“It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald
The concept of rose-colored nostalgia googles tells me that this might not be a great idea but if you give me enough slack to approach with honesty you might not find me to be all that hostile. So a while back I reviewed a series called Toradora, a cute little rom-com. I heard from other reviews and opinions on the show that: “it’s no Clannad“, “Clannad is better”. So, I didn’t want to jump into something so similar right away, but I was curious about what all the fuss was about and that brings us here, let’s talk about Clannad.
I’m not quite sure what Clannad translate to, but I’m pretty sure it’s “shoot the puppy” and oh boy does it like to “shoot the puppy”. Clannad is the story of Tomoya Okazaki whose disdain for life is challenged by a chance encounter with Nagisa Furukawa which eventually turns into series of efforts to revitalize the school’s drama club and life lessons in what’s truly valuable in various aspects of life. I’m just going to rip the band-aid of so you can have a better idea of where I’m coming from when addressing the series. If I had to describe my personal thoughts on Clannad and Clannad: After Story in one word it would be – conflicted. When I reflect upon the series I consider it to have quite a few short comings that culminate into something that is both frustrating and underwhelming… but at the same time watching it is mesmeric, powerful, and in some regards I consider elements of the writing to be as good as gets and seeing the deliverance in score, animation, and voice acting it’s just wow, wow, wow.
Here’s what I think it boils down to, Clannad is excellent at executing ideas but fails at developing them into a series. When writing reviews, I like to think of what is the best way to sell this show, how do I use my experience to give a general idea of what I got out of it. Clannad should be considered an “Anthology of Misery” it is more this series of exploring various forms of personal baggage and trauma and overcoming them than how you’d expect a typical series to progress.
So hopefully if you haven’t while I am more critical to the series than your average Clannad fan, I do think it is worth a watch and for those who have watched it let’s talk about how I rank each section of the show and sort of look about what works and doesn’t throughout various aspects of the show. SPOILERS are ahead [that includes minor foresight into After Story], I expect if you want to breakdown and discuss the various segments of the series you have seen the series… here we go.
Fuko Arc (Episode 1-9)
I actually found Fuko to be one of the better characters of the show and her arc to also be a fun introduction to the show. I’m not bothered by the shows lacking sense of realism “no one in high school would act that immature” you’re right but I’ve never met a guy named Edward who had Scissor-hands. Clannad actually does a good job easing the audience into the realm of fantasy with this arc. Interludes of the “other world” doesn’t seem as jarring when we are essentially trying to aid a ghost girl. By framing Nagisa as this angelic figure in the night do we get a misdirection that while initially might have us believe her to be the ghost girl ends with us questioning who else isn’t what they appear to be or how much of this world is constructed by the P.O.V of Okazaki.
Given that it is based off a visual novel a format that has to give you a quick understanding of what “type” of character you’re meeting so you know if you’d like to continue down that pathway I’m fine with how most of the characters are hyper-characterized. Fuko is probably the type most expounded upon through repeated motifs and character quirks such as: her affinity to starfish, her later use of the third person, and here state of being “lost in the sauce” as I like to call it. I felt that Fuko was refreshing in being the most platonic relationship with Okazaki and being someone who’s purpose in the narrative seemed multi-fold.
I found this arc interesting because the solution isn’t that Fuko has to be more mature, but her personality is rather the obstacle and greatest attribute towards her goal. Fuko’s journey is to essentially find friendship, something that was her goal before the accident and to do so she has to find people who will accept her for who she is, and she eventually does. The immaturity aspect is intriguing in how it’s used as a foil to Okazaki. Okazaki puts up an exterior that he is mature, a conclusion his self-preservation has led him to, but as you’ll find in After Story that he is far from being the adult he might see himself as in comparison to Fuko.
What really stands out this arc in comparison to others is how much I think it goes beyond the narrative. Fuko’s struggle is one of mortality, and the efforts to leave a legacy or a thought behind before we’re gone. Eventually we all become yesterday’s news and the memory of you will fade away but that does not make our efforts meaningless. You look at a painting or an art piece and you might not know who made it but you remember how it made you feel. Even if we don’t create, people are molded by their interactions with the people around them and though it might feel hopeless our influence is felt.
