Clannad – A Critical Overview on Character Development, Dramatic Structure, and Thematic Dissonance


What’s your problem with Clannad? Have you no soul?!?


Quite likely. However, my main problems are that up until halfway through Afterstory, it’s a combination of cliched, one-note characters, repetitive slapstick, and maudlin sub-Angel Beats melodrama. Then it gets very interesting and unique for about ten episodes, then it flips the audience off with an ending that invalidates all the good parts.


But isn’t that just, like, your opinion, man?


Let’s take this one item at a time.

Cliched one-note characters and repetitive slapstick, I don’t think you can really defend against. It’s hard to dispute that for the greater part of the series, most of the characters are defined by one core attribute – Kyou is a tsundere, Kotomi is the Rei-clone, Nagisa is straight moe, etc. The “repetitive slapstick” is even less arguable, since that just is true – some people find this more funny than others, but the fact is this show repeats its jokes constantly, and most of them are of the broad physical comedy variety. Easy, broad humor is a problem common to a lot of anime, but that doesn’t make it less of an issue.

The problem with the drama is that the show doesn’t give you a reason to care about the characters before telling a sad story – it introduces them as their character type, and they remain that type, but sad things happen around them. Fuko is only ever “ditzy girl who likes starfish”, but we are expected to feel sorry for her because life is sad. That’s not really how characterization and empathy work in storytelling – this is clearly subjective (I mean, a lot of people think Angel Beats is good), but I can pretty confidently say this show hasn’t learned the give and take of characterization and drama that Disappearance of Haruhi or Toradora have a mastery of. A tragic backstory doesn’t create character depth unless you see that depth in the characters themselves, and the side-arc characters are pretty uniformly shallow.

Then there’s Afterstory. For the second half of this season, I was actually extremely impressed with the show. It went beyond the usual high school daily life experience, showing things like the pressure/pride of personal responsibility and the tiring but satisfying honor of a manual blue-collar job. What other anime covers this stuff? It was also handled with much more grace and subtlety than the prior arcs – it felt like the show had an entirely new, much more talented director. The death of Nagisa actually struck me, since the second half had been full of great character-building moments between her and Tomoya, and the episode where Tomoya doesn’t know what to do with the daughter he’s abandoned is in my mind one of the strongest episodes of any anime. Even the stuff with his father is deftly done.

When Ushio became sick, I figured the show was finally pulling its strands together – the themes of nostalgia, of embracing the past while accepting sadness and moving forward, and the recurring references to the hospital/hill that saved Nagisa were all going to come together, and Tomoya would just barely save Ushio by getting her to the hospital, the “place where dreams come true” – this would be Nagisa’s last gift to him. It would be bittersweet, since Nagisa would still be gone, but life is full of sadness, and you have to learn to cherish your past without being captured by it.

Instead, all of that raw character building and sharp reflection on the earlier themes of the show turns out to be a dream because magic, and everyone lives happily ever after. Not only is this literally deus ex machina (god just decides to save them because they’ve been good all year), which is never good storytelling, but it also undercuts the themes of the show. The entire strength of the last act had been built on mono no aware and the idea that unlike high school, life doesn’t have any easy answers… and then it concludes with an incredibly easy answer. Not cool.

I think there are many moments of this show that are well-directed, and I think when it’s working on the main Tomoya/Nagisa plot, it’s actually a pretty good and sometimes extremely good show, minus that ending. But I also think it’s a very flawed show, that it makes a lot of too-easy narrative and character choices, and that many parts of it simply don’t work storytelling-wise.


So basically you’re a heartless monster. But adapting Visual Novels is really tough, as you’ve discussed in the past. Are Clannad’s problems even solvable?


The answer here is, “yes, but not easily.” Still, let’s see what we can do.

The main, huge problem is that by adopting all the paths of a Visual Novel, they destroyed the pacing of the storyline and added a huge amount of superfluous plot and very poor melodrama. From the first season, I would cut all episodes from the Fuko storyline up through the end of the Kotomi storyline. I would also cut those two characters entirely, since they’re the worst offenders on the “just exist to be moe” scale and add nothing to any other part of the series. I’d perform the same surgery on the second season, cutting out all the episodes from the second until when they finish the superfluous side arcs.

This would condense the series to roughly one 26 episode season, and do wonders for the pacing already. This would also indirectly help Nagisa’s character a great deal, as her character development would now be continuous, as opposed to randomly stopping for 10-12 episode stretches. Tomoya would also lose a lot of his generic VN protagonist Woman Fixer absurdity. There’s still work to be done, though.

