Estimated reading time: 18 minute(s)

On June 3, 2021, I came across a SoraNews24 article listing the results of a poll in Japan from the “Anime! Anime!” website, asking people what their five favorite “depressing” anime series were. The list jumped out to me because the number-five choice of readers – School Days – was an anime that I have covered in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail here at The New Leaf Journal. The list inspired me to make my own list, but not before going into the anatomy of what constitutes a “depressing” anime, or other piece of literature or televisual media, and why School Days does not satisfy the dual criteria of “depressing” and “good.”

Sayaka, Mami, and Madoka in episode 3 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Screenshot from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a series that will feature prominently in this article – clipped from Crunchyroll

The Depressing Anime List

Before going into my own thoughts, I will briefly examine the list that resulted from the Anime! Anime! poll, as reported by SoraNews24. The poll was open for responses from May 18 through May 25, 2021, and 195 individuals responded. 65% of the respondents were female. 50% were aged 19 or younger. Below, you will find the top five with links to information about each series:

  1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  2. Higurashi: When they Cry
  3. Banana Fish
  4. Attack on Titan
  5. School Days

My Takes on the List

To begin, I have not seen Banana Fish and am not familiar with it, so I have nothing to offer on that series.

I recommended Puella Magi Madoka Magica last December in my “anime recommendations from 2011-2020” list (scroll down after opening link). It goes without saying that I think it is a good series. While it would not be my choice for the best depressing anime, it is definitely unrelentingly dark and deserves a spot on any depressing anime list.

While I have not watched either the 2006 or 2020 Higurashi: When they Cry series, I have played through the eight sound novels upon which both series were based. The sound novels are dark and full of dashed hope, murder, and insanity. Quite certainly dark, and I will venture that both anime series (which I may watch down the line) are suitably dark for inclusion on this kind of list. Update (4.29.22): I watched the 2020-2021 Higurashi series in 2021. As a fan of the visual novels, it was interesting to see this continuation of what seemed to be a completed story. While my ultimate conclusion is that it is best to consider the visual novel to be the end of things, the new series was quite dark and brutal, and merits consideration for a depressing anime list. I may watch the 2006 series at some point, but since my understanding is that it tracks the visual novels which I completed over about 75 hours, it is not high on my to-do list.

Regarding Attack on Titan, I watched 7-8 episodes of it a few years ago. Why did I not watch more? Because I thought it was terrible. Bland characters, generic shōnen tropes, and all-around unpleasant to watch. I will grant, however, that I am not the audience for Attack on Titan and that it may have improved in later seasons. I saw enough to see its very “depressing” points – especially in its first episode – but I will not be returning to it, so I have no keen insights to offer.

On the subject of School DaysI said plenty. Now let us examine the anatomy of a “depressing” anime, and why School Days may not fit the bill despite its dark and tragic plot.

What Makes an Anime Series (or other art) “Depressing”?

Before continuing to offer my own list, I ought to specify what constitutes a “depressing” anime.

For my list, I will separate substance from feelings. Five people may watch the same show, read the same book, or play the same game and come away with different feelings from the experience. To use an example of how this may taint the “depressing anime” analysis – imagine a series like School Days centered on a love triangle. Let us imagine that the show resolves the love triangle with a couple forming and one character left on the outside looking in – but no murder like in School Days. It is entirely possible that, depending on how one feels about or relates to one character or another, this anime could be “depressing.” Perhaps one viewer may find that the series hits too close to home. Meanwhile, another viewer may not find anything depressing about the outcome.

Thus, let us separate feelings from the actual content of a series. There should be two aspects to a “depressing” anime series (this may apply to non-anime media as well). First, the events of the series themselves should have the effect of casting gloom upon or causing dejection in the dramatic personae. Secondly, the series must be written in a manner as to cause the ordinary viewer to feel sympathy for the depressing circumstances of the characters in question and to have some interest in seeing said characters find better circumstances.

Let us clarify specific points about my criteria for a depressing anime.

A Happy Ending Does Not Disqualify a Series

I defined a depressing anime as containing events that have the effect of causing gloom or dejection to descend upon the dramatic personae. Many series that may fit the bill have happy endings. I noted in my School Days review that the series is unusual in that no one in it has a happy ending.

The fact that a series may end well for the main characters who faced depressing circumstances does not necessarily disqualify the series from being a depressing anime. A tragedy or depressing series may conclude with catharsis for the afflicted characters and may well be better for it.

