The end of the Golden Age Arc from Berserk. After Griffith's capture the Band of the Hawk is driven out of Midland and hunted as fugitives. Guts returns a year later and it seems that with his help they may be able to rescue Griffith and restore the Hawk's glory. They succeed, but Griffith is warped from torture and uses his behelit to initiate The Eclipse, which promptly kills the remaining members of the Band of the Hawk. With the exception of Guts, Griffith and Casca, the characters they've spent the entire manga so far building up are offed without much ceremony.
The Chapter Black saga from YuYu Hakusho could be considered an example of this. The characters pull out all the stops, sacrificing a great deal in the process, in order to try and stop Sensui from opening a tunnel to Demon World, only to eventually learn that A) Sensui's true motive for opening the tunnel was just so he could go to the demon world and find an opponent who could kill him, B) he would have been dead within a month anyway, from a fatal disease, and C) the spirit world's elite soldiers could seal the demon tunnel with relatively little effort.
CLANNAD After Story, before the Reset Button is hit, shamelessly goes for a shaggy dog shoot, taking the story from sad to abjectly miserable and pointless. Despite this, there are some who think this ending is superior to the True End.
Partially applies during the last few episodes of Code Geass, when Nunnally's apparent demise became one of the key reasons Lelouch started the Zero Requiem, as the man felt he had nothing left to live for at that point. Guess who shows up to oppose him not long after he's in too deep to turn back? It was quite a shock to both Lelouch and a number of the viewers. The trope was quickly subverted though, when Suzaku reminded Lelouch that the plan must continue for other reasons in spite of Nunnally's survival, and in the end the world did receive a combination of both positive and negative effects, by achieving a state of peace even at the expense of a certain amount of avoidable destruction.
Asano, the Unlucky Everydude from The Twelve Kingdoms has several of these moments in his plot arc. Despite being an Ordinary High-School Student trapped in another world, he is ultimately ineffectual in doing any good for himself or for his friends, and he eventually becomes a patsy of the Big Bad. Just when it looks as though he's about to redeem himself by performing a vital, heroic mission for the good guys, he gets intercepted by the villains, who kill him in spite of his being armed with a gun, while they only have primitive weapons. To further rub salt into the wound, Asano, before he dies, learns that his mission was completely unnecessary, since reinforcements were already coming to help the good guys.
Considering Asano wasn't part of the original book (and neither was his female counterpart) and the only reason for him to be there is to externalize Yoko's inner Tomato in the Mirror conflicts in the medial transition, this is hardly surprising.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (particularly its supplemental film The End Of Evangelion) is a borderline case: after Instrumentality/Third Impact, the Earth is left in ruins and everyone besides Shinji and Asuka is reduced to "primordial soup" with the choice to recreate themselves if desired (meaning that the whole plot caused more harm than good for everyone who would rather not live as part of a puddle of Tang).
In Rebuild of Evangelion, the third movie is this compared to 1.0 and 2.0. To sum it up: everything that happened in the prior two movies has been rendered moot because Shinji triggered Third Impact. It becomes clear throughout the movie that everything Shinji does to try to make things better ends up backfiring and making things worse for everyone, usually through no fault of his own. Little wonder he's in an Angst Coma by the end. The final movie will determine whether things will stay as they are.
Narutaru's anime adaptation. Most of the cast goes insane and dies in a generally unsatisfying fashion, except for the main character and the vaguely established villains, who vanish off the face of the earth around episode 10. Most of the plot points are Left Hanging, and noone seems to care much. The description that 'nothing much has happened except that a few ineffectual people has died' fits the story like a glove, although this is because the anime only covers the first half of the manga, cutting off right before things start to get really bad. The manga, incidentally, may also count as this.
The School Days anime adaptation. After spending ten episodes taking increasing levels in jerkassery, which isn't helped by the complete idiocy that seems to affect most of the major characters, The Protagonist Makoto is stabbed to death by his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sekai, and then his corpse is decapitated by his girlfriend Kotonoha, who proceeds to murder (and cut up) Sekai and runs away, taking Makoto's head with her. Life at the school goes on, unaffected by the lunacy that just transpired.
