On the Subject of Tragic Backstories in Anime

It could be argued that tragic backstories are the backbone of many an anime series.

Think of all the protagonists with sad upbringings. Or of those supporting characters who have had rough lives. Can’t forget about those minor characters who were dealt a bad hand in life, either.

Given that a story isn’t entirely rainbows and sunshine and saccharine smiles, chances are there will be at least one character with a dismal background if not more.

But it could also be argued that too many characters have melancholic pasts. Or that said character beat is almost universal. Tragic backstories pop up again and again in anime, as mentioned earlier. So perhaps some thought regarding the purpose and presentation of sad pasts in a narrative. Why should tragic backstories be included? How should they be presented?

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Well, it’s a way to get the audience to care about a character, first and foremost. If the audience knows a character has gone through some difficult times, then it is likely the audience will sympathize with the character. The audience may become spurned to root for the character and start to consider the character’s victories and signs of progress as a way for the character to be awarded and compensated for enduring aforementioned hardship.

Be that as it may, sad pasts only have that sort of effect on the audience if the character in question is “likeable” or relatable. Whether a character qualifies, of course, is to be classified within that subjective category is really dependent on personal preferences, of course.

As such, tragic backstories for characters who aren’t quite as charming seem to aim for an entirely different effect. If the audience gets to learn of the dreary sob-story past pertaining to a villain who has done several heinous acts with little to no remorse, then it could come across as being slightly excusatory. Like the villain was somehow driven to act like this because this and that happened when he or she was younger.

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At the very least, the inclusion and depiction of a sad past should partially explain why the ruthless antagonist is acting in such a way (at least in theory). Whether or not information regarding the villain’s background is enough to justify the villain’s behaviour is another story altogether.

The execution and presentation of a tragic backstory should also be considered. Take Mahou Shoujo Site, for example. Aya is viciously bullied every day by her classmates and her own family members, is nearly raped, and is almost scarred for life due to a bully wielding a box-cutter within the opening episode. The trope thus isn’t just being utilized to make us pity a character who happens to be an underdog; it’s also setting the tone for the series as being grim, “dark,” and without hope.

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It may also cause others to consider this tragic backstory to be excessively cruel to unfortunate Aya. And once one starts considering what a depressing background brings to a series, the focus (of the discussion revolving around sad pasts) begins to shift away from the characters and towards the framework of the narrative. People will start labeling the tragic backstory in question as emotionally manipulative. They might start question the purpose of a lengthy flashback in which a character’s sad past is revealed since flashbacks essentially halt the progression of a story.


Anyways, I’ll stop rambling now.

What do do you all think about tragic backstories? Necessary? Or not needed? Does it require finesse to pull off without upsetting the audience? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

Thank you for reading.

16 thoughts on “On the Subject of Tragic Backstories in Anime

  1. This may sound very creepy, but I generally love a character with a bad past.
    There’s something appealing about reading a story with a character that has a tragic past and yet is still strong, you know?
    That said, most times tragic pasts are overdone with way too many adopted or bullied characters.
    As long as it actually hurts, I think that tragic back stories are essential to more than some stories.

    Like Jenn-san said, in the end it’s character over situation. A completely happy story makes no sense, so it’s good to have some sort of tragic twist to it.
    Of course there are exceptions like Gekkan Shoujo, but again that’s why it’s the exception.
    That said, if the tragic element is the only plot of the whole story it doesn’t work too well.
    If we take the manhwa “Good Luck” for example. They hide the past forever (until the last chapter) and by then I was too annoyed to actually care about her anymore.
    Then if we take “Love In The Mask”, the tragic element was perfect, but the rest of the story was too lame for me to take the backstory seriously. If she really prioritises her love more than survival, what exactly did her tragic background teach her?

    According to me, the perfect tragic story would be Zeno’s past from Akatsuki no Yona. It made sense (and I cried forever) and it was shown at the exact right moment.
    So yes, tragedy is definitely something I look for in a story, but like you said as long as it doesn’t begin to distract from the character and story telling.

    Ooops, I went overboard again nii-san! Sorry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I totally get that. Not creepy at all!

      And I agree. It may not be entirely original, but the tragic backstory better be relevant and able to explain why a character acts or thinks in certain ways since the audience is often subjected to flashbacks and the like. It’s taking us away from the main story, dang it!

      Those are some good examples which illustrate your points! Can’t disagree.

      Ah, poor Zeno. That was a real tearjerker.

      Oh, no, you didn’t go overboard. It was a pleasure reading through what you wrote. Thanks, Auri!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It really depends on execution and amount/lack of use, as you say. However, I also agree with Karandi somewhat in that we shouldn’t always have to start with a tragic backstory to know a character.

    I mean, Western comics often start with the main character’s tragic backstory or at the very least keep a certain kind of simply-told tragic backstory extremely integral to the character (Batman’s parents were killed, Superman fled his planet etc. etc.), so imagine how many tragic backstories could be told in a single anime season, and then imagine their subsequent effects!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re definitely right. It’s great that there’s no single formula that works and that all these factors play into having a successful tragic backstory.

      I don’t think I could handle that, haha!

      Like

  3. I definitely like the tragic backstory in some situations. It’s necessary to explaining why the character is the way they are. But, I agree that introducing it through flashbacks can sometimes be tedious. I like it sometimes when they give the backstory an episode of its own separate from the story going on and give it all to you in one go. Then you know what’s going on and it’s out if the way, instead of constantly interrupting the story I WANT to see and the pic t of the anime so give me snippets of what happened in the past that I have to eventually piece together myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are interesting ways to handle backstories. There’s actually so many ways to do it, now that I think about it.

      I kind of like the snippets method. Lets us play detective and doesn’t interrupt our viewing experience.

      Like

  4. I think tragic backstories are more affective when we already know the character and it is like they finally fill in the missing piece of the puzzle about why they feel or act a certain way regarding something in the present. When we start a story with a character we have no sympathy for being continuously and violently assaulted, it really has little impact other than being a bit disturbing.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Tragic backstories are fine but when you get slapped with it straight from episode one I get suspicious. I feel like a lot of anime rely on these backstories for characterization & that’s it instead of just showing me how the character is affected. I’d rather get personality first & backstory later, if that makes sense

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No, that makes perfect sense. Seeing how these characters are on the surface while there are hints dropped at there being something wrong allows the audience to become interested in and curious about said character. If it’s all revealed before we even start to care about the character, well….

      Great point!

      Liked by 2 people

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