Since I won’t be formally reviewing Clannad After Story, I’ll take the opportunity to express a few thoughts about it in the much less rigid format of the blog article. I think it’s not unfair to say it’s a different anime to its predecessor, particularly with regards to tone, since the drama in this season is much heavier than the first season. Clannad could almost be seen as Kanon-lite, but at its most intense, Clannad After Story is just as heavy as something like Air. At this stage, there’s virtually nothing to stop me from saying that Clannad After Story is superior to Clannad. It’s quite impressive as well, because, considering the material, a few slight missteps here and there could have rendered the whole thing ham-fisted and overly melodramatic. Instead, the execution has been incredibly deft, which does justice to its emotional storyline. Well, that is except for the first eight episodes. This post has major spoilers for Clannad After Story up to ep 20, so beware.
Clannad After Story is almost two anime: the first eight episodes and the “true” After Story from the game. The first eight episodes are the big weak point of the anime and probably the one component which will prevent me from proclaiming this anime as “brilliant”. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say they were awful, even if it is incredibly tempting to do so (and if we want to compare them with the rest of the anime, I guess they were), but they were definitely very ordinary, and easily the worst set of episodes in the entire combined series thus far. There were a number of problems with these eps, which were essentially three separate arcs (part of the problem in itself), but most of the flaws relate to the individual arcs themselves. But, as the whole, the problem with these eps is that they were essentially pointless and contributed very little to the larger narrative, which has almost always been Tomoya and Nagisa’s story. For that reason, it really felt like the story had lost its focus during these arcs, and the entire anime to this point had an even stronger “stitched together” feeling than the almost rigidly modular Kanon 2006. Then each of the arcs themselves had their own individual problems. Sunohara’s arc was pretty much a melodramatic trainwreck (reminiscent of something that happened in a recent ep of Toradora!). The “drama” in the last ep of this arc pretty much hinged on some really stupid choices made by Mei, who is normally otherwise a lot more level-headed. She essentially puts herself at the mercy of a bunch of brutes on the off chance that they might accept her brother again. And she wanted Youhei to be accepted by the abusive soccer club again, because that’s the only way for him to become the caring brother he once was. Twisted logic much? The fact that the arc essentially ended with a fist-fight between Youhei and Tomoya under rain, while Mei and Nagisa watched on in tears was just too much for me: rain, tears, screaming and punches; it almost became laughable by this point. This was probably the low point, but the other arcs had their flaws, the Misae arc was pointless and arguably rushed, while the Yukine arc constantly challenged suspension of disbelief (look at these poor, misunderstood gang members, aren’t they so poor and misunderstood…) and had some really shonky animation, well below what is considered par for KyoAni.
Once After Story “true” began in ep 9, the story felt like it found its feet again; things were once again focused and the story plotted along at a consistent pace. I did have a few relatively minor criticisms of the episodes between about 9 and 15, the most apparent one being a complete lack of on-screen intimacy between Tomoya and Nagisa. It’s obvious that they share a loving bond, and had so for a long time, but the fact that we hadn’t seen them so much as hug on-screen was, well, jarring, especially when it came to the announcement at the end of ep 14. That’s only a little gripe, and there were so many genuinely dramatic and romantic moments during this section of the anime, the proposal in particular.
But it’s been the last few episodes in particular that have made for the series’ dramatic highlight. Nagisa’s death is right up there among the saddest moments in anime. It was executed with a heavy-hand, but done with such a way that I thought was appropriate. From an execution point-of-view, it felt like the anime was saying “this is sad, we won’t give you a chance to question that for a minute, but if you cry, it won’t be because we’re forcing you to, you’ll cry because you genuinely care for the characters”. In other words, I thought it was fairly blatant what they were trying to do as far as inciting emotions, but they did it in such a way that never felt pushy (as “crying anime” and other dramas sometimes do). But I also thought Nagisa’s death as part of the story was done very elegantly (well, as elegantly as the anime’s most vulnerable character dying could possibly be). The reasonably clear foreshadowing and the circumstances around the event made a reasonably strong suggestion (at least to me) that Nagisa’s death was fate. It also raised the scope of a lot of the patterns in the story: whereas before this happened, the relationship between Tomoya and Nagisa mirrored that of her parents in a number of ways, afterwards, the similarities were more apparent between Tomoya and his father, and the respective families that they both had to raise.
In the most recent few episodes, the character development of Okazaki Tomoya has been incredibly profound. I can’t think of any other male lead in this sort of anime who has received anywhere near this much character development. An important theme in the story involves dealing with change, which is explored through Tomoya, and the fact that he had to deal with his wife’s death and becoming a father at exactly the same time, which is a big ask for any man. Tomoya is already a very sensitive and sentimental person, demonstrated by his angry reactions to the changes that are taking place around the city, as well as his strained relationship with his father. It was always going to take time for him to accept fatherhood and Ushio, but when he did after learning a new perspective of his own father, it made for what I’d say was the most dramatic and heartfelt scene of the series to date.
This next section contains speculation:
I’ve been wondering if it’s a bad thing if they bring Nagisa back to life. Usually, I consider the “revive” a cheap move as far as drama is concern, because it essentially undoes much of what makes an important character’s death powerful in the first place. Now, I don’t have much experience with the source material (one arc, basically), but I’ve read what experienced gamers have been writing. It’s funny when you read comments from people who are experienced with the source material since, even when they go to lengths to avoid giving away spoilers, you can still figure out a lot of stuff from context and reading between the lines. There does seem to be a pretty big chance that the magical light orbs which have appeared during After Story are going to be some sort of catalyst for bringing Nagisa back to life. Is this a good thing, from a plot standpoint or a dramatic standpoint? In all honesty, it’s hard to speculate. There are certain ways they can execute things to make the audience really want to see Nagisa come back to life, in which case it’s probably a good thing. But, as I’ve said, more often than not, a revival is cheap. One could argue Tomoya’s character development is much more profound because he had to lose Nagisa to gain it. At the end of the day, I’m not really prepared to try to answer this question until after it actually happens, if it does at all.
This is a series that’s had its flaws, but the last twelve episodes have more than made up for the awfully inconsistent and disappointing first eight, and the drama has been ramped to an entirely new level since Nagisa’s death. If you ignore the first eight episodes, it’s a very well written story which has a strong sense of thematics, patterns and amazing character development.
By the way, I wrote this just before I watched ep 21, which has obviously changed everything. I don’t have an opinion on ep 21, because I just don’t know what to make of it at this stage. I think I’ll need to see the ending before I can gather my thoughts on the events of ep 21.