3 Discs (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 297 minutes approx.
Tomoya Okazaki is a young lad disillusioned with life since the death of his mother and the subsequent crumbling relationship with his alcoholic father. Instead of making an effort at school, Tomoya prefers to play truant with his excitable friend Youhei Sunohara, earning both the label of delinquent. On a rare day at school Tomoya notices the shy Nagisa Furukawa talking to herself. Tomoya approaches her, learning she is repeating the year after missing out due to illness and that she has a dream of joining the school Drama Club, which has since been closed due to inactivity. With nothing better to do Tomoya decides to help Nagisa recruit some new members to resurrect the club, encountering some unique diversions along the way.
Based as it is on a series of visual novels and brought to life by Kyoto Animation, Clannad (the Irish word for “family”) is a deceptive show. The artwork and the images on the DVD cover will lead you believe this is a fluffy, sentimental shoujo story full of whimsy and romance. And it is – sort of. Behind the romantic moe imagery this is a harem comedy without being a harem comedy, free of excessive prurience but rife with off the wall humour and surreal flights of fantasy and possesses a supernatural edge, belying any aesthetic cuteness the characters may possess.
As the title suggests, the theme of this show is family, a very important facet of Japanese culture, but Clannad takes a different tact in exploring this theme, pondering the idea that family is not just limited to blood relations and could be any group with an unbreakable bond. Case in point the non-relationship between Tomoya and his father - a violent drunken argument started by the father caused Tomoya to suffer a dislocated shoulder and end his dreams of playing basketball. Nagisa’s home life is more stable with her eccentric parents who run a bakery which sells inedible pastries. There is also a secondary theme concerning the importance of memories which form the basis of the first two arcs in this opening volume.
Tomoya – possibly the most polite and helpful “delinquent” you’ll ever meet – tries to boost Nagisa’s confidence by soliciting class rep Ryou Fujibayashi and her extremely volatile older sister Kyou to join the drama club. Providing a temporary distraction is lone student Fuko Ibuki, who Tomoya discovers sitting in a classroom carving wooden starfish. Fuko’s older sister Kouko, a former art teacher with the school, is getting married and Fuko wants everyone to attend the wedding, so she gives them a starfish hoping the gift will encourage them to attend the wedding. However, no-one in the school seems to have heard of Fuko and little investigation by Tomoya and Nagisa reveals that Fuko was in fact in a coma after being injured in an accident on the first day of school. So who is this girl with the wooden starfish?
The second story arc focuses on a genius Kotomi Ichinose, whose superior intellect and thirst for knowledge see her effectively banished in isolation to the school library where she reads all day long. Tomoya is the first person Kotomi responds to and he helps her break out of her solitude and interacting with other students, starting with Nagisa and the Fujibayashi sisters. Kotomi’s passion for playing the violin is also revealed but the less said about that the better! However the more Tomoya gets to know Kotomi the deeper the secrets of her mysterious past slowly filter into his own, leading to a cliffhanger revelation in the final episode in this set.
With its visual novel origins, it is no surprise that the narrative here is somewhat non-linear, branching off into various directions dictated by the plight of the female cast members of Tomoya’s non-sexual harem, held together by the central premise of reviving the drama club for Nagisa. By covering all of the bases, Clannad hopes to tease all of the emotions along the way. Much of the developments have a sentimental feel about them and indeed there is a touch of heartbreak and pathos surrounding the characters which engender some heartfelt response from some viewers. The extraordinarily large and doleful eyes the female character all posses will be the prime instigator of this, which will also melt the hearts of the moe fans. There is also plenty of esoteric and zany humour which often feels a little incongruous but somehow remains relative within the framework of the whole product. Most of this is provided by Youhei Sunohara who spends most of his time getting beaten up by tough transfer student Tomoyo Sakagami who Youhei believes is a man in disguise! In a similar vein, Kyou Fujibayashi likes throw books at Tomoya if she thinks he is misbehaving which is all the time!
Where this show can’t be faulted is in the production values as KyoAni (as they are affectionately known as) have delivered another lush looking series with soft pastel colours to create emotive atmospheres to match the mood of the story. Some may find the wide eyed designs of the female cast a tad distracting as they tend to look very similar (despite their differing hair colour) and their personalities tick all the boxes on the anime tropes check list (the smart one, the shy one, the tsundere, the violent one), but the quality of the animation is smooth and detailed so complaints are limited.
Clannad will either be deemed an earnest, amiable and touching story of friendship and family bonds or it will be seen as a sentimental moe cheesefest. Whatever your stance this show has a ton of heart and, even with dipping its toes into many waters, has no pretensions of being anything it isn’t.
An adventurous but oddly relaxing release just in time for whatever kind of summer we may or may not be in store for this year.
Man In Black