From terminal illness to war, some of the saddest anime movies depict human emotions, themes of love, regret, loss and resilience of the human spirit. The visually stunning films capture the painful realities of the characters on the screen, ensuring that they easily leave a hole in the heart by the time they end.
Japan is known for making some of the most thought-provoking stories which are adapted for cinema, both as live-action and as in the widely popular anime industry. Grief and the general feeling of loneliness are among the emotions that are poignantly captured on the screen by filmmakers such as the late Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata and new-age auteurs like Makoto Shinkai, among others.
Some of the heartbreaking stories that the illustrious filmmakers have presented through the captivating style of anime are based on manga, which were written by those who suffered the same harsh realities themselves.
The saddest anime movies, especially those about heartbreaks, can be beautiful in their presentation but are also deeply moving, for they depict the loss of a dear one. It is, however, noteworthy that some of the most powerful anime movies in Japan revolve around World War II. It is understandable, as no country has ever endured the horror of an atomic bomb dropped on its people.
The fact that the suffering depicted in manga-based anime movies such as Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies was actually experienced by their authors reveals the brutality of the catastrophic event and how innocents eventually suffer the most. And while they showcase the desolation caused by war, they also capture the resilience of the people of Japan — the most significant reason why it is today one of the world’s most socially and economically developed countries.
Sad anime movies, in particular, have a dedicated following, as they offer a cathartic release of emotions. They remind us of the fragility of life, the importance of cherishing moments, and the enduring strength of human connection. Tears after watching any of them are natural.
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Emotionally moving anime movies, according to Rotten Tomatoes rating
Barefoot Gen (1983)
Directed by: Mori Masaki
Voice cast: Issei Miyazaki, Masaki Kōda, Yoshie Shimamura
RT rating: 75 per cent
Synopsis: Gen Nakaoka (Miyazaki) is a young boy who loses everyone except his pregnant mother in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. His mother gives birth to a baby girl as they try to survive. The young Gen suddenly finds trying to help himself and his mother and baby sister survive as the world turns upside down.
About the film: Barefoot Gen is a powerful anti-war film renowned for showing one of the most shocking sequences of nuclear devastation ever shown in cinema when a monstrous B-29 drops the A-bomb on the unsuspecting people of the city. The story is a painful portrayal of grief and the horrors of war, as well as it is of human determination. The anime film is loosely based on the autobiographical manga series of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa, who wrote Barefoot Gen based on his personal experiences as a Hiroshima survivor.
Giovanni’s Island (2014)
Directed by: Mizuho Nishikubo
Voice cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Kōta Yokoyama, Junya Taniai, Polina Ilyushenko
RT rating: 78 per cent
Synopsis: Junpei (Nakadai) and Kanta (Taniai) are brothers who live on the island of Shikotan during the last days of World War II. They begin a heart-warming friendship with a girl named Tanya (Ilyushenko), who is the daughter of the commander of the Soviet forces occupying the island. But things get complicated for the boys and their family when the Japanese are asked to leave the island for the mainland.
More about the film: Giovanni’s Island is based on the true events at the end of the war, which involved the repatriation of Japanese residents from the islands in Kuril Islands and Karafuto (Sakhalin Oblast) after Japan ceded its control to Russia. It is an anti-war movie which presents a case study of how children and even some adults on opposite sides of a conflict can strike friendships and showcase a sense of humanity even in turmoil.
5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
Directed by: Makoto Shinkai
Voice cast: Kenji Mizuhashi, Yoshimi Kondō, Ayaka Onoue, Satomi Hanamura
RT rating: 88 per cent
Synopsis: Takaki (Mizuhashi) and Akari (Kondō) are classmates in an elementary school and are very close to each other. However, Akari moves to a different city due to her parents’ jobs. They struggle to maintain their long-distance friendship. Years later, a grown-up Takaki still has feelings for her and decides to meet Akari, who is preparing to marry another man.
