Normally, happy people's eyes shine and reflect their environment. This is because the coating of tears over the exposed eye to keep it from drying out reflects light sources within a certain distance.
In anime and manga, though, when a character is feeling sad, very tired, depressed, or about to snap, their eyes lose all the natural shine and have the appearance of being lifeless. Depending on the art style, this can range from merely a lack of highlights to the iris turning into a flat disc of the afflicted's base color. May or may not be accompanied by tired lines in the face. This trope is never a good sign.
Often goes hand in hand with the Heroic BSOD, and can betray a Stepford Smiler to the audience, although none of the characters in-story seem to notice the eye problem.
This can be Truth in Television, because sad, shocked or tired people tend to slightly lower their head, which causes the upper part of the eyes, which is normally reflecting the light, to be concealed. When the person recovers naturally or when dealing with a recent trauma, this is a case of the Thousand-Yard Stare; Dull Eyes of Unhappiness is a chronic problem that does not show noticeable improvement over time.
See Empty Eyes for sister tropes. Visually similar to, but otherwise not related to Mind-Control Eyes.
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Anime and Manga
As Mima from Perfect Blue loses her grip on reality, she does this more and more often.
Utau gets these for two panels in Shugo Chara!, and that's about it.
Tokyo Mew Mew has an interesting version; the iris goes completely grey, but still has shines on it.
The same thing happens to Nana in +Anima, but only once.
She also sports these in the first anime when she dies.
She also has these again in chapter 352 upon seeing Negi's grave.
Naruto has these shown throughout after he is told that Jiraiya is dead.
Sasuke has these constantly due to his horrific past and present which is especially noticeable following the Time Skip.
Sasuke's older brother, Itachi is shown with eyes like these when is Sharingan isn't activated. And withgoodreason.
Digimon Frontier: Taking advantage of Koichi's loneliness and sadness, Cherubimon erases his memory, resulting in his expressive blue eyes becoming pale black (and making a small slasher smile), before using his tainted Duskmon form to digivolve into Velgemon.
Sakurako from Ai Kora gets these from time to time. Since the protagonist, Maeda, thinks she has beautiful eyes, he's quick to notice this (and freak out).
Sailor Moon: after Rei fights a youma in the finale of the first season and is killed, after all the other inner scouts have died fighting, Usagi's eyes become blank and she shuts down.
She also gets blank eyes when she turns into Princess Serenity for the first time.
People's eyes also become blank when their pure hearts are taken in the S season. And Usagi also sports them briefly after her and Saturn's fight against Pharaoh 90, when she returns with baby!Hotaru in her arms.
Around half of Super S, Usagi gets these eyes again when her Dream Mirror is shattered in pieces.
This also happens to Usagi when the Silver Crystal is shattered on reentry at the end of the Sailor Moon R movie but it could be because She's dead. It's about like it is with the before mentioned Dream Mirror.
Kaede Fuyou of SHUFFLE! starts displaying these in the anime at her mother's funeral, when she starts losing her will to live. Much later, the same happens after Rin starts spending more time with Asa.
Hunter × Hunter's Gon gets these in chapter's 304 and 305 after finding out that Kaito is dead.
Souji Kuonji's eyes are drawn this way for most of the OAV adaptation of the H game Ko-ko-ro... to show how deeply the abuse at the hands of his parents, as well as the trauma surrounding their deaths and that of his older sister, Kasumi, has scarred him. He begins to come out of his deep funk towards the end of the second episode, thanks to his budding relationship with Mizuki, but Asuka subtly nudges him into revisiting the day of the murders, stigmatizing him severely and causing his dull eyes to return, seemingly permanently.
In Change 123, this is the distinguishing feature of Zero.
Done chillingly with both Asuka and Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion during the respective points at which they reach catatonic levels of depression.
All three main characters from Berserk have these eyes at one point or another during their angst filled stories, most notably:
After Guts assassinates Count Julius and killed his son, which he was not anticipating and was quite disturbed by the aftershock.
Guts seems to have these persistently after the Eclipse. Guts has these mainly because his remaining eye is almost always in shrunken iris mode and he is almost always either angry or sad. However, one notable moment gives life back to his eye when he learns that Casca might be cured again, and he gives a genuine smile to match.
When Casca almost commits suicide by jumping off a cliff upon realizing her dream of being Griffith's sword and woman were over, she gets this.
Post-tortured and Post Heroic BSOD following Guts leaving him Griffith. All the time.
Both Yamato and Sora get this in Digimon Adventure when they're being affected by the Dark Ocean.
After Enishi's apparent murder of Kaoru, the titular character of Rurouni Kenshin shows these eyes.
Mirai Nikki: In episode 11 of the anime when Yuno and Yukki are taken into the police station for questioning her eyes go dull when she decides to try to find a weapon.
Yuki has these as he's being held captive by Yuno.
Gurren Lagann: Simon suffers an extreme case that lasts for several episodes on end as he falls into a horrific stint of grief. The cause was the death of his beloved blood brother and greatest friend, Kamina.
