Why Clannad Made You Cryby Jacob Chapman,
If sad girls with big eyes slowly dying of magical diseases (often in the snow) have ever made you cry, you've probably been moved by the mind of Jun Maeda. Combining his talents as a scenario developer and musician made Maeda the most powerful creative force behind Visual Art's/Key's hearty catalogue of visual novel games like Air, Kanon, and Clannad. All these games and more have been adapted into runaway hit anime that captured the hearts of otaku everywhere, leading Jun Maeda to start writing anime-original stories with Angel Beats! and Charlotte.*
If there's one thing all his stories have in common, it's the waterworks. Jun Maeda is going to make you cry dammit, and love it or hate it, there's no denying the enormous impact his work had on the anime industry. His "sad girls in the snow" melodramas created a whole new definition of moe for otaku, fostered a resurgence in the visual novel market, and repeatedly show up on "most tearjerking anime" and "best anime soundtrack" lists across the internet. Even years after the bishoujo game craze passed, Angel Beats! managed to top Clannad's financial success and almost singlehandedly launched the career of j-pop star LiSA.
So how does Jun Maeda keep wringing tears (and cash) out of anime fans like clockwork? I was curious to uncover his secrets, but in the interest of not spoiling literally everything he's ever written, I decided to limit my analysis to the three stories Maeda was most personally involved with: Air, Clannad After Story, and Angel Beats! With the divisive and unpredictable Charlotte's final episode just around the corner, maybe this look at his past successes can give us an idea of where his future work is headed.
The first thing I noticed about Maeda's sorrowful stories actually had nothing to do with sorrow at all...
Start With Laughter
There's a principle in economics called "the law of diminishing returns" that always made me think way more about storytelling than corporations. This law states that if one factor of a production is increased while the other factors remain the same, the end result will gradually lose value. To be honest, I don't really understand how this works for a big factory spitting out Hostess pies or whatever, but I definitely understand how it works for compelling drama.
If a likable character dies in a story, that's sad. If a likable character dies and their loved ones suffer for it, that's sadder. If a likable character dies, their loved ones suffer for it, and then they get killed in a freak accident right after a messenger runs up to tell them that their family dog has also kicked the bucket, you've started spinning a bad comedy routine.
This breaks the narrative law of diminishing returns because even the saddest tragedies can't be an oppressive onslaught of cruelty with no breathing room. You can't just increase that one factor of sadness over and over, you have to increase all the factors of what we recognize about life, because we see stories as an itty-bitty version of someone's life experience.
That means that making things sadder really means making them happier first. Just as humor often comes from a betrayal of expectations, sadness comes from a betrayal of potential happiness, which means we need to experience some real joy in the story. Audiences need to see the possibility of goodness and triumph in the world to get all emotional when a character doesn't have those things. It's the contrast that tears our heart in two, because we're really being torn between the hopes we've built up and the reality that burns them down. There can no light without darkness, no hope without despair, yadda yadda, you get the point.
Jun Maeda seems to have taken this concept and run with it, because even though you may know Air, Clannad After Story, or Angel Beats! for their bawl-worthy scenes, they actually spend most of their runtime trying to make you laugh.
For every five minutes of weepiness in Clannad, there's at least twenty minutes of comedy (and that's a conservative estimate). For English-speaking viewers, some of these jokes can get lost in translation, but Clannad clips and mashups ran massive traffic on Nico Nico Douga back in 2008 just for being two-minute bursts of animated comedy that resonated with Japanese teenagers along with hardcore otaku. At least the physical comedy still translates universally, courtesy of the typically fancier animation that Key adaptations get. Now this doesn't mean that every episode of a Key show is just joke followed by drama followed by joke. That would become predictable very fast, so Maeda changes his approach up often depending on the situation. Clannad After Story segued episodic comedy into more focused sentimentalism before plowing into full-on sadness over the course of 24 episodes.
