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Troubled Backstory Flashback
A specific Sub-Trope
of Dark and Troubled Past
, Flash Back
, and Tragic Hero
When a movie starts after The Hero
suffers a great personal tragedy
that motivates them to go on a quest for justice or revenge, the audience will be curious about what exactly happened to this guy or gal to make them such a nigh unstoppable Bad Ass
. An Opening Scroll
may work for a Space Opera
, but not here, where it would trivialize such a personal hurt. So directors instead use a Flash Back
to deliver this Exposition
It'll begin with a Happy Flashback
, a snapshot of a happier time with the people who have since been killed. The flashback will be bright, much
brighter than the drowning
main cinematography, and use a non-desaturated
(or even super
saturated) lively color palette. It will sometimes use softened edges and warm gold tones
, when not in sepia, and have a sweet but slightly jarring
melody (preferably a music box
) or obviously sad fare
. Then the disastrously happy loved ones will be killed
as the happy flashback suffers a Sugar Apocalypse
into a gory bloodfest. For extra pathos, the hero will be helpless to save them or Forced to Watch
We aren't being over-dramatic here, these flashbacks run the risk of portraying the hero's pre-tragedy life as more nauseatingly happy
than a Norman Rockwell
painting on distilled Glurge
. This may be intentional, since the net effect is the hero's life effectively goes from living in a Sugar Bowl
to a Crapsack World
Not all Troubled Backstory Flashbacks are given all at once though. A director may space out the flashback in order to keep the exact nature of the tragedy a suspenseful secret. To this end it will be be shown in snippets that get progressively longer, until near the end of the movie when the hero breaks down and narrates the entire flashback to a friend or Love Interest
. For extra creepy factor the flashback will be a garbled mess mixing the happy memory and the bloody aftermath.
See also Happier Home Movie
and You Remind Me of X
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- There's one of these early in the story when we see how happy Ichigo was with his mother, and then her death at the hands of Grand Fisher.
- Turn Back the Pendulum went into Urahara's backstory as a captain and how he turned into an exile, as well as those of the Visoreds.
- Everything but the Rain goes into the back story of Isshin and Masaki. Being quirky, bubbly personalities, the back story was anticipated to be a Meet Cute tale. It wasn't. For Isshin and Masaki to have their Meet Cute and heroic tale, Ryuuken Ishida is forced to pay a devastating price that sets up why he's so determined to be Heroic Neutral in the current storyline.
- Berserk - The Golden Age arc. It portrays Guts' crappy origin, how it got better and how in the end things went From Bad to Worse.
- In Weiß Kreuz, Aya Fujimiya's flashback to his younger sister's sixteenth birthday is all bright, cheerful images of the smiling girl having fun at a shrine festival - but then it starts raining on the way home. You can probably guess what happens to his happy, loving family next.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, there are flashbacks of happy, young Ed and Alphonse with their mother. There's then a flashback of her dying right before their eyes.
- And the flashbacks of the Ishval Genocide, to most of the soldier main characters.
- And all the flashbacks of the failed human transmutation.
- Black Butler has flashbacks of Ciel when he's a happy little boy, laughing and smiling. Then we see bits and pieces of the horrors he went through and witnessed (one of which actually causes him to vomit at the memory). This is more prominent in the manga.
- The manhwa Priest has Ivan's flashback, starting in Volume 4 and continuing in Volume 6. It starts out rather sugary (complete with a tsundere Love Interest), which is jarring, but it quickly goes to hell in Volume 6.
- The entire episode/s of Trigun that flashback to REM and show what happened with Vash and Knives aboard the SEED ship on their way to Gunsmoke.
- It's best not to make a Drinking Game out how many times these sorts of flashbacks appear in Naruto. It'll probably kill you.
- Crona's past in Soul Eater. Made worse by the simple, child-like style in which it is drawn/animated. Crona's is the stand-out example for known backstories in the series; the main cast has far more mundane, and (generally) less violent pasts.
- Almost every character that's shown somewhat often in Fruits Basket gets one of these, even more minor characters like Kakeru and Machi. Subverted by Kimi, whose "troubled backstory flashback" wasn't so troubled.
- Mandatory for a character to join the main crew of One Piece. Most of the flashbacks took up one episode, others took three. Luffy's past, after nearly 500 episodes, actually gets expanded upon - which the anime is using to to fill up as much time as possible.
- Tiger & Bunny's Barnaby has a considerable number of these — usually in the form of his own nightmares or frequently recalled and re-analyzed memories. The number of inconsistencies that turn up during each repetition of a particular memory are a clue that they are, in fact, Fake Memories planted by his Parental Substitute, Albert Maverick.
- Episode 16 reveals Lunatic's past through these.
- InuYasha: There are some flashbacks to Inuyasha's childhood (mostly anime filler). His memories aren't happy, including remembering how sad his mother was when he first heard the term "half-breed" and how he was forced to flee for his life from youkai. He was orphaned at an early age so raised himself and made his own place in the world so that the world could no longer hurt him. The canon mostly focuses on his tragic backstory with his first love, Kikyou, which was ruined by the Big Bad and led to them trying to kill each other in hatred. Anime filler also expands upon this.
