March 29, 2010
Clannad (reviewed here) by itself is pretty good. Together with After Story, the writer/director team of Fumihiko Shimo and Tatsuya Ishiyara, together with Key Visual Arts and Kyoto Animation, have again (as they did with Kanon) produced a real work of art.
Granted, tastes differ. You've got to like big-eyed moe. You've got to like melodrama. Let me rephrase that: you've got to like MELODRAMA. And the shameless yanking of heartstrings. A healthy toleration for an interminably ailing heroine also helps (paging Dr. House).
But beneath the super-cute surface and emotional manipulation (though it's so transparent it's not) shines a compelling story with keen insight into the human comedy.
While Clannad labors mightily to tell everybody's backstory (remaining true to its interactive, "visual novel" roots) and gets a bit lost in the weeds at times, After Story eventually pushes all the supporting characters to the side and focuses on Tomoya and Nagisa.
The story begins on a light note, wrapping up the loose ends as high school graduation nears. The next several episodes comprise a straightforward depiction of the bright kid who's blown his chance at college getting his act together and landing a job in the trades as an electrician.
(The favorable depiction of the trades in popular entertainment is an unfortunate rarity outside "reality" or DIY-type shows like American Chopper and This Old House.)
From there we move into family drama territory, with Tomoya and Nagisa getting married and moving into their lower-middle-class digs. Then things turn dark, and a pair of achingly tragic story arcs follow--hardly surprising given all the foreshadowing, but still terribly wrenching.
I'm reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's advice to writers: "No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of." And so Tomoya is plunged into the refiner's fire.
I mentioned previously that I missed Fuko after her storyline is apparently resolved in Clannad. As with Kanon, this first and rather odd foray into magical realism turns out to define the narrative for the rest of the series. Fuko's reappearance signals that reality is not all it seems.
The haunting and poetic "lonely robot" sequences that begin in Clannad are finally given purpose and knit together. As with Kanon, the ending clarifies the substance and structure of the middle. What was simple and obvious at first turns out to be considerably more complex.
Shimo and Ishiyara never point a finger at it. As with Kanon, it's up to us to get the subtext. Nagisa articulates the theme early on, but it's easily dismissed as glib philosophizing. By the end of the combined 48-episode series, Shimo and Ishiyara have given that glibness heart and soul.
Call it the Heisenberg principle of dramatic development: the universe evolves to meet our expectations of it. Tomoya's self-involved despair is not an independent variable. Rather, the way he sees the world orders (and disorders) the world. After Story turns this idea into an existential reality.
Rest assured that things do end happily, and the drama is leavened by quite funny comic relief. We're taken through a gauntlet to get there, though.
After Story concludes with a pair of "alternate world" episodes that posit two different "what if" beginnings to the series. Neither equals the alternate world episode at the end of Clannad, which could stand on its own as a brilliant short film. They do qualify as pretty good Jack Weyland material.
And then the series ends a second time. The first "ending" left me a tad dissatisfied. The second ties up the frayed threads and pays off completely, impressing me at just how good melodrama can be when skillful hands know how to give the transcendent its moment on the stage.
Dying for art