October 4, 2007. That was the day Kyoto Animation aired the first episode of a much-anticipated anime adaptation of one of Key Visual Arts’ most beloved story, the third visual novel released by them, CLANNAD. It was the first anime series I began covering on a weekly basis for RIUVA
, and it was also the beginning of a long, long journey for us, one that eventually spanned the better part of 2 years. Now, at the end of March 2009, we have finally come to the end of that long journey, and now it is the time to look back at where it all began, at all that happened along the way, and how it eventually all came together to form one of the most memorable stories in anime of all time.
The broadcast of AIR (TV) back in 2005 was the first showcase of KyoAni’s animation prowess even before Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, their broadcast of Kanon (2006) was what solidified the link between the studio and Key Visual Arts’ as partners, and with CLANNAD (TV) and CLANNAD ~After Story~, KyoAni has now come full circle with anime adaptations of the three most famous works of Maeda Jun and Key. Let’s take at the look at the various aspects of the latest Key Visual Arts/Kyoto Animation collaboration, which seems destined to be considered by many to be the best adaptation to date, just as the original CLANNAD visual novel was considered Key’s best work to date.
Disclaimer: This is the RIUVA chapter of the Triple Critique for CLANNAD (TV) and CLANNAD ~After Story~. The Triple Critique is asystem of three reviews on the same series, composed in differing formats for different preferences in reading material.
The Animesuki Forums chapter offers a thorough bit-by-bit rated analysis of both seasons in a whole, in a rated-category format within a forum post.
The Nihon Review chapter offers summarized reviews of both seasons in their own right: Sorrow-kun reviews the first season CLANNAD (TV), while I cover the second season CLANNAD ~After Story~.
Mag Mell: The World Embodied in a Town
While the original Keyverses are highly thematic and therefore distinctive even within the visual novel source material, the KyoAni touch is definitely the factor which takes the beauty and distinctiveness to a whole new level altogether. The palpable sense of summer hanging over the town was what distinguished the setting of AIR (TV), and the beauty of a snow-covered landscape was what distinguished the setting of Kanon (2006); similarly, the KyoAni touch is the source of much of the distinctive beauty within the setting of the CLANNAD season; sakura petals drift to the ground in the highly artistic manner of the snow of Kanon (2006), naturalistic lighting effects to an extent still rivalled by few others set the mood of the narrative, and in an interesting twist, the animators at Kyoto Animation have chosen to use the series as an experimental in alternative animation techniques bordering on SHAFT-like craziness, though these still very much come with the signature KyoAni style.
That said, it also has to be said that somehow, the setting of CLANNAD feels somewhat less distinctive than its predecessors; while one can point to the summer sun as the defining characteristic of the setting of AIR, and the pristine white snowscape as the defining characteristic of the setting of Kanon, it’s not quite so easy to find something about the setting of CLANNAD which one can point to, as the object which defines the world in which the narrative is set. Though this is by no means the fault of KyoAni, whose efforts at animation remain as high as ever, it is still somewhat noticable.
But while the visual beauty of KyoAni’s rendition is certainly something always worth talking about, it would not do to underestimate the power of the music within the setting as well; being mostly the same soundtrack from the visual novel, the background music does a generally exceptional job in setting the mood of the moment, whatever it may be; from the whimsical character themes like Kotomi’s Etude pour les petites Supercordes, to the exceptionally moving pieces like Negai ga Kanau Basho II and Chiisana Tenohira, there is always something to fit the occasion, and the emotional effect is exponential. Mention must be made of the new variations of existing CLANNAD soundtrack pieces made especially for the anime, particularly the second season OP Toki wo Kizamu Uta sung by Lia, which serves as an exceptional lead-in every week to the episodes, and especially a new take on the Nagisa tune, Dango Daikazoku, which is not only the ED of the first season, but also appears frequently as an insert piece initially whimsical in nature, but growing ever more touching as the series progressed.
With the visual beauty of KyoAni’s animation techniques coupled with the auditory genius of Key Sounds Label’s offerings, the setting of CLANNAD is, just like its predecessors, a beautiful world one can only admire for its audiovisual impact. The setting has always been a key strength of the Key/KyoAni adaptations, and third time proves the charm indeed in this case. A town illuminated with warm light by the summer sun, a town lit up by the reflected light of the pristine snow, and now, a town bathing in the glowing lights of the happiness of its denizens.
Clann As Dobhar: The People that makes up One Great Family
Another key strength of the Key stories lies in the characters that inhabit the world and drive the storyline; they have always started out as memorable characters to begin with, and undergo a great deal of character development as time went on within their respective narratives. So it is for CLANNAD as well, except that it gets taken to a whole new level altogether.