- Elfen Lied at times is all but made up of this trope.
- The first six books of A Cruel God Reigns are a flashback to the six months prior to Greg and Sandra's funerals.
- Code Geass has a few, most notably for Lelouch, C. C., and even the Emperor and V. V..
- Crops up quite a lot in The Tarot Cafe, since Pamela needs to know about her clients' pasts before she can tell their futures. Thus, everyone who stops by her shop must explain the traumatic circumstances that lead to them seeking out her help. Pamela herself gets several, which show how she met a disguised Bellial as a child, how she was accused of being a witch because she could foresee the future, how her mother made a Deal with the Devil and was burned at the stake in her place, how she was abandoned in the woods, how a creepy priest tried to rape her when she grew up, and went on to kill the dragon she was in love with when she escaped, and how she ended up becoming immortal when she wanted nothing more than to join her lover in death.
- Lupin III: Crisis in Tokyo: Maria keeps having these. They involve scientists, and experiments, and promises that "Daddy will protect you".
- Hell Girl has one for Ai and each of her minions except for Kikuri.
Film - Animation
- A How We Got Here narrated flashback that takes up half of The Emperors New Groove.
- Po has a few of these regarding his biological family throughout Kung Fu Panda 2, starting with brief visions and culminating in an extended flashback, all shown in 2D animation.
- Wreck-It Ralph plays this for laughs, explaining Sergeant Calhoun's 'dark past' through a quick flashback of her wedding day when her husband-to-be is unexpectedly eaten by a Cy-Bug that came out of nowhere, and Calhoun responds to this by pulling a minigun out from her wedding skirt. Fitting with the film's video game setting, Calhoun's backstory was just 'preprogrammed' into the game and never strictly happened in her arcade game itself.
Film - Live-Action
- The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has one of these flashbacks.
- This is all over the place in Max Payne, where it takes the better part of the movie to fully reveal how Max's wife died.
- Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead has a flashback of the heroine's childhood that does the reveals-slightly-more-each-time thing, which I remember noticing because some iterations are misleading (one early one shows her being chased by a man, who is revealed in a later flashback to be a friend shepherding her to safety because the real villain is coming).
- This was probably based on a similar use of flashbacks in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, where Harmonica was relentlessly pursuing the villain Frank (played ironically by Henry Fonda), with a few flashbacks showing a blurred figure. In the final showdown, we get a full flashback which reveals the blurred figure is Frank, who had Harmonica's brother hung from a bell and standing on his shoulders.
- A lot of Sergio Leone's Westerns had these. For a Few Dollars More had a flashback involving a young woman being raped by the villain. It turns out she was Colonel Mortimer's sister, who had killed herself to keep El Indio from getting the satisfaction of raping her, and Mortimer is after revenge. Duck, You Sucker! also had a similar series of flashbacks to John Mallory's life in Ireland with a friend and a woman they both loved. It turns out Mallory killed his friend after he was forced to turn him into the authorities, which ends up influencing him in the present when he faces a similar situation but spares the man responsible.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street gives us one of these in the flashback/musical number "A Barber And His Wife," which shows Sweeney and his beautiful wife as they used to be before Judge Turpin came along.
- Give My Regards to Broad Street has one during "Wanderlust" and another on the car ride between that recording session and the EMI Thorn music video production lot. These are much closer in tone to the film's "present" than usually happens because the crisis itself is less visceral than usually happens.
- In The Country Girl, the protagonist has a flashback to the day his son was run over.
- Manny has one in the first Ice Age movie, explaining what happened to his family. It was done as animated cave paintings.
- Kainen's backstory in Outlander is spread over several flashbacks. His family's death (or rather, Kainan's discovery of their death) is shown before the scenes of Kainan and his family, happy together.
- The various flashbacks from Eric and Shelly's life together before it was all ripped apart in The Crow. May well be the codifier for the trope's use in horror movies.
- In Airplane!, pilot Ted Striker is haunted by horrific (and increasingly absurd) images of the tragedy he endured.
- In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Thorin's Dark and Troubled Past is shown twice: once in the Action Prologue that depicts the fall of Erebor and the exile of Thorin and his people, and again in the Battle of Azanulbizar when Thorin's grandfather Thrór is killed by Azog the Defiler. The flashbacks are used to explain Thorin's proud nature and his commitment to retake Erebor from Smaug, as well as his bitterness towards the elves who abandoned the dwarves at the fall of Erebor.
- Many are provided throughout After Earth, all involving Senshi.
- Killer's motivation to kill promiscuous teens in Death Screams is vaguely explained by two short flashbacks to his childhood.
- In Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964), the main character is traumatized by what happened to him and his family in a WWII Nazi concentration camp. The movie is full of split-second flashbacks that depict scenes from that time and which the character can't seem to suppress any longer.
