As Time Changes – Clannad #2
Welcome back to our long climb. I have no doubt in my mind that the hardest part of this project will be thinking up new introductions for each post. Well, at least I’ve gotten this one out of the way.
Last time, we opened up a lot of puzzle boxes about the relationships between time, change, life, and death. Our characters are going to be working through these puzzles all story long, trying to sort out their own feelings towards these topics as we make our own interpretations. Behind all of this is an emotional thesis: “I hate this town.” I had begun to clarify that “town” shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. The “town” in question is more than just a location with geographical borders and city ordinances, etc. As we’ve already heard from Tomoya himself, part of what the “town” encompasses is the idea of his school days–their repetitive, boring nature that serves as nothing but a brief respite from his home life.
We’ll flesh out our idea of the “town” just as we build up our understanding of those puzzles I mentioned.
Now that we’re oriented, we see that Episode 2 begins where the first left off. Nagisa proposes to take Tomoya to “the place in town where wishes come true.” Obviously, there is more to these words than Nagisa’s excuse that they’re just lines from a play. Some wishes certainly do come true later in the story and Nagisa is no small contributor to their realization. Similarly, we shouldn’t dismiss Nagisa’s excuse as simply an excuse. These are words from a drama and therein lies part of their importance.
I still intend to save my analysis of the drama clubroom for a later date, but the issue of drama itself is necessary to discuss now. Dramas have certain qualities of note in relation to Clannad’s central themes. They are like alternate realities, a chance for actors to be someone else and for audiences to experience something besides the daily routine. Though they could be argued to represent change (as the story told within a play is going to involve change in most cases, if only a change of scene), they also represent stagnation and timelessness. The story of a drama is always the same. It always reaches the same conclusion; it never begins sooner or ends later than it did before. It is fixed in its own time (the time of the characters), but ever-changing in the audience’s time (one show today, another tomorrow, another next week). To really confuse the issue, dramas are forever in motion–if a play exists (i.e. is actively being performed) it can never be stagnant, the story will always be occurring. The play is paradox.
As before, I’m raising endless questions and contradictions without actually addressing any. But it’s only the second episode, what did you expect? There is a bit of solid analysis we can do now, though. The fact that Nagisa brings up the idea of wishes in the context of a drama suggests that drama will somehow be a key to wish-granting in Clannad. The “place” of wishes that Nagisa will bring Tomoya to might even be the clubroom itself, if we wanted to ground it in concrete details. Certainly, a lot of change occurs in Tomoya’s life because of the drama club, and the emotional climax of the first season does indeed take place in the clubroom.
However, we’ll see that Akio has his own thoughts on that matter.
Episode 2 proceeds in a similar fashion to the first, moving us into the Illusory World early in the episode. Our narrator repeats that “nothing is born here,” even as their body is being built in front of us. It is through the effort of the lonesome girl that our robot is eventually born, which potentially parallels some characters in the “real” world of Clannad. We should note that it is an active effort from the girl–in the face of a supposedly unchanging absolute–that births an impossible soul. Language throughout Episode 1 implied the importance of active effort, and this scene reflects some of the possibilities of activity. Of course, our narrator must also actively “wish” to be born into the Illusory World. Keep this scene in mind, as it’ll be crucial to discussions of wishes and miracles later in the series.
The cuts following the Illusory World segment demonstrate an editing style that will persist throughout most of the series. The plot often progresses from one scene to another and then back to the first (albeit sometimes later in time). I hadn’t pointed this out last time to save space, but Episode 1 exemplifies this plainly. We jump from Nagisa and Tomoya sitting in the courtyard, to Tomoyo’s clash with the motorcycle gang, back to the courtyard, to Tomoya’s classroom, to the courtyard via flashback, etc. Clannad isn’t afraid to break some conventional editing rules by cutting between repeated locations like this. While this kind of editing can typically confuse viewers by making it unclear when a scene has ended/what the temporal relationship of scenes is (in fact, I’ve found that many people I introduce to the show are confused by its editing at first), Clannad uses it to achieve a certain cyclical effect.
Episode 2 isn’t quite as drastic in its editing as the first, but still flips between scenes freely. It’s actually a little shocking to see old-fashioned transitions like unmotivated fades, dissolves, and wipes that are associated more with Windows Movie Maker than professional film nowadays. Interestingly, both these transitions and the repetition of locations call back to Clannad’s origins as a visual novel. These transitions are much more commonplace in contemporary visual novels than films, and repeated locations (i.e. backgrounds) are a convention of the medium. Additionally, the tropes and construction of a typical Key visual novel (really, galge/moege/dating sims in general) tend to confine the heroines each to their own unique location. This makes decisions easier on the player if they exist (e.g. I can always find Girl A if I choose to go to the cafeteria), but also helps to characterize the heroines themselves.
