Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 10th 2012
Clannad: Complete Collection
Tomoya Okazaki is tired. Tired of living the same old days over and over in the same old place. He's drifting through the last years of high school—not caring, not looking to the future, not getting too close to anyone, not even his screwy best friend Sunohara. His family life is a wreck and his reputation at school a shambles. Then he meets Nagisa Furukawa. Nagisa is older than him, but in the same grade thanks to ill health and extensive absences. She wants very desperately to start a Drama Club, and Tomoya can't seem to help wanting to help her. As she draws him out, they learn and more about each other, about their lives, and the lives of those around them: starfish-obsessed freshman Fuko, spacey genius Kotome, sweet-and-sour twins Kyou and Ryou, presidential candidate and martial-arts goddess Tomoyo. It'll be a transformational year for them all, perhaps for Tomoya most of all.
Let's just get this out of the way: If you're already a fan, what you really want to know isn't whether Clannad is worth buying but whether this particular release of it is. The short answer? Yes. Kyoto Animation's moe magnum opus is a beautiful work that genuinely benefits from the sharp lines and clean colors of the HD format. They are especially important for appreciating the subtle excellence of the studio's animation and the dream-world interludes interspersed throughout, which sketch out a world realer than the real world with some of the most beautiful animation this side of a high-end theatrical release.
Sentai Filmworks also dubbed the series for this release, though the end result will thrill some more than others. Mind you, it's a pretty good dub. Most of the casting decisions were the right ones, and the script prizes faithfulness without taking it to clunky extremes. The female cast wisely forgoes competing with the Japanese for fetishistic affectation, remaining distinctive but natural. Luci Christian makes a fine, sensitive Nagisa and David Matranga a bracingly masculine Tomoya. More importantly, though, the dub gets the spirit of the original right: the surface brightness, the underlying sadness, the faint taste of the supernatural. Unfortunately, there are little flaws throughout: playing Sunohara as a goofy nerd instead of a secretly smart blowhard, inconsistent use of honorifics, a miscast teacher, a rather lackluster turn by Kara Greenberg as Nagisa's mother. They aren't much individually, but pile them all together and line them up against the original's dream cast of anime legends and there's no escaping which is the superior version.
Even so, it's a no-brainer. Pristine, compactly packaged, newly dubbed: this is as good as you're going to get from a Clannad box set—subtitle typos be damned. Which leaves the question of whether the show itself is worth having. That's a complicated question.
The first thing to know about Clannad is that it's artificial. There isn't a relationship, character, event, or emotion in it that feels real. You can see the seams where the plot stitches the heroines' stories together, and hear the clanking machinery as it maneuvers Tomoya into their lives. Every girl, no matter how healthy on the surface, has some deep wound in need of healing or problem in need solving, and Tomoya is always the guy to get the job done. Never mind how unlikely it is that every girl Tomoya meets is secretly damaged. Never mind that capable Tomoyo or brilliant Kotome should be able to deal with pretty much any problem on their own. Never mind that getting Tomoya involved regularly requires him to betray his cynical, apathetic nature or to conveniently forget his childhood. Never mind that the formula ultimately reduces each girl to a passive actor in their own story.
And while that's happening, the show is gathering cutesy speech patterns, cuddly-cute quirks, and defining traumas into streamlined bundles and calling them characters. Who then go about interacting in a variety of cloyingly false ways. From the little "ehe"'s that Nagisa tacks onto sentences to the violent tsundere outbursts of Kyou and the blushingly innocent romance of the later episodes, everything in Clannad feels affected and calculated. Watch the way Fuko's hands flutter childishly about, or Nagisa glances up at Tomoya, or Tomoya bucks Nagisa up with tender little speeches. Who on God's green earth acts like that? They might as well be aliens from planet moe for all the connection they have to us earthlings.
That isn't to say that the series makes no concessions to real life. Oh no. It has the decency, for instance, to throw in Sunohara and a smattering of other males so that Tomoya isn't the only one walking around with a Y chromosome. It even allows that guys can be vulnerable too, giving Tomoya and his buddy an emotional scar or two to show off to the ladies. Add in some peripheral female characters who are well-adjusted and uninterested in Tomoya and you get a regular pandemic of realism. The addition of a sense of humor, conspicuously lacking in previous Key series, helps to vary the tone but doesn't do much to temper the manufactured feel of the series, what with the gags being as natural as processed cheese food.
The second thing to know about Clannad is that it is highly effective. There's a reason it feels calculated: because it is. Every character, interaction, and happening is calculated for maximum emotional impact. And impacted we are. Sometimes it's in small ways—by Nagisa's reaction when she accidentally hurts Tomoya for instance—and sometimes it's in really big ways. The series is usually content to coast on the tiny twanging of heartstrings that vulnerable girls inevitably elicit, but when it decides to push it pushes hard. Fuko's arc, the first real push, takes an ordinary tragedy and compounds it with a supernatural one, which is allowed to drag on for several episodes, steeping in anticipatory sadness until it hits you with the big whammy. After which the series caps things off with a soaring moment of teary-eyed closure. Cry, the show may as well be shouting, cry like a little girl.
And we do, in no small part because it's very smart about how it pushes. It knows exactly how far to go and consistently goes just a little bit further, the better to prime the waterworks. It knows who best to base a big climax around and who to let slide to the side, most markedly during the finale of Nagisa's arc, which leaves the job of breaking (and mending) hearts in the hands of Nagisa's awesome parents. It has the good sense to leave romance mostly out of it, and the brains to see familial bonds as a fruitful source of big emotions. It's Fuko's love of her sister that gives her arc its kick (with some help from her friendship with Nagisa and Tomoya) and the feelings of Kotome's deceased parents that put the punch in hers.
Mostly, though, it just knows how to build to and stage a real tearjerker. Having directed both Air and Kanon (2006), Tatsuya Ishihara is well versed in the Key way of doing things. He is careful to hang a pall of melancholy doom over all of the happy frolics, clearly and unabashedly foreshadowing the heartbreak and tragedy that always lie in wait. His rendering of the girls' tender, defenseless body language is masterly, seducing us into caring deeply for them despite their under-written personalities. He has the mechanics of emotional impact down to a science: a quick shift of angle here, a half-obscured face there; throw in a carefully rendered change of expression, finish it off with a piano rendition of the childish closer and, presto, instant tears. There are few better at knowing what buttons to push and how to push them.
In and of itself, the fact that Clannad is both wholly artificial and effectively emotional isn't that complicated. What is complicated is how one reacts to that. Many will surrender immediately and emerge eyes red, hearts astir, and mouths full of praise. And more power to them. There are those, however, whose feelings will not be so clear-cut. You could call it resentment, specifically at having been so baldly manipulated; and certainly the series leaves one feeling cheap and used. But that isn't exactly it. It's closer to the feeling you get when you find out that a piece of music that you loved was written by a computer program, or that the bread machine you just bought can make bread that tastes just like your mother's. It isn't a logical reaction. It's a sort of knee-jerk horror at the idea that something you thought was an art could be reduced to a series of mechanical tasks and still work. It gives rise to a deep and, yes, deeply unfair revulsion. It's the reason I burned my original Clannad DVDs and the reason why to this day I'm not entirely sure whether I love or hate the show.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Powerfully moving.
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