In Samurai Champloo, we watch as this happens to Okuru's eyes in his flashback. He returns to his village to find it destroyed and in flames, and his wife collapses and dies right in front of him. Over the course of a couple of seconds his eyes change from normal to dull. Watch for yourself. Mugen later compares them to the eyes of someone who is already dead.
Sekai and Kotonoha and even Makoto get this once or twice in School Days. It's more notorious in the second's case as she gets them more often than the other two. See the Visual Novels part for more details.
Noir: When Kirika's eyes get like this, run. It means she's just gone from dangerous to Death Incarnate.
Louise of Zero no Tsukaima gets this whenever she's about to cast a powerful spell.
In Free!, though it's subtle, Haruka's eyes are much brighter as a child. We're given a comparison in the first episode with the scene cuts from a shot of kid Haruka's eyes to an older, much more apathetic looking Haruka with duller eyes. As the anime progresses the brightness returns, and he also begins to express much more emotion.
Happens frequently in Attack on Titan, thanks to the traumatic experiences endured by the cast. A few examples include:
Mikasa gets them after Armin informs her that Eren was (supposedly) dead.
Broken Bird Annie has them as a default expression, though she plays it off as being bored with everyone around her. The rare moments When She Smiles reveal she's hiding a much warmer personality being her icy exterior.
Levi looks fairly detached most of the time, but his eyes only become dead upon discovering the bodies of his squad. It's a hint of the Unstoppable Rage he's preparing to unleash.
During the cleanup operation at Trost, the characters are all wearing handkerchiefs over their faces. This leaves the focus on their eyes, as they take in the horrible aftermath of the battle. When Jean discovers the body of Marco, his eyes become glassy and unfocused.
Bertolt when Eren calls him a monster and promises to make his death as painful as possible. Combined with his Troubled Fetal Position, it just makes him look defeated.
Miho has this in the first episode of Girls und Panzer, after being told to take Tankery by the student council, which results in her having a blank, unchanging stare, until she and her new friends, Saori and Hana, were in the nurse's office.
A characteristically understated field of modern art is neo-realism and its era/culture-specific splinters, such as the New Objectivity of Weimar Germany. While this trope is obviously not used in every single example of every single school, it is at least somewhat common when depicting and using the human "gaze". Examples include many works by Christian Schad (NSFW warning - some paintings depict nudity and sexual themes) and Meredith Frampton.
A rare case of the trope happening in western comics: in The Twilight Zone: The After Hours, a young woman who believes she's being stalked by the department store's mannequins, discovers that she herself is a mannequin. Unable to accept that her entire life and memories as a human were all an illusion, she enters a very brief semi-catatonic state, where her eyes glaze over her tired face.
In Dragon and Phoenix, Shei-Luin sees the Emperor's newest concubine, the absolutely hapless Lady Nama. They meet eyes and Shei-Luin is shocked.
She had never seen such emptiness in another's eyes; it was as if this woman's soul had fled. Even as Shei-Luin wondered if this was no human woman but a fox-ghost come to trick Xiane, the other woman stared up at the palace, and all-too-human despair filled her face.
In Gungnir, most characters' eyes will have some highlight to them depending on the angle, but not so for Julio, the protagonist—in every released piece of art featuring him thus far. As it's also apparently his destiny to cause mass destruction with a horrifically powerful demonic weapon, it's fair to say that something is up with this kid. It doesn't show in his perky, cheerful disposition, but it sure shows on his face.
Mad Father: Most of the eponymous character's former victims sport these, bar some. Maria has these during her backstory (she was homeless and on the verge of starvation, it seems), and Aya also has them in one ending. Because she's dead — or more accurately a doll.
In Tsukihime, this is what Kohaku's facade looks like every now and then by the end of Hisui's ending; however, rather than appearing sad, it's actually rather creepy.
In Melty Blood, Tohno Shiki's eyes completely lose their light and pupils whenever something angers him to a certain extent. For example, in Actress Again, Roa's very presence causes Shiki's eyes to become this way. Rather than unhappiness, this is meant to signify complete erasure of emotion; it's meant to show his will to kill.
When this trope is in play in Fate/stay night, it generally means the character is so broken by that point, they're practically dead inside. For instance, Souichirou Kuzuki does not have light in his eyes at any point during any route. Nor does he smile, or show any expression at all. He only has an important role in UBW, and his character is explored enough that it's understandable.
Kotomine Kirei has these all the time as well; both no irises and both no eye reflection. He had them ten years ago back when he was younger, too. It's most likely a reflection of his personality the same way as Shiki's above—that he's an "empty" person. Kiritsugu's are drawn the same way and probably for a similar reason.
Sakura Matou likewise has eyes like this—a result of being tortured and raped since age five by, respectively, her adoptive grandfather and brother.