The whole Fallen One arc in D Grayman is one of these. Allen encounters another Exorcist, Suman Dark, who has betrayed his Innocence by betraying the Black Order to a villain, and has been turned into a giant angelic torso-looking thing. Allen struggles to save Suman while he attacks mindlessly, killing a lot of innocent people. Allen finally manages to hold Suman back by over-activating his own Innocence, and he manages to pull Suman out of the monster... only for him to find that Suman has lost his soul anyway. Turns out Allen hadn't succeeded; Suman's Innocence basically timed out. Then, just to make things worse, Suman explodes in a fountain of blood, thanks to the sudden appearance of the villain from whom he begged for mercy in the first place.
Who then destroys Allen's left arm, punches a hole in his heart and leaves him for dead, because the arc just wasn't cruel enough as it was. Really, the only good things to come out of the arc is that Tincampy manages to escape with Suman's Innocence, and the destruction of Allen's arm eventually leads to him receiving a Next Tier Power-Up.
Gilgamesh ends with the deaths of the entire main cast against the villains, followed rapidly by all life on Earth getting wiped clean by a being who intended to reform the Earth afterwards, but is killed before it can recreate it.
Chrono Crusade (anime only), also a definitive example of a Downer Ending, ends with the main cast either dead or broken. None of the heroes' goals were met, and the villain succeeded in all his plans, with his "death" only being a temporary setback. If anything, the world would have been better off if the heroes had NOT been around.
The first season arcs of Higurashi: When They Cry are all like this; the audience are treated to several versions of the local True Companions going Ax-Crazy and murdering each other in various gruesome fashions, only for the "Groundhog Day" Loop to kick in and the whole tragedy repeated in a slightly different manner. The last arc seemingly subverts this, as Keiichi remembers one of the other realities and talks Rena down from her attempted mass murder/suicide... Only for Rika to get murdered anyway later, and the whole town wiped out by the volcanic eruption. Again.
Also from Higurashi, "Plan 34". A plan to kill thousands of innocent people in order to prevent a disease from causing a Zombie Apocalypse scenario is initially presented in the anime as evil, but better than the alternative. Then, the manga arc Onisarashi-hen shows that after the plan was carried out, infections started breaking out all over Japan anyways, due to people who had once lived in Hinamizawa but had moved away or were out of town at the time of the massacre. And then, because Higurashireally loves kicking you when you're down, it shows that the infection isn't as contagious as first thought and dies out on its own, demonstrating that the Plan 34 massacre was entirely unnecessary, and that the perpetrators were horribly misguided at best, or willing to intentionally kill thousands of innocents for political gain at worst. Isn't Higurashi wonderful?
It's even worse. The trigger for Hinamizawa Syndrome isn't distance from Rika, which the villains originally suspected; it's actually just extreme stress. In that case, their whole plan to wipe out the village through Plan 34 actually CAUSED the outbreaks in Onisarashi-hen.
Umineko: When They Cry does it in a similar manner. One example is a pair of climatic fights in the 4th arc, where the protagonists were about to win.
Tokyo Babylon, particularly when the continuation provided by X1999 is added in. After spending the series waiting to see if Subaru can inspire any actual feelings of love in him, and just when Subaru has realized his feelings for Seishiro, Seishiro decides that... no, he doesn't care about Subaru. So he tortures him, tries to kill him, and does kill his sister, leaving Subaru permanently broken with the heart's desire that one day Seishiro will kill him too. Except that when he tries to let that happen, he ends up killing Seishiro instead. And then he becomes the Sakurazukamori in Seishiro's place.
The anime adaptation of Requiem (marketed as Anal Sanctuary in the United States) has Yukina being presented with Cecilia, an angelic violin capable of opposing Cannone, the demonic violin that has driven Akio to...ahem...enslaving the female student body of St. Cecilia academy. Immediately after we see Cecilia, cut to a scene of Yukina and the priestess who presented the violin in captivity, about to be raped by Akio's possessed students, and Akio in possession of Cecilia. Everyone gets ruined, mission failed, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 pints of shit.
Kurokami ends with most of the cast dead and when everybody expects a happy life for the main protagonists, it's revealed that the curse is not lifted, and requires a sacrifice to save humanity which will nullify all the reasons why they were fighting. And even after that sacrifice, one genius concludes that it does not matter much since many other curses still exist so getting rid of one was not a big deal.
