With the Clannad visual novel getting released on Steam today, let’s look at the only time I’ve ever really been kind to the transition between visual novel to anime, shall we?
Whilst I have many problems with anime that come from the hands of visual novel writers, my main problem is that they always feel like the writers came up with the set pieces and character types first and then strung a plot around it. And as impressive as those individual elements may be, you can’t carry an entire series on them alone for the same reason you can’t carry it on just animation. That may work in a video game where the excellent interactivity can carry you through some semi-major plot failings (the Tomb Raider reboot comes to mind), but in an anime, it’s fucking jarring and it gets old real fast. Oh, and they’re never funny. So if anybody wants to know why I don’t like Zvezda, Classroom Crisis, Charlotte, and whatever the fuck that Plastic Memories thing was, that’s why.
Basically, I like plot and story to go hand-in-hand. And in most visual novel anime (and most anime for that matter), plot and story seem to be taking turns in a game of Monopoly with “story” being lousy at playing the game. Whilst there may be one or two other exceptions to the rule, Toei’s Key films are probably the only visual novel adaptations I’ve watched in where it feels like stuff is actually happening on a constant basis, which is part of the reason why I have a certain fondness for them. Other reasons include decent characterization that drives the story, having some fucking closure to something major without any chance of a sequel, and (most of all) the drama actually being kinda good. But then again, it’s Osamu Dezaki. Saying his drama is good at this point in time is like saying Ikuhara anime are delightfully quirky.
So the Clannad film shares the same plot beats you know from the series – Tomoya meeting Nagisa on a hill, him having a bum shoulder, having a kid with Nagisa, Nagisa going to heaven, etc. etc. – and we see everything through Tomoya’s eyes, but they’re executed very differently here in the same way Majora’s Mask is different from Ocarina of Time despite having so much in common. The story actually takes place during the After Story portion where Tomoya is going through a rainy depression, causing him to have an hour-long flashback to his school life as he narrates about the girl who would become his wife and how the two got to know each other over time and how they meet other characters along the way and all the other expected beats you’d expect from a shoujo romance as depicted by Makoto Shinkai.
Through the use of this narrative trick, Clannad maintains a large amount of focus as we follow a guy through his self-defeating journey towards adulthood with the relationship as a central focus not unlike 5 Cm/s. But there’s more to this narrative trick than summarizing the story in ninety minutes or resembling the most critically acclaimed romance anime of all-time. Said change to how to tell the Clannad story actually evolves into a magnifying glass that really sheds a whole new light on that “dating sim” style of storytelling that was popular around the early-to-mid 00s and that Clannad happened to bring to an inexplicably popular level even before it became an anime. In that sense, it’s basically Monogatari if Monogatari wasn’t fucking boring, padded, meme-grabbing, hypocritical trash.
Let’s face it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the whole “boy saving girl” thing and the reverse is true as well as long as they don’t make the characters to be cocky bitches whilst doing so. Wish-fulfillment like that is present in some of the most epic and well-revered of classic dramas and just because they tend to have better characterization shouldn’t excuse that fact. I’m still calling bullshit on Ushio and Tora’s flimsy justification on why the characters at the center of most of the episodic conflicts happen to be young females who have a tendency to not keep their clothes safe whenever a monster appears in their vicinity. Yes, it came from a different time than stuff like Green Green or Da Capo, but that doesn’t exempt it from criticism when it gets adapted in present-day, especially given the other changes the creators are doing in order to cram over thirty volumes worth of material into 39 episodes.
By directing Clannad like one of his 80s classics with all the split-screens and sakura petals and tributes to other 80s-90s anime romance dramas and even the artstyle, Dezaki is saying that in theory, the source material’s premise is no less stupid than say Aim for the Ace. I mean let’s face the truth: all dramas are emotionally manipulative in the same manner that all skunks smell bad or all Uwe Boll movies are godawful. But as Jean-Luc Godard once said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” No, there’s nothing wrong with Nagisa existing just to be an emotional support whose main role is to die in order to have a baby. Lara’s crew in the Tomb Raider reboot pretty much exist to die in order to be a part of her character development. Do we complain about that? Well okay, some do, but I very much doubt most people who like the game are fans of Maeda.
