The Truth Beneath The Surface: Clannad, Key, and the Romantic Fairy Tale

by eternal on April 4, 2009

clannad-after-story-finaleIn the beginning, my Clannad pictures only involved Nagisa. Then, it was Nagisa and Tomoya. Now…well, you do the math.

It was a year and a half ago that the Clannad anime began airing, introducing to English speaking fans the latest of Key’s creations in a setting that struck everyone as “sad girls in spring.” No doubt expecting something along the lines of Kanon or AIR, we hopped on the bandwagon and followed Tomoya’s adventures as he encountered a certain hesitant dango-loving girl that was having a little trouble climbing up the hill.

That was a long, long time ago.

Much has been said about the story’s conclusion, and I honestly believe that the blogosphere’s thoughts (compiled skillfully by lelangir) have covered just about every topic I can think of. Yes, I’m late to the party, but I also cannot let an ending like this slide by without saying anything. Therefore, I’ll skim past the things you know already, like how the story is about family and how the reset end feels like a cheap shot against the viewers: if you want a detailed account of the development of Tomoya’s character or a justification for the plot twist, read some of the material that’s already been written (or just check out my last post on the appeal of the show).

Hence, this post is about my take on Clannad, and the reason why my own disappointment is nothing that stands against an excellent story.

The Plot

To reach what Clannad is, I will first start with what Clannad is not.

Certainly, as I’ve previously established and as we’ve all realized, it’s not a visual novel adaptation in the truest sense of the word. Clannad is not about the moe and the escapism, but rather, uses those elements to draw the viewer in and forge a deeper connection between the viewer and the characters. Thus, unlike the Kanon ending where I was relieved at the reset because my favourite characters were alive, a reset ending harms Clannad as it takes away from the authenticity of the pain the characters felt throughout the show.

Having said that, this is where things become difficult: is Clannad slice-of-life, a story that is meant to portray the hardships of life without holding back? Or is it a fantasy, a romantic – in the traditional sense of the word – fairy-tale-esque story in which a dramatic tale is told without regards to realism? I believe that the answer to whether the reset was good or bad rests with this decision.

In my eyes, Clannad’s high point was around the middle of After Story, when the relationship between Tomoya and Nagisa was at its peak. It was the part of the series that I enjoyed the most, for whatever reason, and so my subjective opinion believes that the show should be about the lives of the two main characters and the love story that bloomed in the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, in order for the ending to work, I am forced to accept that objectively, the show is about something else entirely.

The Intention

I believe that Clannad fits into the latter of the aforementioned examples: it is a romanticized telling of a typical slice-of-life story, geared toward conveying its message to the audience rather than impressing the audience with the events on screen. As a literal telling of events, the anime does not work, as the pain of witnessing Nagisa’s death and Ushio’s almost needless death is virtually undone by the deus ex machina.

Thus, I view the story as a fairy tale – much like another fairy tale that had to incorporate fantasy elements to earn its good end. After all, do we have any idea why Chihiro regained her memory of Renji? And do we know how Yuuko managed to turn into an angel, of all things? The writers may have come up with a plausible excuse – not unlike the notion of a city using magical light balls of kindness to travel through time – but to me, the excuse doesn’t matter. Why? Simply because, in stories like these, the events take a back seat to the meaning.

Let me return to ef for a moment: why did I enjoy the show? Because of the emotional conflicts between the characters as they struggled to overcome their problems and find their way through life, yes…but also because of what their problems signified. For instance, Chihiro’s case of amnesia might not be too likely – if not impossible – in the real world, but we can all sympathize with her inability to remember the one she loves, and the pain it must have caused to read the words of her former self without feeling the emotions of her former self. Thus, do we care if her situation is plausible in the real world? Of course not! Because even if we’re not losing our memory every 13 hours, we still know what it’s like to forget things, we still know what it means, from Renji’s perspective, to want the object of our affection to remember us; by utilizing an unreal scenario, the writers have generated real feeling.