Lost Universe pretty much ends this way depending on how you interpret the Cut Short ending was supposed to turn out. Protagonists die while fighting with the Big Bad. But too bad, there are a few baddies left and now there are no people who have the abilities to defeat them if they show up.
YMMV since the ending was pretty ambiguous, but Wolfs Rainfinishes with pretty much the entire cast dying within the last couple of episodes, and they never reach the Paradise they're looking for. In fact, the only thing they manage to do is stop somebody else from getting to it; it's pretty disheartening when the entire 30 episode show was about getting there. It's kept from being a Downer Ending by implying that they've been reincarnated, or have been put back in the human world, or... well, something, but seeing as they were there anyway, it definitely counts.
Oh! Great wrote a self-contained arc in his H-Series Silky Whip Extreme called Junk Story, that is a pretty damn grim version of this trope. To Wit: The plot is that, 100 years before the story began, A super-powerful military robot called Gatt fell in love with a woman named Mariko. By being denied Mariko, Gatt took revenge on all of humanity, destroying most of civilization and forcing humans to live in fear. The first 3 issues are Mariko, revived as an immortal cyborg, teaming up with a gun-runner to try and destroy Gatt. Only, it's revealed in the last two issues that all of this was pointless; The world government has deliberately allowed Gatt to keep rampaging for a century, as even though they have cyborgs vastly more powerful than him, leaving humanity in fear of an external monster foe makes them easier to control. The end of the series involves Mariko being captured by Caligula, a powerful Ax-Crazy cyborg employed by the government, the Gunrunner-Turned-Love-Interest getting killed off, and Mariko being forced to become Caligula's personal sex slave. Not only does the ending completely invalidate every plot development brought up until that point, but it brings up even MORE questions that will never be answered.
While the overall series is not so grim, the 18th episode of Scrapped Princess ends with Furet getting killed in order to prevent Pacifica and the others from getting captured, only to have them get captured five minutes later anyway.
Katanagatari combines a horrendous character mortality rate with an epilogue that states the Thanatos Gambit that caused everything seems to have had no effect whatsoever.
However, it's not particularly depressing, since no living people actually cared about the plan one way or the other. From the little we saw of him, it's questionable whether even Shikizaki Kiki cared about it.
In Bakuman。, "Classroom of Truth," a work submitted for the main characters to judge, ends this way. The characters are put into a survival tournament to escape their classroom, and all of them die. Even the main character gets chased down and eaten by a doppelganger. Mashiro and Takagi note that it is the opposite of the typical Jump manga that value hard work and friendship, but having the main character die in spite of his efforts doesn't work.
Part VII of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure features Gyro Zepelli, an executioner who took pity on a young boy who, in a bad case of "wrong place wrong time", was sentenced to die. He pleads with the king of Italy to spare his life. The king says that he will give the boy amnesty if he completes the Steel Ball Run, a horse race in the United States. Gyro dies before completing it, but the boy was granted amnesty shortly after the events of the story arc following the collapse of the monarchy.....only to die of illness shortly thereafter.
Death Note in every adaptation sees the deaths of all major characters and many supporting ones, and leaves no implication that the world is a better place for any losses or sacrifices. While L and his successors accomplish their ultimate goal of taking down Kira, it's definitely a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story from the perspective of Kira and his followers, since all their efforts to transform the world end up amounting to nothing. Though the manga does end with a cult commemorating their deeds.
Jyuken the Gatekeeper's character arc in Eto Rangers. When she first really shows up in Episode 23, she's strongly hinted to be good deep down. This is made more explicit in Episodes 31 and 32, where it's revealed exactly how the other Jyarei treat her. Then, in Episode 37, she defies Nyanma's orders and joins forces with the Eto Rangers. Too bad Nyanma even took advantage of that, directly leading to the deaths of Nyorori, Pakaracchi, and Soufflé. Jyuken then tries to rebel, but is not only killed effortlessly, but absorbed, allowing Nyanma to ascend to her One-Winged Angel form.
