Unexpected moments in anime can be rather rare, but when they happen, they leave an impact.
In recent years, people have learned how stories work. We call out who wins the battle, who’s bound to die, and when the big climactic betrayal happens! It’s been put down to a science, “tropes” that are commonly seen in a story, that can be predicted, character types, plot twists, and big revelations that aren’t exactly surprising. Because of how many stories we’ve experienced, many of us have become rather adept at predicting the coming events, making a good surprise in an anime a very unique treat.
These unexpected moments challenge what we think we know of a genre, and can come from many places. They take our ideas of romance, of shounen, of drama, and flip them on their head. And of course, for different people, they vary. That being said, I remember five distinct moments in anime that really surprised me, personally, and I’m certain that they surprised others as well.
I don’t think it needs to be said, but beware: spoilers ahead!
1. Nagisa’s Death (Clannad: After Story)
I knew that Clannad had earned a huge reputation for its tearjerking nature, but man, I didn’t expect this.
The event that kicked off perhaps the saddest portion of any anime ever, the death of main character, Nagisa, was devastatingly sad, yes, but also, very unexpected. Out of any event that could have happened in Clannad, her death was not one that any person would have expected.
In Clannad, there are romantic, comedic, and sad elements in equal measure, but hardly anywhere throughout its two seasons, was death mentioned. Every character that was explored got through their struggle just a bit stronger. Tomoya’s personal struggles involving his father were put on full display, and he got past it. Nagisa’s struggles with her parents were overcome, and that’s not to mention the relentless “everything will be alright” messages conveyed by the anime up to this point. Then, Nagisa, the most relentlessly positive character in the series, dies in childbirth.
It’s one of those events in a story that, going into it, you’d never consider, even as the event rapidly approached. An absurd concept, especially considering the rom-com nature of the series up to that point. Coming out of nowhere, and ruining the hearts of anime-watchers everywhere, Nagisa’s death was an event that, despite making sense now, was absolutely shocking in the moment.
2. L’s Death (Death Note)
Let’s face it: L’s death was an inevitability, but it sure felt like it came out of freaking nowhere.
Death Note as an anime was essentially defined by the conflict between Light and L. Two super-geniuses, one motivated by true justice, the other by his desire to become God, in a battle of wits that could only end with death. As such, the concept of one of the two dying was never out of the question: rather, it was an inevitability. Despite this, L’s death managed to be a huge surprise, simply because of how spontaneous it was, and the huge implications it had on the series as a whole.
Death Note prided itself on huge, bombastic, epic mental showdowns, dramatic music, camera angles, and all-in statements that left the watcher wondering what would happen next. Every time Light and L clashed, you’d get monologues that explained the mental chess games they underwent, every time Kira acted, you’d see the direct consequences, you’d see the pride he displayed. But L’s death was nothing like that. L’s death was quick, simple, characterized not by powerful music or mental chess games, but instead, by silence, and recognition that Light–Kira– was the victor.
In this way, L’s death, despite being an inevitability, was extremely unexpected simply because of how quickly it happened. Right when L had discovered more information than he had ever had access to, he lost, in a way that contrasted the formula of Death Note up to that point. However it went down, I didn’t expect him to die at that point, as such a death left the viewers with a huge question: what would happen now? It was an odd event, unique in that it was surprising in how simply anticlimactic it was.
You’d expect an event with such huge weight to be carried out in a bigger way, ya know?
3. Sukeroku and Miyokichi’s Suicide (Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu)
The newest entry on this list, the death of Sukeroku and Miyokichi in this anime, was, personally, a very unexpected occurrence, to say the least.
For those unaware, the first season of this Rakugo-centric anime focused on the exploits of rakugo performers Kikuhiko and Sukeroku: a duo that had essentially been inseparable for much of their lives. However, told from the perspective of a much older Kikuhiko, it was clear from the beginning that something happened to Sukeroku. Why is he gone? What happened to him?
The series is one that makes great use of foreshadowing, but not in the standard sense. Using its Rakugo stories, it talks of gods of death, petty thieves, and a lover’s suicide–the latter of which ends up being how Sukeroku, and his wife, Miyokichi, pass away. Up to that point in the story, one ends up being immersed in the world of the past, the world where Kikuhiko works to become successful, while Sukeroku drinks his life away, eventually marrying the Geisha-turned-prostitute Miyokichi. It has a vaguely surreal feel to it, but doesn’t ever let on its true colors.
Here’s the thing: it’s not a romance story. It’s not a story with death, it’s a story that you’d expect to explain what happens. You expect the story to show you the decline of Sukeroku, his wasting away, his descent into a life of crime, or something other than what ended up happening. Instead, out of nowhere, in an attempt to save his wife from an accidental balcony fall, Sukeroku accepts his fate, falls together with Miyokichi, and just…dies. It’s a traditional lover’s suicide, but like any great story, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu doesn’t play its hand till you least expect it.
And man, is it effective.
4. Eren’s a Titan Shifter? (Shingeki no Kyojin)
Come on. WHO expected this? REALLY.
Remember when Attack on Titan had just gained popularity, and everyone was talking about it as the next big thing? I do. And what everyone was telling me was this: just watch to episode 5. Just watch to episode 5, and you’ll be freaking hooked. And what do ya know: Eren dies, my jaw drops, and just like they said, I was hooked.
When you watch Attack on Titan for the first time, you’re introduced to a world of death and despair for the first episode: which is promptly forgotten, as the series focuses instead on the idealistic, determined anger of one Eren Yaeger. He promises to kill all titans, trains for years to get the strength to do so, and in his first encounter with the Colossal Titan, he’s the only one to hold his own. So, you’re feeling pretty good. It’s a standard hype shounen anime, and it’s stupid fun. Then Eren gets his freaking leg bitten off, before he ends up being eaten alive by a normal-sized Titan.
In this way, Attack on Titan quickly seemed to defy every normal shounen anime, and earned its reputation for killing off any character. Of course, we learned later on that that wasn’t necessarily the case, but in the moment, Eren’s “death” messed with MANY people. We barely even got to know him, and now the supposed main character is dead? It was a severe case of genre whiplash, with Attack on Titan letting you know that it wasn’t quite like your average shounen.
Of course, it’s not quite as liberal with death later in the series, but, eh. This moment sure as hell convinced a lot of people.
5. Mami Tomoe’s Death (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
To end off this list, we’ve got perhaps one of the most famous twists in all of anime: the brutal death of Mami Tomoe.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of those anime that became renowned for how it brutally deconstructed what was perhaps one of the most classic genres of anime: the Magical Girl genre. Delving into the very real consequences of living the life of a magical girl, Madoka Magica, for the first portion, seemed very light-hearted. The characters were cute, the powers were intriguing and fantastical, and everything seemed so dang cool. Then, out of nowhere, it introduced us to the idea that perhaps, being a Magical Girl isn’t all its cracked up to be, with the sudden decapitation of Mami Tomoe.
If you watched this series blind, then I”m rather certain Tomoe’s death was followed up with a certain amount of disbelief. The event was deliberate, drawn out, and left no room for doubt that Tomoe had definitely, certainly died. Up until that point, however, such brutal violence was never even a possibility- no one had been seriously hurt, no one had bled, much less died on screen. It was crazy unexpected, it was striking, and it was a moment that straight up defined the series. I guess you could say that Madoka Magica was ahead of the curve!…
Okay, but really, not many anime plot twists can say that they’ve done that, helping to make Mami Tomoe’s death stand out as one of the best unexpected moments of anime.