It’s the end of 2020… nearly. For December, I’m taking another hiatus to do some fiction writing. While I wouldn’t call it a grand finale, given how rough the year has been for many, it’s still worth celebrating that it is still ending. To celebrate, why not shout out the stories that know how to conclude the best.
Glass Reflections on YouTube often has said that “the ending is paramount” and despite my disagreements with him, I can’t disagree with him on that one. The ending of a story can make or break it. The conclusion of SAO: Ordinal Scale made the plodding narrative leading up to it all worth it. On the flip side, the last five minutes of Black Butler II ruined an otherwise exciting season in retrospect.
So here are a few of my favorite endings that left on a high note, redeeming lesser qualities or acting as the culmination of greater ones. They made me cry, they made me giggle uncontrollably, or they left me without the will to speak.
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As I’m discussing the endings of these anime in vivid detail to get to the bottom of what makes them so special, there are obviously some spoilers ahead. Be warned.
The Big O
Studio Sunrise, 1999-2003
One of many old classics I revisited in 2020, Big O threw me for one big loop. I went in expecting to enjoy my time and appreciate its nostalgic charm for the old days of Toonami. What I did not expect was to be utterly amazed by the brilliance that was the finale.
The Big O is a show about “actors.” Every character, robbed of their memories, leads a life that feels assigned to them. They constantly question their purpose in life but go about their days regardless, playing the roles assigned to them. Literary and theatrical themes are strewn throughout the show, slowly becoming that much more literal in their descriptions of the cast.
You can get such a reaction out of your audience by keeping something a secret, letting their minds terrify them with what the truth might be. However, I think an even more valuable skill is to be able to reveal a single detail and let their imaginations run wild with the implications. The Big O never explains the nature of its world entirely, but what it shows is nothing short of breathtaking.
My favorite part is that the story didn’t even need to explain itself thoroughly. As I state in my review, it lets the message of the story take center stage. It is a conclusion that is powerful because the scale of the conflict feels so all-consuming and inherently human that it’s almost relatable.
The idea that the characters were at the mercy of a god-like power so much larger than them is a standpoint any viewer can relate to. No one can comprehend the scale of creation or where we came from or why, and that’s why the ending works. It’s Roger Smith making one last desperate plea to save his friend, by expressing to her the same lesson he has learned throughout the series.
Roger Smith has a role to play. He doesn’t know who he was and by the end, he’s okay with that. He acknowledges that memories are important to people and that losing them can be crippling. However, they aren’t everything. Being able to have a self that he can call his is so much more important.
So even as the very world he has come to know is peeled back, he stands tall and tries to convince the one entity powerful enough to end it all that they exist and that they matter. And the result is that the show returns to normal. It ends as it began, with everyone acting according to their roles, not haunted by the past, but ready to move towards the future.
Aim for the Top 2! Diebuster
Studio Gainax, 2004-2006
The “Gainax Ending” is either an achievement or a slur depending on your experience with the studio. It can, at once, refer to an ending that pulls some insane bullshit, maybe with the hint of a sequel that will never come, like Panty and Stocking. It might leave you disappointed according to this definition. On the other hand, it can mean a truly unforgettable ending that will stick with you forever, whether it leaves you happy or sad.
I think that as time goes on, the latter is more important. The question is: with so many good Gainax endings, which one stands out the most. To me, it’s the one that accomplishes endearing character development in the same breath that it breaks the laws of the universe spectacularly.
Diebuster opens with Nono leaving her home to become a space pilot. At the same time, we hear narration from Lal’c, our other protagonist, pondering what a god might wish for. It won’t be clear for quite some time, perhaps until the very end, that Nono, the ditsy girl from Mars, will become that very same god.
Gunbuster and Diebuster follow a similar outline when it comes to the characters and the order of key events. It’s what the sequel does differently that carves its own identity. Both shows conclude with a risky plan to weaponize a planet from the solar system to destroy an alien threat. In Gunbuster, it was the planet of Jupiter, compressed into a bomb. In Diebuster, it’s the earth itself.
Lal’c, having regained her freedom as a soldier, is going to drive the Earth right into the middle of the enemy and destroy them. Worse yet, she’s dangerously close to aging out of the psychic abilities that allow her to be a Buster Machine pilot in the first place. And right as it looks like everything will go as planned, Nono arrives.
