In anime, character backstories play one of the most important roles in establishing motivations, personalities, and plot direction.
A well-crafted backstory helps us to better understand characters—whether they're heroes or villains—and why they do what they do. Backstories are the foundation for desires, goals, fears, trauma, grudges, and unusual behaviors that pique our interest.
Many times, character backstories are tragic and sad, full of agony and heartbreak and loss and grief. Those key moments can lead to villainous behavior, desires for revenge, or aversion to people. They're often laced with physical and emotional suffering.
From characters who suffered catastrophic losses to those who were born to a dark past, here are our picks for the saddest anime characters with heartbreakingly tragic backstories.
15. Ray (The Promised Neverland)
Though all of the kids at Gracefield House are destined to their tragic fate as food for demons, Ray definitely got the worst of it. He knew—from the very start—what was going on at that orphanage.
With his hyperthymesia, he knew that Isabella was his mother, and he knew that his mother would ship him out to be demon food along with the others. It would be far less tragic if he didn't know the truth.
14. Edward and Alphonse Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)
Edward and Alphonse were once normal kids, but their love for their mother is what gave them a tragic past. At a very young age, they attempted a feat that's taboo even for the highest-ranking alchemists: bringing back the dead.
Both Edward and Alphonse tried to bring their dead mother back using their knowledge of Alchemy, but it all went wrong, causing Edward to lose two limbs while Alphonse's soul was sealed into a suit of armor.
13. Tenko Shimura (My Hero Academia)
In a world where nearly everyone awakens an innate ability called a Quirk, Tenko Shimura also awakened his own powers—but it cost him his entire family.
His Quirk (called Decay) killed their pet dog as his first victim, followed by his sister, and then the rest of his family.
All For One took advantage of his tragedy and turned Tenko Shimura into the villain he is now, with the new identity of Tomura Shigaraki.
12. Afro (Afro Samurai)
Afro saw the death of his father at the hands of the mysterious "Number 2," with his father's head rolling in front of him. The violence and brutality he witnessed at a young age made him into the cold killer he is now.
Fueled by revenge, he's been looking for the wearer of the "Number 1" headband that was taken from his father.
11. Gaara (Naruto)
Gaara was introduced as a bloodthirsty Sand ninja who's ready to kill anyone without second thought. Before he was a ferocious killer, he was just a young kid who longed for affection and attention.
Not only did his mother die after giving birth to him, Gaara was then made to be the host of the One-Tailed Beast, Shukaku.
Fear caused everyone to avoid him, pushing him further into isolation, and at one point his trusted caretaker tried to assassinate him under orders from his own father.
Gaara never had a normal childhood because he was seen as a lethal threat to the Hidden Sand Village. Naruto almost suffered the same fate, but at least he overcame it with the help of his friends.
10. Guts (Berserk)
Guts was cursed to be haunted and hunted by demons because of his mark as a sacrificial being. He was also haunted by the unfortunate memories of the events of Eclipse.
Way back in his childhood, he was born from a corpse and was supposed to die, but was instead picked up by Shisu (who also died years later upon contracting the plague).
Guts also killed the father figure he had known since birth, who tried to take his life believing that Guts was the reason for his misfortunes.
9. Senor Pink (One Piece)
Even villains fall in love. That's what the story of Senor Pink of the Donquixote Family taught us.
Many would laugh about his baby-like outfit, but they don't know the truth behind it. It all started with Russian—a girl whom he fell in love with—who didn't know he was a notorious pirate.
Russian, however, suffered trauma and entered a vegetative state after the death of their son, Gimlet, and became emotionless. The only thing that makes her smile is Pink wearing their son's clothes.
8. Toya Todoroki (My Hero Academia)
Toya Todoroki is the firstborn of Endeavor and Rei. He has the potential to surpass his father in terms of sheer power, as Endeavor believes Dabi's flame is even hotter than his own.
However, while he inherited his mother's ice resistance, he doesn't have any resistance to his own flames, so he burns himself whenever he emits fire. To protect him from further damage, Endeavor dropped the idea of training him altogether.
