Key and the Art of Tragedy

by eternal on January 31, 2009


Allusions to manly shooting games aside, I have noticed in my travels through anime and visual novels – particularly the romance-centric ones – that the device of tragedy is very common. Whether in male-targetted visual novels like AIR or more gender-neutral (or even female-targetted) stories like Saikano and Fruits Basket, tragic love stories are a common theme. However, this bleak setting has also received its fair share of criticism, particularly due to the predictable nature of the “genre”, if you will.

Consequently, it seems to me that tragedy is a sort of art. It is also personal preference, of course, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that some tragedies are more equal than others. So, with Toki wo Kizamu Uta still melancholically echoing in my ears, I’d like to take a closer look at these Sad Nouns in Season that I so adore and possibly figure out just why I adore them.


The first candidate that I would like to bring up is Narcissu, stage-nana’s famed doujin visual novel that’s often praised for being on the same level as Key’s Planetarian. The mere setting of Narcissu is enough to let anyone know what to expect: it’s a story of two human beings with no hope left in life, and their futile attempt to enjoy what little they have left. When I played the game, I was astonished, in a good way: tragedies had always appealed to me, but the addition of the male character’s illness made the story feel all the more real. Instead of feeding the whole mamoru-ism phenomenon used to add to the female character’s appeal, Narcissu delivered the truth in as blatant and unforgiving a way as they could. And, quite frankly, the truth was crushing.

However, Narcissu also falls victim to one of the most common complaints about tragic stories, being that you can see the end from the moment you begin. She Dies At The End, as some would call it: a story in which the tragedy is so prevalent that there isn’t even a shred of doubt remaining. Much like watching Clannad After Story after having played the game or seen the movie, the impact of the tragedy can be lessened when you know what to expect beforehand, and the drama can often feel forced and contrived.

This, I believe, represents the first form of tragedy in anime: stories which are tragic from the first episode to the last. The second form, as I see it, is well described by AIR: tragedy that strikes when you least expect it.


Arguably, I can understand why one would be hesitant to call the ending of AIR a surprise. It’s based on a Key game, after all, and the allusions toward Misuzu’s curse are telling to the keen observer. However, watching the show objectively without any prior knowledge of it would give off the feeling of little more than an innocent love story with a surreal setting and background. We can all see that there are some fantasy elements present in the story, but there is nothing that directly states that the clumsy air-headed girl that drinks strange juice will die under that scorching summer sun, and that there is nothing you can do about it.

I believe that this is easily one of the most powerful forms of tragedy, because it utilizes the characters that were developed throughout the course of the show and concludes their stories with death. If the viewer – and worse yet, the main character – knew that she would die, they probably would have acted differently. The show would give off a more bittersweet feel rather than a soul-crushing feel, because we all would have known that tragedy was inevitable. However, the story develops with as much joy and innocence as Kanon, in the same make-believe world that the viewer projects themselves into, and with the same surreal undertones that emphasize the fantasy and do little more.

However, when tragedy strikes, the viewer is completely unprepared. Much like with Ayu’s supposed death in the second-last episode of Kanon, the “illness” that strikes Misuzu shocks the viewer as much as it shocks Yukito. We all felt an inkling of the truth beforehand, and we all wanted to pretend that the truth wasn’t actually true; and even toward the end of the show, where Misuzu’s death was almost certain, I still felt myself clinging on to some form of hope. It wasn’t like Narcissu or Saikano where you know that the characters are doomed right from the beginning: it was a tale that, by some miracle, could have still ended well. It wasn’t until Misuzu’s final moments in her mother’s arms that I truly realized that it was over, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.


Somewhat of a prototype for what we now know of as the visual novel genre, Kanon incorporated tragedy in a manner that was, more or less, neither too blatant nor too shocking.