But at the same time, this movie is aware of how fucking stupid the VN adaptation boom was, and still is to a degree, and whilst it doesn’t hate it (why else would Kotomi get a two-second cameo as a band conductor in this film?), it can’t help but poke fun at it by vastly changing the character roles. In this interpretation, Tomoya is basically the Key girl that needs help because he’s an entirely reactionary character who mostly just gets lead around by Nagisa, Sunohara, and whoever else managed to make it into this film, and most of the crying aspects fall on him. Oh and he’s voiced by Kenji Nojima, which can be a bit off-putting if you’re used to Yuuichi Nakamura’s pimp voice – but given he also voiced Tatsuya from Mahouka, I think a fair amount of people won’t mind at all.
There’s more gender diversity in this iteration since a bunch of the girls got excluded whilst all the important male characters get to stay, and they all have lives separate from Tomoya regardless of their sex. Most of them show up because someone Tomoya knows is closely associated with ’em, rather than being close with Tomoya personally. But at the same time, they’re still the most important aspect of the story. Just in a different way that acknowledges the visual novel story’s love for quirky supporting cast members to make our hero feel more important whilst being a middle-finger to the power-fantasy/sexist elements that said medium is most famous for. Without wishing to spoil anything, the ending of this film is drastically different from the series in that it ends with the cast reuniting to take the story in their hands one last time in a way that really got to me. My love of Saturday Night Fever’s ending is all but well-documented at this point, and I think this film plays what I like about said ending with a take on the power of friendship/family formula that works.
With all that said, even if you don’t appreciate or believe the whole meta-narrative thing I think this film goes for, the Clannad movie still functions well as a standard romance drama about a boy meeting a girl, falling in love with her over a shared dream that is admittedly woven into the narrative as elegantly as a crocodile is woven into Swan Lake, realizing he hasn’t grown up once he loses her, and taking the first step towards being an adult when he’s forced to confront his hypocrisy head-on. As I said earlier, Toei’s version automatically has the advantage over every other visual novel anime ever by having the characters make stuff happen on a regular basis and not having said stuff consist of nothing more than a bunch of disjointed setpieces and character types. Two automatic gold stars in this accursed genre, amirite? It also helps that Nagisa stays dead in this version and all the characters take themselves seriously for the most part, rarely pausing the story for a minute to show off some stupid quirk.
Sunohara definitely comes off a lot better in this version of the story, that’s for sure. In the more popular iterations of Clannad, he was an obnoxious idiot who kept challenging girls to fights and abandoning his sister over a misunderstanding whose very concept was so retarded I’m not even sure how it made it past the editing stage. But in this iteration, he’s a lot more mature – as well as a bit more monkey-like, but he got a few laughs out of me so I let it slide. From getting a job in order to support his family to beating up a bunch of students who were invalidating Nagisa’s posters, this is the kind of friend you want by your side, even though he commits acts of public urination from time-to-time. And the other characters are fine for the most part. Tomoyo and Kyou could have been extradited without changing the story in any significant way and I can’t say I’m a big fan of Nagisa’s childishness even though she’s a more proactive character here, but some things just never change.
I’ve heard a lot of people dismiss this thing as a summary film – which wouldn’t make sense considering it came out a few weeks before the series did – but there’s way more going on in this adaptation than just adapting all the Nagisa parts whilst everyone else’s story can all get run over by a lawnmower. But labels aside, this particularly summary film does what many people consider to not be possible and make Clannad good. I say it makes it great.
With a tightened narrative, well-rounded characters, a very 80s soundtrack that I admit to liking way more than I should, and changes to the source that show its love for the VN boom whilst criticizing its more unsavory aspects through the vein of an 80s drama, Clannad: The Motion Picture is not only the only good Key anime, but the only good VN-related anime I’ve ever seen (unless you count Psycho-Pass, which I don’t), and nothing that’s come out before or since has been able to change my mind on that. The animation is garbage, but apparently I’m the only one who doesn’t let that bother me. I like this film and I’m saddened that Dezaki had to leave us before giving us a version of Little Busters that wasn’t like having your head shoved into an oven.
- Admittedly, it’s a little hard to swallow that all the characters in this film eventually become a sort of Persona 4-esque make-shift family who’d be there for each other if you give them a call, which is exemplified in one unbearably cheesy scene where Sunohara calls everyone together for Dango karaoke, but I never said the way they’re handled is perfect.
- Does anyone know where that movie PV that showed the three girls’ names is? I can’t seem to find it.
- I find it weird that Tomoyo has a lot of concept art in the extras despite only appearing for less than ten minutes whilst Sunohara – who barely has any nonexistent screentime – doesn’t even get his own category.
- I don’t think Aikido works the way it does in this film.
- Fuck me, images taken from Youtube look awful.