This is going to be an in-depth discussion and analysis of the themes and plot of Clannad and its sequel, After Story. As such, it will be rife with spoilers. I recommend watching this anime so I don’t suggest continuing to read unless you have seen both. Check out my review to see if it might interest you.
In a surprising turn of events, Clannad does not end on the happily ever after, instead choosing to continue past the start of the relationship that concludes the first season. It even dares to venture beyond the high school years of its protagonists and focus on the adult life of its leading couple, Tomoya and Nagisa.
In general, anime tends to focus on the high school years and high fantasy, in terms of both character and setting. There is a clear effort to appeal to teenage sensibilities or even people with nostalgia for that time. Clannad’s progression was pretty unexpected as what should be the norm, the later years of growth everyone goes through, is not often depicted in fiction, specifically anime. This after story is a brilliant idea, as so many ill-conceived sequels often fail to be.
In the end, Tomoya chooses Nagisa and the story focuses on the hardships and emotional nuance of their adult lives. They are forced to go through a lot but they face it together, growing every step of the way. Unfortunately, despite the maturation of the story and its characters, Clannad refuses to mature its writing and falls back on the same faults over and over again.
Many people consider After Story to be an amazing sequel and one of the best anime of all time. However, despite its ambitions, I walked away from this one feeling strangely hollow. It’s very rare to see an anime attempt to deal with serious adult issues and relationships or even to see any work proceed beyond the logical endpoint of the story and actually have it expand on the original rather than detract from it. Clannad does so mostly gracefully but retains many of its weaknesses as the series heads into its second half. The same simplistic, inhuman characters are now caught in very real circumstances and forced to face problems that don’t just disappear like in high school.
Although After Story starts primarily with several vignettes, each centered around a character or two, it quickly moves into the overarching story of Tomoya and Nagisa’s marriage, leaping across multiple points in time rather than the single continuous year of high school from the first season. Unfortunately, throughout all these episodes, although we learn quite a bit more about Tomoya and get a conclusion to his story arc, Nagisa never actually develops beyond her perpetually kind and quirky self, present from episode one. Nagisa, as a character, is completely idealized so she has no room to grow and serves only as a catalyst for Tomoya’s development and nothing else. It’s very unfortunate as Nagisa is extremely likable and the direction of the story seemingly warrants an equal partnership between its two leads but the writers were clearly more focused on developing an experience for the player and solely the player. I don’t think it came from a bad place but the writers clearly view a wife as something to be won, cherished, and protected rather than an individual with her own motivations.
As Nagisa and Tomoya grow up, they’re are faced with the issue of Nagisa’s illness, a chronic disease that has been afflicting her since she walked outside on a cold winter night to look for her parents. This revelation and the ensuing events do a great job at fleshing out Nagisa’s family, who become some of the most likable and sagely characters in the entire series, but Nagisa herself remains merely reactive to the circumstances. While she tries to finish school and be a good wife for Tomoya, that and her illness are the only parts of her character. Although Clannad attempts to write an adult story, it has a very juvenile way of looking at it.
One of the things that disappointed me the most was the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, I did not prefer the second season to the first. The tone shifted in a direction I traditionally prefer but that also brought about the loss of the quirky and fun characters, with most of the girls being little more than background dressing at this point, if even that, and Nagisa front and center with just as much depth as she had when she first appeared. While the story has a bit more meat, it loses a huge part of what made the show entertaining in the first place and largely betrays expectations in a bad way. After Story makes most of the first season seem almost entirely pointless. If they were heading in this direction, it would have been much more effective to spend time developing Nagisa’s character than focusing on the many girls who would eventually amount to nothing in the grand scope of the series.
As I mentioned, it’s not like the writing staff is against women, it seems more that they place themselves and their own problems above everyone else’s, primarily because they don’t live in those other shoes. There’s no ill intent but decisions like this serve only to alienate the audience and simplify the narrative. It’s a very small-minded way of looking at things. This results in a story that ignores the agency of the majority of the characters in favor of the protagonist’s development, which is kind of okay for a game but does not work well at all for a series.
This shift was very frustrating to me since my favorite girl overall was Tomoyo due to her fairly grounded and relatively quirkless personality. I felt her OVA was one of the most interesting and poignant romantic relationships presented by the series. It felt real. Both parties had problems and goals. They were both selfish but cared about one another. Although it was only one episode, that is the kind of romance I would love to see more in anime.