The main problem with anime adaptations of visual novels are that, because of their usually multi-path natures, it is not easy to bring all of these disparate threads together to form one coherent narrative. One of the reasons why Key/KyoAni adaptations are considered the benchmark of their genre is because of their relative success at accomplishing such a near-impossible feat, but even then something always had to give; particularly here, where the individual story arcs tend to clash even more than did Kanon‘s. While some of these story arcs worked very well with their romantic elements being reworked into semi-platonic ones as is the usual style of KyoAni, others clashed so hard with the main storyline that they had to be excised altogether, unfortunately leaving some of the supporting characters poorer than they would have been.
Of course, it cannot be denied that the CLANNAD narrative pretty much belonged to Okazaki Tomoya, as well as his eventual wife, the future Okazaki Nagisa. Being designated as the one true pairing of the narrative of the start, KyoAni went out of their way to portray these two as such, having them do almost everything together, and helping each other grow and mature from the insecure adolescents they started out as, to the maturing young adults they would become in the After Story. The fun times they shared together fleshed out their personalities with every minute, while the trials they went through together developed their respective personalities by the same token; in fact, these two are characters so well-developed to the extent that it’s hard to think of any others with as much growth and development as characters as they have.
However, even though a great deal of the supporting cast gradually became sidelined and slowly faded out of the narrative, they never really ceased being important; without their influence, both Tomoya and Nagisa would not have grown as much as they did. It was only going through the same experiences as a group, as an informal family, that the both of them truly grew to become the personalities that they are today; this truly highlights the importance of the family theme, particularly the underlying message that even though one can spend a limited amount of time with close friends or family, their influence on one would last throughout one’s life.
And if anything, the fading out of a good portion of the huge supporting cast served to bring the mentor figures, a particular type of supporting character, to the forefront; and it is these mentor figures that have a great deal of influence later on in the second half of the narrative, particularly on Tomoya. It is through their great store of wisdom borne of life experiences that the main couple really grow and mature even more as people, as they begin to come to terms with living as full-fledged members of society, responsible for oneself and others as opposed to the relatively sheltered existence of the school life which they had just recently graduated from.
All in all, though the main bulk of the focus revolved around Tomoya and Nagisa, and the main couple grew exponentially as characters because of it, one cannot discount the effect that the supporting cast had on them, especially Tomoya, who is fated to take some of the lessons learned in his early days to heart much later on in life, after having experienced some of life’s harshest hardships. In that respect, though the individual characters worked well as themselves in their own right, together they worked even better as a group, sharing in the joys during good times and supporting each other during bad, a group far more than the sum of its parts. In short, they are an actual family, blood ties be damned, and one can hardly ask for more from a cast of characters.
Gensou Monogatari: The Story Then and After
"Magical realism" is the term used to describe an overall setting and narrative where mysterious fantastical elements have an influence what would otherwise be regarded as a realistic setting, and is the general premise that spans across all the stories written by Key. CLANNAD is no different, and just like the other Key stories, this magical element in their otherwise realistic world doesn’t make itself especially apparent until late into the narrative, although plenty of hints were always left around over the course of the said narrative. When entering into an experience into a Key story, such as CLANNAD is, an expectation of this aspect should always be held, lest one be blindsided when the magical elements inevitably come into play, affecting the narrative in ways one wouldn’t expect if complete realism was what was expected.
Of course, it must be said that while going into CLANNAD with expectations of it being a completely realistic story would be a mistake, one has to admit that it would be an especially easy one to make given the exceptional writing of the script set in the "real" aspect of the setting. While the early narrative within the first season was an above-average, highly enjoyable, but ultimately just another high school tale, it is exactly the character relationships built within the high school tale that serves as the foundation of the latter half of the narrative; as without it, the viewers would not have grown as attached to the main couple as they have, and it is exactly this deep attachment which is critical to making the high drama of the After Story as emotionally affecting as it is. By growing to love Tomoya and Nagisa during their relatively halcyon days as students working hard to pursue the simple dreams, the viewer becomes emotionally involved as they began to face greater struggles as they grow older and enter the greater society, culminating in the crisis stage where they face the very real possibility of losing each other, forever.
