Who doesn’t love a happy ending?
ALSO: This probably goes without saying, but… Here There Be Spoilers.
The Answer: Mostly people being counterculture, for its own sake. But it’s starting to spread. So let’s figure out why.
This is gonna be a bit rambly, as I don’t have any particular example I primarily want to focus on like in the past. Anyway, I’ve noticed that there’s this circulating idea in some (most likely small, but I see it often enough that it pervades my sphere of attention at times) that happy endings aren’t as good as bittersweet or outright downer endings. Why, exactly, is that?
First, I should probably clarify what, exactly, constitutes the ‘happy endings’ I’m referring to. Basically – everyone or almost everyone important (on the good guy side, anyway) lives. They’ve all dealt with any emotional baggage they had. If there are romantic subplots, they’re either resolved or left ambiguous with enough implications of resolution that the audience can fill in the gap. Oh. And the heroes win. That part’s kind of important. To put it plainly, the characters we root for throughout the series get what they want. Any relevant side characters with arcs get resolutions of their own. The characters will give up some things or make some compromises, but the end result is a net positive experience, across the board, and all smiles.
Now, I pretend not to know where it comes from, but the fact is that it’s easy to figure out, at least in part. Happy endings are inherently optimistic. And with that in mind, downer endings are generally cynical or pessimistic (usually both, but not always, and sometimes bizarrely neither). Sometimes outright nihilistic, if we’re honest. You see downers a lot with grimdark material. Things like Devilman Crybaby – a series that I did not, will not, and have no compulsion to see. Why? Not because it’s ‘bad’. Far from it. Just because I know what happens, I know how it goes, and I refuse to do that to myself. But the point is that Devilman Crybaby is a grimdark series, the resolution of which is about as far from happy as you could get. It’s not needless. It does what it set out to accomplish… but that’s a subject for later.
Then there’s the awkward stepchild, and that would be the bittersweet ending. These generally get by less on pessimism and more on realism. Bittersweet endings are harder to pull off than outright downers, of course. I think part of this comes from how easy it is to mix up realism with cynicism and defeatism. The fact of the matter is that realism takes the good with the bad. A bittersweet ending usually isn’t particularly the most satisfying in the emotional sense. Not everyone gets what they want, and that much is to be expected. But someone does ultimately get what they want, and the part that makes it ‘sweet’ is that it’s generally a character we’re rooting for. That said, getting what they want usually comes with a cost either to themselves or other sympathetic characters around them. That or what they get ultimately doesn’t last, for one reason or another, as tends to be the case in many tragic love stories.
Gainax and Trigger love their bittersweet endings… sometimes to the exclusion of all narrative sense, but that’s neither here nor there. Gurren Lagann or Darling in the FranXX, anyone? Speaking of which, looots of mecha and hard sci-fi shows feature these as well. Inuyashiki, for example. I don’t know why this is the case with those specific genres, especially in anime, but it is. It makes some sense as to why it’s so prominent with mecha shows and gets into the history of the genre and its connection to war, which is inherently bittersweet at best, but that’s a whole other article.
So how does this all relate to happy endings gradually falling out of favor? Well, part of me thinks it’s because there’s this misconception that downer or bittersweet endings are “smarter.” Usually, this is because they’re more often intended to make you think. They lead you to ponder what it all meant. Happy endings are usually incredibly straightforward. Even on a narrative level, they’re often times just wish-fulfillment, and little else. “The heroes get what they want, the end.” Because of this, they’re seen as ‘dumb’ by more jaded individuals. This pairs with sort of a stigma around optimism. A belief held by many more cynical people is that optimism is foolish and/or unintelligent. This probably leads to the idea that optimism is easy because a fool can’t (in theory) do anything difficult. And I honestly think this is an enormous misconception.
It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to expect things to go badly. These days we’re practically conditioned to. Optimism is hard. It’s an attitude that acts as an expression of hope – itself a difficult thing to maintain at times. Anyone who leads an especially difficult life can probably tell you that.
But this is about storytelling. While it’s certainly true that happy endings are, for their part, the easiest to execute, they’re also some of the hardest stories to tell well. Their wish-fulfillment nature leads to their diminishing reputation, as well as the sheer volume of them, no doubt. But the thing is that happy endings can be done as well or as badly as any other kind of ending (See Master of Ragnarok for an example of the latter). Usually, the easiest way to mess one up is to be lazy about it. The fact is that a happy ending should be earned, not given. Anything less would seem cheap, especially in a society that increasingly values hard work and grit in the face of adversity which, by the way, is kind of a major value not just in Japan, but around the world. In a way, this goes hand-in-hand with the idea I talked about a while ago in relation to characters suffering.
One of the worst kinds of endings is a forced one. This goes for all variations, from happy to horrific. If the ending is forced, it isn’t going to feel right. Even if the characters get what they want in the end, it isn’t going to make the story feel at all justified. In the case of happy endings, this often comes from the series feeling some sort of obligation for the ending to be happy, rather than it being a result of anything the series took its time to build to. They feel they need to be happy because… well… it’s just kind of expected out of some works. Based on what I’ve read, this is a problem that faces Seven Senses of the Re’Union, for example.
