A Tragic Hero is a long-standing literary trope that you're probably familiar with if you've ever taken an English class. It involves a character who has a 'fatal flaw' being unable to achieve happiness or being outright destroyed by their own flaw. This character can be a protagonist or an antagonist, but when it's an antagonist it's usually someone who is sympathetic despite their flaws.
Sometimes it's a genuinely positive trait that ends up being twisted into something awful - Ken Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul was so focused on kindness that it prevented him from defending himself, then decided to focus on strength at the expense of those he originally hoped to protect. In other cases, it's a little more ambiguous - Kiritsugu Emiya believes in sacrificing individuals for the greater good, a morally debatable premise, and ends up seeing his own life ruined by those ideals.
Which of these tragic anime heroes has the saddest story?
- Photo: Studio Pierrot
After a childhood full of brutal warfare, Itachi Uchiha is so desperate to maintain peace that he'll do literally anything it takes - including destroy his entire clan. That's what he does after Danzo Shimura gives him the choice to either take them out himself and survive along with his brother Sasuke, or to be taken down alongside his family. He did have another option: to warn his family ahead of time to give them the opportunity to fight back.
That's where Itachi's tragic hero status comes in. He knows that if he took that opportunity, he'd trigger a war that would likely create even more casualties. His desperate need to maintain peace made it impossible for him to take that route, and led to him committing an atrocity he could never come back from. His quest for peace would ultimately prove impossible.Tragic?
- Photo: Production I.G.
When Ken Kaneki was first transformed into a ghoul, he is absolutely horrified by his newfound desire to eat human flesh. He clings desperately to his humanity to the point where he's unable to defend himself from danger. After a deeply traumatic event involving literal torture, he realizes that his insistence on maintaining his kindness prevents him from protecting others, so he decides to focus his energy on acquiring strength.
This doesn't work out for him either - it drives a wedge between himself and the people he wanted to protect in the first place, and creates a cascade of self-destruction that only ends when he's taken down by Arima. He barely survives that ordeal, and ends up working for the Commission of Counter Ghoul under an alternate identity, unable to remember who he is.Tragic?
- Photo: Sunrise
Despite being from the Brittainian Royal Family, Lelouch Lamperouge wants to save Japan from their colonialist grasp. Part of this is for personal reasons - there's a lot he doesn't know about his family of origin, but what he does know leaves him feeling alienated and betrayed. Part of it is because of his political beliefs and his newfound Geass ability. But either way, he's ready and willing to fight for Japan's freedom, whatever the cost.
The cost ends up being massive. Lelouch is forced to repeatedly go back on his own principles in order to keep the plan moving, to the point where he genuinely seems like a straight up villain. At the end of the series, he decides to trick the masses into thinking he really is a villain, and have Suzaku end his life while he's disguised as his alter ego Zero. This unites the world in hating him and in following Zero, creating a peaceful world he'll never be able to experience. As to whether that peace will last, that's another story.Tragic?
- Photo: GEMBA
Guts is probably the most renowned example of this trope. Every single time he tries to form a meaningful bond with another person, it blows up in his face.
His adoptive father brutally abused him and sold his body for profit. Once he escaped that nightmare situation in the bloodiest way possible, he ends up fighting tooth and nail to join a mercenary group called the Band of the Hawk. It takes a while, but he finally manages to declare his love for Casca and start pursuing his actual goals... but then Griffith gets kidnapped and tortured for a full year. Once Guts and company are finally able to rescue him, Griffith is furious about their love and tries to take his own life. This prompts the Eclipse, which Griffith uses to sacrifice nearly every member of the Band of the Hawk in order to achieve godhood, while also assaulting Casca and making Guts watch. Casca goes mad from the trauma, Guts tears his own eyes out, and the two of them have a deeply screwed up baby that they barely recognize as human.
The worst thing is that through all of Guts's attempts to make a halfway decent life for himself, he has a mark on his body that attracts demons and guarantees that he's going to Hell when he dies. No matter how hard he tries, happiness is a distant dream.Tragic?