She exits warp within the gargantuan mecha larger than the Earth itself: Diebuster. She intercepts the Earth, stopping it from being used as a weapon. Lal’c begins to attack her, furious that she would try to stop them after abandoning them in the last episode. In reality, though, Lal’c is attacking her out of anger that she left her alone.
There’s no time for forgiveness or consolation, as Lal’c’s powers die out and the space monsters arrive. What follows is a desperate struggle in which not even the Diebuster can stop the threat. It’s at this moment that Lal’c gets out of her cockpit, desperate to make some kind of difference. That’s when she discovers another cockpit within the head of her mecha.
By donning the original pilot uniform from Gunbuster and getting into the manual cockpit, Lal’c proves Nono right. What makes a real Buster Machine pilot isn’t their power, but hard work and guts. She shoves a degeneracy generator, the very thing torn out of the mech at the end of Gunbuster, back into her own mech and finds the strength to defeat the space monsters once and for all.
Together with Nono, the two of them perform a Double Inazuma Kick and begin the single greatest attack wind-up in anime history. With the music by Kohei Tanaka swelling romantically in the background, they not only destroy the space monsters, but they split open a black hole, creating the conditions for a second big bang.
With the universe rebooting, the script takes all liberties from there onward. The two leads say their loving goodbyes as Nono sacrifices herself to rewrite the universe, exterminating the threat to humanity and saving Lal’c.
I’ll never forget the chills that ran through my whole body when I read the line “My god! Is the second big bang about to occur!” The entire sequence is treated with such finality and yet such romanticism that the absurd concept was sold with the utmost sincerity.
The icing on the cake was that, after such an astonishing display, the OVA ends with a missing link to connect the sequel directly to the original. For a sequel that did its best to be unique and separate from the original stylistically, the decision to tug at the heartstrings at the end was immaculate.
This will forever be my favorite Gainax ending.
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day
A1 Pictures, 2011
This one may purely have been added for nostalgic purposes, but I have yet to see an ending that elicited such a strong reaction from me in a split second. Anohana, written by Mari Okada, is a melodrama about the ghost of a dead girl visiting a friend to help him reunite their old group from back before she passed away.
I don’t remember a ton about this show. I remember the first episode’s opening vividly and I remember bits and pieces of some of the most heart-tugging character moments. If I revisited the show in its entirety, I’m curious how I would rate the show overall. Would I be bored or enthralled?
However, when I remember the ending, I stop questioning the merits of the show in retrospect. The finale had an almost magical ability to make me cry on cue. It was a moment that was successfully built up to for certain, but there is a science to how that moment landed so strongly. It’s that fucking ending theme.
“Secret Base (Kimi ga Kureta Mono” by Zone is a dastardly creation. It is one of a special breed of ending theme that fades in just as the episode is ending and makes the cliffhanger stick that much harder. For me, this ending theme is the epitome of that storytelling trick. Because throughout the show proper, the song conditions you to prepare for sadness.
So in the last episode, as every character is at their breaking point and they’re fighting among themselves, hearing the song play as Meiko speaks and suddenly everyone can hear her?! Dude… There’s no turning away. I was locked in. My heart was a time bomb at that point.
By the time each one of them was screaming at the top of their lungs telling their dead friend how much they love her, I was touched in a way few shows before managed and that few since have accomplished. Anohana set a certain standard for emotional payoff that may have set my expectations for other shows and films too high.
For a time, whenever I watched anime that seemed to be marketed as sad or emotionally engaging, I went in almost expecting to cry – hoping to, even. Over time, I had to learn that expecting that kind of intense reaction only steeled myself to a point that even the best melodramas wouldn’t have that effect on me. I overhyped them. Thankfully I managed to kick that habit in recent years.
So I suppose you could say Anohana was an ending that may have affected me negatively but only because I began to set the wrong standards after completing it. Ultimately, it stands as one of the most emotional endings I’ve ever witnessed.
Bungo Stray Dogs Season Three
Studio Bones, 2019
As I have mentioned once or twice or three times, Bungo Stray Dogs is incredible. By the time I wrote my third analysis of the series, I had concluded that it is my favorite anime of all time. However, while the series isn’t technically over, the third season ended on a particularly high note.
In another example of the Anohana effect I mentioned above, the ending theme “Lily” by Luck Life accompanies the falling action of the season. The cannibalism between the Armed Detective Agency and the Port Mafia had ended with both leaders safe and sound. The peace between them was back to whatever approximation of normal you could call it at the beginning of the story.