The use of the sense of attachment to the main characters as the key to creating high drama continues even after Nagisa has exited stage left, leaving behind her legacy for Tomoya to come to terms with. And indeed, it works even better here, for having come this far with the flawed Tomoya, the payoff comes when he finally finds resolution for the character flaws we’ve known he’s been carrying since the first day we saw him looking at a hesitant girl at the bottom of the long, long path to school, after so long. High drama certainly doesn’t get much better than this, and the late narrative is definitely why CLANNAD, especially the After Story, is considered by many to be Key’s best work ever made; it certainly lives up to the praise.
Therefore, when the magical elements do finally kick in to give what is essentially a second chance at happiness to the long-suffering young couple….no, young family, it is certainly no surprise why the affected ending of the narrative is not to everyone’s tastes. The high drama of the After Story is almost too exceptional for its own good; certainly, it would have worked just fine on its own if it were set in a completely realistic setting, and took its logical progression accordingly. Therefore, for those who were not expecting the magical elements of the CLANNAD setting, or at least not expecting it to play out the way it did, it is not surprising why they might have felt cheated of their emotions. Ultimately, how one receives the conclusion of the narrative depends on one’s disposition; for those who swore by the conventions of realistic settings, such an ending would be a waste of potential, while for others who were cognizant of the magical realism of the setting to begin with, and are attached enough to the young family that any chance of their happiness would do, there could be no better ending for them.
True End: The Conclusion to a Long, Long Journey
Beginning its broadcast with some of the highest expectations for an anime due to the much-hyped quality of the original Key Visual Arts source material, and the reputation of Kyoto Animation as the most faithful and competent studio at adaptations of such source material into the medium of anime, the combined narrative of CLANNAD (TV) and CLANNAD ~After Story~ certainly met all these expectations, almost certainly ensuring its status as a new benchmark in the genre, as well as its application for the status of a future classic of storytelling for all time. Once upon a time, visual novel enthusiasts proclaimed CLANNAD as the best story ever made by Key to date, an effort never to be replicated again in this lifetime. Today, the greater anime fanbase may now say the same thing of the Key Visual Arts/Kyoto Animation anime adaptation of the narrative.
Special Thanks To:
- Maeda Jun
and the other writers of Key Visual Arts
, for bringing us an exceptional epic of a story that we will not forget for years to come.
- Ishihara Tatsuya and the crew of Kyoto Animation, for the time and effort they put in to make the narrative of CLANNAD not only more accessible in the animated medium, but to making the adaptation as best as it can be.
- IRJustman, velocity7, and the crew of AQS-TWH-Sprocket, for the personal time and effort they have sacrificed to make the episodes of CLANNAD (TV) and CLANNAD ~After Story~ accessible to the rest of us as quickly as possible, and also for their continuing investment of their time and energy into the CLANNAD Translation Project, being done so that the rest of us may enjoy the narrative of CLANNAD in its entirety.
- Mentar and the crew of SS-Eclipse, for their continuing effort to bring the anime series to us the way it should be enjoyed, in 16:9 widescreen format.
- Hinano, Omni, totali, DS, and the rest of the animebloggers who have come this far along with me on this long, long journey through the wonderful story of CLANNAD. I have learned much from the different opinions and points of view from reading the entries posted by fellow followers of the series, and this has helped me immensely in my own ability to write the articles I have for the series. My gratitude!
- The fellow commentators on the Animesuki Forums, where I first found my voice as a fan of anime. Without the varied opinions to be found in the discussion threads over the course of two years, I might never have found the level of enthusiasm that I have now for anime, much less came to appreciate how different people can be in their opinions.
- Sorrow-kun and the rest of the staff on The Nihon Review, where I tested my hand at writing reviews for anime and live-action works. It is from them, and Sorrow in particular, that I learned critical appreciation of any work I have seen, and that the greatest impact can come from the fewest possible words, as well as the drive to write accordingly.
- TJ Han and the rest of my colleagues on RIUVA, for the chance to reach out to a wider audience through the popular medium of the blog article. Also, for the crucial encouragement, direct or indirect, to continue writing whenever I have doubted myself and my writing ability.
- And last, but not least, YOU, the readers, for embarking on this long, long journey through the epic narrative of CLANNAD with me. With your encouragement, advice, and support along the way, I have managed to come to the end of this great journey, a whole two years after I first started my writing career here. You have helped me understand the narrative of CLANNAD so much more, and helped me come to the realization that, in the end, we are all だんご大家族, a Great Family of Dangos. Let us link hands together in a great big circle, smiling all the way, sometime soon once more.
This is Ascaloth, member of the Animesuki Forums, staff reviewer of The Nihon Review, and last but not least, staff writer of the Reseach Institute of Unicultural Visual Arts, signing out of the coverage of CLANNAD (TV) and CLANNAD ~After Story~.