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.