Nagisa’s relationship with Tomoya, on the other hand, is nothing short of perfect. All problems, of the few that exist, come from external forces. If left to their own devices, Tomoya and Nagisa would be the most boring and carefree couple in any fictional work. Not once in the entire series do the two of them argue or get into a fight. They always have a roof over their heads, Tomoya has a relatively steady job, and Nagisa cooks, cleans, and does what a perfect housewife is expected to do. There is no conflict in this marriage and that’s exactly what leads Nagisa to feel like such a bland character, no matter how adorable she manages to constantly be. We know Tomoya. We’ve seen all sides of him, good and bad. I do wish Tomoya himself was a bit of a more tragic character, but he is still a very interesting lead for this type of anime. Without someone to bounce off of, everything comes off as bland, dry, and safe.
Instead of internal struggles, Nagisa’s illness is the driving force of the main conflict in the series and what most of After Story spends its time on. After years of marriage, Nagisa has been getting sicker and sicker, which obviously takes a toll on Tomoya. This is a very realistic and relatable dilemma, but the problem is that it’s not very interesting. Instead of taking this time to explore what makes the couple’s relationship work and what doesn’t, stretching their love for one another to the absolute limit, Clannad chooses to present an entirely external and unstoppable force to batter our two leads. No one can do anything about this disease and Tomoya is forced to watch his beloved slowly fade away after years of fighting. This recenters the story entirely around Tomoya, framing the whole situation as, once again, not a problem that the couple has to work together to overcome, but another stepping stone in Tomoya’s development.
And that’s what’s truly sad about this anime. I had heard that this was a tearjerker. There is no way anyone with a soul can possibly sit through all of Clannad without crying. I did. Rather, I should say I had a pretty hard time mustering any real emotion for this. Mind you, I’m the kind of guy who cries to random Steven Universe episodes, but not for this. I almost feel bad admitting it. I do like Nagisa as a person and I don’t enjoy talking so badly about her at length but, with the way she was written, she is largely responsible for this show not reaching the ambitious heights it set out for itself. Maybe if the audience had been made to care about Nagisa as much as Tomoya did, then this would be one of the best anime of all time. In fact, in that situation, there would also be far more conflict between the couple itself, since I can’t imagine liking someone who doesn’t seem to hold a personal opinion on anything other than The Big Dango Family. Diminishing Nagisa’s character when she and Tomoya should have been equals is the biggest flaw in this entire series.
This all comes to a head in the final episodes of Clannad where we finally see their child, Ushio, born shortly before Nagisa’s weak constitution gave way from childbirth. Here’s where the show really lost me. Entering this final arc, every single thing I came to Clannad for is gone. Not only are there no more wacky, schoolyard hijinks but, at this point, the once likable Tomoya is completely insufferable, having become a neglectful and uncaring father, much as he perceived his own for his entire life.
This was clearly done with a purpose. The creators want the viewer to understand his emotions and his parallels with his father, Naoyuki, but we don’t. Maybe if we cared about Nagisa as much as he did, we would but, as things are, we do not. This is now a character who is drinking, moping around, and neglecting his own daughter. I wouldn’t need to sympathize with him if I could at least understand his actions but the problem is I don’t. I understand needing some time away from it all to deal with the loss of a loved one but this man abandoned his daughter for five years. Now this just makes me question if he ever loved Nagisa at all, because I’m pretty sure she would not be okay with that. By now, Tomoya has reached the heights of selfish entitlement. I cannot imagine being someone who can relate to him and yet the show expects the viewer to do so regardless.
This leads to the final confrontation between Tomoya and his father where most of the series’ conflict is wrapped up. Throughout the show, Tomoya has always been at odds with Naoyuki ever since the death of his mother. Their tense relationship led Tomoya to believe his father was passive and spineless, largely ignoring his problems, which caused the distancing of the two from one another and Tomoya’s eventual departure from his home to live with Nagisa’s family. Now that Tomoya has stepped into his father’s shoes, having lost his wife and coming to ignore his own child because of it, he decides to take a trip with Ushio and winds up encountering his grandmother along the way.