I believe that Clannad should be looked at in the same light. Was the reset impossible? Yes, it was, regardless of the fact that it can be justified. Were the emotions spent on Nagisa’s and Ushio’s deaths meaningless? In a sense, yes, because those tears were shed under the assumption that Tomoya would never be happy again. If we knew that he could have his life back with a simple change of will, then we would be encouraging him rather than grieving for him. Therefore, I don’t see Clannad as a love story nor a life story nor a tragedy – it’s still a story about life, but it defies all of the genres it might fit into by using an implausible story to create plausible, and relatable, feelings.

The Meaning

It isn’t too complicated, but my belief is that Clannad is a story that focuses on the development of Tomoya’s character, and the theme that is highlighted as he develops.

In short, Tomoya began his high school life without much direction. He had a terrible life at home and didn’t have much to be thankful for. Then, he met Nagisa and her family, and he was happy – both because Nagisa’s parents filled the hole in his heart, and because Nagisa herself was someone that he cared for and wanted to protect. The feelings generated from the development of the positive side of Tomoya’s life are true, because they show how he was able to change for the better after finding a person – and a group of people – that genuinely loved him. He even later reconciled with his father, having realized that the man meant him no harm and that it was simply a result of the tragic hand life had dealt him.

Along those same lines, as we enter the tragic side of Tomoya’s life, we see that he descends into depression. He resolves to take care of his daughter, and he struggles to get back on his feet, but eventually, the change was too much: Ushio died, and he had no reason to live. Nothing in life stays constant: just as he found friends in high school that could show him the meaning in life, he was also treated to a horrendous turn of events that stole away the things that he loved the most. The changes that occurred within him were virtually meaningless, because in the end, he still suffered – and he suffered more than he ever would have had he never met them to begin with.

…And that is where the key to the story lies. In finally realizing that his time with Nagisa was not wasted, that if he could live his life again, he would live it in the same painful way – this was the apex of the series, and the final tile in the mosaic of the main theme. Pain is intrinsic in life, much like happiness, and we cannot have one without the other. Therefore, is it right to remove happiness in order to not experience pain? Or are the feelings and experiences we gain from our loved ones enough to outweigh the inevitable pain of life? This why I call Clannad a fairy tale rather than a traditional love story: because it makes its point using two extreme futures, and ties them together using fantasy elements to prove its final point to the viewer.

The Conclusion

Kanon, as far as I can see, was all about the escapism. I wouldn’t call this a bad thing since the show is still a masterpiece in my eyes, but I believe that the development of the story and characters was not for the sake of proving a point, but rather, to provide the viewer with a heartwarming experience of tragic love that turned out to be not-so-tragic in the end. It may not be escapism in the truest sense of the word, however; I’m not thinking so much of moe as I am of a fantasy romance that is too perfect to occur in the real world. Kanon tells its story in the same way as Clannad, using implausible twists to create practical feelings, but the feelings it conjures are entirely warm and fuzzy and ultimately artificial, because the dream-like relationship between Yuuichi and Ayu is too “perfect” for the real world to tamper with.

Clannad, I believe, is similar in every way except for the issue of the main message. Instead of providing the viewer with a perfect love story, it deals with a much more general concept of our relationships with our friends and family, and the way that our bonds can hold us together through the inevitable hardships.

Ultimately, Clannad works when you ignore the literal life of Tomoya, which altered from perfect to tragic to perfect again, and when you focus on the lesson that he learned from his experience, because the theme lies within the lesson. Forget the astral projection, or the collection of diary pages, or the light balls that can save the world: what matters is the story buried underneath.

It comes down to the fact that sadness and happiness are both inherent in human life, and that neither is permanent. We fight for our happiness, yet find situations that are out of our control: we forge bonds with our friends and family, yet encounter obstacles that are too great to cross. And yet, it is the acceptance of pain that allows us the greatest pleasures, because without accepting the possibility of pain, what chance to we have of being happy?

Those light balls might seem weak by themselves, but human feelings are a powerful thing – and while they might not be able to bring back the dead in the real world, they have the power to change lives nonetheless, and without them, our lives would be meaningless. The orbs collected by Tomoya saved his life – and the bonds we form with our peers can save ours, too. It’s the simple nature of human existence, the ubiquitous truth that will always remain: to live is to suffer, but in accepting that suffering, we’re also granted a chance at happiness.