While 9 episodes is a little misleading because the first 2-3 is primarily set-up, this arc shows the shows patience to let things develop. I find it interesting that this arc involves a lot of stylized gags such as Okazaki’s pranks bringing up a title card as well as moments in which the animation style changes to reflect Okazaki’s fantasies. It’s weird how non-existent anything like this is in the rest of the series I would understand it not returning in After Story but really from this point on the visual departures like these don’t really occur. Though it was a shame, I understand it’s hard to do these little humorous asides in some of the more dramatic episodes, but it seems a little strange. Also, Fuko is also nicknamed the shoehorn because while I adore the character and wish we got more… the rest of the series she just sort of gets shoehorned in randomly. I thought it was a little shameless how they keep bringing her up like, we know this character might be a fan favorite but we have no use of her besides waving her in your face… however, seeing how the rest of the characters get treated this is sort of one of the better treatments we get.
Kotomi Arc (10-14)
This arc is really saved by the fact that they know how to write a moment. I feel this one really is the one that challenges your suspension of disbelief and feels to be coming a little too soon after the last arc to really try something that’s supposed to hit this hard. So, you’re supposed to just be okay with Okazaki and Kotomi being childhood friends, Kotomi’s parents being experimental research on other dimensions, Kotomi’s parents dying by a plane crash leaving their child alone on their birthday, a child having access to secret documents and matches, Kotomi being stalked by the Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark who actually is just her caretaker, Kotomi has been living alone this whole time, and when it comes to briefcases none of the contents inside will be compromised after spending years in the ocean and if it were to wash up on shore with a Japanese surname of course it wouldn’t be sent directly to Japan but instead be the item of international hot potato.
This might sound like an exciting lot of things going on but really this arc consists of mostly landscaping. However, it’s a really sweet arc that is slightly underappreciated. I really want to praise Mamiko Noto whose soft voice really brings a sincerity to the character of Kotomi. There are some interesting aspects in terms of religion and what can trigger traumatic memories. It’s got a lot of fairy tale writing to it, and everything seems to neatly take form with each element from wanting a teddy bear and the guilt of destroying something meaningful to her parents creates a satisfying conclusion of a tale of self-forgiveness.
My biggest criticism of Clannad is probably most evident here, after finding resolve what character growth do we see? You start to think that these characters are just a farm of sob stories than actually treated as people. Kotomi resolved her deep inner turmoil, how does this reflect in her character through the show… it don’t. Completely fades into the background, that’s where I kind of lean towards Toradora because characters are affected by the actions or circumstances that happens. Kotomi is just there the rest of the way and they do minimum to show how this all has changed her character. She actually attends a class, but that’s it. I wish that the with the colorful cast that Clannad had, it had been less devoted to this misery one-upmanship but instead found ways to involve people in deeper ways than what’s essentially cameos.
Vs. Choir Club/ Tomoyo/ Fujibayashi Sisters Arc (15-18)
The slice of life segment that is less focused on a particular character but sort of shows the tangled web of interconnected problems coming together. First as someone who has played quite a bit of basketball and has had a pet peeve of basketball looking horribly choreographed in TV shows… this one gets a thumb up from me. The choir club drama is a little unnecessary, but I guess Nagisa can’t just disappear for a couple episodes while we deal with other issues, right? If anything, it was nice to see someone like Sunohara give input into some else’s drama with their own philosophies and thoughts on things.
Tomoyo is maybe the most confused character in the whole thing. Personally, I feel like they really dropped the ball with this character. Which is unfortunate I really think there’s a lot to like being the most level-headed and holding some insecurities despite impressive talents across the boards. They make it clear that she wants to almost put up a front, to be more feminine and finds herself trying to emulate Misae as this sort of attempting to be what she thinks she should be than being all that she can be. They never explore her character outside of some let’s be honest unearned bullshit alternative universe bonus episode. The bonus episode is really just fodder, usually the fun of alternate universe is seeing the butterfly effect, how does this one outcome effect the world we’ve come to know. Who is Nagisa or Kyou or Fuko if Okazaki dates Tomoyo … keep imagining because the show doesn’t have an answer for you. Tomoyo succeeds in her goal to become the student council president and assumes the position of Cherry Blossom Lorax and speak for the trees. Tomoyo starts to wear glasses and I couldn’t tell you if it’s because she wants to seem smart and presidential, or if she’s finally accepting herself by showing the vulnerability of her poor eyesight, or because people have a glasses fetish and this show was lacking representation?
