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The Mike Toole Show
Moe is the Key

by Michael Toole,

I kinda have a reputation for being down on moe anime and manga. It's certainly not undeserved, either-- in the past, I've put moe anime under the microscope for my ill-fated video segment, and published some helpful instructions from my wife on the best way to enjoy Happy Lesson. When flimsy cutie-pie garbage heaps like DearS and Nakaimo hit the airwaves with a resounding thud, I just about break the goddamned sound barrier in my rush to condemn them as facile crap that brings the whole medium down.

But you know what? I've got nothing at all against moe as a genre element. Toradora! and Azumanga Daioh are big favorites of mine, I've watched and enjoyed fare like K-On! and Lucky Star, and I feel a keen, genuine sense of big-brother protectiveness when the protagonist gets in a heap of trouble in Kaiji. (Yeah, I say Kaiji is moe. You gonna prove me wrong?!) The Kyoto Animation hit parade, in particular, pumps out moe faves like Haruhi Suzumiya with almost military precision and regularity-- and amongst the genre's biggest fans, few titles are more widely-known and well-liked than KyoAni's collaborations with video game/visual novel developer Key/Visual Art's. Let's put their holy trinity of hits-- Air, Kanon, and Clannad-- under the microscope.

Like I mentioned above, I'd already had a look at Kanon, KyoAni's 2006 adaptation of Key's 1999 breakout hit. But I was really only looking at the first five episodes, and while I've always maintained that a genuinely good series needs to be good right from the beginning, maybe I was being a little unfair to the show. A lot of of the moe stuff I've raked over the coals in the past-- poop like Sister Princess and Hanaukyo Maid Team-- haven't really stood the test of time, but Kanon has steadfastly remained in print, and its fandom is active and sometimes produces pretty wonderful shit. Air, which came afterwards in game form but was the first collaboration between Key and Kyoto Animation, seems nearly as resilient, and then there's Clannad.

I'll resist the urge to make dumb jokes about Celtic synthpop/folk bands involving Enya, but only because I don't know that much about the subject. Clannad stands slightly apart from its predecessors for a few reasons-- in visual novel form, it was the first Key title that didn't involve some smutty love scenes as a selling point, and in anime form, its two 22-episode seasons (plus OVA goodies) make it twice as long as Kanon and four times as long as Air. Finally-- and here's what spurred me on to write this column-- its second course, Clannad After Story, spent a good few years sitting atop the ANNcyclopedia Best Rated chart. The people who love Clannad love it a ton, and even if I don't burn with moe passion for it after a full viewing, at least I might be able to understand their devotion a little better. Clannad After Story is still hanging tough in the #2 slot, too-- only the red-hot Steins;gate has managed to displace it.

But I gotta start at the beginning of Key and KyoAni's partnership, and that's marked by 2004's Air TV series. Air's been hanging around the North American scene for more than five years now, but for ages I stayed away from it-- its cover made it look harem-ish, but I think it really boils right down to the original character designs, by Itaru Hinoue. He favors narrow faces, huge eyes, and flowing, hyper-detailed hair. It's funny, his character design work was hailed by Japanese fans as quite modern when Kanon hit PC game shelves in 1999, but to me his stuff looks rooted in the mid-1990s, and not in a particularly flattering way. All subsequent Key/KyoAni works would be based on his character designs, and all are directed by Tatsuya Ishihara, a veteran of Studio Pierrot whose experience with family comedy and melodrama anime makes him a good fit for the material.

So Air is the story of a telekinetic homeless guy and the women in his life. Alright, protagonist Yukito Kusinaki isn't a vagrant, precisely, but he is a wandering puppeteer who's been drifting from town to town, trying to make sense of his late mother's obsession with an obscure legend about winged people and a girl in the sky. He's waylaid on the seawall by Misuzu, an oddly childlike teen girl who plays with him and insists on dragging him home to Haruko, her aunt and legal guardian. Haruko isn't thrilled by this turn of events, but she warms up to Yukito after he proves to be a dependable friend to Misuzu and a good listener when Haruko gets drunk and chatty. As Yukito settles in, he meets other girls-- Kano, who believes she has magic powers and starts dropping odd clues about the girl in the sky, and Minagi and Michiru, a pair of buddies with a sad and kinda supernatural secret.

