Whenever people hear the word “anime,” the first examples to come to mind are titles like NARUTO and DRAGON BALL SUPER. You know, the more action-packed epics with extraordinary superpowers and law-defying physics. After all, that’s the type of stuff that grabs a viewer’s attention in the first place — that’s what did it for me, anyway. Although after years of watching anime, I’ve realized that there’s more beyond the bigger titles. I soon found myself gravitating towards more dramatic, particularly emotional anime.

To clarify, when I say “emotional,” I mean the heartbreaking, soul-crushing, I’m-not-ugly-crying-you-are type of emotional. The kind that leaves you with an empty pit in your chest and wondering why you even bothered to watch it. Personally, I find something incredibly special in watching a show that makes you cry. If you’d like to ride along the wave of feels, here are five emotional anime we think you should check out, as well as how and why they are so affecting!

Family and Loss – GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES

Seita carrying Setsuko in GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
Siblings Seita and Setsuko from GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES | Image: Letterboxd

In Studio Ghibli’s GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, the throes of war tear a family apart. Released in 1988, this film is absolute misery—in all the right ways. Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical piece from 1967, the film takes place during the last few months of World War II. The movie opens in rural Japan, focusing on a teenager named Seita slowly dying from starvation. Right away, we feel pity for this teenage boy. Seeing him struggle so helplessly makes us feel disheartened until he ultimately passes away. After his death, the movie introduces his dead little sister Setsuko and the siblings’ spirits reunite. (At this point, you’re only about three minutes into the film.)

Soon after, the spirits board a train together. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES’ story picks up from there. The film transports viewers back in time to illustrate how their lives used to be. Even though we know the siblings are dead, it doesn’t make their unfortunate fates, nor those of their loved ones, any less painful to watch. In revisiting the lives that Seita and Setsuko lived, we witness an endearing brother-sister bond as they struggle in a world without their parents. This then puts a lot of added pressure on Seita’s role as big brother. A lot of the film’s sentimentality comes from seeing how much Seita cares for Setsuko.

In sum, this Ghibli film does a great job painting a wholesome picture of a struggling family, and it’s easy to grow attached to them. Therefore, losing Seita, Setsuko, and watching them lose their family members is simply tragic for us, too.

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A Special Bond – FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD

Brothers Ed and Al Elric star in fighting stances from FULLEMETAL ALCHEMIST, an emotional anime
FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST brothers Ed and Al | Image: VIZ Media

By the same token, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST’s story is deeply rooted in the theme of family. Created by Hiromu Arakawa, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD is actually the second anime adaptation of the manga but follows it more closely in 64 episodes. The main plot of this anime revolves around the bond of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. At a young age, their father abandons them and their mother falls ill. These circumstances are in themselves saddening. The siblings demonstrate an ability in alchemy early on so when their mother dies, they attempt to bring her back to life. Heartbreakingly, their efforts backfire. They are unable to revive their mother, Ed loses two limbs, and Al loses his entire body. Not only did they fail to bring back their mother and thus lose a part of their hearts psychologically, they’ve now experienced a very physical loss, too.

Because Al’s soul is bound to a suit of armor and Ed needs prosthetic limbs, the siblings gain a new objective: restore their bodies. Through this journey, the brothers constantly watch out for each other. In this way, the camaraderie between them is touching. They only have each other, and the anime emphasizes this bond. When the siblings face numerous near-death experiences or the risk of separation, we feel terrible; we feel as devastated and helpless as they do. Again, this emphasizes how the efficacy of emotional anime is based on building these powerful relationships (and possibly severing them).

Through their journey, we find ourselves rooting for the Elric brothers unconditionally. Their struggles become ours, too, as we so desperately want them to be happy.

Powerful Friendship and Alternate Universes – ORANGE

Main characters from ORANGE
ORANGE teaches us the power of friendship | Image: Crunchyroll

ORANGE, a 13-episode anime based on the shojo series by mangaka Ichigo Takano, captures the theme of friendship beautifully. ORANGE explores an alternate universe where protagonist Naho Takamiya and her friends keep their new friend, Kakeru Naruse, alive. The story unfolds through several letters written by the past selves of Kakeru’s surviving friends. Unfortunately, the reality of this emotional anime is that Kakeru takes his own life. Consequently, his friends experience immense guilt and regret, blaming themselves for his death. In this way, we feel empathy for the friends and we are more invested in their mission to save him. The letters are meant to “prevent” his suicide and they are able to create an alternate timeline where they succeed.