With all of that said, some might disapprove of this form of tragedy because it comes out of nowhere. Used incorrectly, the drama might seem like nothing more than a tool to make a casual or fun series feel more serious. Take the poorly-implemented would-be tragedies from the Da Capo anime, for instance: whether focusing on Nemu’s sakura-coughing illness or Yoshiyuki’s not-so-human existance, the tragedy was quite simply “too little, too late”. This might be more of the anime’s fault than the source material, but either way, I was hardly moved by the casts’ pleas against fate for their conflicts to resolve themselves, because there was hardly any transition between Banana-tan messing around and Junichi’s non-blood-related imouto facing the probability of death. Not to mention that the tragedy in itself was forced, and it failed to generate much of an emotional response even when it did strike.

On the other hand, sola struck me just as powerfully as AIR, and I believe that the series of twists that occurred at the end would not have been as dramatic if the viewer could see them from the start.

This brings me to what I believe to be the third and final form of tragedy, being, quite simply, a combination of the above two. Tragedy is implied strongly from the very beginning, but the viewer has no real way of knowing what’s coming until it’s too late. I don’t believe there are too many examples of this type, especially since its effect is based strongly on the viewer’s ability to read between the lines – I, for one, doubted the inevitable in Saikano until thing really started falling apart. Thus, for lack of a better example and for my own personal enjoyment, I’d like to draw attention to Shiori’s arc in Kanon.


This blog has been way overdue for a Shiori picture.

Shiori’s tragedy was ultimately not a tragedy at all. However, looking at it from the perspective of development, one can see how the knowledge of her illness seeps into the viewer’s mind at a rate that is neither too fast nor too slow. Her “disease” – Keyicitis, as some like to call it – certainly doesn’t appear out of nowhere, but it isn’t stated from the very beginning either. It’s simply implied through her uncanny actions; she creates doubt in the viewer’s mind, enough to make them question who or what she really is yet not enough to make them realize “ah, I get it, she’s going to die.” In some ways, one can say that all of Kanon was developed like this, with the hints toward Ayu’s and Makoto’s past being just enough to get you thinking, assuming that you were analyzing each episode.

There is little need for me to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of this third form of tragedy, because it would quite simply be a combination of the above two forms. Unlike a true GATTAI, fusions between elements of a story usually carry on both the positive and negative aspects, and the result can wind up failing in both respects rather than succeeding in both.

Finally, with my three forms of tragedy defined, it’s time to delve into my final point: why is tragedy good/bad?

Like with every genre, good and bad are completely subjective, meaning that Aniblogger A could call Clannad a bittersweet masterpiece and Aniblogger B could call it the next installment of Key’s emotional nonsense. Therefore, the only way of determining the answer would be to look at the appeal of tragedy.

I believe that tragic stories are most enjoyed by those of us who like to feel emotion. Just as how relatability is integral to slice-of-life shows and symbolism and philosophy are important in thought-provoking stories like Haibane Renmei and Evangelion, I see emotion as the driving force behind fans of tragedy. In this way, fans of the device often overlap with fans of visual novels and romance, in the sense that the best of the former are able to play the viewer’s heart like a violin, and the latter focuses on conjuring feelings to make up for the lack of twists in the plot.

The people who like tragedy are often times the people who, like me, watch anime for the sake of emotional involvement; thoes who prefer to exercise their hearts rather than their minds (though a combination of both is usually fine too, a la TYPE-MOON). Tragedy is an element found in many genres of anime, and that can appeal to a wide variety of people, but at its core, I believe that the fans who write thousands of words on Key and 5cm/s are the ones who like to feel what they watch more than they like to understand it.

Additionally, one should also question whether or not tragedy helps a story or hinders it. Take Kanon, for instance: would the conclusion have been better if Ayu and Shiori actually did die? Did the decision to write a happy ending overwrite the drama of the rest of the series, or is it irrelevant in the long run? This is another question of personal preference, but I know that my perspective is that the journey is more important than the conclusion: if I would have cried at the end if Ayu died, and she didn’t die, then I give KyoAni my credit for directing an anime that could have made my cry but simply chose not to.


