The ‘visual novel’ is one of the most successful video games genres in Japan; mostly found on PCs, the genre often involves static anime graphics mixed with text and a multi-branch story to create an interactive fictional tale for the player to become absorbed in. Despite the fact that the most popular and common visual novels are based around romance (with multiple potential ‘love interests’) the genre is hugely popular in Japan, making up at least 70% of the PC titles released in 2006. However such success has not spread across overseas. Several anime titles based upon the games such as Air and Kanon have been released in the US but their video games counterparts have not come with them and Clannad marks probably the first visual novel release (that I’m aware of) in the UK. My personal experience with the visual novel is purely restricted to watching School Days on Crunchyroll – which I fully admit only watched due to its infamous ending. With that in mind let’s see what the first part of Clannad has in store.
We open on Tomoya Okazaki walking to school, moaning about his life. He dislikes the school, the town and the alcoholic father he has to go home to every day. Just as he wishes for something more, he meets Nagisa, a girl who’s repeating a school year due to being in poor health last year. Her wish is to re-start the drama club and fit in at her school that she loves but has grown distant from. With nothing else to do and wanting a new direction in life, Tomoya decides to help Nagisa as much as possible, as well as the other females he encounters acros the school whilst trying to find a new lease for life himself.
Clannad Part 1 covers the first 12 episodes of the first series. The pilot is one of the most oddly paced opening episodes I’ve witnessed in anime so far; it opens on a calm scenic view where Tomoya and Nagisa meet, but then after the opening titles you’re hastily introduced to all of the main female characters whilst jumping back and forth a little in time to drop in various story points, then we abruptly meet Nagisa’s family (who welcome Tomoyo in their home far too easily), followed by Tomoya freaking out about his father before running away, into Nagisa being all mysterious and captivating under a strange light before the credits roll. The pace of the show does slow way down after the opening episode but the themes presented in it remain. You’re led to believe that it’s a normal slice-of-life anime set in a school for the most part, but it’s the little things here and there that remind you that not all is at it seems. We have a girl in a coma with her ghost walking round the school talking to people, the genius student with a hinted tragic past, and there’s these scenes that come up at random episodes that take place within a world that’s devoid of life, telling a story from the perspective of some spirit and his interactions with a mysterious girl. On top of this there are moments when suddenly Tomoya will do weird things such as sticking a straw up Fuko’s nose whilst she’s in her ‘cute trance’ which somehow unlocks an ‘achievement’ a la video game style – I don’t whether these odd moments are a shout out to the original Clannad game or video games in general but they nevertheless add to the unique package. The mixture of drama, fantasy and mystery within a school environment may seem unconventional at times as the characters themselves aren’t anything special – they have no magical powers or are anything beyond normal human teenagers – but the extra themes thrown in there aren’t jarring per se, instead they’re quite captivating. The pace of the show is very slow with the obvious attraction between Nagisa and Tomoya going literally nowhere at the moment, but the interactions between Tomoya and the girls with hints of something deeper makes the series interesting at least.
This is helped by the characters because they’re not your usual harem male or horny teenage girls all trying to grab a piece of him. Tomoya surprised me the most; his opening montage of being miserable made me think right away that he’s going to be a complete emo jerk that somehow everyone likes despite having no redeeming qualities, but actually he has his reasons for thinking life sucks and not exactly being a goodie two-shoes. His father turned to gambling and alcohol after his mother’s death, and after a fight he also took away Tomoya’s ability to play basketball so you can understand if Tomoya’s sarcastic, blunt and often lies to his best friend to get a laugh out of it. But he’s also a good listener and will give his all to help Nagisa to re-start the drama club, or Fuko’s desire to get people to come to her sister’s wedding. He doesn’t need to help these girls, but he does, not because of desire to sleep with them but to aid them with their problems and hopefully shape himself into a better person. The females all look the same because of the moe-heavy character designs but their personalities do differ. Of course you have the stereotypical tough girl Kyou who looks out fiercely for her sister Ryou, but there’s also the sweet hearted Nagisa, the starfish-obsessive Fuko and the genius Kotomi, who lacks social skills. At first their stories with Tomoya are very separate; almost like we’re playing the video game and following through with each girl’s story to decide which one the player will end up with, but by the third disc the girls start crossing paths and forming a very likeable, if somewhat peculiar, group of characters.
Animation quality is very good; a soft colour palette with lots of detailed characters and backgrounds, plus with little to no still imagery or recycled movements, it’s clear Kyoto Animation know what they’re doing and how to make a pretty anime. The moe-heavy character designs for the females can be a bit distracting at times, they all seem to have the same faces (and I don’t care what they say in the anime – Nagisa does not look older than Tomoya) but you do get used to it after a while.
Music works with the tone of the series very well; a lot of the soundtrack is very ethereal and relaxing, almost the kind you’d meditate to. There is a typical J-pop opening number but the rest of the score is used very well to create a happy emotion or really drum in the sadness of a situation when needed.
If you plan on watching the series in Japanese, I must warn you about the subtitles; whilst perfectly readable, they unfortunately haven’t been programmed to cope with more than one line of dialogue or on-screen text. For example: one character is talking but there’s a sign in kanji on screen as well, instead of most DVD’s having the sign translation on a different line or colour whilst the speech is being translated underneath, Clannad’s subtitles instead will have one translated then the other – it won’t have them separate. This can create the situation where one line will literally be up for a mere second before it suddenly cuts to the next line. I had to rewind a few times because I kept missing out on what was said. Some of the other DVD options are a bit weird too; there are no extras, but on each episode you have the Japanese credits, the next episode preview, AND THEN a black and white English credits rolling with the ending song repeated over the top. So you’re literally getting the credits twice. Weird choice indeed.
I didn’t know what to expect when I went into Clannad, but I didn’t expect to get what I got given – a school drama that has a good heart and slightly uncanny tone to it. At the end of the 12 episodes I can’t say I’m completely in love with the series but I did laugh on numerous occasions and got emotionally invested at the conclusion of one of the character’s story arcs, so I want to see what it builds up to and how they find closure at the end of their journeys. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary and don’t mind the slow pace then there’s no harm in picking this up.