And, in discovering that his sadness would be bearable if only he could experience that bliss again, Tomoya was granted the life that he deserved all along. It may not be possible in the real world, but then again, what fairy tale is? Instead, it warms our hearts with a positive final message, and most importantly, it rings true, because every day – in small, irrelevant, and less dramatic ways – we have to make decisions just like he did, and it’s only through accepting the sadness of life that we’re able to keep on living. Tomoya’s story is our story, and it strikes me as the greatest possible amalgamation between sugary sweet fantasy and harsh reality.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sorrow-kun April 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm

After all, do we have any idea why Chihiro regained her memory of Renji?

Err… yes, basically because Chihiro couldn’t stop thinking about Renji for long enough to forget him permanently. At first she was remembering him and after that she was remembering her memories of remembering him, etc, etc. I thought that was a reasonable enough explanation.

About Clannad AS, to be honest, I don’t like this interpretation for a couple of reasons. This is basically the interpretation that Tomoya had to experience suffering before he was allowed to experience happiness, but the question was, what divine force was responsible for his suffering in order to teach him this life lesson: the city. And what caused the city to change its mind from being cruel and vindictive to Tomoya to deciding he’d suffered enough and giving him his family back. The fact that this is a theme-driven fairytale. Yuck! You can see why many people who come to this interpretation would absolutely despise the ending, right? It feels unnecessarily cruel and almost insulting.

I offered my own alternative interpretation in which the city was always trying to help Tomoya and his family all along, but didn’t have enough power to do so because of what was happening to it, until Tomoya collected enough light orbs to have his wish granted. I like this interpretation a lot better, since it doesn’t rely on the city being so inconsistent and overly cruel, and it has more meaning, IMO, because of that. (Not that I think it’s a fool-proof interpretation… if you can spot something wrong with it, feel free to point it out).


Persocom April 4, 2009 at 10:09 pm

I had to skip the bit about ef, because I haven’t watched any of that, but I do think your interpretation on Clannad AS is a good one. Even the Fuko arc from the first Clannad hints towards a fairy tale. I’m married and I have a 5 year old son, so Clannad really hit me deep. I felt as if I could feel Tomoyo’s pain and understand his feelings all along. I cried and I laughed and I felt warmth in my heart from watching through it all. I wasn’t disappointed in the ending at all, it gives a message that carries on even now for me. If anything I’m just sad to see it all over.

Persocoms last blog post..Kanako Ohno 1/8 PVC by GoodSmile Company


A Day Without Me April 5, 2009 at 2:44 pm

You’ve hit upon it almost perfectly – that Clannad~After Story~’s end didn’t render the entire thing moot and didn’t operate merely as a cheap cop-out via the writers’ collective desire to remain faithful to the original visual novel. Everyone keeps complaining about it, and, yes, I feel a wee bit cheated myself, but it really didn’t destroy the heart of the story at all… so its really nice to see someone NOT bashing it for once =)

A Day Without Mes last blog post..Anime That Made Me Cry


moritheil April 6, 2009 at 2:40 am

Clannad tries to have its cake and eat it too. I suspect that one’s analysis actually shows a lot about one’s personal tastes in anime, or in storytelling – those who are sympathetic to this sort of “perfect, then tragic, then perfect again” shell game are willing to look at underlying intentions, whereas those who disliked the reset are offended that it didn’t play by the rules.

Of course, I have no evidence for this. Maybe I should fire up the lelangiric portal and tally up blogger attitudes and reviews.


lelangir April 7, 2009 at 12:11 am

>>It isn’t too complicated, but my belief is that Clannad is a story that focuses on the development of Tomoya’s character, and the theme that is highlighted as he develops.