In closing, I should mention that tragedy is too vague of a word to be defined within a single blog post. It applies to such a wide variety of scenarios and can be presented in countless ways, to the point that one could write a book on the Art of Tragedy. However, for the purpose of this post – and in honor of the brilliant tragedy that prompted me to write all of this – I believe that this element of anime that we all know and love can be broken down into a few basic categories, and that the viewer’s personal preference when it comes to storylines is what will define whether or not a tragedy is good.

Because ultimately, there is no such thing as a good or bad tragedy, just as there is no such thing as a good or bad anime. However, being the fan of tragedy that I am, I believe that there are indeed several different fundamentals behind the technique, and that depending on those fundamenals – and quite simply, the skill of those executing it – a tragedy can turn out to be extremely good or extremely bad.

Because in the world of tragedy, bad is good. If a story affects you emotionally to the point that it prompts you to write things like this, then it worked; and if the death of a character you like resulted in nothing more than a minute’s contemplation, then somewhere along the line, someone did something wrong. That’s how tragedy works, and even if it can’t be concisely deconstructed, I’ll continue to love it regardless.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

lelangir January 31, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Nagisa isn’t dead! Despite the fukken gloomy looking preview, she probably whisked away to that stupid dues-ex-machina multi-brane-universe-string-theory-kotomi-thing, and then it’s connected to the dumb robot bear and the alterverse loli Nagisa with long hair. Nagisa’s strength weakens as her life-meadow was urbanized (from where she gained life via Akio).

So Nagisa “died”, TT ensues, then she’ll be regenerated at the coda of the show, perhaps when Okazaki is an old widower and the irony reigns fukken supreme. Predicting Fushigi Yuugi-style BAWWWWWW end. Then Okazaki forgives his dad by crying at his grave. or something…

lelangirs last blog post..A Day Without Me, That’s Not Yuri: Maria-sama ga Miteru


afatcow January 31, 2009 at 8:14 pm

OR, you can pull a Sunrise. BUT LET’S NOT GO THERE.
I guess the trainwreck of a storyline is a tragedy in itself… haha.


Kairu Ishimaru February 1, 2009 at 6:33 am

Hell yes! KEY!

Kairu Ishimarus last blog post..Yoroshiku On Hiatus


GNdynames February 1, 2009 at 2:55 pm

‘course, one can say that everything that is not materialistic can be anything anyone perceives. Reality is different for different people.

But what can I say, the element of tragedy is bittersweet for those who understand it. I for one am too empathetic towards the characters and that’s a reason why I’ve abstained from them since school started.


IKnight February 2, 2009 at 2:16 am

I don’t have much time for the ‘she dies at the end’ criticism, because, when it’s done well, tragedy can elicit a strong reaction even if you know the plot. In fact, the fact that you do know can enhance the effect: you know it’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it – it’s the nastier side of dramatic irony.

IKnights last blog post..Varying Degrees of Whut


ETERNAL February 2, 2009 at 7:38 pm

@ lelangir: I’d like to say that you have a vivid imagination, but oddly enough, that actually sounds plausible. Sorta. Knowing Key, anything could happen XD

@ afatcow: If you want to be technical about it, I guess that would fall under the same category as AIR and the like. But I’m not sure if it’s closer to tragedy than failure :P

@ GNdynames: Of course, the fact that everything is ultimately subjective is sort of a given when it comes to these things. Bittersweet is definitely a good way of putting it, and in all but the most extreme cases, I find myself feeling the same way: sympathy for the characters, a little joy at the fact that the series has reached a new level of awesome, and then more sadness if I can connect the story to real life. ‘Course, that’s just me, and each of us probably has a different answer.

@ IKnight: Indeed, if done correctly, it can be just as – or maybe even more powerful if you can see it coming. I got that feeling from Saikano to some extent, where I understood intellectually that the show would have a tragic ending, but still tried to resist the notion until it could be resisted no longer. And yes, there were many days – mostly back at my old anime list at ANN – where I mentioned shows that can “make you wish you could enter the TV screen, just so that you could change the inevitable”. It’s that kind of skillful storytelling that gave Narcissu such a bittersweet, heart-tugging feeling for me, even if your brain tells you the ending right from the start.


