Since when did a bittersweet ending make an anime great?

The post contains major spoilers for multiple anime; you have been warned.

The end of Last Exile: Fam got me thinking a little; about all these "bittersweet" ending I kept seeing. While Last Exile: Fam is not exactly a good example, it seems that many of the best-selling and best-received titles shares the trait of having such endings. I could name a few titles right on top of my head: like Code Geass, Clannad, Gurren Lagann, Madoka.

Simply put, a bittersweet ending is a "good tragedy". It usually involves the death of a main character, often the protagonist or his/her partner, as a form of sacrifice for the sake of a "better future". Deaths of supporting characters rarely make enough impact to form such an ending; The feeling of loss should come directly from the characters the audience can relate to the most.

It has a huge impact on the story, of course. Bittersweet endings are unconventional; where traditional good endings had the hero winning (or survives) and the bad guy losing (or dies), bittersweet endings reverse the results. Such endings makes the audience conflicted about the conclusion, and often drums up huge discussions, forums and blogs alike. That's the kind of results the producers hopes for, and it works really well.

What's my problem with it? Well, I feel like I've been seeing it too often lately. Big budgeted anime often ends up using such endings because of how powerful and effective it is, to the point where it feels like a cheap trick the producers abuses. That's not very different from a overused trope or cliché. Anime, in the end, are a slightly more childish form of media, and that creates a bigger impact because bittersweet endings are much more "mature". Audience are much less expected to see such endings, and it feels to me that people are capitalizing on this surprise, before it turn cliché.

It's not a problem if the story is good, right? I gotta say, it's not too hard to create such an ending; you just need an element of surprise and a reason to justify that sacrifice.

Of course, there are some that are really well written, like the endings of Madoka and Code Geass, which really owed it to the element of surprise. It changed the entire atmosphere of the story in an instant and gave a new depth to the characters and plot. For the both of these titles, the lasting impression of the title is really due to its epic ending.

What I find most disappointing is that many of these ending didn't give me a good reason to justify that sacrifice. And because of that, in most cases, the ending itself ruined the entire experience for me. That happened with Puella Magi Madoka Magica. And Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. And Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam (which was really bad). Amongst the examples, the only one I thought did really well was Code Geass, but unfortunately it had to fumble through an entire season just to deliver a good ending.

There is one single bittersweet ending that I really enjoyed, which was unfortunately not in anime. It was ending of 300. King Leonidas died fighting a futile battle to defend and unite his country, which still lost against the bad guys. There was no element of surprise, but the story gave the king an excellent reason for his sacrifice. The story ultimately ended in a tragedy, but it was a good, and extremely satisfying ending.

On the other hand, traditional "all ends well" endings are actually not easy to make... when you're aiming for the kind of impact that these bittersweet endings could do. The difference in effort needed for the same kind of impact between these two kinds of endings are fairly big; because "all ends well" endings are something almost every anime goes for, unless the anime's intention is for their lasting impression to be "feel like shit". The quality of "all ends well" endings are so saturated that one would probably point to a famous title and say "oh, that one has a pretty good ending". Until Boku X Inu SS, the last title where I remembered an awesome ending of such is Eureka Seven, which I watched eons ago. I find that these are the real gems here.

Well, this is just a little food for thought. But if I may, writers, please stop writing cheap-ass bittersweet endings, and start creating awesome, feel-good "all ends well" endings. Please.