had once been. Despite still loving the film, the rather simple characterization doesn't elicit the same intense emotions it did when I was a middle schooler. But it was a great early example of what anime would come to mean to me for the rest of my life: that the medium of animation can tell any story and elicit any feeling if done with careful thought and genuine effort.


Richard Eisenbeis

The Transformers: The Movie

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Now, I know I'm walking into a minefield with this pick. The "Is the original Transformers TV show anime?" debate has raged since the '90s and will probably continue until after I am dead. With the show, we have something based on a Japanese toy line (with many designed by Macross' Shōji Kawamori), written and directed by Americans, and animated in Japan by Toei Animation (for most of the episodes up to and including the movie). Luckily, as we're in an age where the somewhat similarly produced Scott Pilgrim Takes Off makes more than a few “top anime of the year” lists, I can ask everyone for some grace here.

I was too young to have seen The Transformers: The Movie in theaters. However, the series was still wildly popular throughout the late '80s and early '90s. There were constant reruns of the show on TV even after new episodes stopped getting made, and I remember the various daycare and after-school programs I went to always had at least a few VHS tapes filled with episodes to keep us occupied.

To say I was intimately familiar with The Transformers would be an understatement. My parents even used my love for the show as a bribe/distraction—they'd buy me a new Transformers toy every time we had a long car trip and let me get lost in my own little world.

I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 when it happened: the day my parents took me to the local library to rent some movies to watch over the weekend. There, among the massive collection of films, I found The Transformers: The Movie. The next day, as my parents did housework and yard work, I, the ever-bored only child, popped in the film—and had no idea what I was in for.

For those of you who have never seen The Transformers: The Movie, the movie's first act centered around an all-out attack on Autobot City by the Decepticons—one specifically timed for when Optimus Prime is away. Yet, when all seems lost, Optimus Prime returns in what was (and perhaps still is) the most memorable action sequence of the entire franchise. Set to Stan Bush's power ballad “The Touch,” Optimus Prime single-handedly blasts his way through the Decepticon ranks to face Megatron in one final battle—one that leaves Megatron at death's door… and Optimus Prime mortally wounded.

I cannot describe to you how devastating the death of Optimus Prime was to my child mind. He was more than just a hero and a leader. He was basically the father of the Autobot family—making him feel like a father figure in my life by proxy. I didn't cry at his death; I bawled uncontrollably—raged at the unfairness that Megatron not only lived but came back even stronger than before. And by the end of the film, all we were left with was Rodimus Prime—a kid trying to fill shoes that were far too big for him (and failing).

I remember I never really cared much for the post-Optimus Prime episodes of the series—so devastated was I by his death. Optimus Prime was The Transformers to me. Without him, it was lacking. However, thanks to this, I missed his fake resurrection (where he is brought back as a mind-controlled zombie and killed again within a single episode) and his true return in the final episodes of the third season.

Now, it's been nearly 35 years since I first saw the movie. And, in rewatching it for this article, I'm not going to pretend it even hit a billionth as hard as it did back then. But the feelings of sadness and hurt do still linger, even after all this time.


Lucas DeRuyter

Pokémon: The First Movie

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I was born in 1995 and am on the autism spectrum, so it was inevitable that I'd be obsessed with all things Pokémon while growing up. I'm reasonably certain that one iteration or another of the Pokémon franchise was my first video game, first anime, first manga, first trading card booster pack, and first movie. My mom made me two small plushies of Pikachu and Oddish — I don't know why she made one of Oddish, I think because it was easy for her to sew — so that I'd have quiet toys to play with during church! It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that Pokémon: The First Movie — alternatively and inconsistently titled Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back — is the first anime that made me cry.

Pokémon: The First Movie isn't particularly emotionally affecting, but Ash dies in it! If you're ballpark my age and experienced any level of Pokémania, you've probably already imagined the scene that caused Lil Lucas to start balling. Ash Ketchum, the ten-year-old Pokémon champion who recently ended his twenty-plus year career, charged in between a battling Mew and Mewtwo and was somehow turned into stone. Then, all the Pokémon fighting around him stop and begin to mourn the apparent death of the show-defining trainer.

Sure, their collective tears somehow revived the petrified child, but the sheer emotional manipulation of seeing dozens of Pokémon crying rend my young heart asunder! These are Pokémon after all! They're all supposed to be cool and friend-shaped; they can't be sad! Also, I'm pretty sure this scene is how I learned about what death was, so I imagine that contributed substantially to the waterworks.

Returning to this film, either in its original U.S. release or the Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back – Evolution remake, and comparing these productions to some of the other titles in this article, it's a little embarrassing that this is the first anime that made me cry. While this movie will always hold a special place in my heart, it isn't very good. This movie doesn't validate an aspect of my identity, offer catharsis to any part of my lived experiences, or even fill me with any particularly intense emotion as an adult.

This movie made me cry as a kid simply because disliked seeing all of the critters that I liked being sad and crying. It taught me about empathy, which is a pretty good thing for a children's movie to do. Of course, the film also drives home some other important ideas for kids to learn, like having inherent self-worth, coming together with people despite differences, and how even seemingly bad people can be suffering themselves.