I wish Tomoyo won the campaign by coming forward with who she is rather than just wowing people. Maybe that’s what was supposed to happen, but they never really established any reluctance to do these sports because it didn’t seem presidential and if the point is that sports is masculine in some way… why would you include ribbon dancing in your montage? Tomoyo’s a vital character to the themes of family and dedication but I can’t help but feel she’s tragically underutilized. Especially in After Story When a big element of it is everything changes, and you got to accept the world won’t stay the same. I feel that maybe just maybe you could have brought Tomoyo back after the time skip in where she to is bitter about the changing world that did eventually remove the trees she wanted to protect. However, Tomoyo has dealt with it more gracefully and has sort have come to terms with that it was never about the trees but the feeling of togetherness they brought and she doesn’t need them to feel connected to her family anymore. Or you could just bring her back to stare solemnly off a cliff… your choice, I guess.
Speaking of underutilized characters, I liked Ryou despite the show not. A sensitive shy girl that has a hobby of fortune telling seems promising how about we just make her a glorified accessory. The twins obviously have this interesting dynamic in which their drama is almost a side story that’s going on throughout that only sneaks to the forefront for a brief moment here (and a bonus episode in After Story). Again this show has incredible patience and subtle nuance at times that obviously but indirectly make it very clear that both Ryou and Kyou like Okazaki before both are blatantly expressed.
The tennis match is honestly a terrific moment, it survives on a level of spontaneous energy that through montage and character decisions do we feel that there’s a slow build up to something and the anticipation pays off with Kyou unable to hold up her confident mask. I feel like with the sisters their struggles felt more down to earth and very much relatable. Maybe not a severe a pain but I’m sure myself and many others can’t speak from personal experience about: abusive parents, a family members suicide attempt, being in a coma, or parent’s dying in a plane crash but can understand exactly how it feels to have a crush on someone who won’t love you back.
Kyou while abrasive has maybe one of the more fleshed out characters not being solely defined by her tough tomboy side but shows a gentler side both in the storage room, her care for her sister, and her ability to be a kindergarten teacher.
It’s weird to think that the actual segment of high school drama in this high school drama is really only four episodes but I think it effectively uses the ambiguity of the direction to its advantage and allows you to have a deeper understanding of some of the side characters before they get sidelined by the direction the series eventually goes in.
Nagisa’s Play (19- 22)
This might come across as harsh but when describing Nagisa I feel the perfect way to do so is three words “vanilla ice cream”. If I had to serve a lot of people ice cream, I’d go with something safe and generally well-liked by everyone. It lacks a certain distinctiveness in flavor. it feels a little more personal to say you like pistachio, mint chip, coffee, strawberry, whatever. Nagisa is amiable, kindhearted, and has an infectious positive attitude towards life. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t find her relationship with Okazaki charming or felt sadness in her tears.
I just wasn’t sold on the play being that big of a deal, Nagisa doesn’t have that deep of a passion for theater so it really only comes as the conclusion of the means which where meant to bring our characters together. The whole my parents gave up on their dreams angle is somewhat understandable but it’s at the same time a little silly to blow it out of proportion to be the big crescendo of the season.
Of course this concludes with the two protagonists finally getting together in the end which has been fairly obvious since the beginning but is a cute little moment. To be honest this arc was the one that shook my confidence in Clannad a bit. It felt weird to treat Nagisa and Okazaki who have more been mostly voyeuristic in others’ stories and be sort of audience surrogates are treated as this satisfying conclusion that’s been highly anticipated. It seems that for a show heavily dominated by the entirety of its cast all of a sudden is fixed in focus on the two leads and doesn’t acknowledge anyone else. It doesn’t feel unearned I though they could have started dating almost 12 episodes earlier and it would have felt appropriate. It’s overall and endearing segment that addresses the sacrifice of parenthood and the pursuit of one’s dreams and shouldn’t be too associated with a sense of finale as it’s really just the lead into After Story.
Clannad and this arc makes me confident in criticizing it and assures me why this story is great… and that’s because no matter what I say, what anyone says or feels it doesn’t take away from the heart that went into making it and the emotional impact it has had on those who watch it. This isn’t my story this is my interpretation this is my connection with the piece. I believe Clannad is such an effort of someone trying to tell a phenomenal story that like The Big Dango Family allegory tries to capture the complete story of life all the incomprehensible tragedies and the brightest moments of joy co-existing. An Anthology of Misery, embracing sorrow and finding the glorious power of the human spirit to overcome it. Clannad is passionate about it’s story and about sharing such emotional weights with those willing to take the leap and discover what it truly means to feel alive.
Be sure to follow the blog to see what comes AFTER, I’m sure as always I’ll find some interesting STORY to cover. This post IS really long so thanks for taking the time to read it, you could imagine it was a long time COMING. Thanks you, you beautiful people I hope you can all join me NEXT time here at the movies.
Images are from Clannad [credit: Sentai Filmworks/Kyoto Animation]