Judge Daryl Loomis built a friend out of an old suit and a radio, but he sounded like Rush Limbaugh and had to be put down.
And so we begin a long, long upward journey.
When I reviewed Clannad: After Story, Collection 1 some time ago, it took me a long time to get into the story. It follows immediately from the events that conclude Clannad, and takes that knowledge for granted. Left in the dark, it wasn't until the second disc of that set that I began to see the greatness of the series. This time, I was excited to see how this whole affair started and, for better and for worse, I was not disappointed.
The story centers on Tomoya, a delinquent high-schooler entering his senior year. One morning, he's running late (again!) and comes across a weird girl named Nagisa yelling out pastry names for motivation. As they start talking, Tomoya finds out that this is her second senior year, having missed most of the previous year with an illness. Her friends have all graduated, so she's lonely and lacks confidence. Tomoya feels lost and alone himself; he finds a lot in common with Nagisa, and a friendship is born. As we follow them on their quest to restart the school's defunct drama club, they learn to lean on their friends for help and, after joys and tragedies, they see the true meaning of sacrifice.
This is simple stuff, but Clannad hits mostly all the right notes through its twenty-four episode run. This isn't the kind of anime I've come to expect; there are not mechanized zombies or mobsters riding dragon mounts in this production. This is pure romantic drama with precious little in the way of plot or action. There are some odd flights of fancy here and there and some hokey comedy thrown in to lighten the mood, but Clannad is, on the whole, a serious and emotionally-driven piece. It has a slow but consistent pace and lets the story and characters rule the action rather than trying to wow the audience with an innovative style or a big battle. The animation is detailed and very pretty, but never flashy. Across the board, in every aspect, the series shows a lot of restraint, refreshing in a genre known for going over the top at any possible moment.
Rarely, in anime or otherwise, is high school life more accurately or brilliantly described. Tomoya, Nagisa, and their group of friends are not idealized teenagers; they're deeply flawed and self-centered people. They deal with normal things like sickness and social ineptitude, but taking everything so seriously, every misstep becomes a tragedy and every success is a triumph. On the surface, it seems shallow, but the sincerity and skill with which the story is delivered makes it easy for viewers to get caught up in the events. More than once, I found myself choked up by events in the story, but I never felt manipulated. Nothing is forced; the emotion is driven by the way the characters naturally act and how it makes sense with the story. Ultimately, there is more tragedy than joy in the story, but it's touching to see the group grow together into a loving family. They find happiness in sharing their lives with others, but there is an ever-present tone of sadness. This general sadness continues to the end of this series, and gets even more heart-wrenching in Clannad: After Story.
The only place Clannad falters is in its comedy, which often feels out of step with the tone of the rest of the series. It's worst at the beginning, where they have stupid gags like a girl in a fight delivering a Street Fighter-style hundred-kick combo or another whose eyes go gaga every time she thinks about starfish. Given the somber, ennui-filled tone of the series at large, these jokes really do not work. They slowly go away as the series progresses, thankfully. They don't disappear, which is fine, but it isn't as outrageous or stupid at the end as it was in the first episode.
Sentai Filmworks's four-disc set of Clannad: Complete Collection is technically good, but free of meaningful extras; it falls right in line with their usual production. The anamorphic image is clear and bright, with beautiful colors and smooth animation. The stereo sound mix isn't much to write home about, but it's clean with strong dialog and good use of music. The Japanese and English language tracks are about even, with the English one having a slight edge for being more recently recorded. Purists will want the Japanese track, though, and it sounds just fine. The holes in the story that emerge in the subtitles, though, make me mistrustful of the translation and, as usual in anime, I prefer the dub track. Our only extras, if you can call them that, are textless versions of the opening and closing title songs. These appear on nearly every anime disc, and I've never understood the point.
Like the French New Wave of anime productions, Clannad strips the drama from the plot to lay bare the souls of its characters. Fans who prefer a more action-packed anime will find themselves a little bored, but what is lost in kinetic energy is more than made up for in solid storytelling and lovely animation.
One of the best, most low-key anime productions you're ever likely to see. Not guilty.
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Studio: Sentai Filmworks
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