5 Most Jarring Tone Shifts in Anime

In honor of the currently airing Punch Line, I decided to look at a few shows that pull the same tricks as it. By that, I mean sudden, horrific changes in tone. There's a long running tradition in the anime medium to completely take the target audience off guard, from the infamous eighth episode of Gurren Lagann, to the End of Evangelion (and it's not surprising that Gainax somehow made the two most popular examples). However, something that's more on the rare side is when a show shifts so harshly in tone that it causes whiplash and transforms the series briefly into something else entirely.

Every single show I picked out here is normally very comedic and silly, yet have that one or more moments that cause the entire work to turn into something entirely different, and far, far darker. So, stuff like Madoka Magica or Yuki Yuna won't be included, as they hint at their darker elements very early on. The show has to present itself as something completely different at first, making those dark moments stick out even more.

And a quick SPOILER WARNING! A lot of these scenes I'm going to talk about are major twists or story developments, so if you don't want spoilers for a show you may potentially watch, here's your warning now. I'll be sure not to supply too spoilerific images, but the entry titles give some soft spoilers in basic descriptions, just not the details or context. You have been warned. With that out of the way, let's look into the abyss!

5. Log Horizon - Mass Suicide Addictions

50 machines of death! Ah ha, ha!
Log Horizon is both a series based on light novels, and puts itself in a MMORPG style world. And it's good! I know! I've been a big fan of the franchise since season one, and the show has always achieved a good balance between wacky anime comedy and interesting world politics. However, season one ended by hinting at darker things to come, though it took a good while into season two to see those promises realized.

Boy oh boy, were they ever realized.

Late in the run, the kiddie members of the Log Horizon guild leave the safe zone of Akihabara and journey across the land for training, entertaining folks along the way through song. It's all hunky dory, except they keep coming across strange people from another guild that carry around strange technology with blank, empty stares. They work for Plant Hwyaden, a guild run by an emotionally abused high school girl and her abusive maid. To say they're not exactly a sane group would be an understatement. However, what these players end up doing is still shocking, even from what we've seen of their leaders.

Trouble rises up at a nearby town as a storm of flying monsters come flying in, leading to those players from earlier setting down what are revealed to be portable cathedrals. See, in this world, players, or "adventurers," are real people who have ended up as part of the game world, and they still abide by some game rules. In particular, they are able to resurrect at a cathedral when killed, though now at the cost of a memory from their original life. So, having a portable cathedral to respawn at near a war zone would be a positive development, right?


The kids all witness the players charging at the monsters in suicide runs, laughing as they're stomped into bloody paste and slashed open, then see the process repeat as they instantly respawn and go back for more. These people have become addicts to death, as it allows them to see a flash of their old life, a place where the people they love are that they can no longer reach. They care nothing for the game world and choose to live in the past through violent, horrific death.

This goes on for several episodes, as characters debate on what it truly means to die or even if they can possibly change anything. It's even worse around the train segment of the arc, as a person of the land, former NPCs, is essentially waging war on their own kind and turning their own citizens into mindless vessels to summon ghosts as cavalry. Jesus, I thought this arc was just supposed to be a fun music tour. Kicking it up even further is new developments for Tohya. He revealed to the leader of the knights in a debate about suicide that he was in a car accident in life and survived to only live his life in a wheelchair, feeling like he died in a completely different way. The fuck.

4. The IDOLM@STER - Crushing Guilt Complexes

"But not as amazing as your cans m8"
The IDOLM@STER franchise is a bizarre one. By all accounts, it should be terrible, simply due to how creepy the original game that spawned it was. However, both TV anime adaptations in the franchise's history have proven to be surprisingly good, especially the first series. It was directed by a Gainax regular and given the studio's style of cartoonish and slapstick comedy, and it worked really well for it. However, they also had to work in one sad thing from the games, and they added in something else just to traumatize everyone watching by suddenly getting real in the most extreme way possible.

The second half has two major developments. The first involves Chihaya, the group's vocal focused member and all around killer of fun. She had been making positive development through the show's run by the second season, but the then villains of the series, 961 Productions, decided to destroy 765 in the nastiest way possible. They uncovered an old story involving Chihaya, revealing that her brother died in a car accident and said story suggests that she was responsible. She's not, but she still blames herself and the failure of her parent's marriage, and the tabloid chaos spurned from this move causes her to lock herself in her apartment in a deep depression, as the entire episode becomes about as uplifting as your average episode of In Plain Sight (assuming I'm not alone in remembering that emotional draining mess).