An easy example that will also bridge the gap between the Clannad visual novel and anime is Kotomi. Kotomi can always be found in the school library until we enter her route. So, not only do we know where to find her, but she also happens to be in the location that best serves to develop her character. In the library, we can see her genius evidenced by her choice of books, we can witness hints of her trauma by her cutting of pages, and (most importantly) we can be away from the other girls. On a practical level, separating the heroines keeps them from interrupting each other or butting heads, but it also differentiates them in the mind of the reader/viewer. Clannad isn’t quite the best example (it doesn’t feel entirely true to say: “We can find Kotomi in the library, but we’d never expect to see Kyou there!”), but we can imagine a game where the studious girl is always in the library and it would be a total shock to see the sporty girl there. Of course, those shocks (and the shock of seeing the studious girl outside the library) can serve their own purpose as well.
Visual novels also enforce some degree of repetition within their progression itself. While it’s possible to create saves at decision branches and (sometimes) to skip directly to decisions, the player forced to return to the common route in one way or another to then access each heroine’s route. Clannad contains a large number of decisions, and thus enforces this repetition even more than the average game. KyoAni adaptations of visual novels tend to repeat in a similar way, working through each heroine’s route with some degree of common route spliced in. We definitely see this in Clannad, though we don’t repeat the common route all at once, but rather in doses of school life spread throughout the series.
As is probably apparent by now, this repetition in design mirrors Tomoya’s claims about his life. We’ll return to the same locations–often to witness the same events–time and time again, and it will seem that perhaps nothing is changing. We watch Sunohara get massacred by Tomoyo over and over; we listen to Kotomi and Tomoya’s dysfunctional interactions over and over; we see Tomoya prank a daydreaming Fuko over and over. Naturally, something will change to disrupt these repeated scenes, but not until Tomoya selects his own “decisions” as a protagonist.
While the overall structure of the series and its relation to the visual novel medium is interesting, it’s also worth investigating the structure of some individual scenes. Except we’re not looking for repetition, but for hallmarks of the melodramatic mode.
The melodramatic structure of how Tomoya ends up playing basketball this episode is a decision that appears simple on the surface but is actually worth analyzing deeper. My first reaction was to label it as a useful way to end the episode on a dramatic note, which is surely part of the motivation behind the decision, but also reveals something about his character beyond his backstory. Tomoya’s delaying of the truth isn’t just a way to amp up drama, but to describe his relation to emotions and expression. It is an integral part of his development.
When Nagisa suggests playing basketball, Tomoya isn’t able to turn her down or explain his injury. The injury is a specter from his past that represents both his tormented relationship with his father and the melancholic way his school life turned out. His inability to shoot the ball is a physical symbol of his inability to participate in clubs, meet his own expectations, and be proactive in changing his life. Delaying the confession of this truth (i.e. having Tomoya hide/avoid it) is a typical melodramatic structure that creates a particular connection between character and crisis.
In a melodrama, when a character is unable or refuses to tell the truth or express their emotions, the plot soon places them in a conflict from which the only outcomes are the revelation of truth or the expression of emotion. For example, a character can’t or won’t publicly confess their love for another, but sooner or later they wind up in a situation where they can no longer deny their love (or if denial is possible, the results would be catastrophic). Characters that face this melodramatic crisis are immobile. Their lack of activity shows us who they are–how their past has crippled them, how their present disarms them, how their future frightens them.
If Tomoya was capable of telling Nagisa why he no longer plays basketball, we probably wouldn’t have Clannad in the first place. Indeed, it is because Tomoya cannot easily confess the truth of his past decisions and present emotions that he is stuck in his cyclical days. It is the unease of his relation to his injury–his fear of acknowledging it, his inability to deny it–that truly disables him from making change in his life. The tempting and simple first reading would be that his past is a trauma acted onto him. It oppresses and stifles him. However, the melodramatic structure pushes us to a second reading: Tomoya himself plays some role in his own stagnation.
Thus, we see a connection between Tomoya’s circumstances and some themes of the story. I’ve mentioned several times about the emphasis characters place on active effort, particularly when it comes to making change. If we accept that Tomoya’s life is stagnant in part because he is stuck in the melodramatic crisis of stagnation (in simple terms: not being able to deal with his emotions), then activity does seem to be a potential cure.
That may seem like a whole lot of analytical work to go through just to repeat an argument I made last time, but I believe it will be worth our time in the end. Viewing the issue this way adds depth to an otherwise shallow truism. It’s one thing to say, “Just put in effort and you’ll change your life!” That doesn’t really mean anything to anyone on a practical level. What’s more compelling is to try to understand why that effort can be difficult to make, why stagnation occurs in the first place, and other underlying questions that begin with a bolded why.
A question that doesn’t begin with “why” but with “what” (forgive me) is: “What is Fuko?” She will come to represent a perplexing middle ground in the dichotomies of life and death, change and stagnation, that drive Clannad forward. That being said, it’s far too early to answer the question of “what” at this point. That will be a mystery to unravel as we get to know the girl herself. For now, let’s prepare as Clannad eases us into its first arc.
I’ll see you next time for our next step.