This approach succeeded because it made people feel like they were part of Tomoya's life. First we experienced the frivolous adventures of his youth surrounded by wacky friends, but then we moved to the lackadaisical yet pleasant constancy of his early married life, before his wife's death shattered everything he had spent all that time nurturing. We had grown up in the town alongside him, so his family tragedy darkened that entire place, making happy memories into sad ones and pushing him into isolation to avoid the pain. We didn't have to be told about his heartache like in so many other dead-wife stories; we had been there for the good times, so we understood.
This wasn't the case for Angel Beats!, where being ignorant of every character's life story forms the entire premise. These kids' tragic backstories are past-tense to the max, because they're already dead and have nothing more to lose. The characters are having the time of their afterlives right now, so all the drama comes from reconciling their past mistakes with their present selves and learning to move on. This unique situation means that episodes often jump from this:
...and everybody just goes with it. Hey, it's all in the past. You're dead now. Enjoy it!
Maeda worked as a composer for years before he started writing stories for bishoujo games, and it's hard not to argue that he's a far better musician than he is a writer. I'm not slamming his writing; his music is just that good. Of course, music's power as a tearjerking agent in movies and TV shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone who's had to endure their mom looping that Celine Dion song from Titanic fifty billion times. I'm not blowing any minds by saying that sad music makes you sad, and Maeda definitely knows how to settle a score, if you know what I mean.
Jun Maeda's particular fixations as a composer could fill their own article, so I'll just talk about two completely different examples of his songwriting that were created ten years apart from one another: Air's "Tori no Uta" and Angel Beats!'! "My Song." (They have basically nothing in common except for making you cry. I'm not embedding unofficial YouTube uploads, so you'll just have to look up the songs yourself for comparison.)
Tori no Uta (Bird's Poem) is a techno song, which aren't usually known for their great depth of emotion, but Maeda manages to do a lot with very little. The song's atmospheric feel, interrupted by only a simple piano melody, immediately brings to mind flying and open blue skies. In fact, it's almost too much, as the digital swooshes and whooshes become more obvious and sound-effect-like. However, as the song progresses, the stronger techno downbeats come in, and those atmospheric sounds lower in pitch as they become overwhelmed. This brings us down to earth, and the rest of the song is more reminiscent of some force trying and failing to get off the ground as it runs and stumbles, succeeding only at the very end as the pitch of the atmosphere goes up even higher than before, and the backing track fades away.
The lyrics hide a surprising depth of emotion too. Just like the music underneath them, they start and end at the same vague place, drift down into concrete detail in the middle, and ultimately paint a pretty clear picture of a tragic journey. The beginning is about fear of change, choosing to let go and run away because it's easier than facing disappointment. As the song progresses, the singer is compared to a bird that can't fly but still has hopes of escape from her fate. From here, she sinks further to earth, making memories and promises with a childhood friend as a human girl. That's all well and good, but the song has to end the same way it began, which means dragging that childhood friend with her while "chasing the fading vapor trails," leaving the ground, becoming a bird who can almost fly again, and promising that she won't let go of his hand. Unfortunately, the last verse is the same as the first: letting go means literally sacrificing the boy's life out of weakness, so she bemoans the changes this future brought her once she can't hold on anymore. This musical theme of history repeating itself doesn't bode well for our heroine or her love interest, and the further the viewer gets into the story, the more hopeless and frustrating the song seems (while still sounding pretty). Who knew techno could make you feel so misty-eyed?
If Air's main theme is an exercise in tightly calculated, subliminal emotion, "My Song" from Angel Beats! is just a baseball bat of emotion straight to the kneecaps. There's no multi-layered production or fancy lyrical metaphor here, it's just one girl with a guitar bawling out her feelings. This also means the song relies on specific context, so it's not a theme song for Angel Beats! on the whole, but a song to be played for just one moment in episode three.
