Time on My Side (A Clannad Analysis)
I’ve been trying to find a way to write about Clannad in a concise manner for a while. What I really want to look at is the visual novel as a whole, but that’s a project for the future (not to mention I still need to 100% it…). Luckily, I found something we can talk about quickly that still pokes at some larger, more interesting themes of the series as a whole. For our purposes, the Tomoyo OVA from After Story provides the series’ most concise glimpse into Clannad’s trademark storytelling.
Repetition, cycles, and time’s tug-of-war between change and constancy are all major themes in Clannad. These themes are even more prominent in the visual novel (and even more fascinating given the narrative structure of most visual novels), but they’re certainly present in the anime, too. Clannad makes brilliant use of foreshadowing through both its dialogue and symbols to portray life as a cycle of emotions and changes. These cycles build in meaning and intensity until we reach a dramatic climax. Let’s figure out how that happens in Tomoyo’s arc.
Somewhat obviously, Tomoya’s joke about breaking up hints to his upcoming actual break-up with Tomoyo. In the visual novel, he makes this joke several times, and always mends whatever sadness the joke brings out in Tomoyo. Due to time constraints, we only hear the joke once during the episode, but it’s enough to plant the idea in our mind that these two characters might have to break up. The anime doesn’t build the tension of ‘Why would you say that?!’ as effectively without as many repetitions of this dialogue, but, upon rewatch, this scene certainly gives off a foreboding vibe.
That’s a decent introduction, but we can do better (and so can Clannad).
Being that this is the anime adaptation, there is some purely visual foreshadowing as well. One important pattern this episode is a number of shots of Tomoyo/a sitting or standing side-by-side. This cycle of sitting/standing very effectively builds the tension as we approach the drama of the actual break-up. Let’s take a look at how their placement in the frame (and some editing) foreshadows the conclusion of this cycle. Early on, the pair sits intimately together, supporting one another. This fits the current state of their relationship as lovebirds.
However, once the audience learns their relationship is causing issues for Tomoyo’s goals as student council president, they sit further apart. Tomoya leans away from Tomoyo, winding up in the shadows while Tomoyo sits in the light. This is the first sign of their crumbling relationship. As they continue to sit side-by-side, we’ll see that relationship creep closer and closer to doom.
That previous shot fades into a shot where the pair remains separated, but now Tomoyo faces the opposite direction as Tomoya. This is literally a turning point for Tomoya. This is when he begins to believe he is dragging Tomoyo down, and that they’ll have to break up for her sake. Tomoyo faces out towards the expansive world while Tomoya dejectedly stares at the gray school building. Tomoyo is destined for greatness, while Tomoya doesn’t believe he’ll do anything but stay stuck in this town. He believes they’re meant to walk two separate paths, a worry made quite apparent in this shot.
In the last side-by-side shot of them before they break up, the pair never quite makes physical contact. Tomoyo has to leave before they can kiss, leaving Tomoya sitting alone in the shadowy frame. The cycle grows grimmer with every repetition. The couple falls from cuddling to leaning away to facing opposite directions to leaving each other entirely. As you might expect, Tomoyo is the one to move out of the frame as Tomoya remains seated.
I mentioned symbolism, so we can’t ignore the two ice cream casualties of this episode. During the Founder’s Festival, Tomoyo sneaks away with Tomoya to share an ice cream, which represents their relationship/time together. In the end, they can’t share the ice cream and Tomoyo leaves it with Tomoya. Tomoya then drops the cone on the ground as he’s forced to confront his belief that he isn’t a good match for Tomoyo. This is the moment he decides to break up with her, to ruin the ice cream (which sounds dumb now that I type it, but it’s too late for regrets).
The anime changed the second ice cream to a crepe for some reason, but there’s clearly some kind of ice cream melting out the bottom of the crepe. Regardless, Tomoya breaks up with Tomoyo, and he’s once again left alone in the shadows. Instead of dropping the ice cream/relationship on the ground this time, he holds onto it as long as he can. He takes a bite of it, and his memories of the relationship torment him as he takes one last taste of being with Tomoyo—a taste so sweet that he cries knowing it’s gone. The last time he sits with Tomoyo is the most painful.
A joke that worries Tomoyo eventually hurts her deep. Sitting side-by-side decays from the strongest evidence of a couple’s love to the most obvious sign they’re no longer together. An ice cream that couldn’t be held up is eventually savored as a bittersweet memory. But do the moments we repeat day after day and year after year only lead us to loss—the ending of cycles we wished would never end? Well, as every arc in Clannad teaches us, if we continue to move forward—even past the points where our repeated loss reaches its peak—we can find something worth all the pain. If we endure, there will always be fun and happy things waiting for us. There will be someone by our side once again.