The romantic melodrama anime concludes tragically and joyfully with some mystical and alternative reality twists.
Stories that deal with the wonder of childhood I find, whether in books or in cinema, often come to disappointing ends when the young protagonist grows up. And it seems the more fantastic, exotic, original and magical the childhood, the more disappointing it is that they eventually change and settle down to a rather more conventional happy ending, getting married, finding a job and having kids of their own. That’s life I suppose. Clannad After Story, a direct follow-up to the magic of the high school setting of the first series of Clannad, is precisely about this kind of coming down to earth and dealing with the realities of life, with change, with becoming an adult and the responsibilities that come along with it. Wrapping up this exceptional series in Part 2 of the After Story, Clannad succeeds where those other stories often fail to be quite as engaging because it doesn’t see the attainment of a conventional happy ending as being a goal in life, as much as realizing that the actual magic of life lies precisely in living it and accepting change, with all the potential and the endless possibilities that life still continues to throw your way.
It’s not as if Tomoya Okazaki’s childhood and school days have exactly been filled with wonder and magic in the first place. Far from it. As we’ve seen in the first series, Okazaki has always felt like an outsider, has had a difficult relationship with an alcoholic father who has brought him up as a single parent and he’s regarded as a delinquent at the school, sullen and detached, keeping irregular hours, skipping classes, not really engaging with either the teachers, the other pupils or indeed the curriculum. That is until he meets Nagisa Furukawa, another awkward student, a year older than him, who is repeating a year after illness held back her studies, who likewise feels out of touch with the others around her. Almost everything in Clannad hinges on that encounter – idealised in soft focus pastel colours under the falling cherry blossoms – and the change that it makes to their lives. They might not do much more than set up a drama club, become a rather shy, awkward couple, two weak figures finding strength in each other, but the first series of Clannad inventively finds unconventional, witty, magical and occasionally mystical ways to show the development of their relationship through their final year at school, showing how they learn to deal with the changes that come – changes that bring joy as well as sadness.
The Clannad After Story series however has a rather more difficult prospect to contend with, trying to maintain the same level of engagement when the characters grow up, graduate from school, search to find a job, find a place of their own and to settle down to a life of responsible adulthood. It succeeds much in the same way it made the otherwise simple and somewhat saccharine story of Tomoya and Nagisa special. It looks around the characters, in the cracks between them, in the places they go to, in the connections with other family and friends, and it manages to place this relationship within the context of the complexity of their relationship with others and within the changing world around them. It’s not just Tomoya and Nagisa who change. The key to happiness then lies not within the choices you make – there are infinite possibilities within the smallest of decisions – but in how you live with the choices you make. Clannad has a very special way of showing this and emphasising just how vital this is. It often takes flights of fantasy to a purer emotional realm through episodes of a mystical land inhabited by a young girl and her robot, but it also takes the occasional leaps – without any warning – into other alternative timelines where events play out quite differently.
The second part of Clannad After Story then pulls off a brilliant trick by not only resolving the main storyline, or at least taking it to its natural conclusion, but it simultaneously resolves situations in multiple timelines. If that sometimes feels like a bit of a cheat, where tragic events are later overturned by a mystical jump to an alternative timeline, there is at least a consistency and purpose behind the concept, and it still retains a certain necessary ambiguity. On the surface, Okazaki finds a partner, gets married, finds a job, comes home and does the dishes, settles down for a life of… well, if not exactly domestic bliss, just plain domesticity, looking around him and bemoaning the changes of the world and the tragic twists of fate that life has thrown his way. Director Tatsuya Ishihara however manages through a variety of means to enrich the experience. The short episodes in the mystic landscape where a young girl struggles to survive assisted by a robot who is helpless to give her what she needs, are just one means of expression. They are shown as being more clearly related to Tomoya Okazaki’s feelings of helplessness, but even though their significance becomes clear by the end of the series as they start to overlap into the real-world, they still retain an emotional charge and meaning that is difficult to completely define.
