More than any other company in the world, Key associated with the concept of moe. It is responsible for revolutionizing the visual novel with its heavy emphasis on tragedy and empathy. The heroines of Key games are deeply flawed (some might say too flawed), and to care for them is to feel the pain of your own existence. Their fantasies come with a price.
Kanon and Air, two of Key’s most famous works, were adapted into animated series by Kyoto Animation with great success. They remained faithful to their original source material while adapting them to fit the needs of the television series format. In 2008 they took on the third of the “Seasons” tetralogy (each major Key game takes place in a different season of the year), Clannad.
Clannad is the story of Okazaki Tomoya, a young man in his senior year of high school, whose aspirations in life have been rapidly fading away ever since he had a falling out with his father a few years ago. A chance meeting with Furukawa Nagisa, a shy, soft-spoken high school girl with a love of anthropomorphic snacks, and her desire to re-establish the defunct Drama Club puts Tomoya on the path to rediscovering what it’s like to have hopes and dreams.
The gentle Furukawa Nagisa, the starfish-obsessed Ibuki Fuuko, the introverted genius Ichinose Kotomi, the athletic and aggressive Fujibayashi Kyou, and the dangerously powerful Sakagami Tomoyo comprise the main heroines of Clannad with significant story time devoted to all of them. Behind them is an even larger cast of secondary and minor characters, chief among them being Sunohara Youhei (Tomoya’s best friend), Fujibayashi Ryou (Kyou’s twin sister), and Nagisa’s parents. However, don’t take my brief descriptors as evidence of the characters being shallow or underdeveloped. They are all given time and room to express the many facets of their characters, even the minor ones.
Delving into the characters’ pasts can at times become overly reliant on exposition, and though I am a fan of exposition in general I’ve found the best moments in the show come from when Clannad does not present you with all of the facts. The most notable example that comes to mind is a moment where Youhei, in an angry outburst, hints at the reasons why he and Tomoya became best friends. No more explanation is necessary to understand Youhei’s character at that point in the story.
Clannad is Key improved through years of experience. It doesn’t break any genre conventions, as it is still, at its heart, an anime based on a relationship-heavy visual novel, and it has its cast of cute, moe female characters, but it and the people at Kyoto Animation did try some new things to set it apart from the other Key adaptations.
Clannad, while still very much a conventional Key-style moe drama, does do a few things different from its predecessors. Aside from a few exceptions, there is less emphasis on the supernatural. Also, Kyoto Animation structured it differently compared to Kanon and Air. While there is a strong focus on each of the main heroines and the series can be divided into chapters, the girls do not suddenly stop mattering when their story arcs finish. Nagisa’s story is the most notable, as it is developed throughout the series, from episode 1 on. It clearly puts her in the position of the Clannad heroine, though based on any remote amount of information or even the events of the first episode this should not be a surprise or a spoiler to anyone.
The character designs in Clannad are much like the ones used in Kanon and Air, and they are the most prominent aspect associated with Key, even more than their penchant for supernatural tragedy. There are no surprises in this regard, though the school uniforms are much better designed compared to the ones worn in the previous two major Key works, and the spring-time setting of Clannad results in a more subtle atmosphere for backgrounds and overall artwork. The series also has a surprising amount of animation for a show so heavily based on words, but at this point it’s par for the course with Kyoto Animation.
Clannad is not entirely based in sorrow and anguish, and in many respects it is lighter on the tragedy than the previous Key series. It has more than its fair share of comedic moments, most notably with Fuuko, and it blends the lighter and heavier sides of its story with a sort of deftness that’s not easy to achieve. More than likely, this is the result of both Key and Kyoto Animation gaining experience working with these types of narratives.
If you’re not a fan of the Key-style moe, then Clannad is probably no exception. Clannad is the flavor of Key distilled and refined, and those who treasure its taste will be pleased.