As Time Changes – Clannad #1
Note: I am working with two copies of Clannad: one with lackluster image quality and one with a lackluster translation. The images in this series will be from the copy with less terrible image quality, and as such there may be discrepancies between quotations and subtitles shown.
The first time I wrote about Clannad for this blog, I mentioned how I wanted to give the story the attention it deserved in a series of posts. I wasn’t ready for such a project at the time and–in fact–I’m probably not ready for it now either. Yet, I want to get to work on it. However long it takes me. To be fair, I am compromising a bit. My original plan was to focus on the visual novel–a form that would take me much longer to parse and would make cataloging/accessing relevant quotes and screenshots much more cumbersome. Time just doesn’t allow for that right now.
You’ll have to settle for ~50 individual episodes instead.
In many ways, Clannad is a story that I have grown up with, and that I’m sure I have yet to finish growing up with. Being able to rediscover the story across multiple media has certainly encouraged that relationship, as has the range of the plot’s timeline itself. I’ve been able to rediscover Clannad as I “rediscover” myself (but more on that eventually). I’ve also found myself discovering Clannad elsewhere–across visual novels and anime. The anime adaptation is perhaps the flagship of the Key and KyoAni collaborations, growing out of and pushing forward the KyoAni style and structure that has proved too influential to ignore.
All of this is important and we’ll get to the details in due time. However, the above is moreso a brief explanation of why this series of posts has come about. We need to lay some groundwork first. After all, we have plenty of episodes to work through. Perhaps your anticipation at getting to some of the nitty-gritty details will mirror my anxiety at having to write 50 posts for one show. Thankfully, I do enjoy writing about the story and (if you’re planning on reading all the posts) you must enjoy reading about it. Despite whatever changes may come by the time I finish, we can still love this story.
And that’s what this first post is all about. Clannad opens with a complex sequence of monologues–though I would argue they are, in fact, two disembodied halves of a dialogue. Tomoya narrates the opening shots, melancholic in his description of daily life. The sentence that begins our story–”I hate this town”–is a key component of his character but also of the emotional register of Clannad as a whole. Although this emotion won’t be spelled out so concretely at many other points in the story, we will find that it is subtly governing many of the conflicts in the show, and is an emotional thesis that all of the characters and resolutions interrogate.
Instead of “emotional thesis,” we might call it a perspective or a mind state. I think such terms are inadequate, but I’ll explain why in due time. If we want to temporarily consider it a mind state for simplicity’s sake, that’s fine. For now, what matters is how this emotion compares to Nagisa’s love for her school. Both her love and Tomoya’s hate come parceled with beliefs about the passage of time and the changes such passage brings. Tomoya “wonder[s] if anything will ever change.” The days repeat, each the same as the last, suggesting that he will continue to hate the town as long as the days remain the same.
In a sense, Nagisa provides a counterargument or alternate perspective. She loves the school, but no matter how much love she has for it, “everything changes, eventually.” Taken in isolation, we might react to Tomoya’s thoughts by saying his outlook on life is why nothing seems to change for him. He repeats the same loathsome days because he thinks too negatively to change them. However, Nagisa’s words complicate the issue. For her, change is itself something negative. Change is a threat to her love and arrives in spite of her love. The fun and happy things she desires fade away because of change. Tomoya believes change is the way out of an undesirable situation, but Nagisa believes it is the destruction of a desirable situation.
These words that appear to be monologues–Tomoya’s narration and Nagisa “speaking to someone in her heart”–are soon put directly in conversation with one another. Nagisa asks, as a bridge between their perspectives, as a challenge to their dilemmas, whether you can “still love this place.” Whether change refuses to come when you want it or insists on coming when you don’t want it–can you still love this place? Tomoya’s answer of “find[ing] other fun and happy things” can be applied as a solution to both of their dilemmas. If what you used to love about a place is gone, go find something else to love about it. If you hate what your life is in a place, go find something you can love instead.
Of course, nothing is that easy. Our emotional thesis cannot be dispelled that easily. We still have a lot left to understand, like how time can seem to be at a standstill even as the world changes around us. We still have a lot left to do, as the language of their dialogue suggests. Nagisa says “even so,” implying a resistance to some force. Tomoya suggests “just go,” implying motivated action. Actually upholding resistance and employing action is a difficult task. The last words of the opening sequence affirm this: we’re embarking on a “long, long, uphill climb.”