The Impel Down/Marineford arc of One Piece. Luffy breaks into the most secure prison in the world, makes grudging allegiances with SEVERAL old enemies in the process, undergoes incredible punishment and nearly dies from poisoning...all to save his brother Ace from being executed. It's said that he's sacrificing his lifespan again and again with near-constant uses of Gear Second, plus the treatment Ivankov gives him for the poisons. He then breaks OUT, makes it to the execution, reaches the platform against ALL odds with help from newfound friends, and ACTUALLY SUCCEEDS IN FREEING HIS BROTHER. After all that...it's some choice petty insults from Admiral Akainu that goad Ace into a fight when he and Luffy are about to escape, leading to Ace getting killed by taking a magma fist intended for Luffy. It's the first real time in One Piece where the protagonist DOESN'T accomplish his goal.
A villainous example happens in the Fishman Island Arc: Hody Jones is an extremely racist Fishman who uses energy steroids to gain the power to take over the island and eventually of mankind. He had also murdered the reigning queen of the time and frame it on a human in order to make sure he'd have a loyal following of like-minded thinkers. After going through massive beatings from Luffy, he is defeated and the truth of the steroids is revealed. It turns out they're a special candy of the royal kingdom that accelerates the aging process, to which he and his men had overdosed on; leading them to become extremely elderly men. Even if he did manage to defeat Luffy, which is very slim, seeing how he was effortlessly beaten, he'd be too fragile and weak to achieve his ambitions. Also having admitted to his direct hand in the murder, as well as his abuse of literally every single major life in the kingdom, has made sure he's not going to paroled or jail-breaked from his imprisonment anytime soon.
Fate/Zero ends like this, which shouldn't surprise anyone who is familiar with Fate/stay night, given that Zero is the prequel and sets up the scenario for Stay Night, but the details are heart wrenching. At the end, Kiritsugu is forced to destroy the Grail which he had banked all his hopes on because it had become corrupted. His wife is dead, he will never see his daughter again, and he has only a few years to live. Sakura is still with the Matou. Saber still blames herself for the destruction of her kingdom. Worst of all, the two major villains survive. The one ray of hope that keeps this from being the worst Downer Ending of all time is that Shirou has taken up Kiritsugu's ideal and will eventually make things better.
Shiki ends with about 90% of the cast getting killed off in horrific, pointless ways, and then the village of Sotoba, which most of the remaining living humans sacrificed their sanity to protect from the vampires, ends up burning to the ground. Oh, and the only vampire who survives is the one who engineered the entire thing.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica does this with Mami's unceremonious beheading (shortly after Madoka decides to team up with her) and narrowly averts it in the ending. After several episodes of ruining Sayaka's life and one episode of sending both her and Kyouko to the grave along with Mami, Homura is about five seconds away from becoming a witch and allowing Walpurgis to destroy the city; but then Madoka appears and uses her amped-up wish to undo most of the damage. Without this last-minute intervention, Kyubey—the Big Bad—would have been the only survivor. Yet, like Clannad, some people dislike this ending because it wasn't the comprehensively tragic one they were expecting.
It gets worse in The Rebellion Story: because Homura mentioned to Kyubey how the universe operated before Madoka changed everything, Kyubey sets up an elaborate plan to lure out Madoka, who had become a goddess, so he can use her power for his own use. In the end, it wasn't Kyubey that ultimately made Madoka's sacrifice moot, but Homura, who stole Madoka's power, becoming a demon who rules over a new universe where everything is as she sees fit. That said, Homura's universe is actually better than it was before, with the characters all alive and living happily, though it may be a False Utopia since she may have disturbed the balance of the universe to do so.
Faust's backstory from Shaman King. He fell in love with a girl with an incurable disease, and spent 20 years developing a cure. When he did, they finally got married and moved into their new home...where she was promptly killed by a burglar.
Now and Then, Here and There starts with a happy-go-lucky boy named Shu who meets a Rei Ayanami Expy named Lala-ru. Suddenly she's captured by a viciously insane dictator time-traveling from the barren, war-torn distant future, along with Shu, who vows to save her from this hell. She can control water with a pendant around her neck...at the cost of her life. After she uses her water to defeat the dictator and bring water to the parched future, the two share one last sunset together before she fades out of existence.
Ousama Game, all of Nobuaki's often desperate and extreme efforts to stop the Ousama Game and keep everyone alive are futile. He doesn't manage to save anybody, and the one person he does manage to keep alive, his girlfriend, dies minutes afterward anyway from something practically unrelated.