When considering whether a series is depressing on the whole, we should consider the content of the series in its entirety. A 24 episode series that features a short depressing arc and twenty mostly light-hearted and comedic episodes is unlikely to be considered by most viewers to be depressing on the whole. Its depressing arc may be more memorable in light of its incongruence with the general thrust of the show, but it is that general thrust that we should consider in determining whether the series as a whole is depressing.

The Inclusion of Sympathetic Characters Is Necessary For a Good Depressing Series

In order for a series to be properly considered depressing, it must have the tendency to elicit sympathy for the characters undergoing depressing circumstances. This is precisely why I would not place School Days on a depressing anime list. There is no question that the circumstances described in School Days – poor life choices, cheating, emotional cruelty, and homicide – are depressing. However, the series is written in such a way as to elicit a reaction of relief in viewers when the main character earns his violent comeuppance for his conduct throughout the series. Furthermore, with two debatable exceptions, most of the other main and supporting characters are little more sympathetic than the main character.

When considering whether a series is properly depressing, ask yourself whether it gave you any reason to care about, or feel sympathy for, the depressing circumstances endured by the characters. Merely depicting depressing things does not make a piece of art depressing. Inclusion of a character with whom one can relate or feel sympathy toward for undergoing depressing circumstances is a necessity for a good piece of depressing art.

I use the “have the tendency to” language to distinguish the art itself from the effect that it may have on any specific viewer. For example, I noted that I agree fully with the voters in the poll described by SoraNews24 that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the finest “depressing” anime. It clearly and beyond doubt depicts depressing events. Whether one sympathizes with the characters may depend on whether he or she enjoys the show as a whole. That is, it may not produce the same strong feelings in one viewer that it produces in another. But, on the whole andallowing for different tastes and preferences, I think that Madoka is structured well enough such that it has the tendency to produce sympathy for the characters and their dark circumstances even if it may not actually produce the effect in every viewer.

Preface to My Selection of Five Depressing Anime

In the spirit of the SoraNews24 list, I will choose my five favorite depressing anime.

A few notes before continuing.

I will not present my list as a ranking, but there is one anime series that stands above and apart from all other anime series that I have seen that satisfy my criteria for a depressing series.. For that reason, I will lead my list with Now and Then, Here and There and provide a feature description befitting its status as the finest depressing anime series when considering both the list criteria and its overall quality.

Beyond Now and Then, Here and There, I will choose four series that I enjoyed and that meet my depressing criteria. These series will not be presented in any order, but their inclusion on my list is my endorsement of their quality. After listing the main series, I will include additional series with much shorter descriptions.

For this list, I will restrict my list to anime series and exclude movies. Firstly, it appears that the list described by SoraNews24 only featured series. Secondly, I am far more well-versed in anime series than I am in movies. However, for those of you looking for a depressing anime movie, consider Grave of the Fireflies as the quintessential choice. My favorite anime movie, 5 Centimeters Per Second, also qualifies, although this article is not the place for the nuanced take that it deserves.

Finally, my list is limited by two things. Firstly, I can only include anime series that I have actually watched. As I noted in my brief discussion of the Higurashi anime, I am sure there are plenty of series that I have not seen that could in theory have made my article if I had seen them. With that being said, I have watched a very large number of anime series – most of which aired in the last 20 years, so I do think I am well qualified to make a solid, albeit not all-encompassing, list. Secondly, my list is also limited by my own preferences. For example, with respect to the SoraNews24 list, I noted that I could not make it through the first season of Attack on Titan, which is a popular series both in Japan and abroad. Your Lie in April is depressing, but I did not like it enough to include it on this list. Because I will only include series that I think are good, I will exclude series with depressing content that I do not think are good.

For those who are interested, you can learn more about the shows I have watched and my preferences in the preface to my article recommending anime series that aired from 2011-2020.

Spoiler Note

The purpose of each synopsisis to give you an idea of why each series deserves a place on my depressing anime list under my chosen criteria.I will refrain from including any meaningful spoilers in my description of the series. However, I will discuss events from some of the series in general terms. On the whole, I will not disclose more about any of the shows than what you should expect to find in a review geared toward giving one an idea of whether you should watch it.