Of course, 765 gets past the setback, but there was also another ticking drama bomb hiding out in the cast at this point. For a good while, there's been hints that Haruka (the series then mascot idol) had been troubled by something, so we get a two-parter devoted to exploring this in the most overblown, soul crushing way possible. 765 eventually gets so successful that its various idols almost never see each other anymore, all while a major concert with all of them is on the way and nobody has the time to gather and practice together. Haruka's funk is that she feels like she's losing her family, but it's made worse by Miki's selfish attitude and the producer failing to listen. Eventually, the stress and depression cause her to bump into the producer during a stage practice for a play.

He nearly dies.

Yes, really.

Part two takes the entire Chihaya story-line, looks at it, and then thinks to itself "I can cause more hurt." The episode opens with Haruka performing a speech about guilt from the play she's trying out for, all while cutting in scenes of the producer getting injured. Haruka then blames herself for the producers grave injuries, then has a complete breakdown in front of Miki and Ritsuko, crying her eyes out and yelling in frustration with the most broken inflection imaginable. The episode becomes a parade of sadness, suffering and melodrama, only finally returning to business as usual as all the various idols realize just why Haruka went nutters and deciding to fix the situation by getting back together for the big event concert. But it feels like it takes an eternity to reach that point, simply because of how dark and hopeless the rest of the episode is.

You wouldn't think a show based on THE IDOLM@STER of all things would deal directly with death and people blaming themselves for horrible tragedies, but here we are.

3. Master of Martial Hearts - Okay, who let Fatalpulse write this!?

This is as dark as a Paranoia Agent AMV set to the song about the bodies that are hitting the floor. Adults don't understand me, a nihilistic white guy teen. Everyone is sheeple. Why don't females like nice guys like me? P-pls respond...
Okay, people who are aware of what this is, the reason it's only number three is because its twist isn't quite as shocking or constant as the other two shows ahead of it. But you don't make a list of sudden tone shifts in anime without talking about Master of Martial Hearts. This OVA is legendary among many an anime fan, simply because it presents an ending that comes completely the fuck out of nowhere and turns the show into something wildly different than it was advertised as. The premise of the series is your normal action show ecchi schlock, as a young girl named Aya joins a mysterious martial arts tournament that grants a wish to the winner, while fighting various cosplaying fighters in the process. Clothing damage follows. Upbeat opening, dumb jokes about cute girls eating burgers, the priestess themed fighter is named Miko (which literally means priestess), titties everywhere, and so forth. This was picked up by FUNi to boot, so it should go without saying this is just their usual ecchi garbage pick up for easy cash from sad perverts.

And then the last episode happens.

After Aya has a nasty fight with some other fighter that supposedly destroys her sense of morality and causes her to turn into a bloodthirsty monster for a bit, she stumbles around and finds that all the other fighters she beat in the tourney have been lobotomized and are going to be shipped out to be sex slaves for a bunch of sleazy criminals. Then her best friend Natsume, the Miko she replaced and became friends with, and her love interest all reveal that the entire tournament was a ploy by them to get revenge on Aya's mother for destroying the vocal cords of Natsume's mother in the last tournament (plus the others losing their mothers in said tourney), which was started by Natsume's grandfather, all while blaming Aya for the fate of the people she defeated (despite STARTING THE TOURNAMENT THEMSELVES AND DOING ALL THE MIND WIPING), which then leads to Aya's mother popping up, killing all three of them single-handedly, and finally ends with Aya going off to kill Natsume's mother and ending the cycle of revenge forever (which it probably won't).

Keep in mind this show had previously been about fighting sexy airplane stewardesses and cat girl maids. I mean, there was a scene where a girl getting punched in the shoulder exploded her skirt. This sudden twist comes right the fuck out of nowhere as it desperately tries to give one hell of a middle finger to the audience, and it succeeds with flying colors. Mind wipes, attempted murder, actual murder, blood vendettas, sexual slavery, hypocritical revenge plots, and just the general lack of giving a fuck creates one of the most terrible, memorable endings ever.

And I doubt any of you would be surprised to learn this was made by Studio ARMS.

2. Samurai Flamenco - Everything is Terrible Every Three Episodes

And insert lyrics to the final boss theme from Metal Gear Rising here.
Samurai Flamenco is a train wreck that mastered the art of multi-track drifting. It's easily one of the most insane shows ever produced, and it's completely dedicated to making its viewer base lose their sense of reality. You wouldn't know it from the first six episodes. It plays out like a silly Japanese version of Kick-Ass, as a male model named Masayoshi runs around in a badly made superhero suit and tries to stop petty criminals and uphold waste disposal laws. It tends to end badly for him. Eventually, though, he gains real skill and success, all while gaining a lively cast made up of a cynical cop, a bisexual sadist idol moonlighting as his sidekick, a wacky inventor, and a large ham action star.

