Ask John: Which Anime Have the Best Plot Twists?

Plot twists are not uncommon in anime, but sometimes they are underdeveloped or tacked on and feel more like a bait-and-switch than a truly well-planned idea. What would you cite as the best examples of this technique being used effectively? Which anime has used a plot twist the most times and still makes it feel genuine each time? Any examples of a twist ending being used effectively?

This is a fun question, but I doubt I’ll be able to author a comprehensive response because I haven’t fully watched some of the anime series that are frequently acknowledged for their surprising plot twists, including Higurashi no Naku Koro ni and Code Geass. But I’m willing to take a shot at this. Since this is a response specifically devoted to revealing surprising plot twists, I’m not going to spoiler tag everything. Read on at your own peril.

Narrative plot twists are a dangerous beast because they have as much potential to turn on their master as perform their designated duty. The most effective cinematic plot twists are iconic, identifiable merely by reference: “I am your father”; Norma Bates; Rosebud; “It’s a cookbook”; it’s actually Earth; “I see dead people.” A good plot twist should force viewers to re-examine the film or perceive the work in a new perspective. Plot twists also have to be not just surprising but also plausible. Mahoro’s death at the end of the Mahoromatic television series is shocking but not unexpected since viewers have known since her first introduction that the end of her life was approaching. Kamina’s death in Gurren Lagann is unexpected, but it’s a natural plot development that doesn’t force a re-evaluation of the entire show. The revelation of the Spiral King’s true motivation is a bigger, more authentic plot twist, but even it ultimately doesn’t enlighten the series. Escaflowne’s revelation that Dilandau is actually Selena Schezar is certainly surprising, but again, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the viewer’s perception of the story. L’s demise in Death Note is certainly abrupt, but he entered the series prepared for a sudden death, and Light had long considered murdering him. So while L’s death is certainly a major plot point, I’m not convinced that it qualifies as a tremendous plot twist. Death Note contains numerous surprises and plot twists, but considering its nature as an intelligent suspense story, it wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t include so many zigs and zags. Other memorable plot twists in anime have been less than entirely successful. The revelation that the world of Scrapped Princess is artificial is intriguing, but it’s revealed too late to have much impact on the show. The revelation of Hikari’s true nature in Kono Minikuku Utsukushii Sekai should be devastating, but it’s affectiveness is undermined by very poor execution. The revelation of Suo’s true nature in Darker Than Black: Ryusei no Gemini is a total surprise, and it’s affecting. But it doesn’t encourage a second look at the story surrounding the revelation.

Kanade’s revelation that she was the recipient of Yuzuru Otonashi’s donated heart does shed new light on the events that have occurred earlier in the Angel Beats! television series, but at the same time, the revelation and prior established circumstances dictate that Yuzuru’s considerate organ donation either failed or didn’t serve a long lasting purpose because Kanade still died shortly after her heart transplant anyway. The revelation of the relationships between the brain colonies and Leopard’s forgotten history in Sora wo Kakeru Shoujo are surprising revelations that affect both what follows and the viewer’s perception of what occurred before. But while this should be a breathtaking plot twist, its impact gets minimized because the show itself has other priorities emphasized over including shocking plot twists.

Anime’s best plots twists are those which are revelations of previously unnoticed details. Plot twists that appear without adequate foundation become ridiculous and unbelievable. Plot twists like Aizen revealing himself to be evil in Bleach are shocking, force a re-examination of the story up to that point, and are entirely logical and natural in retrospect. Nejiru Gaou’s sudden, tragic death in D4 Princess is inevitable, unexpected, and fundamentally changes the perspective of the second half of the series. Perfect Blue’s climactic revelation that Rumi is a psychotic killer is entirely surprising, entirely plausible, and forces viewers to reflect upon everything that’s happened up to that point in the movie. My Hime’s revelation that the girls’ battles result in devastating impacts for not only themselves but their loved ones is an unexpected and, itself, devastating narrative revelation. Yet it’s not an implausible one; its foundation was laid earlier in the show. Viewers, and the affected girls, simply failed to recognize it at the time. (Granted, while My Hime delivers a tremendous plot twist early in its narrative, its conclusion frustratingly undermines the potency of the twist.) The recently concluded Durarara television series may rival Death Note in sheer number of plot twists, including the travels of Celty’s head and Shinra Kishitani’s complicity in the matter, Mika Harima’s fate, Mikado Ryugamine and Masaomi Kida’s relationships to Ikebukuro street gangs, and Saki Mikajima’s complicity in her own fate. But the show’s most dramatic plot twist is its revelation of the nature, and more importantly, the ultimate identity of the psychotic knife-wielding slasher terrorizing Ikebukuro’s back alleys. The revelation is surprising, yet when revealed, entirely logical (well, for the most part) and believable.

In my own viewing experience and recollection, which I’ll grant may be fallible, it’s Rayearth that includes anime’s most powerful plot twist. The climactic final episode of the “first season” reveals that the heroines have been transported to an alternate world not to rescue and save the princess, as they’d thought, but to kill her. Princess Emeraude’s conflicted loyalties and secret motivation, and the villainous Zagato’s true motives, which turn out to be not evil at all, literally turn the entire story upside down, forcing viewers to reverse their entire perception of the series.


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