Sunohara would have to be fixed. His character is two jokes repeated over and over (Sunohara likes girls LOL, Sunohara gets hit LOL), and his character development arc requires him to randomly become an asshole for several episodes and then be “fixed” by Tomoya. Cut his sister, give him one or two actually good traits, and set his motivation arc in place from the first couple episodes. The resolution of the baseball team storyline was actually one of the better moments of the early stuff, so focus on what made this strong – his temper, his convictions, his bond with Tomoya.

Nagisa also needs work – she eventually comes into her own as a character, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more defining traits than “cute, helpless moeblob” for the first half of the series. No, liking the dango family is not a personality – but it might be the lead-in to one. Find something to make her stand out and have a better-defined character arc of her own – right now, character arcs happen around her, but her own agency is very minimal.

Tomoyo is fine. Kyou is a generic tsundere, but she also gets some of the most honest conversations with Tomoya, so she’s also probably fine. Ryou probably doesn’t need to exist… no, actually, it would probably be better if Ryou were Kyou’s male twin. This would kill any last vestiges of haremness, and delete the last unnecessary moeblob. I’d suggest something even more drastic, like give male Ryou a crush on Sunohara, but anime writers apparently can’t handle gay characters without making them into tasteless jokes, so I’ll just leave that alone.

Finally, we’d have to fix the ending. Adding a “magic fixes everything” ending cheapens the themes of honest work, perseverance, and helping to hold each other up that are present all throughout After Story. Bringing Nagisa back to life destroys the significance of Tomoya’s character growth in the last, best act of the show. Instead, have that scene where Tomoya questions if he should have met Nagisa at all simply inspire him to get back up. Tomoya runs to the hospital on the hill, cradling his (unconscious, but not dead) daughter as he reflects on his time with Nagisa and all the people he’s met in this city. He wants to hate this place, but he can’t; like Nagisa said, this is where they were born, and there’s too much of him, too much of Nagisa in this place. He reaches the hospital where Nagisa was saved and begs them to save Ushio; she just barely pulls through. Nagisa is still gone, but his memories of her helped him save the daughter they were meant to raise together, in the city he’s come to love.

This maintains the strength of the last act while actually tying together the earlier themes and foreshadowing. Plus, by cutting the magical glowing balls, Tomoya’s early helpfulness can be resolved by something that actually helps the story – have it be his way of attempting to be the opposite of his father. If Nagisa makes him realize this, it would even help her character, too.

There’s an incredible show hiding somewhere in Clannad, but the humor, pacing, and early melodrama make it very hard to find. I think as a one season show that abandoned directly adopting the VN and instead attempted to tell a single story well, it could be something truly great.

25 thoughts on “Clannad – A Critical Overview on Character Development, Dramatic Structure, and Thematic Dissonance

  1. I liked your review. Unlike other bloggers I’ve seen on wordpress who tend to exaggerate, you did a good job analysing on the good and bad parts of Clannad. Although I also agree that After Story is much better than the first series, I still think the first series deserves credit for building up After Story so giving it a 3 seems very bleak. I’ve even seen many commentators claiming that After Story could stand on it’s own without the first series. I disagree. The first series is what brought these relationships and informative details into the story. Without it, I doubt After Story would have been as successful. It could have managed, definetely, but I don’t think it would have reached the high standard it does today. After seeing Air and Kanon and then watch Clannad, I can definetely understand why many Key fans would be disappointed. Out of all the Key animes produced, Clannad (first series, not AS) has officially bad pacing and as you mentioned, unearned drama to get you to care about the characters once you are first introduced. As the story progresses, it also becomes much more fleshed out. What I’m wondering is why it lacked originality and subtle writing when After Story actually did all this right? I guess if you take episodes 1-3, 8-9, 14-17 and 20-23 from the first series and blended them with After Story it would have been a more straight forward slice of life. Then erase episodes 8 and 22 from After Story, or just simply replace those episodes with something else and you have an official masterpiece of storytelling.

    Pretty much what you said at the end is what I think. Clannad should stand on it’s own merits and is an all round wonderful show and does not deserve severe backlash because of it’s flaws. It does pull together once you get used to it.

  2. Your article is bad, and you should feel bad. (hehe, just joking…mostly)

    However, from what I can muddle out from your missive and sweetbeanpaste’s relatively affirmative reply above is that you supposedly liked the vehicle called Clannad, for the most part, but want to re-arrange and destroy just about everything in it except the handsome leather interior that you found pleasing and essentially drive off in a brand new vehicle of a superior (for you) design.

