Every year, cities across Japan prepare for Hanami, a cherry blossom-viewing festival held in spring. Cherry blossoms, also known as Sakura, have a distinctively short lifespan. Once the tree begins to flower, its delicate pink petals only last for up to two weeks before they fall off or blow away in the breeze. As a result, these falling sakura petals have become a frequently used symbol throughout anime.
While in the West the academic year usually starts around August or September, in Japan it begins in April. From graduation scenes to the arrival or return of students, these anime moments are often greeted with a generous amount of cherry blossom petals floating in the air. In this context, the sakura brings a message of new beginnings and a visual reminder of hope and new dreams.
One anime that uses this symbolism is Clannad. In the first episode, “On the Hillside Path Where Cherry Blossoms Flutter,” Tomoya Okazaki complains about his past and future. The creators bring Ozokazi’s gloomy outlook on life with dark, dreary colors and music. Even the sakura petals share the same color palette. But as soon as Ozakazi locks eyes with returning student Nagisa Furukawa, the scenery quickly changes to lively colors, and the beautiful sakura petals go back to their distinctive white-pink color. This change in the cherry blossoms transforming from gloom to joy symbolizes the hope Furukawa might bring to Ozokazi’s life.
Sakura petals also symbolize the start of a new career. In New Game!, Aoba Suzukaze is fresh out of high school and starts a new job at Eagle Jump, the company that puts out one of her favorite games. The anime takes place during spring when the cherry blossoms are full in bloom.
On her first day, Aoba arrives at her new job, and the pink sakura petals float around in the background. The white-to-pink leaves represent the new challenges and adventures that await young Aoba as well as her new goals and career opportunities.
Despite their beauty, cherry blossoms also represent death. This symbol was very common during the Japanese Feudal period (1185 – 1868). And no one in history exemplifies this motif more than the samurai, the warriors who abide by a strict moral code of respect, honor, and discipline. It was their duty to fight to the death to illustrate and preserve these virtues. As a result, many samurai didn’t live long and would die on the battlefield defending their homeland, their shogun, or protecting a beloved. Because of the brief window that sakura have in bloom, fallen cherry blossom petals symbolize the short lives of these warriors.
At the end of Hakuouki Season 2, the enemy mortally wounds the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi, Toshizo Hijikata. His beloved, Chizuru Yukimura, takes care of his wound and they end up under a beautiful cherry blossom tree. But, Kazama Chikage, a pure-blood oni, interrupts their moment. Now with the demon in front him, Hijikata has no choice but to duel the Kazama one last time, saying he has someone he must protect. In one swing of his sword, the clan warrior defeats Kazama, but the duel leaves Hijikata even weaker, and he falls on his knees. Nearing death, Hijikata stares at the cherry blossoms as he knows his time has come. The falling sakura petals symbolizing the fleeting life of this young samurai.
Kenshin Himura’s journey of atonement in Samurai X: Reflection is a symbol of how brief life can be. After a destructive past, the guilt of leading a happy life causes Kenshin much stress. Drowning in remorse, Kenshin decides to travel throughout Japan, helping those in need. During his journey, he contracts an unknown disease, which significantly decreases his health. Clinging to life, Kenshin moves back home, with falling sakura petals leading Kenshin to his wife, Kamiya Kaoru. They sit beneath a cherry blossom tree, watching the sakura fall and soon after, the man known as Battōsai dies quietly in his wife’s arms.
In 1912, Japan gave three thousand cherry blossom trees to the United States, bringing this Japanese cultural symbol to American soil. The cherry trees were a token of appreciation for the US’s interventions in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. The cherry blossoms represented a symbol of friendship, goodwill, and political alliance between the two nations.
Cherry blossoms are also used in anime to represent friendship and alliances, like in the slice-of-life series, Beyond the Boundary. In the first episode, “Carmine,” Mirai Kuriyama, whose duty is to use her blood-manipulation abilities to fight the spirit creatures that roam the human world called youmu.
At first, she mistakes new student, Akihito Kanbara, for a youmu and tries to kill him. After many failed attempts, Mirai promises to stop attacking Akihito for the day, in exchange for treating her to dinner. On their way to her apartment, sakura petals start to fall. When they arrive, a weird supernatural activity begins to take place, and they find themselves face-to-face with a youmu. Akihito helps Mirai to kill the creature, creating a truce between the two and signaling the start of their friendship.
Another symbol of friendship appears in the form of a glowing rainbow cherry blossom in the anime Fairy Tail. A day before the annual Blossom-Viewing Festival, Lucy Heartfilia, a Mage of the Fairy Tail Guild, comes down with a cold and is unable to go. The festival is one of the most anticipated events in Magnolia Town, due to the beauty of the sakura that glows with rainbow colors in the evening. Feeling bad for Lucy, the other members of her guild, Natsu and Happy, decide to uproot the sakura tree and put it on a boat.
Later that night, Lucy opens her window and sees the rainbow sakura tree floating in the canal in front of her house. The next day, Lucy realizes it was Natsu and Happy who made the beautiful gesture and hugs them. In this context, the sakura tree reinforces the bond between Lucy, Natsu, and Happy, strengthening an already tight friendship.
Like Cherry Blossoms, Life Is Fleeting
Cherry blossoms in anime hold various meanings and have become prevalent in Japanese animation. Sakura trees reflect their lives — of the past that they have to shed to usher in a new beginning, and of those they have lost. Every spring, the falling cherry petals are a reminder of how brief and fleeting life is so we should all cherish every bit of beauty that life has to offer.