The whole season felt so “final” in part because it tied together so many threads from past seasons and OVAs. Enemies from previous stories came back as allies or as pawns in a larger scheme to manipulate the heroes. By the end, Dazai’s toast to Atsushi gives closure to his promise to Sakunosuke from season two and it feels as though the thesis of the series is somewhat fulfilled. The stray dogs have found their home.
Even better, the ending still foreshadows more to come without it feeling like a cliffhanger in dire need of addressing. While I have no doubts about Bungo getting a fourth season, it’s nice to have that feeling of completeness. Endings that give the assurance that the characters will continue having adventures for the foreseeable future are some of my favorites.
Better yet, the foreshadowing both reflects on – and promises further – character growth. Atsushi and Akutagawa’s rivalry has always been at the heart of the series, so their deal with one another struck me as a sign that they had both grown. Akutagawa’s willingness to capitulate to an agreement and stay his hand from bloodshed shows immense growth and respect for his opponent. Additionally, the promise of Atsushi getting stronger and learning to fight better is all the more exciting knowing what he was already capable of.
Bungo Stray Dogs is a show I will never stop recommending for as long as I live. It keeps getting better and better and I pray it doesn’t stop anytime soon. While ending on a high note is important, some endings are even better because you know things will continue. Whether you get to see the continuation is sometimes another matter, but that promise alone can do a lot for an ending.
Blood Blockade Battlefront
Studio Bones, 2015
My former “#1 favorite show of all time,” Kekkai Sensen still has a special place in my heart, especially season one. After having to wait the entirety of the 2015 summer anime season to get the finale, the wait was worth it. Although, it took me a while to understand and appreciate that.
I’ve discussed Rie Matsumoto a few times on this blog, most notably the review of Kyousougiga where I discussed her history in the industry. Her directing style is always exciting and fun but it can be understandably hectic and difficult to parse completely on the first go if you go in too casually. What some would call a limiting factor, I would consider a gift that keeps on giving.
At around 48 minutes in length, the finale, titled “Hello, world,” closes every plot thread introduced in the anime-original storyline of the first season. It’s important to note that Kekkai Sensen never really ends. The manga was notable for just being a collection of day-in-the-life stories. With the TV animation, Matsumoto gave it a story that could serve as the heart of the show, making it feel complete in just one season.
Kekkai is about Leonardo Watch coming to a city in search of answers about his magical eyes, The All-Seeing Eyes of the Gods. Instead of answers, he finds himself working for Libra, a society of superhumans working to protect the peace in Hellsalem’s Lot, or, what’s left of New York after portals opened, making it a melting pot of humans and monsters alike.
Instead of creating an anime-only story that concluded Leo’s search for the answers regarding his eyes, Matsumoto presents a story that parallels the main character’s quest. In doing so, it becomes a much larger story of “life in Hellsalem’s Lot” that embraces the manga’s approach to plot progression. Which is to say, Leo doesn’t really get all the answers.
The story in question is about William and Mary Macbeth, or Black and White as they’re nicknamed. They’re two siblings whose family was affected in the same Great Catastrophe that affected Leo and his sister. Soon, it’s discovered that an entity known as the King of Despair has latched itself to Black and plans to create another catastrophe.
Leo develops a crush on White and becomes friends with Black and this triangle ends up serving to develop Leo as a protagonist while giving these two anime-original characters a fully fleshed out story. It all culminates in episode 12, where it looks as though the worst-case scenario has come to pass.
The intense battle which was teased in the opening minute of the first episode finally happens. Black has become completely absorbed by the King of Despair. White is seemingly dead. Leo has been kidnapped and his eyes have been used to put another catastrophe into motion. All the while, the members of Libra are searching desperately for Leo.
Anime, for all its luster, can rely too much on dialog and narration to explain things. Part of why I love this finale and probably why it took me so long to appreciate it, is that it has so much subtlety in how it’s directed. Every shot that lingers on a character’s expression, or a quick cut to an object of importance, matters.
Like with several of the previous shows mentioned, the music plays a big role in the finale. The opening and ending themes, both masterclasses in their own right, play back-to-back at the end of the episode once all is said and done.
Leo is a character who despairs at being normal and doubts his place among the member of Libra, a veritable “Anime Avengers”. His exasperation and self-doubt, especially in the finale, sells this overwhelming pressure and anxiety that is weighing down on him. Daisuke Sakaguchi does a wonderful job in the role.
