I was this close to crying in the middle of the laundromat. A twenty-eight-year-old guy surrounded by strangers and I was holding it all in. Did I receive bad news, see something horrible, cap off a bad day? Nope. I’d just read a manga (Japanese comic book) called 5 Centimeters per Second.
The phrase that keeps circling my head is “Beautiful Devastation.” It’s a romance story that melts your heart and stomps on it. When I saw the last panels of the last pages, I froze in place, my mouth hanging open. Then I looked around the laundromat wondering where the rest of the story was.
After pages and pages of sweet, warm romance, and even more pages of the emptiness left by long distances, the story came to an end. But not a happy one. It was heartbreaking, agonizing, and tear-jerking.
And it was right.
Cry me a River
My mom and brother used to drive me crazy. They never liked stories with sad endings. They’d ask why they even watched a movie if it was just going to make them cry.
Art does not exist solely to make you feel good. Sure, it can, and even mindless nonesense like the Transformers movies has its place. But filmmaking is an art. So is novel writing, painting, etc.
And one of the staples of good art is its ability to change the way you feel. The Dark Knight makes me want to get up and fight. Deadpool makes me laugh. It’s a Wonderful Life fills me with triumph. And while I had no reason to weep beforehand, the 5 Centimeters Per Second almost wrangled out an ugly cry from me!
That’s the artist reaching beyond the screen/page/etc. to evoke the audience. Why should that ever be a bad thing?
How does it Work?
Now to be fair, not all sad endings are good ones. Two of my favorite movies are It’s a Wonderful Life and Fiddler on the Roof. The first has a joyous ending, the latter a dismal one, and both are right. If the first story had ended badly, it would have meant all George Bailey’s struggle was for nothing. And if Fiddler had ended happily, it would have negated the message of perseverance.
Just having a sad ending does not mean it’s a good one and just having a happy ending does not mean it’s a good one. So how do you know if a tearjerker is good or not? There is no formulaic answer for this; each story is different. In my opinion, what ending does the story warrant?
I just watched the last season of Downton Abbey and I knew everything would be resolved happily. Why? Because that’s the kind of show it is. While it deals with pain and sadness, its core story is about enduring the changes life brings and coming out on top. Imagine if everybody had died!
But while playing the Mass Effect trilogy, I knew full well that people could die. It’s a war story, and every inch closer to the end is more perilous than the next. And the final sacrifice works because that’s how the character is. Even the saddest moments felt earned.
Compare those last examples to Moulin Rouge, where the love interest dies in the man’s arms. Why does she die? Because Moulin Rouge is sensationalist nonsense that plays on emotion, not logic. Death is sad.
And somehow that works.
Sad endings stick with us. Happy ones do too, but sad ones hurt. They make us wonder why. How did it end like this? Why couldn’t anyone do anything? Even when the sad ending doesn’t work, you remember it.
Granted, I still can’t say that Moulin Rouge is a good movie, even if the ending is powerful. Sensationalism is a mark of immaturity–a person lives on the excitement of emotions, dramatizes their every moment. People love Moulin Rouge because it makes them feel something, even if it’s not well-written.
And like I said, guilty pleasures are fine if we know that’s what they are. I love Taken even though it’s dumb. But I don’t think sad endings should get a pass just because they’re sad. My parents saw A Perfect Storm, and apparently everybody dies. When the screen faded to black, someone in the audience said, “Well, that sucked!”
Beauty in Balance
Still, sad endings should not be maligned just for making us feel sad. Artistically, they should be celebrated, especially if they fit. 5 Centimeters Per Second worked because in life there are things we have to get over, have to put behind us. Even great things. This story draws on that experience and has its main character limp through life until he’s able to say goodbye to the thing he wants most. Then, his life can begin.
And it’s a good thing, too. Because the last panels show us that going back to the past would not have worked anyway. With this tragedy, we’ve averted another one.
Maybe that’s the thing: very few good tragedies are completely tragic. There’s some joy or hope in them. The sadness is a necessary sacrifice.
In fact, I can only think of one tragic story that ended in total despair and hopelessness and yet still ended properly. The characters, setting, and events, all added up to the horrible ending and it could not have happened any other way. That’s a little anime called School Days. Enjoy at your own risk.
Art v Emotion
These two things should never be at war, but unfortunately they are. Some people don’t like sad movies because they don’t like to be sad, ever. They see movies and books as nothing but entertainment and they’re very, very wrong.
Others like sad endings because they’re emotional junkies who need a new sensation to flood their veins and fire off the synapses in their brains. Emotion clouds logic. Both of these people react to bad movies because they spark something. That’s not art; it’s science.
Art lies somewhere in the middle. Evoking emotion, but not just for the sake of emotion. It’s for the sake of the story. A story should make you sad because it is sad. It should make you happy, livid, or frightened because it’s any or all of those things.
The Help makes me want to stand up to injustice because it properly portrays racial discrimination. Mass Effect exhausts me because of all the hard work and sacrifice needed to win the war. It’s a Wonderful Life makes me want to jump and clap because George Bailey has earned this ending. And 5 Centimeters Per Second makes me want to cry because nostalgia is so bittersweet.
What about you?
What sad movies felt right to you? What non-traditional endings just seemed right and which ones seemed like they were just trying to be unique or impactful without earning it?