I was thinking about that – and other people mirrored your thoughts – but there’s a significant difference between the VN mechanics. Time travel, or skipping over to a parallel universe? Well, whichever you choose, it’s important that Tomoya retains his conciousness/memories. Otherwise, even the character development within the narrative chronology is lost. That’s not good – but it also indicates that the viewer’s own psychological attachment to a character that undergoes developmental regression cannot be lost (what I meant by “reflexivity” in that THAT post), thus this, IMO, is the most important aspect.

lelangirs last blog post..Megumi Nakajima Live DVD: “Megumi Nakajima Spring Event 2009~Mamegu da Wasshoi! Haru Matsuri in Akasaka Blitz”


ETERNAL April 12, 2009 at 10:15 pm

@ Sorrow-kun: I found your interpretation through anitations, and while it makes sense from a logical perspective, I found that the reset end stopped me from seeing the show logically to begin with. Put simply, I have trouble buying into twists like this (and the ones in ef, and Kanon, and many visual novels) – I can never seem to view a story logically if it uses illogical plot twists, especially when it does so near the end. I’m fine with the concept of Servants in F/SN since they’re part of the story, but I didn’t care for the reasoning behind Shirou’s ability to break his spine and get tossed across a room and still survive: as far as I’m concerned, it’s little more than an easy way to allow for more dramatic battles.

Therefore, I try to find the meaning behind the illogical nature of the plot. Why do the Type-Moon guys never die even though they’re not all that different from humans? Because it’s the only way to make the battles more exciting. And since that’s an acceptable reason in my eyes, I’m fine with it. Likewise, the reset end in Clannad bothered me because it negated many of the feelings I built up throughout the series – instead, I had to figure out what the writer way trying to say, and I think I came to a fairly reasonable conclusion.

Is my answer right? Technically, no, because it pretty much all came out of my head and isn’t based on tangible evidence. However, I lost interest in trying to make sense out of how the reset end occurred and why it makes sense. I got more enjoyment out of the show by thinking about how the themes fit together, and I wrote the post accordingly. Your interpretation makes sense when it comes to figuring out how and why things happened the way they did, but I suppose that was never my goal to begin with.

@ Persocomsan: I’ll definitely miss it too. The show vastly exceeded my expectations, which is saying something since I was enjoying it since the first season, and the ending was bittersweet in more ways than one. I can only hope that Key has been keeping up their quality with Little Busters and Rewrite.

@ A Day Without Me: The heart of the story…now that’s a nice way of putting it. When it comes down to it, I guess that’s what this post was really about; I just didn’t realize it until now :P

@ moritheil: Well said. The fact that I loved the story is what allowed me to overlook its flaws and search for a deeper meaning – had the show made less of an impact on me, I might have simply dismissed the ending as a failure, like I did for Mai HiME. And yes, I agree that personal opinion always makes its way into analyses, but I see it as a good thing; I always have more fun reading passionate posts than purely objective ones ;P

@ lelangir: You’ve got a good point there. After reading some of the posts you linked to, I figured out how the whole light ball thing worked in the VN, and it started to make a lot more sense. When it comes down to it, I’d say that the viewer’s psychological connection is ultimately more important since the viewer is the one that has to be impressed in the end (like how erasing a character’s memories has very little impact on the viewer unless the story elaborates on its effects), but it’s good to know that the game took care of the story’s narrative. The whole time travel idea was out of place in the anime, which caused a lot of alarm, but within the context of the game, it makes sense: Tomoya never lost his memories, and was thus allowed to make different decisions based on his experiences in his past lives.


bonmat April 16, 2009 at 11:13 am

I really dont like the ending of Clannad After because I also a Fan of Tragedy. What did i cry for ??? KyoAni can make a sad ending and it will be better, but why ?? I had waited so long for the end of Clannad After, for a ultimate the end like AIR. And now you can see…..

PS : sorry for my very bad english but i want to talk with you :D


caleblawrence May 28, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Yeah, I’m sure you have probably read this by now but:

This anime was anything but “deus ex machina.” Tomoya really did go through all those things and if he didn’t go through them with courage then the wish at the end could not have come true.

Also, they explain that in the anime but it wasn’t as in depth. Ushio clearly said in the illusionary world that if she could collect a lot of them then she could grant a big wish. “I figured out how the whole light ball thing worked in the VN” – this makes no sense because they explained it in the anime. It’s not like it’s an exclusive thing just in the visual novel .

So, I think you were not informed going into this review….


Skyhawk August 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Just wanted to drop in from the future to say that while since the article is about the clannad ending obviously it will have clannad spoilers, no where did u warn that there would be spoilers for other anime!!!!!


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