The singer, Iwasawa, is supposed to perform a big loud j-rock song as a diversion while her friends carry out a secret mission, but that performance turns out to be a little too effective when her concert gets broken up by the school administration. In the heat of the moment, Iwasawa decides that she should perform the song she really wanted to sing before her guitar gets taken away from her. All the other songs her over-the-top band (called Girls Dead Monster) sings are wild, bombastic, and angsty, but that's not the kind of life Iwasawa actually lived. So for one last performance, she strips away the fantasy and sings about her short life of being lonely and mistreated in a world where it felt like everyone else was allowed to be happy.
Just when you think this is another guitar ballad about being misunderstood, Iwasawa breaks into a triumphant chorus addressed directly to the audience, saying that anyone who feels this way is blessed. "The tears you shed say that your life was beautiful, honest, and real." The afterlife taught her that everybody is lonely for different reasons, and she just wants everyone in the room to know that it's okay. She's still singing, but it's become less of a performance and more of an invitation for anyone who's in pain to let it out without fear of judgment. By the end, she says this song will be her gift to those who need it, she hopes it gives them courage, and the last line of the song is just "thank you." Then she disappears into the next life, having finally changed an audience with her music like she dreamed of doing before her death. The lyrics are simple and almost improvisational, but it's perfect for the moment. It turns the audience into a big messy puddle for completely different reasons than "Tori no Uta."
Come to think of it, Iwasawa's song is a good example of my next point...
It's Just Not Fair
Just like in the real world, tragedy in fiction often arises from injustice. People have strong feelings about what should happen, but these feelings don't line up with nature and circumstance most of the time. Unfairness is, well, just not fair. Bad things happen to good people in basically every Jun Maeda work, but timing is everything. It's not so much that the world dumps all over these characters, it's that it chooses to deliver its payload right when we've already been tricked into caring.
Air doesn't start off by telling you the tragic prophecy behind the "girl in the sky." She begins solely as an emblem of hope. Yukito is a vagrant who's lost his mother and inherited only a fraction of her pretty useless magical powers, but that might change for him if he ever finds the "girl in the sky." Okay, he probably won't become a better magician or anything, but finding the person his mother spent her whole life looking for should give him catharsis, so the show spends a long time establishing him as a nice, funny, patient guy who deserves a break in the clouds. At long last, he realizes that Misuzu is his "girl in the sky," and not only is his mother's life quest fulfilled, he's also in love with this girl! Win-win!
Little does he know that the "girl in the sky" was placed under a curse 1000 years ago, after his own ancestors' disastrous attempts to help her ancestor, a winged being and the last of her kind. She will be reincarnated over and over in a human body to always die at the age of 15 upon falling in love. This tiny repeat of history unlocks the spirit of her true self, and its power is too strong to be contained in a human body, so Misuzu will lose herself, weaken, and die within a few months. All Yukito did was fulfill that prophecy. Good job, lover boy! Free will is an illusion and you've just sealed her doom.
Clannad After Story and Angel Beats! aren't too different. We get to know Nagisa for dozens of episodes before she dies, following her relationship with Tomoya from their very first meeting all the way up through their marriage and the arrival of their first child. Tomoya's initial rejection of his daughter Ushio is terrible, but not unsympathetic. He lost the only woman he ever loved and got a baby he'd (obviously) never met before on the same day, and the safe barrier of fiction allows the audience to feel the injustice of this character swap even more strongly.
Yurippe suffers a similar cruel fate in Angel Beats!, when she refuses to give up her quest to take down God before she can be reincarnated, demanding justice for the deaths of her three younger siblings and the ensuing trauma that ruined the rest of her short life. Even as the world begins coming apart around her, she keeps traveling down into the belly of the earth until she finds the broken system "God" left behind. She can take his place and try to rebuild a Perfect World using this system, but it will cost the lives of all her friends. On the other hand, she can destroy the system completely and save her friends, rendering her entire afterlife's mission pointless and giving her no choice but to accept all this loss and pass on to the next life.