Now and Then, Here and There

Now and Then, Here and There is a 13 episode original anime that aired from October 14, 1999, to January 20, 2000. It came courtesy of Studio AIC. Its director was Akitaro Daichi, and it was written by Hideyuki Kurata.

What is Now and Then, Here and There About?

A boy named Shu is walking home from kendo practice after school when he runs into a mysterious blue-haired girl, Lala-Ru, sitting on a smokestack. Before he can get to know her, they are transported by a mysterious group of individuals to a different world far in the future. This other world is a wasteland, lacking water and covered by sand.

Shu an dLala-Ru meet in episode 1 of Noe and Then, Here and There.
The fateful meeting on the smokestacks. Lala-Ru is on the left and Shu is on the right.

Shu is conscripted into an army of child soldiers led by a gentleman who bears a resemblance to a certain former German Führer. Shu sticks to his youthful and idealistic ideals of nonviolence and kindness while searching for Lala-Ru, regardless of the hardships he suffers. In this future dystopia, Shu encounters both the best and worst of humanity, and has his optimism challenged by another girl from his era who is transported to the world and suffers even greater hardships than he does.

Why is Now and Then, Here and There “Depressing”?

Now and Then, Here and There is proof that a show need not have depictions of gratuitous violence to be brutal. The protagonist, Shu, is truly an ordinary nice boy transported into an extraordinarily awful world. One theme in the show is that things can and will always find a way to become worse.

Through it all, Shu stays true to himself, and puts himself at great personal risk as he rejects giving in to the awfulness of the world. His spirit reaches some but not others, and he learns that there are definite limits to how much charity can do for someone in terrible circumstances.

To the extent Now and Then, Here and There reaches some degree of catharsis at the end, it is still rather melancholy. A happy ending under terrible circumstances cannot bring back what was lost, nor can it lift the weight of what Shu and some of the other unfortunate characters in an unfortunate world saw and experienced.

Now and Then, Here and There is my clear choice for the best depressing anime – combining high quality and fidelity to being depressing from start to finish. It is a beautiful series about an ugly world, and one of the finest anime productions to have ever aired.

Where to Watch Now and Then, Here and There

The series is available for purchase as a DVD set and on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Clannad After Story

The Clannad anime series is based on a visual novel of the same name. The first season, Clannad, aired from 2007-2008. The second season, Clannad After Story, aired from 2008-2009. Each season contained 22 episodes, although there were five additional episodes depicting alternative timelines.

The underlying Clannad visual novel was produced by Key. Both seasons of the anime were created by Kyoto Animation. The anime series was directed by Tatsuya Ishihara and written by Fumihiko Shimo.

I am only selecting the second season, After Story, for my depressing anime list. However, After Story follows directly from the first season, so my structuring of the list should not be taken as an endorsement of the idea that the first season is not a prerequisite for watching and enjoying After Story.

What is Clannad After Story About?

The main characters of both Clannad seasons are Tomoya Okazaki and Nagisa Furukawa. Both start the series in their final year of high school, although Nagisa had been held back for a year due to missing classes on account of sickness. Tomoya is kind, but a listless truant with no future and issues with his father. Nagisa is kind, painfully shy, and very sickly. The first season tracks the development of their relationship as they encounter various classmates and learn about their troubles.

After Story starts strangely, covering several side characters in what are the weakest story arcs of both seasons. However, it eventually (and mercifully) switches back to the main couple and their decision to get married after Tomoya graduates. Given the omnipresent doom surrounding Nagisa, they unsurprisingly encounter many hardships after tying the knot.

Why is Clannad After Story Depressing?

This is an easy question to answer for anyone who has seen the series. For the uninitiated, I cannot say too much without spoiling, but Nagisa’s perpetually poor health and the appearance that she must be cursed loom over the otherwise happy newlyweds as Clannad After Story crosses the half-way point of its run.

It is no secret that visual novels produced by Key and their anime adaptations (e.g., Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet, Air, Kanon, Clannad, Little Busters) set out with the goal of producing tears. Although Kanon (2006) is my favorite Key anime adaptation (and a fair candidate for this list in its own right), Clannad, more than any other, creates two very sympathetic characters whose suffering is not in any way self-inflicted or warranted.

Clannad, like all Key projects, is a work of magical realism. This tends to give its characters a chance to (very much) earn a happy ending. Clannad goes into some peculiar territory in the end – heavily foreshadowed from the outset of the first season – but for the better part of the main part of its run, it puts its characters through a depressing and emotionally draining gauntlet.