Also of the Nasuverse, Shiki from Kara no Kyoukai. Although her eyes reflect highlights just fine, they're never drawn with pupils; just dull brown irises. Shiki's personality isn't as simple as 'unhappy', but it's one of the first indicators that she's not quite right.
It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance, but Lio Shirazumi also has these during his brief cameo in the second movie. He loses them by the seventh movie.
Same with Kotonoha from School Days. She gets better but only briefly.
Koto has them in the two bad endings involving her (when she's Spurned Into Suicideand when she cuts off Sekai's throat and kills her), but Sekai has those too in the original game. Only once, but it's more than enough: it's during the other bad ending, the one where she stabs Makoto to death.
However, in the new PlayStation endings where Sekai kills Kotonoha by either pushing her in front of a train or stabbing her off-screen, she does not have these eyes. This implies that while Kotonoha is effectively Yandere in her bad endings, Sekai is sane in hers, except for the Makoto-killing one.And the fandom has reacted accordingly.
And none other than Makoto gets them in Cross Days. See them here.◊ For worse, it's during quite the Tear Jerker scene: when you fail to get Yuuki's good ending — which means, Yuuki leaves Makoto's life completely and despite his own love for Makoto... who then gets these eyes as he crosses the Despair Event Horizon.
Happens in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni frequently; Satoko (once shown above) gets these when she is in the hands of her uncle, and Rena when it's her turn to break and when she's under influence the syndrome or remembering her dealings with Oyashiro-sama. It happens to Rika whenever she dies. Or when anyone dies, for that matter.
Bernkastel of Umineko no Naku Koro ni. Always. For some reason. Serves as a big fat red flag as to her true nature.
Battler gets these during his Heroic BSOD in the anime.
Beatrice gets this after Arc 4, where she can't leave the board until someone wins. This persists into the fifth arc when she becomes a hopeless, living doll. Also, Battler, when he gets trapped in a logic error.
Komari's bad end in Little Busters! Add to it the creepy music and dialogue, and the brief moment that she shows her "sad face" instead is the silver lining of a very, very dark cloud.
Also, Kud near the end of her route. Her eyes light up again when Riki speaks to her, though, and she ultimately gets better.
Kouta Meoshi in Sweet Fuse At Your Side has flat black eyes with no highlights and no visible differentiation between iris and pupil. He's the only character whose eyes are drawn in this style, which serves to highlight his withdrawn, depressed demeanor.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies . Poor Athena gets these when a particular incident in her past is brought up...and, during the flashback, we get to see her thousand-yard stare right after the actual murder. Unsettling, at the very least.
Daria. Although the style of the show leaves most characters' eyes simplistic looking, hers seem flatter and more expressionless compared to everyone else's.
Lemongrab of Adventure Time. Seeing as how he's perpetually unhappy and has problems relating to people in social situations, it's understandable. (Of course, they'll get bigger and more expressive if you bother him enough...) Interestingly, his eyes are USUALLY like this, even when he's screaming.) He's one of the few examples where completely dull eyes are hilarious, because his facial expressions often don't match his SCREAMING tone of voice.
Quilby from Wakfu has one of these after witnessing the 12 royal members of the World of 12 bicker selfishly amongst themselves about the minor details of who will pay for when his people escape from the dimension. How the camera focuses on his eyes at this time heavily suggests he is not pleased.
In Motorcity, when a Burner succumbs to the effect of the Terra's gas pod and see their greatest fears, their eyes go all black with a white dot (the opposite of their eyes' color palette).
Very briefly, but after Tirek drains Twilight, the color in her eyes go to dull grey. Once Discord gives her the medallion and it's revealed to be the final key needed to open the box, her eyes and those of her friends are returned to normal.
Also happens to the rest of the Mane Mares and Discord when Tirek drains their magic. When they're locked in the cage, Spike is the only one whose eyes are normal.
It happens to Celestia, Luna, and Cadance, as well. If one watches closely as the Princesses are released and their magic is restored, their eyes are duller in color than when we saw them get sent to Tartarus, indicating they sensed when their magic became Tirek's, and lost hope. When their magic is returned, their eyes return to normal.
As mentioned above, this has a tendency to show up with depression, but equally so with natural tiredness, so don't read too much into it if you happen to see this trope in public.
Also tends to happen with naturally shy people, who have trouble making eye contact, even if they're perfectly fine emotionally.
Used extensively against various celebrities to prove they are "crazy" or "depressed" or that "something happened to them", usually wrongly, as judging somebody by their eyes is subjective.
"Blank" or very inexpressive eyes are often an outward symptom of several kinds of autism- a mental disorder whose primary symptoms include difficulty expressing emotions and social interaction. It doesn't mean that an autistic person with a blank expression or "dull" eyes is unhappy- they may be in a pleasant mood, but their mood may not register as a facial expression.
Lots of people stare blankly ahead when deep in thought, or just have "neutral" as their baseline facial expression.
This or Empty Eyes may be a visible manifestation of dissociation, a self-protective partial withdrawal from reality.