Obligation to a happy ending doesn’t necessarily discredit something, of course. In many instances, a work’s very genre almost automatically marks it for a happy ending. Such is the case with something like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. Though fairly entertaining, one could be forgiven for feeling like the series wrapped itself up with rather obligatory harem anime fair. It wasn’t anything amazing. It didn’t set itself apart from the usual for those of its ilk in that regard. But at the same time, the ending didn’t feel like it was something reached purely out of that obligation. The entire series built to the moment that it had. If anything, the greatest sin of the ending is the short amount of time they had to deliver it (just one episode) and still produce something satisfying. A feat certainly managed, albeit not flawlessly.
Of course, other types of endings can fall victim to the same trap. A series that thinks it has to have some kind of message or point and therefore be bittersweet or a downer out of obligation, rather than anything deserved by the writing, is a big problem. Cutie Honey Universe suffered from this in its haphazard means of forcing out a bittersweet resolution with incredibly “convenient” writing to make certain that’s how things went down (and yes, I’m still quite angry about that), supposedly just to meet the same end as the original work… despite no less than two adaptations since the original deviating from that end altogether. Oddly enough, Devilman Crybaby – an adaptation of a work by the exact same creator – apparently didn’t face this problem as its ending (from what I gather) fit with the overall vibe and direction of the work.
One series that manages its happy ending extremely well is Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru and its sequel. Yes, I’m bringing it up again. When it stops being a good example for stuff I’m discussing, I’ll stop talking about it. Probably thanks to the advent of Madoka Magica (and the slew of grimdark magical girls that followed), the Magical Girl genre has become less inclined towards obligatory happy endings. Interestingly, the prequel to Yuki Yuna has an ending with very little “sweet” about it. It’s almost purely bitter. Sure, the world was saved or whatever (for the moment), but that’s not what we’d been led to care about for 6 episodes. We cared about the girls. And that ending pretty definitively rocked their world, resulting in one’s death, one being left with minimal body functionality, and one losing her memories. Mind you, they were children.
The original series had itself a happy ending and, good lord, did they have to earn it. The series paints a grim picture throughout the course of events to the point where you want the girls to save (what’s left of) the world and find some kind of solace from this nightmare. So when the ending comes, and they get to be big damn heroes, it feels great. And the sequel – Yusha no Sho – does an even better job of this, delving into the idea of consequences for a happy ending, while still managing to deliver one. In fact, that was one of the direct criticisms many had with the original series. And it was made a central plot point and theme of the sequel. That’s just some brilliant writing, right there. And while some had issues with the “deus ex machina” nature of it (a term I really feel like most people have lost the meaning of), I think it was handled marvelously.
At the same time, the simplicity of many happy endings functions as a strength of the ending type as a whole. A series with a bittersweet, downer, or even ambiguous ending is ultimately about just that… the ending. The ending is, frankly, what matters the absolute most. As a general rule, people don’t want to be unhappy or unsatisfied. So when we’re left so, we can only think about why we were. And that leads to introspection and insight into the story’s ultimate goal. Certainly, the stories getting to those endings matter, but I’d argue they matter the absolute most for a happy ending. Because when it comes to them, there isn’t a question of whether or not everything getting there was “worth it.” The answer is almost invariably a resounding “YES,” so what you should be thinking about is the trip getting there. A story that shoots for a happy ending is the epitome of the term “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
None of this is to say bittersweet and downer endings don’t have their place or are inherently bad. Quite the opposite. Many great series have such endings. I’m not personally one for them. The realism of bittersweet endings just doesn’t usually appeal to me, leaving me indifferent to most series that have them. And the hopelessness of downer endings doesn’t make me think about anything other than how it could’ve been happy (I don’t generally care about the message a story tries to convey if it left me in a bad mood to do it). But bittersweet endings can lead to very grounded, relatable stories that many people can identify with. Whereas downer endings are usually cautionary tales. And ambiguous endings are usually decent thought exercises… if done well. Otherwise, they’re just headaches.
I just think happy endings deserve a little more respect than they tend to get. They’re often talked about like they’re “easy mode” or “immature,” neither of which is necessarily true. A well-executed happy ending can come from a story that’s just as mature and just as clever as the edgiest of downers and most down-to-earth of bittersweets. Yet a lot of the time the happy ending is either scrutinized for “not being realistic enough” (a topic I’m likely to write an editorial on soonish) or they’re just kind of glossed over. But even when they aren’t particularly complex or realistic, that doesn’t make them inherently bad or uninteresting. It just means your focus should be elsewhere in the story. Who knows. Ya might just find something you’ll enjoy, along the way.
But that’s all I really have to say on the subject. What do you think? Feel free to let me know, down below. Thanks for reading, as always. Keep up the Awesome.