The first season has its depressing parts and emotional moments, but I would not say it is depressing in the sense I am looking for on this list. However, as I noted at the top, it is necessary for understanding and appreciating the second season.

Where Can I Watch Clannad and Clannad After Story?

Both seasons of Clannad are available to stream in the United States from HiDive.

White Album 2

White Album 2 is a 13-episode anime series that aired in 2013. It is based on the first half of a two-visual novel series of the same name. The anime series was produced by studio Statelight and directed by Seiya Numata and Masaomi Andō. The lead writer was Fumiaki Maruto.

There is a White Album 1 visual novel and anime. However, White Album is not a prerequisite to White Album 2. The series feature entirely different casts and stories. Although they are set in the same world, they occur many years apart. The only reference to White Album that I remember seeing in White Album 2 was to a song and idol from the “first” season.

What is White Album 2 About?

White Album 2 is laser-focused on the budding love triangle between its three main characters, all in their final months of high school. Haruki Kitahara is the best student in his class and a member of the light music club. Setsuna Ogiso is a kind and popular student who happens to be a good singer. Kazusa Touma is a brooding, acerbic, and melancholy former piano prodigy who often skips class and cares little about grades or appearances. The three come together to fulfill Haruki’s goal of taking the stage at the school festival, and only after they become good friends do the problems begin.

Touma, Setsuna, and Haruki talking in the music room in episode 5 of White Album 2.
From left to right: Touma, Setsuna, and Haruki. Screen capture from Crunchyroll.

Why is White Album 2 Depressing?

For those who read my negative School Days review – White Album 2 is an example of what the School Days concept can be if the team behind it is committed to creating a compelling drama instead of a flaming train-wreck. (For whatever it is worth, White Album arguably has more similarities to School Days than White Album 2, but White Album 2 is without question the superior series.)

The show’s opening theme song, A Love That Cannot Reach, is ultimately foreshadowing – and sums up why White Album 2 earns a spot on the list

Where School Days set out to make its protagonist so unsympathetic that the audience would be tempted to celebrate his demise, White Album 2 treats all three of its characters with care.

The characters make a hash of their love triangle through their own actions. Each character has his or her own flaw which contributes to their troubles. One may be dense, another incapable of conveying feelings, and another determined to have it all when circumstances make it impossible. They make many mistakes, and their problems are avoidable, but the writers manage to create a mostly believable script wherein the flawed actions of the characters are consistent with their respective characterization.

White Album 2 is not depressing because of who wins or loses, but because all three of the main characters contribute to making a mess of a situation that could have been handled reasonably had they had more forthrightness and perspective.

(My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, one of my favorites all-time series, is an example of a similarly structured love triangle that is handled much better by the parties to the love triangle – thus removing one of the key “depressing” aspects featured in White Album 2.)

Where Can I Watch White Album 2?

White Album 2 is available on Crunchyroll.

Ef: A Tale of Memories & Ef: A Tale of Melodies

Ef: A Tale of Memories aired for 12 episodes in 2007, and its sequel, Ef: A Tale of Melodies, aired for 12 episodes in 2008. Both anime series are adaptations of Ef: A Fair Tale of the Two, a visual novel. The anime series was created by Shaft, directed by Shin Oonuma, and written by Katsuhiko Takayama.

What is Ef About?

Both seasons of Ef focus on two distinct stories.

Memories covers a budding romance between Renji Aso, an ordinary boy, and Chihiro Shindo, a girl whose memory resets daily. The second story covers a love triangle Hiro Hirono, an apathetic high school student who is most passionate about a career in manga, Miyako Miyamura, a mysterious free spirit, and Kei Shindo, Hiro’s childhood friend.

You may note that Chihiro and Kei share a last name. They are sisters, but live apart. Half of the story takes place in Japan and the other half takes place in a replica of the Japanese town in Australia. Ef is strange.

The second season has one arc that takes place in the past – showing the relationship between Yu Himura and Yuko Amamiya. In the present, it covers the relationship between Shuichi Kuze, who is dying, and Mizuki Hayama, who played a small supporting role in Memories.

Ef sounds like a train-wreck from the description. By all rights it should be one. Its artistic direction borders on pretentious, its plot is convoluted, and never before have I seen a show drenched in as much melodrama as Ef (for the record, my position is that melodrama tends to be a bad thing). But Ef defies the odds and somehow works. It is assertive, confident in what it is, and has some genuinely beautiful scenes. It does not always hit, but it hits far more than it misses (Memories is decisively the better season, however).