Our first glimpse of the Illusory World poses more questions about time, change, and life. As our robot narrator informs us, this is a place where time does not pass and there is no birth or death. This is as troublesome to interpret as Nagisa and Tomoya’s “dialogue” for many of the same reasons. Here, time is absent. It does not repeat in a boring cycle or chug along and mercilessly change the world. In exchange, we’re presented with an apparent positive outcome and an apparent negative outcome: nothing old disappears, nothing new appears. It is hard to look at the lack of birth and claim the world is tragic, for nothing has to die either. Yet, it is also hard to say a lack of death is ultimately a good thing (or that a lack of birth is ultimately a bad thing).
This is also a world of contradictions within its own logic. Nothing new is supposed to be born into this world, but our narrator still has consciousness in and of this world (and we will see they are more concretely born into the world in future episodes–though that is yet another form of compromise, since the voice is born as a machine). The girl also exists as a contradiction. She is “living alone in a world that has ended,” which surely would mean the world couldn’t have ended. It couldn’t be “empty.” If this were a different kind of essay, we could go in an ontological direction, wondering whether this girl could have “existed” before the narrator was conscious of her…but we won’t worry about that. We will simply pause at the narrator’s conclusion: he is “bothered” by the girl. No doubt he is bothered by the same questions and contradictions that we are.
As we leave the Illusory World and its mysteries behind, we’re treated to our first real look at Tomoya’s boring school life. Except it’s not so boring.
The slife-of-life, school days romcom aspects of Clannad would seem to undermine its temporal themes, but that’s not quite the case. In fact, they’re essential to developing those themes. Their effect is more obvious (arguably more effective) in the visual novel, but they certainly work in the anime as well. Not to mention they’re a lot of fun either way. I’ll take the time to expand on my argument in future posts, but let’s take a break to appreciate some KyoAni magic for now.
As you’d expect from this studio, this first scene of the Fujibayashi sisters is full of flair. So much of the character animation throughout the series is legendary in my eyes despite being completely mundane. Kyou tugging on Tomoya’s tie and then letting it slip through her fingers is so visually appealing, catchy to the eye in the same way a song’s chorus is catchy to the ear. I think animation like this is why new watchers of anime tend to develop a particular fondness for their first KyoAni show (assuming they don’t dislike the studio’s style in general). It’s like candy animation.
This dedication to detail in animation carries over to the framing, staging, and other aspects of cinematography and direction as well. A fun example to keep an eye on throughout the show is how Kyou and Ryou are depicted whenever they’re in the same shot. Although they’re canonically the same height (technically Ryou is a bare centimeter shorter), Kyou appears clearly taller than her twin in virtually every shot. Sometimes she simply has better posture than Ryou and sometimes the camera shoots her from angles that make her look taller, but she’s always higher in the frame. It’s a neat and logical way to suggest her identity as the “older” and (seemingly) more capable and collected sister.
Back in the main narrative, Tomoya meets up with Nagisa again and they have a similar conversation to their encounter, some sentences repeated word-for-word. However, instead of leaving her thoughts at a vague “everything changes,” she personalizes her fears and expresses them in terms of her current situation. The fun and happy things she’s lost are her old “friends [she] could talk to and teacher [she] was close with.”
Their dialogue (no quotations needed this time) builds upon the investigation of time and change we had engaged in at the start of the episode. First, there is the issue of Nagisa missing most of the previous school year. She is literally absent and thus does not graduate with all the other students who are “on her time” so to speak. We could consider this a stalling of Nagisa’s time, and the world changes around her even as she’s stuck in place. Yet, there is the second issue. Nagisa is a “repeater” who has to retake her third year to graduate.
I believe there is an important distinction between time being “stopped” and “repeated,” and that a lot of what is at stake in this dialogue is a question of what side of that distinction Nagisa falls on. Where does inevitable change occur? In repeated time or stopped time? Or both? Again, we encounter a semantic contradiction if Nagisa is tortured by change in her repeated schooldays while Tomoya is tortured by stagnation in his. Obviously, we can’t tackle those questions in any satisfying way yet. That’s what the whole story is going to be dedicated to. And naturally, the questions are only going to get more complicated as we go on.
On that note, I think we should wait for more answers (or analysis) alongside our characters. I can’t go burning through all my thoughts on the first post! That being said, there is a whole lot I want to address about the abandoned drama clubroom and Nagisa’s family at some point. The latter will easily find a place in some future post, but the clubroom may require an auxiliary post or perhaps saved to provide substance to After Story’s filler episode. In any case, we’ll return here.
We’ll also return to Clannad itself soon enough. Seeing all of the gears in action has me excited to keep watching and writing. I hope I can adequately express my love as we go on and dig into future episodes. I’ll see you for our next step on the long, long, climb.