But then episode seven happens, and the show starts to show its hand. Masayoshi discovers the truth behind why his grandfather created the Samurai Flamenco character, and also discovers that his parents were murdered in a low level crime. He gets in a funk and deals with this new information, eventually deciding to just keep doing what he's doing and helps out the police on a publicity drug raid for public moral boosting.

And then a druggie turns into a giant gorilla with a guillotine in its stomach, kills a few cops, nearly kills best friend Goto, gets thrown out a window, and then explodes upon shouting "VIVA TORTURE" as a masked man calling himself the source of all evil named King Torture appears in the sky.

Yes, really.

This starts a four episode arc dedicated to fighting the mysterious King Torture and his armies of monsters, which quickly lightens up as the monsters get goofier and goofier ...and then King Torture kidnaps a reporter and the Flamenco Girls, torturing them all and doing mental damage so deep on the unshakable Mari that she actually vomits when she remembers him several episodes later in another arc. This is where you start to see the series pattern, in how it rapidly changes genre and tone about every two to three episodes.

The following arc goes all in, ending one episode as Masayoshi tells the entire world that the entire country is about to be destroyed, while the next arc turns into the Fugitive, only to twist up once again and reveal everything was done because of aliens, Masayoshi talks to god, and then everything is a-okay ...until a kid from episode one reappears and blows up Masayoshi's apartment, psychologically torments his friends, and drives the guy insane and nearly suicidal. Also, did I mention that it's also revealed that Goto is insane with grief and has been sending texts to his missing and most likely dead girlfriend to his own phone for over a decade?

The series is in constant whiplash between wacky comedy, batshit insanity, and horrific hopelessness, and it never ends, even in the final episode, which turns around a dark situation by having Masayoshi give out a naked hug. Once again, yes, really. Shows like Madoka slowly build up to the gut punch, Samurai Flamenco turns your ribs into powder and then pitches you a cartoon about wacky superhero hyjinks while the Pink Panther theme plays in the background. And I haven't even covered half of the madness that is Samurai Flamenco.

1. Digimon Adventure 02 & Tamers - [horrified Shinji Ikari screaming]

As I was making this list, I thought to myself the best way to order the entries. Master of Martial Hearts was going to be first, simply because of that ending, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a shocking tone shift stands out more in a kid's show. If there was ever a kid's show that got dark, it was certainly Digimon. I think Zach has done a good job of showing just how fucking nuts the franchise has gotten, but it really bears repeating how utterly fucked and real seasons two and three tended to get.

02 sticks out because of a few arcs mixed in that don't seem to fit with the series tone at all. Mainly, anything involving the Dark Ocean. Some of the staff involved for that season took over directorial work for a bit, which in turn lead to a huge change in tone, as the kids had to deal with the possibility of killing sentient beings, the devil equivalent of the Digimon world popping up, lovecraftian shadows dragging Kari into some sort of evil shadow dimension, and a whole lot of creepy child stares.

The main villain of the series only pushed this further, as did the various issues of some of the cast, especially Ken. Guy's hidden desire was to be punished for his crimes against the digital world, as we see his evil alter ego slaughtered by an army of angry monsters. For kids! Looking back, I'm kind of amazed this even made it to TV, even with heavy rewrites and censorship.

But 02 was nothing compared to Tamers. The writer for the season, Chiaki J. Konaka, is also one of the main writers from Serial Experiments Lain, and it shines through. Not at first mind you. The series starts with a lot of questions, drama, and uncertainty as humanity act as one of the early starting villains and the characters are creating Digimon to fight against monsters invading their home town, but it starts to get grimmer and grimmer, with Faustian deals and childhood trauma out the wazoo.

By the series final episodes, the kids faith in the adult world is shattered, the world was nearly devoured by a sentient computer virus that became an elder god powered by the broken psyche of a little girl who blamed herself for the death of one of her parents and her best friend, and reality itself has been constantly questioned by kids still in elementary school. Digimon in general has its dark moments, but Tamers is basically a psychological drama mixed into a collection of childish morality plays, with a dash of Nietzsche mixed in there.

Digimon never goes quite as all in as these two seasons did, making them stick out all the more compared to the rest. I mean, sure, there was the real world arc in season one, or the whole back story of the villain in Frontier, but these seasons never went as fucking dark as these two seasons decided to get. Digimon Tri will not satisfy me unless at least three characters have a psychotic break over the death of a loved one.


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