In following them on this mission, we witness a wholesome bond develop between this circle of friends. We watch them grow as individuals together. In both lamenting over Kakeru’s death and fighting to keep him alive, the group learns a lot in two different universes. In one world, we watch them learn to forgive themselves. We realize that the letters serve as a form of grief and as a means of healing. In the other, we see how their trust builds and flourishes. Here, the letters help them care for Kakeru and their care and sympathy towards each other grows.

With some series, you win some or you lose some, yet we seem to get both in ORANGE. Moreover, in being able to witness both parallel universes unfolding at the same time, the resulting emotional toll doubles for us. ORANGE both celebrates and memorializes life, and tells a beautiful story of what is and what could have been.

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The Epitome of Love and Awful Timing – 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND

Takaki Tono and Akari Shinohara before a vast dusk sky from 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND
Distance can be painful, as seen in 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND | Image: IMDb

In 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND, prepare to experience a beautiful blend of nostalgia and heartbreak. The 2007 romantic drama film, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, revolves around the love between classmates Takaki Tono and Akari Shinohara. The story follows them over the course of nearly two decades. In this time, they both develop strong feelings for each other, but inevitably separate. The three parts of the film cover different stages in the lovers’ lives.

We watch two people fall in love and inevitably we want them to be with each other. However, after being forced to move away from each other, they painfully move on with their lives. For a while, they try to keep in touch through writing, but eventually, the promise to do so falls apart. And yet, they never quite forget each other. Despite being apart, they are still connected through these deep feelings and, amazingly, uncanny dreams.

Their lasting fondness and yearning for one another seem to leak into their subconscious, to the point where they dream of one another. Nonetheless, in reality, the two never seem to get the timing right and this is underlined by the film’s bittersweet ending. 

This emotional anime is so sorrowful because we know that these two characters still care for each other. In a way, we watch the death of a potential relationship and we grieve for them. We are then left to lament: they could have been so happy together.

Moving on is Tough – ANGEL BEATS!

Kanade Tachibana and Yuri Nakamura back to back from ANGEL BEATS!
Heroines Kanade Tachibana and Yuri Nakamura of ANGELS BEATS! | Image: Hulu

In ANGEL BEATS!, a 13-episode series by Jun Maeda, all of the characters are dead teenagers stuck in an “afterlife school.” This blunt reality establishes the story’s mournful mood. Ultimately, their true goal is to pass on to begin their next life (in the afterlife).

What makes this anime so emotional is the fact that almost everyone does pass on eventually so we essentially watch everyone “die” a second time. This process of “moving on” is exceptionally touching because of what it entails — to understand their past and accept their pain. Through getting to know these characters, we also take on the hardships they experienced and are currently experiencing. In this way, ANGEL BEATS! is especially powerful because the series addresses different true-to-life issues. We then watch how these teens cope with the sad fact that they cannot change their pasts. But they do have control over their futures.

Overall, watching these characters move on is bittersweet. The overall goal for all of them has always been to be set free, but in seeing that happen, we watch them lose each other as they vanish in different instances, into the unknown “afterlife.” On top of feeling empathetic for them, for all that they had to endure, we experience a strange combination of sad/happy; we are happy that they can pass on, but we are also sad because they’re leaving.

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Emotional Anime: A Fantastic, Terrible Time

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why would I want to watch something so overwhelmingly emotional?” The simple answer is because emotional anime are just so good story-wise. We are more likely to be engaged with a story if it has emotional and dramatic weight. They also often encourage us to reflect on our own lives and relationships.

In an article by Medical Daily, they explore a published study which found that “The emotional pain derived from watching tragedy… triggers the endorphin system, which as a result, leads us to experience happiness.” The article goes on to explain that when we see a negative experience, we may be “more appreciative of the positive aspects of our own lives.” This means that in spite of the pain that you may experience while watching these heart-wrenching anime, you are likely to feel good and more positive afterward.

Anime can be more than just superhuman strength and glorious fighting. There are so many different types of experiences you can have while immersing yourself in anime. In this case, emotional anime can both tug at your heartstrings and encourage you to reflect on who you are or want to be. Whether it’s through addressing important social bonds or immersing you heart-first in stories of loss, you are guaranteed to feel. So if you are looking for a dramatic roller coaster and a profound viewing experience, emotional anime are for you.

Featured image courtesy of IMDb.

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