Note: This contains mild to major spoilers for One Piece, Assassination Classroom, Gurren Lagann, Galaxy Railways along with Bambi, The Simpsons, South Park and more.
I write this article misty eyed, having witnessed the Going Merry take its final voyage. I must have witnessed this arc over 5 times through re-reading and watching (not to mention the many times the arc has been covered in games and other media) and it still gets me every time. And why? In any other medium, I doubt I’d be getting any more feelings from the ‘death’ of a ship than a good portion of the normal characters. Was it the combination of superb animation; a montage of Merry’s moments with the fantastic ‘Dear Friends’ by Triplane playing? It’s still one of the series’ most heartbreaking moments and one that apparently had the creator himself welling up as he drew it. It’s a testament to how powerful anime can be when it wants to be.
Hundreds of other series dabble in death from time to time, however, not all of them manage to get it quite right. Whether they kill off unimportant characters or play with death a little too much, and effectively turning it into something almost redundant. Or then they could kill a character off and have them alive and fine by the next chapter.
Much like in series such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, animation seems to be trying to adapt the mentality that some of their characters are ultimately expendable and half the thrill is simply to wonder when your favourite character may bite the bullet. Attack on Titan and Terraformers, both mature series that have a high death rate. However, most their deaths are one of many, with another death happening quickly later. Of course, we still manage to latch on to some, of course, and mourn their loss when we realise they won’t appear again.
Other series use death sparingly, as a way to push a character development further, be they a loved one or a mentor. A death can be used to give characters purpose or to overcome a fear. A perfect example for me is Bruce J. Speed in the Galaxy Railways. A man cursed because all of his partners end up dying in the line of duty resulting him becoming a cold individual. Over the course of the series the curse is not only lifted, the character becomes at ease. However, ultimately this only lasts a number of chapters as Bruce himself is shot outside a gas station only to die alone. The death causes a great deal of sorrow for the rest of his crew including his partner who later sinks into a depression. It’s not until the final episodes of the series that he would overcome the depression and move on.
Other characters continue to cling on to the main characters after death. Both Kamina from Gurren Lagann and Portgas D. Ace are ultimately the main reasons why Simon and Luffy become the men they are later on. Their deaths permanently etched onto them, be it personality traits or even scars. Gundam and many other high- stakes ‘war’ series like Code Geass have similar deaths along the way. Assassination Classroom’s entire story revolves around the teacher Koro-Sensei as he imparts wisdom onto his class, however, as the series comes to a close you become as conflicted as the class when it comes to his death. Should he or Shouldn’t he be killed? The longer the series goes on, you become more and more fixed on him living on, hoping ‘please let him live, please.’
Death plays an important part in other series such as Log Horizon, All You Need Is Kill and Re:Zero where the characters ultimately discover that they cannot die, be it being stuck in an online world or starting over from an earlier ‘save point’ for some it sinks in with depression as with no way out they ultimate become trapped. Other characters use the inability to die to work for them and using their knowledge of death to avert situations. It’s still tragic to see characters die over and over again and knowing some will still not make it to the final act.
Other series kill off characters due to a necessity. The Simpsons famously killed off Maude Flanders due to the voice actor Maggie Roswell leaving the show after a pay dispute. Without the voice actress, it was almost impossible to keep the voice of the character the same so unfortunately, Maude was killed off. A few years later Maggie returned to the cast but the damage was done. Another example of this was Chef’s death in South Park. An important character throughout the early seasons and essentially the 5th Main character (which was debatably dropped with the rising popularity of Butters, Randy, and Mr/Mrs. Garrison). Isaac Hayes was reported to have left the show after nine years following the Scientology episodes with rumours that it was due to South Park’s treatment towards religions and Scientology.
Hayes’ departure from the series obviously left a bitter taste as Chef was killed off in one of the most gruesome ways, even for south Park standards; falling to a violent death before having his limbs torn off in a fight between a Bear and a Cougar (he was fortunately spared Woodland Christmas Critters). Even in the funeral for Chef, Kyle gives a controversial eulogy, it is South Park after all, in which he says “We shouldn’t be mad at Chef for leaving us, we should be mad at the fruity little club for scrambling his brains”. While South Park includes death that has real meaning, they also poke deliberate fun by killing off Kenny in every episode (up until around season five) in some of the most creative ways shown on TV. At first, the deaths were fun, however, by later seasons they became less interesting as the joke run dry.
I’m sure a lot of you reading at home will agree, this death haunts me still to this day, and it’s the almost perfect execution (no pun intended) of Bambi’s Mother. From the calm scene of the two enjoying the new spring grass to her movements as she notices the threat, it’s the perfect set-up. Despite the fact we don’t actually see the death or the killer, the short scene (which still feels like an eternity) as Bambi calls for her as the snow begins to fall is one of the truest perfect scenes in the animation world, and still remains one of my favourite scenes to discuss when it comes to ‘death done right.’
Some series simply choose to use death as a gap to fill in pages or as a means to an end. Spoiler warning for Fairy Tail ahead. As the series is entering its so-called final arc, it’s begun to take death lightly. With numerous characters being ‘killed off’ or ‘wiped from existence completely,’ only to re-appear a few chapters later as a simple way to show the enemy as ‘powerful and evil.’ Unfortunately, rather than making enemies look powerful with their defeated foes returning from beyond so quickly it has the opposite effect, in that it makes them look rather weak. There is now zero threat as we know that everyone will be resurrected making the drama of death feel like nothing. The same effect is had when a character doesn’t feature for a little while, which is not quite the same as a character being killed off. While ultimately death comes down to how much you cared about the character in question it can be used as a powerful tool to move a series onwards. However wasting characters or making death meaningless can hinder more than help, just look at the Dragonball franchise.
To wrap things up I wish to bring one of the most potent Anime death quotes “When do you think people die? When they’re shot through the heart with a bullet of a pistol? No. When they’re ravaged by an incurable disease? No. When they drink a soup made from a poisonous mushroom!? No! It’s when they are forgotten!” Now if you excuse me, it appears it’s beginning to rain…