IKnight February 4, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Actually, I suppose the use of dramatic irony is one way that these tragedies resemble ‘classic’ tragedies in modern performance: nowadays, the audience all know that they end badly. Romeo and Juliet even begins by telling us that it has a BAD END.

IKnights last blog post..Varying Degrees of Whut


M12 February 5, 2009 at 2:40 am

To be honest, I find most of Key’s plots very cliche. They try extremely hard to make viewers sad. It doesn’t work for me. Except for Tomoyo’s backstory. I enjoyed that. I also liked Air’s plot overall.

To me, Narcissu is the real title that explored the death theme well. The concept sounds generic, yet I didn’t roll my eyes about it. In fact, I loved it.

M12s last blog post..New Project: On the Rail


ETERNAL February 5, 2009 at 7:23 pm

@ M12: Though this is a slightly different topic, I agree that Narcissu explored the theme in more depth, especially with the addition of the guy’s illness. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the end that I felt traces of romance, and I don’t think any of it could have been defined as moe. I suppose there will always be a difference between Key and other tragedies because it’s in the nature of male-targeted VNs to attempt to force emotion out of the reader, rather than taking a more “genuine” approach to the genre.


Sorrow-kun February 6, 2009 at 6:37 am

Because ultimately, there is no such thing as a good or bad tragedy, just as there is no such thing as a good or bad anime.”

Let’s not say things which are crazy.

Tragedy is such a vague thing to think about in anime, because, in actuality, there’s not a massive amount of tragic anime, and a lot of them just aren’t that good (your Da Capo example is an apt one). I, too, have been trying to figure out what makes the difference between a good tragedy and a bad one, and why Key adaptations have a real knack for inciting really strong emotions. The events of ep 16 of Clannad After Story are a really interesting example of Key tragedy to think about; there was this two or three episode build up leading up to it where there were numerous little flags foreshadowing what was coming. The audience was reasonably prepared for what was coming, which might be why it never felt jarring or out-of-place. But, then again, you never quite want to completely admit that your favourite character might die, which is why it still comes as a shock (although, with that said, Nagisa isn’t my favourite character).

I guess build up is a big part of good tragedy. Tragedy tends to work best when there’s enough build up that the events don’t feel jarring, but there’s still enough of a shock to move the audience.


tmsidr February 9, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I also like the tragedy animes and I think Air was so far the most touching I ever saw, because it really made you feel so powerless. Another show crossed my mind that totally belongs to another genre, but where the ending could be foreseen but it really doesn’t fit into genre: Chrno Crusade. The ending was made clear from the beginning, but normally in these action shows they find a way to help the main character so that they can have a happy end, but Rosette wasn’t supposed to get on living. The show has a lot of flaws but the ending really touched me. It’s similar to the Air-Misuzu ending, where the main character wasn’t really the kind of person that normally dies at the end.

tmsidrs last blog post..Ein paar Eindrücke zu Suzumiya Haruhi no Gekidou


ETERNAL February 13, 2009 at 5:27 pm

@ Sorrow-kun: Like with many things, I suppose balance is the key. While I’d still hesitate to condemn tragedies that appear as plot twists, it’s true that without sufficient build-up, a tragedy – or for that matter, a plot twist in general – would not be very effective. While some stories have more build up than others (Clannad is definitely one of those where you see things coming but try to hide from it anyhow), I don’t imagine that there are very many stories that have no build-up at all. Even in AIR, or in anything else like it, there are always some hints that give you clues about what’s coming, but some stories do it more blatantly than others. I guess it comes down to the fact that, like you said, a tragedy that truly comes out of nowhere would be jarring. It’s ultimately all about finding the perfect balance and determining just how much to foreshadow.

@ tmsidr: Chrno Crusade has been on my watch list for the longest time now as I keep hearing good things about it. I already heard about the ending (in a vague sense) before hand, but somehow, that only made me want to watch it even more. If you’re comparing it to AIR, then I’ll definitely check it out at some point :P


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