More about the film: Makoto Shinkai is renowned for writing and directing some of the finest romantic anime movies in recent years. His works include acclaimed movies Your Name (2016), Weathering with You (2019) and Suzume (2022). Nearly all his works have a general feeling of melancholy in them. But 5 Centimeters Per Second is perhaps the saddest of the anime movies made by him as it deeply explores gloominess, loneliness, and the quiet anguish of unrequited love. It has three segments telling the story of Takaki and Akari across a time period of about 17-18 years.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Voice cast: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Ryoko Moriyama, Hana Sugisaki
RT rating: 92 per cent
Synopsis: Anna Sasaki (Takatsuki) is a 12-year-old. Following an asthma attack, her concerned foster parents send her to stay with relatives in a rural seaside town in Japan. There, Anna befriends a blonde-haired girl named Marnie (Arimura) in an old mansion. But strangely, only Anna can see her.
More about the film: Based on British author Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same name, When Marnie Was There is particularly noted for capturing a yearning for family love of its two protagonists. Though having a supernatural element, the film explores themes of loneliness and longing.
As an anime film by Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There has the same visual and poetic brilliance in storytelling as other movies made by the acclaimed animation house co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki. It was received with an overwhelmingly positive reception upon release and was nominated in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards.
I Want To Eat Your Pancreas (2018)
Directed by: Shin’ichirô Ushijima
Voice cast: Mahiro Takasugi, Lynn, Yukiyo Fujii
RT rating: 93 per cent
Synopsis: High school student Sakura Yamauchi (Lynn) is suffering from a terminal pancreatic illness. The truth about her condition is revealed to a male classmate who accidentally comes across her diary. They become close friends, and the boy decides to help Sakura tick off every wish on her bucket list before she is gone forever.
More about the film: Based on the 2015 light novel of the same name by Yoru Sumino, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas has been a major hit in all its adaptations, including a two-part manga series and a live-action movie. Viewers are drawn into the story, knowing fully well that Sakura will eventually pass away. But there are even more heart-breaking turns, including the meaning of the boy’s name — which is revealed towards the end, that make I Want To Eat Your Pancreas one of the saddest anime movies to watch.
In This Corner of the World (2016)
Directed by: Sunao Katabuchi
Voice cast: Rena Nōnen, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Natsuki Inaba, Minori Omi
RT rating: 97 per cent
Synopsis: Eighteen-year-old Suzu (Nōnen) is a brilliant painter who is married off to a military clerk in Kure near Hiroshima during World War II. As the war intensifies, her husband, Shusaku (Hosoya), is called to the frontline and has to leave. Now, Suzu must take care of his family while keeping up her own spirits amidst the bleakness all around, especially after the bombing of Hiroshima.
More about the film: Based on the manga of the same name by Fumiyo Kōno, In This Corner of the World presents the hardships the people of Japan had to endure during the war. Through Suzu, the anti-war film shows the overarching and painful realities of the people as they struggle with grief, loss and depression, particularly during conflict.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Voice cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii
RT rating: 100 per cent
Synopsis: An old bamboo cutter and his wife find a tiny girl inside a shining stalk of bamboo. The tiny girl, named Princess Kaguya (Asakura), quickly grows into a beautiful maiden. The desirable Kaguya sets near-impossible tasks for the prospective suitors as her heart beats for the humble Sutemaru (Kora). But then, a tragic reality of her origin confronts her.
More about the film: Themes of greed, heartbreak and eventual realisation of the self dominate this feminist anime movie, which is an adaptation of the 10th century Japanese literary story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. This was the final film by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata before his death in 2018. Its visuals have been praised for the hand-drawn, watercolour images through which the sad tale of the Princess is presented, from her discovery in the bamboo grove to her ascent to a world of the gods.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Voice cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi
RT rating: 100 per cent
Synopsis: A 14-year-old boy named Seita (Tatsumi) and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko Yokokawa (Shiraishi) are left to fend for themselves after losing their mother and father during World War II. Seita takes responsibility for Setsuko as they strive hard to survive, but there seems to be no help from anywhere.
More about the film: Unanimously considered one of the saddest movies ever made, Grave of the Fireflies is not as much about the war itself as it is about the failure of humanity during and after it. The suffering of the innocent siblings, as the world around them changes, is so tragic that several reviewers agree that it can cause a mild depression in viewers. It is widely hailed as one of the greatest films to have emerged from the stables of Studio Ghibli and the best work by Takahata.
The movie is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by novelist and politician Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote Grave of the Fireflies from his personal experiences as a survivor of air bombings in Kobe during World War II.