Clannad Collection 1
Once upon a time, long ago, people made video games with little characters that looked like blocks. Those characters shot each other, ate each other, and did all sorts of other brutalities to each other. Being abstracted as miniature aliens or ghosts or whatnot, nobody really cared. But then folks got the brilliant idea to make animated shows about these little characters, and they stunk. If all Pacman does is eat, a show about him is not interesting. Didn't stop them from making a Pacman show, but that's marketing for you. The Japanese also made plenty of OVAs based on video games, though these titles were often based on more complex arcade fighters. These sucked too. No matter how lifelike a martial artist appears in a game, if all he does is stand around kicking people and throwing fireballs, he's not interesting.
But it seems that anime based on video games has come of age. For one, the video games most popular in Japan tend to be "visual novels," which are much like the choose-your-own-adventure books I grew up reading as a kid. You make the right choices, you save the day, everybody likes you, and (as a sad commentary on Japanese gaming society) your character typically gets to see the heroines in a state of undress. The recent Utawarerumono was an example of a show based on one of these games that was actually good. It wasn't universally beloved, primarily due to its "surprise" ending, but it proved that a certain kind of game could be made into a decent television program.
Clannad is another such program, based on a game created by Key/Visual Arts. It's actually one of three series that the company has transitioned from game to anime, the others being Air and Kanon. All of them feature cute female characters, and all of them fall into the category of "moe." Moe is hard to define, though it's talked about ad nauseum these days in anime circles. Essentially, a show with moe is one that tries to stir up a feeling of protective love and concern for its female characters who are sweet, innocent, and often very stereotypical. Through a mix of comedy, drama, and pathos, Clannad tries to make us fall in love with its cast. It doesn't always succeed at what it's trying to do, though I give it credit for having lovely artwork at times and surprising watchability in the midst of its utter predictability.
It's a wonder Tomoya isn't a basket case. His mother died of cancer a few years back, and his alcoholic father physically abused him. But all things considered, he's a well-adjusted young man. He may call himself a deliquent, but he is in fact one of the most sincere and caring persons you could ever hope to bump into in an anime. He thinks he hates his school until he runs into a shy but very sweet girl named Nagisa. She has dreams of reviving the school's long abandoned drama club, and Tomoya decides to try and help her accomplish it. In the midst of looking for members, Tomoya and Nagisa come across a variety of surprising individuals, including two that will shape the series.
First is Fuko. She literally lives at the school, and she is desperate to try and get her classmates to attend her sister's wedding, handing out handcarved starfish as invitations. When the two friends start doing some checking, they find out that Fuko was actually injured in an accident and has been in a coma for some time. So is the girl they know a ghost or an astral projection? Second is Kotomi, who reads in the library all day long. A certified genius, Kotomi has no social skills until Tomoya tries to help her make 100 friends. As the first collection comes to a close, we learn that she too has a tragic past that is unraveling her future.
Let me start with the good stuff, because while I have been feeling very conflicted on my opinion of this show, there's some goodness to go around. First off, most episodes have a segment where it goes from its pleasant but standard-form animation to absolutely sumptuous. It's as if each episode, at some point, becomes a Makoto Shinkai film. Granted, Clannad never comes close to the level of The Place Promised In Our Early Days or Voices of a Distant Star, but it sure is easy on the eyes. If the whole show looked as good as its "special" segments, I'd be hooked.
There's also much to be said for the relationship between Tomoya and Nagisa, as well as the characters themselves. Both of them have issues, but they are also quite relatable. I enjoyed watching them interact, especially when Nagisa's parents get into the mix. While they're not in a relationship -- at least not yet -- they are worthwhile characters to have at the center of the show. I always wanted to know more about them and less about everything else going on.
Clannad also has a fine sense of humor. For a show that leaves no tragic rock unturned, almost every episode had a laugh-aloud moment. Some of those moments have been done before, to be certain, but the levity comes often. While there are plenty of bad awful no good things to get all emo about in Clannad, at least you get a good chuckle along the way first.
Finally, there's the simple issue of watchability. Now that may sound funny, but Clannad is an agreeable show. I have watched plenty of shows where it was a chore to push "play" and watch the next episode. That wasn't the case here. ADV Films made a wise decision bundling the first twelve episodes together because, while I wouldn't necessarily find any one episode all that great, I never had an aversion to check out just one more. Say what you will, it's not a terribly hard way to spend five or so hours.
However, Clannad does have some issues that really got on my nerves after a while, and they were significant enough that while I knew I liked the show, I wasn't sure just how much. The biggest issue, perhaps, is just how much time is spent on what amount to side stories. There never seems to be true forward motion towards any goal except ones that are pretty contrived and, honestly, game-like. To give everyone in the school a starfish invitation or to make a hundred friends sounds like something out of a game, right? It's not compelling television. The one thing with true traction is Nagisa and Tomoya's relationship, and it goes almost nowhere during the majority of these episodes.
But what makes it all the more frustrating is that the two main side characters, Fuko and Kotomi, are dreadfully annoying. Fuko is so precious, I wanted to drop kick her into next week. Kotomi is a bit better, but between her obsession with books and playing the violin like a dying hamster, she's no walk in the park. And while I don't know how long Kotomi's arc will last, as the collection ends on a semi-cliffhanger, I do know that Fuko's arc went on way too long. Another recent show I watched, Aria the Animation, had a similar story it told in a single episode. By the time the six (!) episodes about our ghost girl were done, I was frustrated.
One of the other key issues I have is that there are too many logical holes in the proceedings. Without giving too much away, Fuko's situation eventually causes her to fade from memory, and our leads realize it. So why don't they write something down to remember her? Even a brief moment where they make the attempt only to find writing about her impossible would have been enough. But that's the kind of plot pothole you'll find in Clannad. I can point out others -- such as Tomoya's father existing as a plot device but there being no explanation of how Tomoya lives with him, which could be a Lifetime show in and of itself.
But what will turn off a lot of viewers is the stock nature of many of the characters. Most of them fall into stereotypical roles, such as Tomoya's buddy who exists for comic relief getting beat up at the hands of a girl (another stock figure, but this time of the girl who's feminine underneath a violent exterior). The character designs themselves are virtually interchangable, and it takes a while to get used to them. Some of the characters can only be distinguished from the others due to height and hair baubles, which (while adding to that "moe" feeling) makes the show less interesting.
It should also be noted, for those who care, that the ADV Films release has a couple of issues. First, there is no dub. That's not a problem for me, but since the vast majority of ADV's output over the years has included them, you should be aware. Also, though there's nothing that can be done about it now, there are several typos in the program, far more than I can think of on any other professional release. QC missed about a problem an episode. It's not so bad as to make it unwatchable, but I would have thought they would do better. I suppose we should be glad that they are just still in business.
So where do I stand? I'd say this...if you can rent it or borrow it, do so. It's not bad. It's worth some laughs, and if you don't mind some overwrought pathos, the tragidrama parts are OK. Be aware that some bits that I mentioned above are grating. It's not a show I'd put high on my list of things to do, but if it's available, there's much worse. I can safely say that I won't be buying the second collection...but if it were to drop into my lap or my Netflix queue, I wouldn't mind either.
Clannad Collection 1 -- mild suggestive jokes in a couple of episodes -- B-