As they talk, Tomoya slowly comes to the realization that Naoyuki cared about him all along and his careless attitude was a consequence of the exhaustion and loneliness weighing heavily on his heart. In fact, Naoyuki had been there for most of Tomoya’s life, helping him when it really counted and sacrificing everything for the sake of his family. Tomoya, playing the part of the ignorant and selfish son, never realized this until now. This forces Tomoya to reconsider his entire life and all of his decisions until this point. He vows to make amends with Naoyuki and be a good parent in his own right.
Tomoya’s relationship with his father has always been in the background of the series, surfacing at key moments but not being fully revealed or expounded upon until this moment. Although this manages to be a good turning point for Tomoya’s backward development, the way the entire arc was handled was sloppy and, again, favors Tomoya’s perspective as the protagonist. This may have worked a bit better in the game, really putting the player in Tomoya’s oblivious point of view, but in the anime, it makes Tomoya out to be a nearly saintly protagonist with an uncaring father for most of the show, only to reverse the situation by revealing the truth. This avoids any major conflict or emotional depth between the two characters. By going from one extreme to the other, Tomoya is never faced with a difficult choice, he simply loathes his father or accepts him. There is no in-between. There is no moment in which the viewer does not side with Tomoya. Since the information is revealed to both parties at once, it makes the situation very cut and dry. How much more interesting would it have been if we had known from the beginning that Naoyuki cared for his son but suffered from serious emotional problems, while Tomoya ungratefully lashed out due to feeling neglected but tried to keep his heart in the right place? That’s tough. There are no sides. That’s what real people are like.
Clannad’s biggest problem is its unwillingness to deal with any major conflicts. Characters rarely get mad at one another, suffer massive failures, or have major flaws. Everyone coasts through life, perfectly content with their situation, running into only minor or unchallengeable conflict. And anytime a character is forced into conflict, it tends to resolve itself with minimal effort. This anime seemingly attempts to portray real life, but reality is not this clean and safe.
The end of the series comes shortly after Tomoya’s reconciliation with his father and daughter. All is well for a moment but, much like her mother before her, Ushio succumbs to a similarly unknown illness and Tomoya is left alone and devastated once more, having finally believed he could be happy with his family. Throughout the series, characters have sometimes implied that the town is somehow alive and has a mysterious force that guides certain events. This, along with short scenes of a young girl and a dilapidated robot on a desolate planet, insinuates that there is some magical power at work behind the events of this series. Light shards are formed when people accomplish good deeds for one another and Tomoya has been unknowingly collecting these throughout the entire story. The power of these shards allows him to go back to the start of all this and reject the entire situation, reject his first meeting with Nagisa to avoid all of the pain and hardship that came from their life together. After a bafflingly long deliberation, Tomoya, of course, chooses his life with Nagisa, reinforcing the values of love, family, and friendship even in the most painful of times and resulting in the resurrecting of Nagisa and Ushio due to the influence of the light shards on the events across time.
The implication here is that all of Tomoya’s regrets, about his school, his town, his father, his friends, had all been weighing him down and that he should embrace life wholeheartedly and love the people around him unconditionally. After all, most people don’t get to make these choices again but Tomoya did because of his love. This is actually a perfect message for Clannad and works very well both as an ending and to wrap up all of the major events in the series. That is why I say this series should have been better. It had a lot to of good things to say and knew how to say them well, but it dropped the ball a few too many times to reach the level of masterpiece it so often seems to receive. How much more earned would this ending have felt if the characters had been more real and grounded and really fought for their victory?
Clannad insists on successively undermining the potential depth of all of its characters in direct service to its protagonist, a trait commonly found in many of its successors. That can easily result in an entertaining and fun show, but rarely an emotionally complex story about real, flawed people. Unfortunately, Clannad succumbs the very ideas it pioneered so successfully, caught between its perfect escaping and the harsh uncertainties of reality. When most of the cast serves to make the player feel better about themselves, it becomes very difficult to write a narrative where all of these characters can matter on their own, even when one of them rises to the status of temporary deuteragonist.
In the end, Clannad undermines its primary goals and most of its major characters by playing to the desires of the viewers and the writers. It winds up being a not quite disposable yet not fully satisfying gaze into how a teenage boy sees relationships and familial bonds. However, despite all of its flaws, this show still has a strong heart and, although it misses a few beats, the tone, writing, and message elevate it beyond just the sum of its parts.