She takes this catch-22 pretty well!
We all know that life isn't fair, but life's unfairness tends to matter way more to people when it's not fair to them specifically. Maeda's stories always give us a reason to be invested in a positive outcome before they slap on a negative one instead, and that disarmingly personal betrayal is what makes us cry.
It's not all sad tears, though! Sometimes the happy tears are the ones people remember the best...
Karma Always Comes Through
As it turns out, almost all of Jun Maeda's work dabbles in a narrative style called "magical realism." Well okay, as its monstrously complicated wikipedia entry will tell you, people who take magical realism seriously may have some beef with calling Maeda's stories that, because the genre has strict rules (that change depending on who you talk to), and his work breaks oodles of them. However, for the sake of keeping things simple, we're just going to call it magical realism anyway, using an extremely simplified definition: Maeda's stories take place in an otherwise completely normal real-world setting, with the exception of a few supernatural elements that are never fully explained, yet readily accepted by the characters in the story.
Air takes place in an otherwise normal world with ancient winged beings, mild telekinetics, and magical curse-fueled diseases. Clannad takes place in an otherwise normal world connected to a dying dimension that controls people's fortunes through the power of their wishes, usually with unpredictable results. Angel Beats! takes place in a seemingly normal high school that is really a haphazardly "programmed" afterlife full of bugs that are never meant to be fully understood. In all these cases, characters don't seem too fazed by the magic at work behind their reality, if they ever even discover that it's there at all.
So why would Jun Maeda choose to break his story's world in weird ways like this without explaining it? Because when it comes to making you cry, what you think about this world matters far less than how you feel about it. Maeda uses magic to express his own feelings about the unfairness of reality, by "breaking" it just enough to give his characters what they've earned. If tragedy is usually absurdly unfair, why can't triumph come from equally absurd fairness?
There should be no escape for Misuzu's curse in Air. If Yukito or any of his ancestors exist for Misuzu to fall in love with, it's going to happen. So Yukito wishes that he didn't exist in order to save Misuzu, and someone, somewhere, hears him. Yukito's existence is backwritten entirely to reincarnate him in the form of a crow, which Misuzu can't fall in love with, but he's still able to be with her to fulfill the mission his ancestors failed in 1000 years ago: reuniting the "girl in the sky" with her mother. It doesn't matter how this all happened, because it's going to work. Right?
Unfortunately, Misuzu's mother is already dead. Fortunately, whatever deity provided Yukito with loophole-by-crow also considers motherly love more powerful than motherly blood, and the final episodes of the series (and last route of the game) are devoted to Misuzu's previously irresponsible aunt Haruko reconnecting with her as a maternal guardian. They forge a new bond of love that breaks the curse, allowing the "girl in the sky" to die in peace and finally pass on to the big blue beyond. All three characters sacrificed their lives in some way to fight back the curse, so the magical force that combats their unfeeling world decided to throw them a bone. We never find out who or what it was, but it's hard to care between wads of Kleenex. Whatever it was, it made the right decision.
The same can be said of the "Illusionary World" in Clannad, whose magical contributions to the plot are too numerous to mention. It's always present in the story, but it's passive for the most part, summoned in tiny spurts by the noble deeds and earnest hopes of good people in Tomoya's city. Any time you see an orb of light drifting off in the background of a scene, that's a gift of good karma from the Illusionary World, like the tinkle of a bell signaling an angel's be-winging. It's just that sweet reassurance that something out there is looking out for you, and through hope and persistence, Tomoya eventually wins this magical wish jackpot. The love and effort he poured into people's lives around the city reaches critical mass when his daughter dies not long after his wife. He begs for a miracle, taking back his years-long wish that he'd never met his beloved and expressing remorse for abandoning their daughter. All the orbs he spent 40+ episodes (or a billion game routes) lighting up converge, and Tomoya is given a second chance at fatherhood alongside a miraculously healthy Nagisa.