Why is Ef Depressing?

Both Ef seasons combine for a single depressing anime recommendation. Taken together, Ef is without question the strangest and most idiosyncratic series on my list.

All four of the stories across both seasons feature their share of angst and melodrama. The most depressing is without question the Yu/Yuko story in Ef Melodies, specifically Yuko’s backstory, which the team delivers with some stunning direction and voice acting. Both Memories arcs can be oppressively depressing at their key points.

No discussion of Ef is complete without commending the show’s bold artistic direction. While Ef does not succeed in every scene, it manages to accompany its dramatic and depressing moments with some beautiful animation and direction. It is a boldly creative show that generally manages to avoid outsmarting itself, channeling its creativity to present the narrative in a compelling way to viewers.

Where Can I Watch Ef?

Ef used to be available for streaming on Crunchyroll and HiDive. Unfortunately, that seems to no longer be the case. However, the DVDs are still readily available from numerous online retailers.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica aired for 12 episodes in 2012. Like Now and Then, Here and There, it is an original anime series with no underlying source material. Like Ef, Madoka is a product of studio Shaft. It was directed by Yukihiro Miyamoto and Akiyuki Shino and written by Gen Urobuchi.

What is Puella Magi Madoka Magica About?

Madoka Kaname and her friend, Sayaka Miki, are told by a mysterious cat-like creature that they can have a wish granted in return for becoming magical girls. Before deciding, they encounter two magical girls. Mami Tomoe, who seems to support the idea of their becoming magical girls, and the mysterious Akemi Homura, who is very much opposed.

Throughout the show, it becomes clear that being a magical girl in the Madoka universe is not sparkly fun like it is in many other series of the genre. Instead, it is characterized by despair, the risk of death, and an oppressive foreboding sense of doom.

Why is Puella Magi Madoka Magica Depressing?

While Madoka is not my choice for the best depressing anime, it deserves a place high on the list.

The team behind Madoka set out to create a series that would subvert its audience’s initial expectations. That subverting of expectations comes rather early in the series’ run. As the despair of the series’ protagonists mounts, the series refrains from showing its full hand until its final episodes, wherein the nature of magical girls and the interest of many characters in Madoka become clear.

Madoka benefits from a very tight narrative and a generous animation budget. It cleverly ties the emotional states of the characters and their respective ability to endure with their natures as magical girls.

More than a subversion of the genre, Madoka is a terrific and depressing series from start to finish. I concur broadly with the voters in the poll described by SoraNews24.

Where Can I Watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica?

Puela Magi Madoka Magica is available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

Honorable Mention

Below, I will list other depressing anime series to consider. Due note, as always, that this is not a ranking, and I in fact like some of the honorable mention shows more than certain primary choices. I will list the additional recommendations in chronological order.

These are just 15 additional series (and single seasons) that meet my depressing criteria in a general sense while also being solid shows. The list is in no way exhaustive, and some series that I chose and omitted are perhaps borderline cases. As proof that this is not an overall ranking, astute viewers will note I included the second season of my favorite series from 2011-2020, March Comes in Like a Lion. I may discuss some of the series on my main list and additional list in detail in future articles.

Most of the series on the list are available to stream from either Crunchyroll, Funimation, or HiDive.

I Lied Before: The True Winner is “Bye Bye Butterfree”

When I said that the magnificent Now and Then, Here and There is the best depressing anime when combining its quality and depressing nature, I was not being entirely honest.

What if there is one anime episode that is so perfect and so depressing, that it is a series unto itself?

There is.

Bye Bye Butterfree was an episode of the first season of the Pokémon anime. It aired in Japan on August 19, 1997, and in the United States on October 5, 1998.

I’m not crying. I just got some stun spore in my eye.

Ash's released Butterfree and its new mate in the Bye Bye Butterfree episode of the original Pokemon anime.
I hope you find happiness, Butterfree! Clipped from the episode on the official website.

You can watch Bye Bye Butterfree on the Pokémon website.

Final Thoughts

If you have any thoughts, takes, or requests based on this article, by all means tell me in the Guestbook. I am ready to discuss any view other than denying that Bye Bye Butterfree is the finest depressing anime to ever air.