So right from the get-go, we've got fabulous secret powers and weird old legends. But Air isn't some kind of crazy mystical fantasy-- its magic stuff is incidental to the story, and pretty low-key. (Ha! See what I did there?!) Yukito's odd powers and sharp, surly, inquisitive nature lead him in and out of Kano and Minagi's lives, but he keeps coming back to Misuzu, who seems to be somehow related to a millennia-old story-- and a curse, which is destined to kill the girl linked to it!

It's interesting to me that Air was scripted after Kanon, because the anime version, in so many ways, really does feel like a practice run for the shows that would come later, and not a particularly impressive one either. Ishihara does a good job of evoking the game, with a stylish OP that evokes the much lengthier VN original and use of transitions and music cues that remind the viewer of the original work, but the anime's central characters, conflicts and mythology just aren't satisfying. An extended flashback to the original Heian-era legend is interesting but all too brief, and the final mom-and-daughter-bonding arc just feels forced. The only things I liked about Air were its setting and background scenes, based on the real-life very pretty beach town of Kami, and the way Misuzu constantly, nervously utters the nonsense word “gao.” Yes, it's an affectation designed to make viewers go “d'aww she's so dopey and cute!” but hey, “gao” is what Giant Robo himself says, so I can't fault her for copying him.

But for all its flaws, Air, in its original visual novel form, sold 300,000 copies across all platforms. Ten years ago, Japan's PC game scene was small and insular (as opposed to now, where it's somewhat larger and insular), so this is damn impressive. Kanon and Clannad are also bigtime PC games in Japan, which fascinates me. They're not technologically impressive, and technically speaking, they only barely qualify as games-- they're kinda like graphical versions of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, only instead of escaping from aliens trying to turn you into food, you're a lonely dude in a small town, trying to get your life sorted out and maybe court the girl of your dreams. When I think of top-tier PC games around the year 2000, my mind goes to Half-Life and Planescape: Torment, and not Kanon.

But Kanon was Key's breakout hit, so it's only natural that it would follow Air and be made into a TV series by KyoAni in 2006. Returning was the same team of director Ishihara and scribe Fumihiko Shimo, a versatile writer who's written tons of scripts for shows like Raijin-oh, Hamtaro, and Gravion. But this time the series received double the episode count-- a sensible decision, as there are a lot more storylines and potential girlfriends to go around.

Yuichi Aizawa's parents are out of the country (yep, that old plot again) so he's heading to the frigid north to stay with his Aunt Akiko and cousin Nayuki. He'd spent a significant amount of time visiting these relatives of his seven years ago, but he's not thrilled to be going to a snowy town in the dead of winter, and is troubled by weird gaps in his memories of seven years past.
The parade of cute girls starts immediately upon his arrival, when he meets up with mysterious childhood friend Nayuki. Later, he'll encounter mysterious sick girl Shiori, mysterious sword girl Mai, mysterious prank girl Makoto, and mysterious speech tic girl Ayu. You know Ayu's gonna be pretty important, because she's featured most prominently on the cover, she's searching for something that she can't quite remember (let me guess: her car keys?), and she has odd mannerisms, like her tendency to use the masculine “boku” to refer to herself. She also says “uguu” constantly, which is annoying but also somehow hilarious.

Visually, Kanon is pretty neat. Air was occasionally impressive to look at; Kanon usually is, with more refined and always on-model character designs, and at least a few really tasty animation cuts per episode. There's one bit of action in episode 14, in which a pretty girl trashes a construction site, that would look good in any high-budget action anime. It also boasts a drastically different vibe to its predecessor-- Air was all about shimmery, summery days, but Kanon is the quintessential “sad girl in the snow” anime. In the magical world of Kanon, it's seemingly always snowing, but nobody wears hats. Gloves? Yes. Scares? Sure. But not hats, no sir. Maybe that's why the girls in the snow are so sad-- hey, someone give ‘em a toque!