He tried to train his flames anyway, all in pursuit of his father's praise and love, but he got nothing in return. It eventually causes him to adopt a twisted ideology, turning him into the villain Dabi.
7. Hyakkimaru (Dororo)
Even before he was born, Hyakkimaru of Dororo was destined to suffer. He was offered up as a sacrifice to the demons by his own father, simply because he wanted to keep his power and wealth.
Though each demon took a part of him, he was still born alive—just missing the parts that were taken from him. The baby Hyakkimaru was then left drifting in the river, alone, in a basket.
6. Itachi Uchiha (Naruto Shippuden)
Itachi Uchiha is one of the strongest ninja to ever exist and one of the members of Akatsuki. He was known as the rogue ninja who massacred his entire clan in a single night, leaving only his younger brother alive as sole survivor.
But he didn't do all of that on a whim. It wasn't for hatred, a grudge, or even under the orders of a more sinister being.
Itachi murdered his entire clan in order to prevent a much larger event that would certainly result in wider-scale bloodshed and death. He chose to pre-emptively end the conflict before it started, sacrificing his own parents and kin to do so.
5. Robin Nico (One Piece)
Robin Nico is the archaeologist of the Straw Hat Pirates and the lone survivor of the Buster Call on Ohara. Because she was a descendant of the people who knew many things—including the Poneglyphs—she's been on wanted posters since a very young age.
Striving to survive alone in harsh lands and across dangerous seas, Robin became a member of Crocodile's Baroque Works, then eventually joined her current crew, the Straw Hat Pirates.
4. Meliodas and Elizabeth (The Seven Deadly Sins)
Meliodas is the Captain of the Seven Deadly Sins. He was cursed with immortality and has been roaming the lands for almost 3,000 years. His love interest, Elizabeth, was also cursed—destined to die, be reincarnated, and die again, in an endless cycle.
One death is tragic enough and full of pain. But Meliodas witnessed 107 heartbreaking deaths of Elizabeth.
3. Sanji Vinsmoke (One Piece)
Early on in One Piece, we didn't really have any questions about Sanji Vinsmoke because his backstory seemed pretty solid and straightforward. But, of course, it wasn't his "true story."
One Piece's later arcs explore Sanji's actual past, and it's a pretty interesting yet heartbreaking journey.
As a child, Sanji was a soft-hearted kid, but his family turned their backs on him because he was deemed a failure. He didn't manifest superhuman abilities like his siblings did, so he was seen as weak and useless—even by his own father, Judge.
As such, Sanji was forced to wear an iron helmet, to stay locked up in a personal prison, and to not be treated as a child. It's only thanks to his sister Reiju that he was able to escape his cell and board a ship, allowing him to start a new life.
2. Sanemi Shinazugawa (Demon Slayer)
Almost all of the main Demon Slayer characters have their own share of tragic pasts at the hands of demons. But the Wind Hashira, Sanemi Shinazugawa, has a traumatic story that turned his bright smile into a sadistic and bloodthirsty grin.
In the middle of the night, a demon attacked his home and instantly killed his younger siblings, who thought the one knocking behind the door was their mother.
Indeed, it was their mother—but now a demon.
Sanemi managed to hold his ground against the demon just as the sun rose. Afterwards, he was blamed by his brother Genya (who survived the initial demon attack) for killing their mother.
1. Shoto Todoroki (My Hero Academia)
Just like his brother Toya, Shoto Todoroki also has a traumatic childhood caused by his father Endeavor.
Because Shoto possesses the perfect balance of ice and fire Quirks, Endeavor imposes his dreams (of defeating All Might) onto his son, forcing Shoto to train all day and all night.
He stripped the young Shoto of a normal childhood. Instead of playing ball and tag with his sister, brothers, and friends, he was forced to hone his fire and ice abilities.
This led to a rift in their family, causing Shoto to harbor deep resentment towards his father, to the point that he vowed he would never use his fire side—all to show how much he despises Endeavor.