- In The Silence of the Lambs, we see glimpses into Clarice Starling's past, twice. Once where she greets her father after his long day at work, and another when we see her at her father's funeral. The rest of her back story is explained on screen in conversation. It's also where the title comes from.
- Tell No One has an interesting combination of this trope and a Happy Flashback; when Alexandre is drunk early in the film, we see his memories of his First Kiss with Margot, their wedding, and her funeral.
Live Action TV
- The Season 9 Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic The Hero Of His Own Story.
- LOST has such a flashback for each character during their character spotlight episode.
- NCIS: We occasionally see flashbacks of Gibb's deceased wife and daughter. Usually they are of the happy orange-and-yellow-washed picnic variety, but just once we see glimpses of blood and broken glass and an implied bloodbath.
- Leverage did this for the first season or two for most characters. Parker's flashbacks were the most traumatic, disturbing and nonsensical.
- In the pilot episode of JAG we get to see the accident where Harm five years earlier crashed an F-14 on an aircraft carrier, which killed his RIO, grounded him as an aviator and put him on a different career track as a lawyer.
- Parodied Once an Episode in Another Case of Milton Jones, with the reasons why his far-more-talented assistant Anton isn't the famous [insert occupation of the week here] instead of Milton. Cue the sad music, Anton's serious voice, and a ridiculous, pun-laden description of his 'tragic' past mistake.
- In Resident Evil 6, Chris's campaign has this, but they're even more powerful because they're really not just flashbacks, but also Chris's memories about how his last unit died coming back to him after blocking them out.
- Chris has it again in ''Resident Evil 5', showing how Jill supposedly (but not really, because she lived) died saving him.
- Interlude 4 in The Reconstruction. It centers around Dehl, and starts off innocuously enough, with peaceful humans arriving on Dehl's island, and Dehl then going off to find his father. In the process, he discovers his father's secret 'laboratory', which is swathed in blood and has bloody Sikohlon corpses chained to the walls. Dehl's father rambles about how he killed everyone to try and isolate a cure for the Blue Plague, and Dehl is just barely able to come out alive through the manifestation of his pseudo-magic powers — which causes his father to be graphically impaled by a sword and die. Yeah.
- Present in the prologue of Max Payne, as well as the start of the first major nightmare sequence which brings you back to the place where it all went to hell.
- A good chunk of Shadow's backstory in Sonic Adventure 2 is revealed in this way.
- Xenogears has Fei's backstory including his happy early life, his mother turning into Miang and abusing him, and him eventually snapping and killing her, causing him to develop multiple personalities.
- In Unsounded, glimpses of Sette's life at home are occasionally shown in dark, damaged, and obscured panels, suggesting that her dear ol' Da is not a great guy, contrary to what she claims him to be.
- Lance from Gold Coin Comics has a flashback showcasing what happened to his hometown.
- In Goblins Thaco has this every time he thinks of Goblinslayer.
- Several characters in But I'm a Cat Person. Chapter 4 is an extended one for Timothy and Reseda. Jany and Kara Lynn get a cute little one. As of chapter 8, one for Bennett is just starting to be touched on.
- In Blue Yonder, as well as a Happy Flashback to a straightforward fight ending in So Proud of You, we get one to the fight gone very wrong, culminating in the opening scene where Blue Yonder and Maiden Flight are desperately fleeing without their parents.
- Faye from Questionable Content gives us one of these that extends over several strips.
- There's a specific instance in Newheimburg, where it's revealed that Mort is a suicide attempt survivor.
- Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender gets two of these that show his life before he became angry, bitter and obsessed with catching Aang. The first consists of Iroh telling the ship's crew how Zuko got his scar and was banished, and the second comes in the form of Zuko reminiscing about his family when he was a kid... and then his mom mysteriously disappears and his dad becomes Fire Lord. And it kind of went downhill from there.
- And then of course there are Aang's flashbacks about being revealed as the Avatar early, being pretty much shunned by his friends because of it, and his eventual running away from the Air Temple.
- Don't forget Jet's flashback to seeing his family burned in front of his eyes. And Katara's flashback to her mother's death.
- When mad scientist Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb captures his secret agent nemesis and starts monologuing about his latest evil scheme, he often explains his motives with a troubled backstory flashback. (For example, "Back in Gimmelschtump in the days of my youth, the Doofenshmirtzes were a proud family. But those were lean times for my father, and our beloved lawn gnome was repossessed. Who would protect our ancient garden from witches, spells, and wood trolls? From a tender age, my father decided that it will be me. While the other kids played kick the schumptel and ate doonkelberries, I would stand for hours. All through the cold night, as the spitzenhounds howled... My only companion was the moon. And my neighbor Kenny. So, since my lawn gnome was taken from me, I will destroy every lawn gnome in the entire Tri-State Area!")
- Asajj Ventress was given one in the Season 3 episode "Nightsisters" of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
- Quite a few Transformers characters have backstories like this owing to the 4 million war that frames the series' setting. Omega Supreme from The Transformers, Optimus Prime from Transformers Animated, and Arcee from Transformers Prime are among the best examples.