Kanon also handles its melodrama decently, and that's a good thing because there's a ton of melodrama in this show. There are seemingly no happy nuclear families in Kanon-- everyone's got dead, imperiled, or simply absent parents or family members. Some of these stories are fairly compelling, but I dislike the way that seemingly every major character has a huge personal tragedy that they're not handling very well. In particular, we've got Shiori, a chipper girl with a mysterious-- and possibly terminal!-- illness that keeps her out of school, but still leaves her healthy enough to wander around the school courtyard, chat ingratiatingly with Yuichi, and eat plenty of ice cream. Actually, I'm down with the ice cream, being from a city where we're known for eating ice cream like crazy in the winter, but Shiori's mystery illness is an all-too-convenient Problem and reliable source of drama. Makoto, a feisty amnesiac who takes up residence at Yuichi's house in the show's first arc, has a mystical background that tragically causes gradual loss of memory, speech, and motor control. You know, magical realism aside, I had a lot more fun just pretending she was succumbing to mad cow disease. How's that for personal tragedy?!

In spite of frequent plot conveniences, I found myself warming up to Kanon's snowbound milieu as the series progressed. The background characters are kind of clunky, but the show's charmingly weird romance between Yuichi and Ayu feels real in a way that not too many anime relationships do-- he teases her constantly, but while she bristles at his playful jabs, she plainly loves the attention and enjoys his company. This is also where Kanon's mood and setting are most effective-- being out in the gently falling snow with someone special can be bracingly romantic. Before the whole thing ends, we're also treated to an unintentionally hilarious car accident, numerous tiny miracles that help out just about every character with a sad problem, and a brief look at post-coma recovery that makes Steven Seagal's wakeup in Hard to Kill seem almost realistic by comparison. With just a slightly better script and fewer excruciating plot conveniences, Kanon could've been great.

Clannad was Key's first big offering that didn't have any adult content at all-- just a boy and a girl, and their families and pals. In storytelling terms, it's also markedly more ambitious - while the former two keep things rooted in late adolescence, Clannad is a romantic story that isn't just about a boy and a girl, but about filial bonds-- family ties, if you will. (If you're waiting for me to make a joke involving Michael J. Fox, you can keep waiting. This ain't Family Guy!)

Tomoya has a fairly rotten life. His mom died when he was little, his father turned to drinking and gambling for cheap therapy, and a scuffle after a particularly drunk night left the kid with a nagging injury and a permanent grudge against dad. He's short on friends at school, his teachers are worried he's turning into a delinquent, and he's just sick to death of his town. But all of that starts to change when he bumps into a girl on the way to school - she's older than him but got kept back a year due to illness, and she's just standing there and mumbling about food, trying to psyche herself up to jump back into her schoolwork. Her name is Nagisa. She misses the defunct school drama club, and wants to start it back up. Tomoya's self-esteem is in the shitter and his own dreams are way off in the fog, but he can almost kinda get behind the idea of helping this girl achieve her dream. So he helps her.

Fairly promising, right? Yeah, Clannad does a few things pretty nicely-- it gives us a jerky kid in a bad situation and depicts his slow rise out of it, which comes almost entirely because he helps Nagisa with the drama club, giving him both purpose and a social outlet. The show is actually quite good at comedy, depicting one of the gang's school chums as not just a crappy violin player, but the worst violin player in the world, complete with scenery-distorting sonic effects. Each of Tomoya's potential romantic interest starts off with a gimmick like this, but they all have other aspects that come to light as he talks to them more. Fortunately, only one of them is in a coma. Because let's face it, there's always a girlfriend in a coma. Thanks for nothing, Morrissey!

But as much as Clannad is funny and occasionally sweet, it's also sometimes a weird road map to unhealthy personal relationships, simply by dint of the fact that everyone is terrified to talk to each other about stuff. Tomoya won't talk to his father about their strained relationship. His friend Okazaki won't mend fences with the school soccer team so he can play again. Transfer student Tomoyo doesn't want to talk about her violent past, and Nagisa doesn't want to talk about the illness that took her out for almost a year-- and that could come back at any time! Yep, everyone's got a problem that just hurts to talk about-- in some ways, Clannad is half a bottle of bourbon and some bad weed away from being a Hold Steady album. By the end of the first series, at which point Tomoya falls hard for Nagisa and tells her so, and she starts crying tears of joy!!, I was left wondering if she wasn't just crying because she was so relieved that one of them finally had the balls to say “hey, I like you” after 20 episodes of awkward moments and sidelong glances.

