Clannad - Series 1, Part 1 Review

High-school comedies are a popular genre of manga and anime series that usually follow the conventional pattern of the growing pains of a young adolescent, but Clannad is a high-school drama with a difference. Yes, you’ve no doubt also seen high-school comedies with a difference before - in Ranma ½ where everyone is a martial arts expert with their own usually bizarre specialty, in Bleach, where the students fight restless spirits who haven’t passed over to the other side and in Urusei Yatsura, where the students are aliens - but Clannad is really a high school drama with a different kind of difference.

On the surface, Clannad does seem to be conventional enough. At the centre is one boy, Tomoyo Okazaki, a junior student who befriends a number of strange girls in his year group (no, it’s not that kind of different). Each of them have their own quirks of personality (bookish, tomboyish, shy), each of them feel a little bit fish-out-of-water and not able to fully integrate into the school activities or find themselves well placed in the popularity stakes, but they all find something in common and a way to relate to growing up through the revival of the school’s Drama Group. Yes, I know that’s not exactly different, or even a gripping premise, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Trust me.

It’s indeed the idea that there is something deeper beneath the surface that is the charm of Clannad as well as its raison d’être. A lot of the main characters here might appear to fall into stereotypical categories and be easily readable, but we find out over the course of the series that they each have troubles, sadness and complications in their lives that define who they are, which makes adapting to the changes of this important stage in their lives that much more difficult. Tomoyo Okazaki’s family life isn’t ideal, living alone with his father who is out of work and often drunk. He admires the comparatively close family bonds that Nagisa Furukawa has with her parents who own a humble bakery - even if they are more than a little eccentric - but life isn’t any easier for the young girl. Nagisa is shy and sensitive, has been out of school with an illness, no longer has any friends in her year group and is finding it difficult to fit in. Her obsession with a children’s song - The Big Dango Family - doesn’t exactly help her case either.

Over the course of the first part of the series, we are introduced to a number of other characters who provide all the comic relief you could hope for, with pranks, mild romance, drama, rivalry, and big fight scenes with plenty of charm and eccentricity. Two other girls however come forward to the centre stage here in this half of the series, each of them with strange backgrounds and unusual family circumstances, each of them finding a way to relate to others through Okazaki and Nagisa’s efforts to start-up the Drama Group. Fuko Ibuki spends all her time carving wooden starfish that she hands out to all the students, hoping they will accept them as invitations for her sister’s upcoming wedding, but wasn’t she the girl who was in hospital in a coma after a traffic accident? Okazaki also convinces girl genius Kotomi Ichinose to spend less time in the library and engage in their activities, but it soon becomes apparent that her family background with her famous scientist parents scientists involved in some kind of research into other dimensions, is not as ideal as it might seem.

You might detect that there is a slightly supernatural element underlying the events that transpire in Clannad - there are hints, dreams, visions and strange lapses into reverie that float at the edge of the stories and give them a heightened dramatic tension with the suggestion that there is indeed always something else going on beneath the surface. While the mystical other-dimension aspect is developed gradually as the series evolves, it is however always carefully grounded in the real-life situations and emotions of the young characters. The character’s way of dealing with loss, sadness, bereavement and even death is very much a personal, interior response to their growing awareness of the world around them, and Clannad manages to find a sensitive and evocative way to make those sentiments tangible and visible on the surface in a way that anyone can relate to, but find difficult to completely pin down.

Dealing with such issues does risk pushing the series into cuteness and sentimentality and Clannad does indeed walk a fine balance at times, particularly with the Fu-chan storyline - but it retains an essential innocence that is reflected in the characters and never seeks to underline any of the subjects it comes across with heavy-handed moralising. The focus is on keeping the stories entertaining, and if you can pick up some little life-lessons along the way then so much the better, but none of them are hammered home. Realising that life can be "warm, nostalgic and sad", that people have complex backgrounds, personalities and emotional lives, Clannad takes its lead from the seemingly throwaway children’s song of the Big Dango Family that plays out each episode and presents a gorgeous, beautiful, entertaining and thoughtful series that is "All that is happy and all that is sad rolled into one".

The "different" quality of the series and its method of finding a unique form of expression feeds through to the animation style itself. On the surface, it does indeed look like every other anime series, with plenty of cute girls in short skirts with big eyes gleaming with fragile emotions that look like they are about to spill over into tears at the slightest provocation. The animation however never falls back on standard reaction-shots and freeze-frames, but very much has its own visual language for expressing fury, embarrassment, shyness and even knockabout comedy. Some of it can be bewilderingly abstruse, but it is always highly inventive and gorgeous to look at. It flirts with cuteness, with heavy colour saturation, light flaring and swelling music underlining significant moments, but always pulls out something original out of its growing bag of tricks. Movements in particular are fantastically natural, but also very expressive of individual personalities.

Clannad - Part 1, containing the first 12 episodes of the series, is released by Manga Entertainment as a three-disc set, with four episodes on each disc. The discs are each dual-layer DVD9, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

The DVD specifications for the series are basic but good, with four 25 minute episodes spread out across each dual-layer disc and no extra features. Menu options are limited then to selecting individual episodes - no play-all option - and selecting the language option. The image is presented anamorphically at 16:9, the image clear and detailed and the colour levels are superb. There is some evidence of mild banding but little else in the way of artefacts and nothing that detracts from the overall quality. The audio tracks for both the original Japanese track and the English dub are both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo only, but both are fine and more than adequate. I went with the Japanese track myself, but the quality of the English dubbing is also excellent and certainly a viable option. Optional English subtitles are in a white font, clear and readable, and are not dubtitles.

At this stage in the series Clannad is a delightful and charming series, full of engaging characters, light and humorous, but touching on a few sensitive topics that these young characters have to deal with as they approach adulthood. So far, it manages to stay on the right side of over-cuteness and sentimentality, but I suspect that a few hankies may be required by the time we get to the conclusion of the first series and the subsequent 'After Story'. At the moment however, particularly with the inventive and beautiful animation, this is close to perfect, highly entertaining and completely involving, and I can’t wait to see what it comes up with next.

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