In an episode of Slayers NEXT, the second season of the Slayers anime, Lina and party team up with an eccentric lake dragon-hunter and chef in hopes of preparing the legendary Dragon Cuisine. After much trial and effort, they catch and slay a huge Lake Dragon and Lina eagerly starts getting ready for the meal, only to be told that lake dragon flesh is intensely poisonous and so even the least complicated meal will take weeks of treating to leach out the toxins before it can be consumed. Much to her dismay, the rest of the party drag her away, leaving the chef happily getting started on the year-long process to make the complete Dragon Cuisine course.
Timeline 3 of Dragon Ball Z. In that timeline all of the Z-Fighters are Killed Off for Real, humanity is on the brink of extinction and the only Hope Spot provided in that timeline, being Trunks successfully deactivating Androids 17 and 18, who were responsible for creating the Crapsack World that Future Trunks lives in, is quickly negated when Future Trunks is ambushed and quickly killed by Cell and has his time machine stolen. And just to add insult to injury, in the main timeline in which Cell travels back to, he kills Future Trunks again. Oh, and because of Future Trunks' death, in the third timeline, the Saiyan race is now extinct, except for Vegeta's younger brother who may or may not be alive in that timeline. Man, timeline 3 is depressing. No wonder much of it isn't shown.
The The Father of Goku special. Bardock is given the ability to see the future where his world and most of his race is killed by their boss. His friends are also murdered by the henchmen of said boss in a different incident. Bardock is unable to do anything to avenge his friends and can't do a damn thing to stop Frieza from blowing up the planet. Even trying to warn his other fellow Saiyans does nothing since no one believes him. In the end, he's killed unceremoniously by Frieza without accomplishing anything. The only bright spot in the entire special is seeing Goku safely getting to Earth and being found by his grandfather.
The Circus Arc from Black Butler, adapted as the Book of Circus anime. Ciel manages to track down the culprit responsible for kidnapping children, and even finds some of the children still alive. However, he resolves that after the horrors they've endure killing them is more merciful and leaves them to die as the mansion burns down. Every First-Tier member of the Circus involved in the conspiracy is killed, though revealed to have been Anti Villains forced to serve their "father" in order to protect the other children at the Work House he owned. Afterwards, Ciel visits the Work House and finds nothing but long-abandoned ruins and realizes the other children the Circus members fought and killed to protect were already long dead.
The best the Survey Corps can hope for is a Pyrrhic Victory in Attack on Titan, otherwise their missions turn out like this. One mission of theirs (the 57th) collapsed in one day and failed to accomplish their goal, resulting in what remained of them limping back to the Walls to get ridiculed and verbally spat on. No wonder the episode covering their return is a Tear Jerker over 20 minutes long.
One-Punch Man: Of all the villains he's faced, only two haven't been subjected to this, and one of them was because a supremely powerful, unbeatable opponent was sort of what he wanted. Doesn't matter if you want to conquer Earth for yourself, avenge Mother Nature, create the Ultimate Life Form or just get revenge on someone who wronged you, Saitama will come and end you and everything you stand for with one punch, before you've even finished speaking, and without giving a crap about whatever you want.
The Anteiku Raid arc that serves as the finale for Tokyo Ghoul. In order to rescue his friends, Kaneki heads into the midst of a major combat operation and ignores warnings that doing so is suicide. Along the way, he fights a climatic battle with his Worthy Opponent.....and loses control, leaving Amon mortally wounded. He manages to rescue Koma and Irimi, and agrees to meet with them later at V14. This later becomes the site of a massacre, and he arrives too late to save anyone. Kaneki also reunites with his childhood friend, Hide, and learns that his friend knew all along. A fade to black leaves it ambiguous whether or not he ended up eating Hide, who remains missing. And finally, Kaneki is forced to battle the legendary Ghoul Investigator, Kishou Arima. He loses to the legendary "Reaper", and is seemingly killed while elsewhere, Yoshimura is defeated in battle and ends up captured by Aogiri. In the end, The Bad Guy Wins, Kaneki's apparent death leaves his friends devastated and alone, and Kaneki becomes an amnesiac being trained by the CCG to become their new Super Soldier.