Two key moments define, to me, what makes Leo such an incredible lead. The first sees him rescued during his mad dash to the “final boss.” Zed, a late addition to the cast, stops Leo, angry with his reckless abandon, and tells him something that Leo never likely considered.
You really are just a normal boy, exactly the way you think you are. Normally kind, normally cheerful, and normally nosy, with a strong sense of right and wrong, consideration for your friends, and integrity. You may be blind to this, but what you call normal, the rest of the world would call courageous and high-minded. It’s because you are who you are that you don’t think twice about the danger of running to your friends, because I’m sure that’s normal to you, isn’t it?Zed, O’Brien (voiced by Hikaru Midorikawa), Kekkai Sensen ep12 “Hello World”
To understand the second moment that defines Leo, we must understand his greatest inspiration. Klaus Von Reinherz. He appears to Leo in episode one as everything that Leo isn’t. He’s un-phased by danger, powerful, and a charismatic leader. However, the first time they met, Klaus already gave him the most useful advice he could give.
You are not a coward. The reason being that you are still standing here, and haven’t given up. As long as one tries to take even one step towards the light, the human spirit can never truly be defeated… Go. You can start by saving the world!Klaus Von Reinherz (voiced by Koyama Rikiya), Kekkai Sensen ep1 “Secret Society of the Magic-Sealed City”
And so Leo ran across half the city to stop a monster from reuniting with its other half and causing destruction. And he continued to run for his life while saving the city countless times afterward. But in the middle of the series, Leo finds himself feeling unfulfilled. He can’t find the words to write to his sister, for whom his entire reason for being there rests. Is he a failure for not finding a way to get her sight back? Is he allowed to be happy when he has caused her pain?
Klaus sees his uncertainty and reminds him that it wasn’t just his eyes that were welcomed into Libra, but him. When Libra rushes around the city looking for him during the finale, it wasn’t because of his special eyes, but because he is their friend.
It’s subtle, but you can tell that Leo’s safety and condition weigh heavily on Klaus. Knowing that the enemy is Leo’s friend and that his girlfriend has been used to create such calamity is devastating. So Klaus goes and meets with the King of Despair before Leo can arrive, hoping to spare Leo the pain of having to fight him.
It’s a selfless heroic act that Klaus tries to avoid at first, attempting to talk to his opponent. When that fails, a battle begins and it becomes clear just how powerful both Klaus and the King of Despair are. A monster hunter versus a psychic. Klaus would give anything to make sure Leo doesn’t suffer any more.
As the opening “Hello World” by Bump of Chicken plays, Leo arrives at the scene just as Klaus is beaten and bloodied. He echoes the words Klaus told him in the very first episode and calls out to White, whose true nature as a living magical barrier kicks in, allowing Leo to defeat the King of Despair while sparing Black.
Leo’s entire reason for being in Hellsalem’s Lot is his love for his sister. Now, at the end of the road, he helps two siblings to reconnect just before one of them passes away, helping to stop another disaster like the one that separated all these siblings in the first place. And as a result, Leo becomes a hero just like Klaus and it wasn’t because he was a badass but simply because he was fearless and kind-hearted.
The city is saved, and Leo saved it. And at a moment where the reality of the situation, both what was saved and what was lost, hasn’t quite hit, Klaus tells him exactly what he needed to hear.
“I am so proud of you.”
And Leo breaks down because it’s finally over. And though it all ended for the best, this “normal” boy lost a girl he loved. The hero stands victorious and earns a moment to breathe and decompress. It’s an incredibly satisfying and endearing moment.
See, I used to call Anohana the perfect ending because it achieved the assumed goal of any melodrama of its ilk: to make me cry senseless. But Kekkai continues to stand as one of the most engrossing, subtle, complete, and satisfying conclusions to a story I have ever witnessed. It’s absolutely maddening that such a show is not more popular.
Blood Blockade Battlefront may not be my #1 favorite show anymore, but it’s still hands down a 10/10 and has the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure to reach.
What do you think about my favorite anime endings? Have some favorites of your own? Share them in the comments below.
Well, that’s that for 2020. I’m still gonna be writing for Anime Quarterly in December, but as for Sakura Sunrise, this is the last post of the year. I’m so happy to continue this blog and watch it grow year by year, learning a little more with each post. Thank you to everyone who has followed me thus far and I hope you’ll join me next year for even cooler stuff.
Thank you so much for reading! Stay healthy, stay safe, and be kind to one another. I’ll see you in the new year!