Logically speaking, this could never happen, but Maeda wants us to believe in a world where it should happen. He wants us to believe that good karma can break the laws of time and space, if only in fiction, and seeing the light-orbs accompany all the little moments of magic up to this point helps us embrace that belief, at least for Tomoya and his family. This should happen, even if it never could, which makes you want to thump your chest while tears pour out of your face.
At the same time, there is a slight progression through Maeda's work, where the magical elements are slightly more established by the plot in Clannad than they were Air, and this pattern follows with Angel Beats!. In its world, where magic is frequently compared to programming, it only makes sense that even Maeda's karmic miracles would have some twisted yet heartwarming logic behind them. And I do mean heartwarming...
Like the "real" worlds of Air and Clannad, Angel Beats!' afterlife is broken and unfair, even though it shouldn't be. It was meant to be a place where unfulfilled souls could find peace before passing on to the next life, but "God" abandoned his creation, leaving its citizens just as directionless as they were in their previous lives. Anyone who discovers this world's true purpose for themselves passes on, leaving no one behind to guide other lost souls. Otonashi is one of these souls, distraught by the pointlessness of his mortal life and powerless to do anything about it. The only way to stop this cycle would be to introduce an outside force, an "angel of mercy" so to speak. This is Kanade, a superpowered girl who's been easing souls through the afterlife since before any of the other characters arrived. After falling in love with her and learning more about his own life, Otonashi becomes Kanade's partner in soul-therapy for the characters around him and becomes more fulfilled in the process.
But Kanade is not here for divine reasons; she's here because of a loophole. She's able to save Otonashi because his "unlived" life allowed her to live in the first place. Despite having an otherwise satisfying youth on earth, she was sent to the afterlife for lost teens just so she could say thank you to the person who quite literally gave her his heart. Otonashi was an organ donor, and his ticker is inside Kanade's chest. In the process of waiting for him, she became the key to setting the afterlife right again, allowing the two lovebirds to save one another across time and space, grant exponential salvation to the rest of the cast, and sucker more bawling viewers than a "fateful heart transplant" twist probably should. (I'm not judging; this is the Maeda moment that hit me in the feelings hardest.) It's emotionally powerful because just like all those other karmic victories, it's not really a coincidence. Otonashi's accidental sacrifice taught Kanade that "life can be wonderful," so she made a purposeful sacrifice to show him (and many others) the same thing.
IT'S ALL TOO MUCH. EVERYBODY CRY!
Okay, so Jun Maeda may not be able to make everyone cry. If a story rubs someone's heartstrings the wrong way, the rejection will usually be violent. Nobody likes feeling manipulated, especially manipulated into feeling sad, so the criticisms of his work are often just as fierce as the affection for it. (Most of them revolve around the lack of concrete explanations for the multitudinous miracles his stories rely on.) All the same, he's definitely doing something right. Some mystical combination of sweet comedy, beautiful music, the unfairness of life, and the goodness of the human spirit just brings it all home. In Key's most perfectly weepy moments, the details don't matter so much anymore.
In fact, when Charlotte revealed a concrete explanation for its magical elements, many viewers expressed disappointment and a loss of emotional investment instead. I actually had difficulty pulling examples of Maeda's waterworks-powers from Charlotte, because it's the most different from all his previous work, often more concerned with plot details than emotional wallow. What do you think? Does Charlotte fulfill your expectations for the master of moe sadness? Is it evidence of his growth as a writer, or is he just growing away from his strengths? Tell us what you think in the forums!
*Angel Beats! was technically made to accompany a visual novel release of the same name, but then the game entered development hell for over five years, making the anime's staggering success in Japan a standalone effort. There are no visual novel tie-in plans for Charlotte. Maybe Key learned something from the trouble the Angel Beats! game's insanely high ambitions (19 character routes that can be combined in any order to completely different results when restarting the game) caused them?
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