The mystical high school ‘shojo’ drama returns for a new semester and some extracurricular and extrasensory activity.
The first part of Clannad After Story doesn’t start off in a promising fashion. All the tension, mystery and ambiguity of the first season has evaporated, all the heart-achingly tragi-romantic mysticism of the strange events associated with the characters of the High School have mostly been resolved, and the series just moves into another semester at the end of the summer break. There’s definitely a feeling of anti-climax as episode 1 of the ‘after story’ consists entirely of the characters forming a team to play a baseball match against a more skilled rival team. The concern deepens as, rather than start off in any new direction, the series progresses in a similar fashion, recreating more mild romantic complications, throwing in a few mystical references and repeating situations similar to those in the first series. Where, you might wonder, did all the potential in the series go?
Well, as far as the first episode of the new series goes, you can put that down as an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the cast. It gets them together, it reintroduces the characters reminds you just how strong, quirky and well-defined their personalities are, a group who have had a shared experience together and – who knows? – they could still have a lot of potential and challenges to face in the future as they come close to graduation and become a true member of society. There is however nothing particularly new about the way events progress in the first eight of the twelve episodes of this new season collected here, the story again delving into another character’s tragic background for mystic happenings, showing them getting involved in gangland trouble again, and spending rather a long time on an inconsequential and improbable plot to set Okazaki’s friend Sunohara up with a “girlfriend”. They are pleasant little stories, entertaining, cute, amusing – particularly since they involve Sunohara – and nicely animated, with great comic timing and a distinctive, quirky approach to the designs. But, well, after the end of the first season, we should perhaps be expecting something more…
If there appears to be a bit of a lull here in the earlier episodes of the new season of Clannad and a sense of things repeating themselves with nothing really seeming to move forward, this is actually in keeping with the nature of the series and, I would contend, purposefully structured in this way to reflect the rhythm of life as it is subjectively viewed by the main character, Tomoya Okazaki. As a lead character Okazaki can seem a bit passive, a bit of an outsider who is unsure of himself and where he is going, and – up until close to the end of the last series – confused and non-committal about his feelings for Nagisa Furukawa (I’ll come back to that…). The series does indeed reflect his attitude then, but as Okazaki also discovers, even when he thinks that he’s going nowhere, fate and choices that he has made do eventually propel him in a certain direction, and things do progress, change and move on, almost without you even being aware of it.
It’s also starting to look as if the mystical flights of fancy that slip into the series every now and again are also closely related to Okazaki. They might be dreams, they might just be his way of absorbing or coping with the mysteries of the unknown and the challenges he faces, or indeed he may even have an extrasensory ability that is able to sense undercurrents and mystical forces at work. These are nicely ambiguous in this way and, regardless of how you take them, they add another level to the shifting emotions and sensations that form the expansive view that the series takes to the magic of everyday life experience and friendships, with all the wonder, beauty, heartbreak, tragedy, pain and joy that comes with it. Clannad is the most beautiful series in this respect. It looks good, it’s got strong characters, it’s well scripted and effortlessly sweeps the viewer along with its pace and rhythm because it’s also got that indefinable quality and charm, an ability to make you recognise and empathise with the characters and their situation.
It’s entirely possible however, I admit, to consider Clannad as being rather kitsch, emotionally manipulative and sentimental, wrapping up any suggestion of harsh reality in soft-focus, pastel colouration, diffused light and misty-eyed romanticism. There’s definitely a conflict between the head and the heart when you watch Clannad – or there is at least in my experience. On the one hand you sometimes want to slap these characters and shake them up. The romance (or non-romance) between Okazaki and Nagisa Furukawa (to come back to that) is one example of this. It’s such a chaste, insipid, wishy-washy relationship between two characters who really seem to have so little genuine feeling, chemistry or dynamic between them that the suggestion of even going out on a date brings blushes to their faces. You can’t help feeling – particularly after the teasing final episode of the last series – that it’s all wrong somehow. You made the wrong choice Okazaki!
On the other hand, the fact that you feel so strongly about these characters, their lives and their choices is an indication that Clannad has the ability to really engage with the viewer to a surprisingly involving degree. And it’s far more subtle about how it does this than you might imagine. Yes, there are little sentimental twists of fate, tragedy and melodrama, but – as you’ll find when this series really gets into its stride in episodes 9 to 12 – the real heart of the drama does indeed lie within these simple fundamental questions of making the right choices at the right time, and choosing the right people, without ever having an overview perspective to understand how important this decision is going to be in your life, or have the hindsight to know that you’ve made the right choice. And when I say ‘gets into its stride’ it’s not action packed-drama by any means, but it’s surprising just how involved you find you’ve become in these simple ordinary stories of everyday melancholy.
A word about the animation since this is just as important a factor in how the series subtly puts across its meaning and achieves a certain sensibility. To put it simply, Clannad is a feast for the eyes. It looks stunning. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be exceptional in its character designs – the female characters are particularly bug-eyed even by Japanese animation standards and virtually indistinguishable in facial characteristics – but there is an amazing amount of nuance and character that is captured in expressions, in gestures and in exquisitely detailed little movements. These are characters who truly come to live at unexpected moments. As well as the reappearance of the enigmatic interludes of the girl from another world and her little robot, the series uses the seasons, nature and cloud formations to create a mood that is given further mystery and ambiguity through Antonioni-esque expressionistic cutaways to objects, pavements, flowers in the cracks of walls. It’s a technique that is often used in manga comics, but it achieves a unique feel here in how it measures and cuts into the pace of the animation, as well as how it works with light, colour and music to create indefinable moods and impressions. You watch Clannad and you are entering another world, or rather a depiction of the real world where other intangible aspects are heightened and expressed visually. This is masterful work.
Clannad – After Story, 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 technical specifications remain the same as the previous Clannad releases, which are basic but still of an exceptionally good standard. There are 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 transfer 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. There are no extra features.
The first part of Clannad After Story might not appear to go anywhere new, either in terms of the high school drama or in its adherence to shojo (female romance oriented) conventions, but like any good work of anime, Clannad transcends the limitations of its genre through a perfect combination of strong scripting, careful pacing and animation techniques that reflect the interiority of the drama in a way that makes it charming as well as deeply involving. It’s not just quality anime of the highest order, it’s simply quality drama.
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