Clannad ends with Tomoya and Nagisa, our star-crossed lovers, becoming a couple. Usually, this is where the story ends. But this story keeps on truckin’ in Clannad After Story (does that mean the first series should be called Clannad During Story?). This is interesting to watch, because the characters actually grow up and get jobs and shit. Tomoya and Nagisa get a crappy apartment, and he starts to work as an electrical lineman. He works eleven hours, and brings the girl some flowers. Her parents, a funny and comfortable couple who plainly and unabashedly like Tomoya, give the youngsters encouragement-- there's a low-key wedding, and of course, a bun in the oven-- but wait! Nagisa's constitution is so weak! She might die!

I have to hand it to Key's chief scribe, Jun Maeda-- his stories and characters don't always hit target, but he's good at establishing mood, and effectively uses music (often his own compositions, as he does some of the incidental music in these games) to augment it. These adaptations might use different staff, but they're still adapting his dialogue and using the exact same music as the games. There are lots of great little moments in Clannad, like pickup baseball in the sunshine with the neighbors, and Nagisa and Tomoya just chilling out together in their crappy apartment. After Story’s depiction of Nagisa and Tomoya's transition into mundane adulthood is probably the closest thing to actual slice-of-life storytelling that I've seen one of these shows do-- but then it all gets ropey, as Tomoya is once again assailed by tragedy after tragedy. There are entire goddamn episodes of freaking out and crying, and it all gets irritatingly emotionally manipulative. It all seems too messy and harsh, until the ending, when it all seems too neat and tidy. On the whole, I think the series just has a hard time striking a nice balance between its comedy and melodrama.

So why is After Story held in such high esteem, even compared to its related media? I'm not really sure. The show certainly looks great, and Tomoya and Nagisa are a charming and vulnerable pair of leads, but every time things get a little too slow, Maeda hits the “she DRAMATICALLY COLLAPSES” button. Personally, I think the first series is more enjoyable on the whole-- I dug watching Tomoya turn into an adult with responsibilities in After Story, but the original's larger cast of characters and greater variety of stories are just more interesting.

After absorbing 87 episodes of winsome girls in a variety of seasons with oddly humongous eyes, what do I take away from all this? Well, I still like some moe anime, and I feel like I have a better handle on why people like these shows so much. Clannad didn't blow me away and Air barely even stuck around in my short-term memory, but even with its issues, Kanon does a good job of selling me on why shows like these can bring up such ardor in fans. Air and Kanon and Clannad aren't for the cynical, or for deep thinkers looking for complicated, challenging themes. They're for saps! They're for people who kinda sorta believe in love at first sight, and running along the train platform to wave goodbye to your best girl, and the red string of fate that binds lovers together. They're for couch potatoes who enjoy dirty movies, but only the tasteful dirty movies, you know, the ones with real stories and romantic stuff like smooching in the rain and gettin’ it on in front of a roaring fireplace. Given the largely male audience for VNs and their anime adaptations like these ones, I'm compelled to compare them to Harlequin romance novels... but for dudes.

Ultimately, the answer to what I'm gonna take away from this experience is Kanon. I'll pass the Air and Clannad discs on to more devoted fans, but I'm gonna hang on to Kanon for now. After all, I might wanna hear that girl say “uguu” one more time. I guess that means that my earlier video evaluation of the series was off the mark, but I'm not gonna worry about that. I'm wrong about stuff all the time! One last thought: I did not forget to mention the Air and Clannad movies or the 2002 Kanon TV show. Those are made by Toei, not Kyoto Animation, so they're outside the scope of this already hilariously long column. I also did not forget to mention Little Busters, because that's JC Staff, not KyoAni. We cool? We cool.

How about you, gang? Do you like any of Key/Kyoto Animation's shows? Do they fill you with romantic feelings, or just outrage at the dumb characters doing dumb things? Were you as confused as I was at the girls’ school uniforms in Kanon, with their Santa color scheme and weird little capelets? Let me know in the comments!

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