    What you really want is NOT a sedan called Clannad with its cherry wood interior and leather seating, but a two-door coupe called Klans with the same cherry wood and leather.interior. A lot of us were happy with the sedan, it drove well enough for us and the designer had his own reasons for making it that way, and we feel, for the most part, that he was more correct than you.

    • Pretty much! I found most episodes of Clannad to be full of poorly written characters, repetitive, juvenile humor, and manipulative melodrama, and would have nothing more to say on the subject if that last act hadn’t actually impressed me so much. I mean, you see my points on what is “wrong” with Clannad artistically in that first block text – if those elements appeal to you, that’s perfectly cool, but I don’t think that invalidates my complaints.

      The reason I wrote this – and hell, the reason I went back to and finished the show after initially dropping it – is because fans extolling Clannad’s virtues are so pervasive, those fans always cite it as one of the premier anime romance/dramas (which is pretty much my favorite genre), and many of those fans explicitly say that Clannad must be slogged through because After Story is much better. And when I forced myself through those early episodes, I found something actually very appealing – but if I were to try and construct a Clannad that made best use of the strengths I perceived, it would certainly be a different show. I think Clannad overall was a bad show (my opinion) with some very good ideas, and constructing a show that makes best use of those good ideas is an interesting thought exercise. Obviously big fans of the current show would think this is a bad idea – they’re big fans of the current show.

  3. Wow, is this anime really that bad?I’ve seen a few negative reviews of it but I always thought it was popular. I’ll avoid this anime then.

    • Well, you can see the way I appreciate/evaluate shows, and from that perspective I think it’s very bad for a long time, very good for a short stretch, and very bad again for the ending. But it IS very popular – you could always just try the first couple episodes, since they’re pretty indicative of the writing/humor going forward.

      • I know Clannad is liked by a lot of people and it’s biggest fanbase is on MAL. Mainly the negative perspectives of this anime are on blogs like here on wordpress. If opinions are strong enough then I’ll give it a shot.

  4. A couple of months ago I attempted to watch and blog Clannad as a dare. About 8 episodes in I realized that while KyoAni were definitely giving the project their all, the structure of the series was so coldly manipulative I couldn’t bring myself to watch anymore. That’s not to say that it wasn’t effective–many parts of it were! But it felt like rather than give you characters to empathize with, Clannad gave you characters to feel protective of. Characters who were devices more than people, meant to push buttons rather than inspire natural responses. I wholly blame Jun Maeda’s writing for this: he’s good at provoking an emotional response but taken in large doses I find his stuff pretty unbearable.

    That said, not everyone feels this way! I think it comes down to how much manipulation one person can stand. Clannad is definitely an emotional rollercoaster (even in the small sample of episodes I watched) but it’s one in which I could see every string, and I found that TREMENDOUSLY distracting. All storytelling is manipulative in a sense, but there are ways to do it right and by and large Clannad’s dramatic sledgehammer didn’t work for me. Still a beloved series, though, so maybe I should try it again sometime! One day. In a couple of decades or so…maybe.

  5. I got goosebumps while reading you fix of the Clannad ending. I like your review very much 🙂

  6. There’s a lot of heart in Clannad, even if it was such a flawed show. I liked the comedy and the melodrama, but all your proposals to “fix” up the writing would indeed make it a much more thematically consistent, more evenly paced show. There was not a single decision of yours that I disagreed with. The thing is that the great moments would probably stand out less since there is not as much suck to put up with beforehand 😉

    And wait, one thing I remembered. Actually I did disagree with one part you wanted to fix. Cutting out Sunohara’s sister? Nooooooooo. Isn’t she there to highlight how much Sunohara has changed and to help him become more like the person he used to be? Change her role or just cut her out altogether in the other arcs, but Mei’s an essential character, especially because she is an imouto character. The childlike innocence and idealism in Sunohara’s old self is easily represented in a sweet sibling relationship between older brother and sister, which changes as these siblings grow up. It’s very emotionally genuine and true to life.

  7. I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, but I think the movie version of Clannad is a thousand times better than the show. Directed by Osamu Dezaki (the guy who did Rose of Versailles, Space Adventure Cobra, etc.), it’s pretty much a streamlined version of the main story that fixes most of the problems you had with it whilst introducing a few new ones due to the fact that it only has ninety minutes to tell the complete story. I suggest you give it a try someday.

