Probably one of the most common and powerful tools to drag out some kind of emotional response from the audience is the death of a beloved character. By having the death of a character, many opportunities to rekindle and reaffirm the audience’s emotional investment/interest in the series arise. In modern day anime, it’s basically expected that if there’s some kind of dramatic series, there will be a death of at least one character. The important thing that needs to be done is to make sure that the audience is emotionally invested into the character so that they feel are attached enough to be affected by their death.
For that to happen, the character has to be very easy to relate to, likeable, charismatic, and unique in the sense that they have some kind of quirk or characteristic that sets them apart from the rest of the cast. For example, one of the most tragic deaths in anime is that of Kamina in Gurren Lagann. He was an extremely charismatic, entertaining, and loveable character that anyone who has watched the series would probably say is one of their favorite characters. Naturally, when he died, every viewer was filled with emotions of shock, horror, and sadness. Most people even say that after Kamina’s death, Gurren Lagann just never reached the same level of quality that it used to have. Whether that’s actually because of Kamina dying is up to debate, but either way, it’s undeniable just how heavily he influenced the series.
Contrast this to a more recent series like Mobile Suit Gundam Iron Blooded Orphans where one of the main characters died. The first response that came to my head when he died was “well, we all saw it coming.” I didn’t really care that he died at all and I liked him albeit not to the extent of Kamina. Some might argue that if the death was obvious, it won’t hurt as much, but that’s just wrong. For example, every time I watch Gurren Lagann, I always dread the inevitable death of Kamina. It doesn’t get much better no matter how many times I watch it. Death in anime and the corresponding emotions it’s supposed to elicit from its audience are contingent on several conditions, but not on whether it was obvious or not.
However, that being said, there’s been a ton of death in anime and I’ve recently realized that I just don’t care anymore. I’ve become callous to death in anime and it’s difficult to tell whether that’s because I’ve seen so many anime or if there’s some other reason. I’m leaning towards the fact that there are other reasons, but I do believe that watching a lot of anime with death in it contributes to desensitizing oneself from death. Think about doctors for a second. They deal with death all the time– it’s part of their job. The first time they experience death at their hands, they want to crawl into the deepest, darkest hole and try to never feel the warmth of the sun again because they don’t think they deserve it. Even then, they know that they have to keep going, so they do.
Dealing with the death of a patient doesn’t get easier per se, but it becomes less devastating because as cruel as it might sound, they become desensitized to death. The only deaths that might affect them the most are those of patients that they got close to or promised that they’d get better. I believe that it’s the same with anime. If you get an emotional attachment to a character and then the rug just gets pulled out from under you (them dying), you won’t be unaffected. In contrast, if you’ve watched a lot of anime with death and then in an anime that you’re currently watching, a character that you somewhat like dies, you probably won’t feel as much pain. In fact, you’ll probably be able to shrug it off and go on living your life. I think the last time I personally felt really strongly about a character’s death might have been either back with Ano Hana or maybe more recently, Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso. Otherwise, whenever a character dies, I’m just like “lol get rekt” (not even kidding).
One reason why I might not be so affected by death in anime could be because of the length of an anime. Most anime nowadays are 12-13 episodes, meaning that character development has to happen quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, most anime are incapable of doing that, making death in these shorter length anime much more ineffective and lukewarm. The counterexamples to this would be Ano Hana and to a certain extent Angel Beats as well. Some might argue that Ano Hana’s ending wasn’t really a character dying, but it might as well have been since she was disappearing forever. To this day, just by hearing the final song played from that scene, I start feeling sad and I can vividly remember the entire scene. Ano hana is one of the few anime that’s actually left that kind of lasting impression on me just for that sole reason.
Angel Beats also played around a similar fuzzy line of life and death with all of its characters starting off dead in a kind of purgatory. Their ultimate objective which they realized by episode four was to get pass on to heaven. When they all eventually pass on, it’s very emotional and difficult to not be affected (except for maybe Tachibana ‘cuz no one liked her anyway).
I think the most valid reason is because the recent anime that are playing with death just flat out suck. The characters are uninteresting, the settings are uninspiring, and the stories are just bankrupt of unique ideas. Without any of these, it’s difficult to connect with the series and care about anything that happens to any of the characters. It’s kind of like when you’re watching a horror movie and you start hearing the ominous music as the character reaches for a door handle where there’s presumably a monster waiting on the other side and you’re just yelling at the screen about how dumb this character is. Then when they open the door and die, you just kind of laugh and ridicule them for being so dumb. In anime, it’s kind of the same thing where someone dies and you just laugh at them for being stupid enough to land in that situation.
One example of this would be Clannad. When Nagisa died I just straight up laughed and cheered. You might be painting me as some kind of monster for shedding tears of joy for her death rather than tears of grievance, but let’s be real, she was a really crappy character. I won’t go into depth into why she’s such a crappy character so as to not deviate from the topic at hand, but Nagisa’s death should have been a huge event that evoked the ultimate emotional response from me, but I felt the opposite of what I was supposed to feel all because Nagisa was not a strong, compelling character. She never convinced me that she was a relevant character, so seeing her bite the dust (even given how tragic the setting in which she died was) just made me happy.
In contrast, when her daughter, Ushio died in Clannad, I actually felt sad. I wasn’t about to cry, but I actually felt genuinely sorry for not only her but Tomoya as well. I think this is mostly because even though Ushio only had several episodes of character development, she was able to piggy back off of Tomoya’s emotional frailty and overall shitty life and become that eventual pillar of support for him. When that comes crumbling down, it’s hard not to feel bad for both him and Ushio. Despite being a character that was introduced from the first episode of the first season, Nagisa never felt like she was any kind of pillar to the series, so seeing her die after they tried to spoon feed the audience into accepting her as the main heroine felt like something to celebrate.
If you can’t put yourself in the character’s shoes, if you can’t relate to the character, if you just can’t grasp the gravity of the setting in which they died, then having that character is pretty pointless in regards to generating an emotional response. It’s hard to feel anything for a character if they feel like a stranger to you so it’s natural that you wouldn’t be saddened by their death. I don’t think the inability to empathize with most characters’ death in anime is necessarily a sign of callousness or general apathy, I think it’s more an indication of the lack of quality and finesse displayed in modern day anime. I’ve said this to several people already, but the anime industry is bleeding. It’s running out of quality shows and ideas. It used to be difficult to make a top 5 best anime of the year list and now it’s harder to narrow down top 5 worst anime.
Desensitization to death in anime has less to do with you as a person and more to do with the industry grasping at straws for shows that can once again pluck at its viewer’s heartstrings. If I had to say whether or not I felt I was desensitized to death in anime I would say no. Although I made the analogy of doctors being able to harden themselves to death, I also said that they will never completely get over it. With anime, there are few deaths that actually stay with me and affect me to my core and none of them are from recent memory.