As the seminal moe anime, I put off watching Clannad for a very long time. I felt like I had a basic idea of what I was going to get. Moe is often safe, straightforward, and predictable. I don’t enjoy “comfort” shows. I tend to not like anime where characters just hang out unless they’re impeccably well written, and even then, it’s more a show I’d tolerate than enjoy. The reason why I enjoy anime so much is because it strays away from the real and mundane and uses fantastical and outlandish situations to create relatable scenarios and characters. I want that color, that vibrancy, that experimentation. I’d rather see a flawed but ambitious anime than a technically clean but straightforward one. In short, I’m more a Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 than Brotherhood kind of guy. I’d rather not watch an anime just to see cute girls doing cute things, so I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed Clannad. I was also surprised by what I wound up not liking about it.

Clannad is a story based on a visual novel that centers around Tomoya Okazaki, a high school sort-of-delinquent who’s pretty unhappy with his life. In true VN tradition, this anime focuses on a group of girls that all serve as potential love interests for the main player character. Tomoya meets all of them one by one, helps them out with their problem, and then he moves on with his life. A true male fantasy. At the end of the day, he picks his sweetheart and they live happily ever after. You’d think I’m describing the plot of Sword Art Online here. The difference very clearly lies in the execution, in giving each of the girls a distinct character and making the viewer grow attached to them. This is really where the anime shines, with every girl being excessively cute and entertaining in their own way.

Unfortunately, its quirky and unique characters are also its biggest weakness. An element common to most visual novel adaptations is how disposable everything feels. Due to the multiple routes often present in the source material, the perspective of the player and the viewer is completely different. One is expected to see multiple sides of everything, every scenario repeated with varying results. The other follows a linear narrative with no input from the audience. This leads to the anime feeling hollow and one-dimensional in many regards. Adaptations of dating VNs like this tend to focus on solely one character’s route, resulting in most of the other characters being tossed aside, regardless of how the viewer feels. This leads to much of the cast being underdeveloped or being simply cut out of existence as if the writer has willed them away. In reality, the player has done so in the game but the viewer has no such choice.

There is a wide range of characters in this show, with all of the girls at least managing to be cute with varying degrees of likability. There are even a few cool guys to round out the cast and prevent this from being completely transparent wish-fulfillment. Tomoya, in particular, stands out as having a very definable, interesting and, at times, relatable personality in a vain much closer to the Kyons of the world than the typical self-insert protagonist found in similar works. He actually has a backstory, flaws, and goals. The anime also surprisingly delves deeper into his life in the sequel series, exploring his life choices and how they come to affect his family and his future. As a character, he’s a breath of fresh air compared not only to other stories but also to the many eccentric girls he’s surrounded by. Although Clannad seems to think Tomoya is a bit more interesting than he really is, it does a great job of avoiding some general genre trappings such as excessive fanservice and harem situations and this is, in a large part, due to Tomoya’s laid-back but rebellious and righteous attitude.

The problem with the cast comes from how very inhuman most of the girls are, as if they are incapable of reading social cues or even properly carrying a conversation. Oftentimes they make random noises or burst into song. It’s all fun and makes the characters immediately appealing on a baser level, but peeling back the surface, it becomes hard to see them as much more than a product meant to entertain, or rather appeal, even after learning their respective backstories. This fault becomes especially glaring in the back half of the show when the focus shifts to Tomoya’s love interest and away from all the other girls, tossing many potential stories by the wayside. Some girls get special “what if” OVAs to please some of the fans, but it was jarring to see the one girl I felt was realistically written be relegated to a single tacked-on episode. And just like that, the majority of the show’s cast is written off in favor of the protagonist’s story, as if their only purpose was to facilitate his growth and the audience’s enjoyment. I was drawn in by how much heart was in this show, but at the same time, I was surprised by how heartless it was.

That isn’t to say this is a bad anime by any means. The fact that Clannad manages to be entertaining from the get-go and fills up its somewhat long runtime with very few boring moments shows a huge amount of dedication and talent from the staff. It’s certainly a show worth watching and I would recommend it to most people, regardless of their opinion on moe, visual novels, or anime in general. The writing is great for this style of story and it accomplishes its goals flawlessly. The visuals, by the always great Kyoto Animation, are as fantastic as they could possibly be, especially considering the humdrum subject matter and dated big-eyed designs. Surprisingly, this show even tackles some more mature themes, taking the story much farther than is expected of this genre, and it certainly deserves commendation for that. The priorities and execution are the problem. You see, when someone wrote this, they fully intended to depict a realistic, dramatic, and charming portrait of human relationships across family, friends, and lovers. However, actually watching it, I kind of get the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know what that meant. They might have thought they did and they may have succeeded in writing a very enjoyable series, but they did not manage to create any sort of realism or relatability, and that’s where the show falls flat.

I expected Clannad to be more dramatic. I expected it to be darker, not better, but more self-indulgent and certainly less restrained. This show was much more comedic and lighthearted than I expected, with a hint of self-awareness. My vision of Clannad prior to watching it was a story completely focused on its mopey and self-centered male protagonist as countless horny girls fawned over him for no real reason, so I have to give some credit to this moe pioneer for handling its subject matter a bit better than its successors. This show actually manages to be completely earnest about its rather tired, even for back then, formula. All of its characters are given their due time in the spotlight, often receiving a backstory and several episodes of attention, highlighting some of their happiest moments and their eventual coming to terms with whatever conflict they were facing at the time. And yet, as soon as their story is over, they are quickly relegated to the status of background character, made just as disposable as the show just managed to convince you they weren’t.

Of course, there’s no time to develop all of these stories, nor any way to take all of them to their logical extremes without other stories suffering in turn. This is a common visual novel problem and requires masterful execution to avoid while staying true to the source material. In the end, Clannad is a classic that manages to do more right in a single episode than many of its peers do across entire franchises, but there’s a reason this genre has become the bane of many anime fans looking for works with a bit more substance and is representative of today’s fast-paced, easy, and disposable anime scene.

Very great execution across the board, always entertaining and enjoyable but little substance and few stakes.