  8. Hey Bobduh,
    I recently ran into your site and I’ve got to say your writing is really clear and insightful. I always check your episode write-ups after an episode airs. Keep up the good work.

    I agree with you on most of the points you made – most of the characters are extremely cliche and need a lot of work to develop their characters to make a much stronger piece of work, but I also think you did a disservice to one of the main ideas that makes Clannad so great: human relationships. You didn’t mention that Tomoya’s entire life is basically made up of all the relationships he made with different people. Looking at it from this light, I feel like the first season and the first half of After Story are much more justified, which shows the development of his relationships with other people. This idea can also somewhat justify the ending as well – what the creators of Clannad wanted people to understand about Tomoya was that regardless of what happened in the end, which resulted in the deaths of Ushio and Nagisa, Tomoya made the decision to relive the those relationships, no matter how painful they were, he knew that those relationships were what made him. Some of the ideas I talked about are elaborated here: Of course, my ideas are probably skewed because I love the crap out of Clannad and everything is up to interpretation.

    Excuse my lack of good writing; I wrote this in a hurry.

    Anyways, that’s what I got out of Clannad. Love your other reviews though.

    • That’s a very compelling interpretation of the side arcs. Thanks for linking the article – the drama of the smaller conflicts didn’t really work for me for the reasons I described, but I can definitely see that read on the series overall.

  9. Well written analysis. However I do disagree with your belief that the ending is a deus ex machina. It would be a deus ex machina if it came completely out of nowhere. However, they were literally foreshadowing it since episode 1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention anything about the girl and the robot in the illusionary world. Their story parallels Tomoya’s throughout the story, it being the place where the orbs of light come from.

    Plus the way Nagisa’s life was saved, Fuko being a ghost, and Katsuki being a cat demonstrated there was a certain level of magic in the Clannad universe. Kotomi talked about her parent’s research into alternate universes and parallel versions of people. Most importantly, there’s the legend of the orbs born of happiness, that if you gather enough of them something miraculous will happen. There are numerous hints throughout the story that foreshadow the ending.

    I actually like the ending you proposed in your post, it has a less fantastical, more bitter sweet ring to it (though it had been established that Ushio’s illness couldn’t be cured by medicine). Still, I like the end of TV show. I see a lot of character growth in Tomoya’s epiphany on the hill. When Nagisa died, he wished they’d never met and seemed like he was going to do the same after Ushio’s death. But he overcame that despair and hugged her, realizing that despite all the suffering he’d experienced, the happiness was so profound that he’d do it again anyway. That conviction is what was needed to use the orbs of light, he needed, as the robot said, “a wish from the heart.”

    As for your other critiques, I’ll admit a lot of the side characters stay within their cliche character roles. But I still enjoyed them a lot anyway. I knew while watching the show that the Sanae’s bread joke was just a rinse and repeat physical gag, yet it brought a smile to my face every time. Something about the way Clannad executes its humor makes it work even when they repeat jokes, I can’t really explain it.

    I would agree that the show doesn’t truly become a masterpiece until episode 9 of After Story. But after finishing the show, I realized how necessary the high school part of the show was. It established the bonds between these characters, Tomoya helping them and gaining the orbs of light. When you get to the tough real world of After Story, you realize how nice and idyllic those high school days were. That’s why you need Clannad before you get to After Story. It’s a story about people, and through helping others Nagisa and Tomoya come to understand themselves and each other better.

    If you want a fuller view of my thoughts on After Story, I made a blog post about how Clannad executes catharsis in such a powerful way:

    • I actually admitted in my response to another comment that my proposed version of Clannad isn’t really the same show at all – it’s an appropriation of Clannad’s base variables to create a show that would work for me and my system of criticism. There’s just a lot of what makes Clannad Clannad that doesn’t really work for me, but I think that second half of After Story has a much more universal appeal. I wouldn’t want the show to just start there, but I’d prefer it if the earlier segments had the same universality, and weren’t so based in the tropes, repeated jokes, and Maeda-style drama cycles I find so ineffective.

      As far as the deus ex machina issue goes, I feel like that could warrant an entire post by itself. In short, it’s not that the show didn’t include elements which foreshadowed that ending – it’s that that ending didn’t emotionally follow from the narrative the show had set up. If a show “hides clues” that foreshadow a specific ending, but the ending still comes as a strange, disjointed shock to the audience (and isn’t supposed to, of course – some endings are supposed to leave the audience unsatisfied), I feel the show has failed in a thematic/emotional sense, and that’s far more important than those clues indicating this ending could have happened in retrospect. In this case, I felt Clannad’s ending was a betrayal of its best ideas, and embracing of its least-meaningful ones (the magical realism stuff). As an extreme example, imagine a show where the first episode announces there’s a wizard on the loose, and then the show spends twelve episodes telling a thoughtful story of a man coming to terms with the approaching death of his father, and then in the last episode the wizard jumps out and magically heals his father. Yeah, the show technically “foreshadowed” that, but it’s still a betrayal of the show’s own strengths.