I wish I had more of a reaction to this film today or had an epiphany regarding how it impacted my identity or values. This is just a middling kids' movie that was the way I learned about these themes and myself, and that's okay. Something doesn't have to be high art or “important” to make an impact on someone, and this movie will always mean a lot to me simply because I saw it exactly when I needed to learn about its themes and messages.


MrAJCoplay

Digimon Adventure

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Close your eyes for a minute and pretend it's the year 1999. You're six years old, it's Saturday morning, and you're ready to watch some good cartoons as a reward for your hellish time in elementary school. You turn on Digimon in the middle of its climactic arc and wait for the good guys to beat the bad guys like every other cartoon you've ever watched. But then something happens. A beloved character, an amazing ally, and an overall sweet existence is snuffed out of the series like putting out a candle in a dark room. You've seen fake-out deaths in Disney movies, but this one felt different. You'd know what I am referring to if you grew up watching Digimon, but everybody else might need some additional context.

Wizardmon was not a main character, but they were an integral one. Aside from being a generally sweet old man, their presence was pivotal in the character development of one of the more tragic characters in the series, Gatomon, who had gone through constant physical and emotional abuse at the hand of the main villain. She was forced to go through life without her destined partner and was manipulated into working alongside the main villain of the series. Other characters were going through heavy issues like depression and inferiority complexes, but those went right over my head as a kid. The stuff that Gatomon went through was much more direct and in your face. However, Wizardmon, one of her first friends, did everything to ensure that there was still a little bit of good left in her so she could finally be reunited with her destined partner. To simplify the context, this was my first introduction to a simplified version of the Uncle Iroh and Prince Zuko dynamic from Avatar.

Around this time, I became more aware of the darker storytelling in Digimon, and I'm thankful that even the English dub did not shy away from showcasing some of those more brutal elements. This one takes the cake because the death of Wizardmon at the hands of the main villain was something I didn't think was allowed as a kid. We've had characters “die” before, but they would always return in some capacity. This one felt permanent. This shook me to my core, and I was right alongside all of the characters gathering around his body and crying as he faded away. I still remember my mom asking me what was wrong when she came into my room and saw a bawling AJ on the floor. Wizardmon's final words still echo in my head about how being friends with Gatomon gave his life meaning. He was happy to go out protecting those he cared about (Rest in peace to Robert Axelrod for his amazing performance). That might sound cliché by today's standards, but for a kid back during the early days of licensed anime on Saturday morning television, this was a big deal, and I'm still impressed that Digimon did that to me.

As I started to enjoy anime more as a teenager and young adult, Toradora was always the show I would go to as the first one to make me cry. But the more I sat down and thought about it, the more I realized that it didn't seem right not to give credit to arguably the very first cartoon ever that made me cry. Back then, the writers for Digimon and the adaptive scriptwriters who worked on the dub had something special they wanted to share with kids. Sometimes life doesn't go the way you want, and the road to the happy ending you deserve isn't going to come easy. You will lose people along the way, but you're never truly alone as long as you keep those people in your memories.


Wei Yi Pua

Grave of the Fireflies

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At this point, this movie is no stranger to regular anime and Ghibli connoisseurs. I grew up listening to stories about the tragedies of war that struck Malaya (now part of Malaysia) during the 1930s from my grandmother. My grandmother was a child during the war and lived in poverty. One of my strongest memories from her retellings was never having enough food, as it was severely rationed during wartime. You can imagine it did not help with her already dire situation.

As I grew older, these retellings faded with time until I came across Grave of the Fireflies. I was 13, and it was a time when there was renewed popularity for Ghibli media in the region with the premiere of several Ghibli films on Disney Channel SEA and home DVDs sold at local video distributors like Speedy Video. I was already a growing Ghibli fan back then, and its increasing availability gave me the much-needed entrance to explore more works from the studio.

After watching several films by Hayao Miyazaki and loving them, I decided to explore the works of the studio's other directors, like those from Isao Takahata. Grave of the Fireflies was his most prominent work at the time, and I decided to start with this film. I cried for a good hour or so after the movie because it was just so heart-wrenching, especially at the sight of her corpse being burned under the clear blue sky. It seemed almost contradictory to me because a sad death happened on what could've been a good day to go out and have fun for the many of us, without discounting the MCs of the movie.

What struck me the most was how the movie portrayed Setsuko's death. It wasn't immediate, but a slow and gradual one as the movie unfolds the circumstances leading up to that point, with the siblings struggling to fend for themselves after the death of their mother. The concept of the explicit portrayal of death and war for an animated film was very new to me at the time for someone who grew up watching Disney during my formative years. And with that, I always thought that animated films were made to have good endings with uplifting and inspiring characters and stories. But this movie clearly said that they can do more than just that. I also remember being torn at the revelation that Seita and I were around the same age when I first watched this movie. Still, I clearly fared better than he ever did for one to have been born in the considerably peaceful 21st century. The thought made me depressed for the whole week.

On rewatch for this guide, it wasn't as traumatizing for me as the first time, but it made me remember why I shed my first tears for an animated medium that I had thought was supposed to make us feel good with a happy ending. Instead, it gave me new perspectives about the boundaries animation can push; it is more than just for kids. Dubbed as one of the greatest war films of all time by several media outlets, rewatching it as an adult reaffirmed my thoughts on why it is and deservingly so.


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