What becomes clear – if nothing else becomes entirely obvious – is that director Ishihara shows incredible ingenuity and consistency in the approach, using every other possible means of expression that contributes to the whole. Some of those methods are more conventional than others. The use of original songs and lyrics to express underlying sentiments is more of a feature in the second half of this series than it has been so far, and the use of seasons is an obvious means of exploring the notion of change and the cycles of life. It’s a question of how you use those methods however that determines their effectiveness and originality, and while at times the music and seasonal colour can seem to be overly sentimental and manipulative, the way that it integrates with those other less conventional methods creates a balance that is perfectly in keeping with the philosophy and themes of the entire work. What is rather more subtle and important then are the smaller and not so obvious touches.
Do you ever feel that you’ve grown-up or do you feel like you’re still a kid at heart pretending to be an adult? Clannad recognises that this is a common sentiment, and that it’s not just Okazaki who feels uncomfortable with the changes of life. Nagisa is fixated on a children’s song, The Big Dango Family, and this theme is weaved meaningfully – not just manipulatively – throughout the whole series. Even Nagisa’s father, Akio, is a big kid at heart, and Nagisa’s mother Sanae also likes to feel she is still a young woman, flirting with Okazaki and even pretends to be Sunohara’s girlfriend at one stage in the series. While there is much humour to be had out of such situations – particularly when animated with great style and comic timing – they all relate meaningfully back to the main theme and contribute to the whole. Another abstract touch, the cutting away to images and the dwelling on locations and small objects, gives pause for thought, but proves to also have significance on the temporality and constant mutability of the world. Flowers, trees and landscapes never stay the same, but life moves on. Even places of great significance – the place of the cherry blossoms I mentioned earlier – are not immune to change. That’s life. Tomoya recognises this – not so much in words as in images and the mystical fugues – but that doesn’t mean that he (or anyone else) finds this easy to deal with.
This takes us to perhaps the most unsettling and potentially confusing aspect of Clannad – its alternative timelines. The series ends properly at Episode 22, but there are three additional episodes – two alternative, and one summation of it all – that explore other options. Again, these are not just a manipulative feature to change or revise a tragic outcome, as they can often be sad and tragic within themselves. Okazaki is plagued by self-doubt, particularly in his relationship with Nagisa, and these episodes reflect that. What if he had never stopped and spoken to Nagisa on that one fateful moment on the way to school? What if Okazaki had instead followed through on one of the other romantic possibilities that presented themselves to him. Would he have been spared pain and spared Nagisa from pain? I admit that even I had my doubts about Tomoya and Nagisa’s relationship, even going as far as to exclaim in my review of the earlier part of the After Story – involved as only this series has a way of engaging you – that “You made the wrong choice Okazaki!”. Well, the conclusion to Clannad After Story proves that I was wrong, but that I was also right. It’s not about the choices you make, but how you live with the choices you make, and Okazaki finds that no matter what the outcome, and no matter what challenges life throws at you, there’s no time for wasting it on regret and self-pity.
Clannad After Story, Part 2 containing the final 13 episodes (16 – 25) of the series, is released by Manga Entertainment as a three-disc set, with four episodes on disc 1 and 2, and the final five episodes/bonus episodes on disc 3. The discs are each dual-layer DVD9, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
There’s nothing different here from the previous set in the DVD specifications for the series, which are basic but good. As there are no extra features at all, menu options are limited to selecting individual episodes (not even a play-all option) and selecting the language option. The image is presented anamorphically at 16:9, the transfer is clear and detailed and the colour levels are impressive. There is some evidence of mild banding, a little bit of softness, 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.
Songs used in the episodes are also translated with the Japanese text rendered into Roman script with an English translation. As these songs can play out alongside dialogue, you’ll find you can have multiple lines to follow if you are viewing in Japanese with English subtitles. Some cultural references are also explained with text at the top of the screen.
Clannad After Story has the considerable challenge of following up the first series of Clannad by taking its cute teenage high school characters through into early adult life. It does so not only without losing any of the charm, humour and originality that made the first series so good, continuing to explore the characters through engaging situations, but it also manages to tie the less tangible mystical elements together (regrets, hopes and dreams) in a meaningful way that hints at deeper and wider significance, capturing all the joy and wonder of life as well as the heartbreak and the sadness that only makes the experience more acute. This is a remarkable anime series, simple and beautiful, yet profound and ambiguous, making full use of the richness of animation and film techniques to create involving, devastating and unforgettable dramatic situations of real significance and meaning.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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