      Clannad isn’t that extreme of a case, but in the context of what I feel are the show’s strengths, the ending felt pretty much like that to me.

  10. Is Clannad a bad show? Of course not. Well, not in my opinion anyway.It’s flawed but still one of my favourites.(mainly After Story) I’m glad you aren’t one of those bloggers that rip into something just because it’s highly appreciated. I can definitely agree that the deus ex machina at the end of AS was a complte throw off. You have all that time to get attached to the characters, the story was going so well then it makes you feel stupid for even feeling bad for them. Clannad is by no means perfect, but you have to realise it was based off a Visual Novel that was VERY long and adapting it into an anime was obviously difficult. It’s the same with movie adaptations from novels. Most of them are always criticised for leaving out details and shortening the storyline development Although I have to say that you are in the minority for giving this show a negative reputation, but your opinions were valid and reasonable which makes it a more interesting perspective. I have yet to see an anime critic that will thoroughly berate Clannad, probably won’t, due to the large acclaim. So I guess it’s refreshing to see criticism once in a while. Well written review.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Personally, I’m of the opinion that pretty much any adaptation is going to make fans of the original unhappy, so you might as well try to tell the best story you can in the new medium, loyalty to the source be damned. Different mediums are good at different things, and adaptations should embrace this!

      Granted, this policy would probably make for commercial suicide, but that’s somebody else’s problem.

      • I noticed your rating for Angel Beats (which is also one of my favourite animes) and it appears that you didn’t like it much either. .I have to admit that was more flawed than Clannad AS mainly due to the lack of episodes. Still I guess that’s why you named this blog “Wrong Every Time” There will be many people that will deny biased criticism I guess lol I’ve not come across anything that’s 100% accurate. I’m fine with your post, it doesn’t come across as contrived as other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to see you do a review on Blue Exorcist (another one of my favourites).

        • Well, all criticism is biased, it’s just biased in different directions. There is no “100% accurate” preference, it all exists within a relative framework, and shows like Angel Beats or Clannad just don’t really work according to my frame of good character writing and drama.

          Haven’t seen Blue Exorcist, but I’m not much of a shounen fan – pretty much the only one I really like is Hunter x Hunter 2011. That one’s really good though, so if you haven’t seen it, I definitely recommend it.

  11. 100% accurate is just a figure of speech. Like you said, it’s all different viewpoints on the framework. Blue Exorcist is similar to Soul Eater but if you watched Soul Eater and didn’t enjoy it then you might not enjoy this one either, considering you don’t like shounen. I’ve heard of Hunter x Hunter 2011, I think I’ll give that a try. Thanks for the reccommendation!

  12. I don’t believe the ending is a hokey attempt at leaving us with a smile on our face. I would not be such a fan of the series if I thought it was prioritizing “good feelings” over truth. I feel this series does a tremendous job at capturing the weight of pain and suffering in this life while marrying it with an essence of hope, magic, and love in our world.
    Kotomi’s parents were studying string theory, and thats what I think the ending of Clannad AS represents. There are 3 universes shown, the main timeline where Nagisa/Ushio dies, the timeline at the end where neither of them die, and the universe where the girl and doll exist; another form of Ushio and Tomoya. The show theorizes a bridge between universes shown when Nagisa can dream into the desolate world with Tomoya and Ushio, and Tomoya and Ushio’s inner consciousness is manifested physically in conjunction with the timeline.
    The series intertwines the unknowns of the cosmos and physics with a sense of magic and hope. It takes a pedestrian storyline and escalates it to the highest level of the existential. Perhaps all parallel universes do affect one another, perhaps our consciousnesses/soul/spirit can transcend the laws of this physical world, perhaps our world is more magical than we think.

    P.S. Your blog is great.

  13. Great review! Although I’m actually quite the opposite in my opinion of the anime. It’s actually one of my favorite anime. But I really did enjoy your review (even if the criticism kinda hurt haha).

    I know the show wasn’t perfect by any means and it sucks that some of it’s flaws can really put some people out but within the frame of what you considered good story structure and development, your review was really well done.

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