Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Usurp and Upbraid: Clannad

I’m starting a new line of pseudo-analysis pieces dubbed Usurp and Upbraid where the plan is to take a series that has been raised to uncontested acclaim and yank its head out of the clouds for at least a few fleeting seconds. And if the series happens to have as many starry-eyed adulators as vigilant crusaders as bilious cynics, then all the better.

Oh hey, look what’s on tap for today.

Now, there’s a lot of unjustified clamor about this wonderful little series on both sides of the pond. Far too often do people dismiss it as superficial moe-mania even though it is tasteful enough to be an evocative teen-drama. And then there are those who will vehemently defend it to the death, saying that anything less than unconditional love will not do the title justice.

As always, the truth is that Clannad’s quality lies somewhere in the middle, though definitely in favor of those who proclaim it to be a masterpiece. Personally, I have not seen as many churlish fanboys white-knighting Clannad as snooty hype-averters refusing to give it a fair shake. So I thought, hey, why not explore just what is it about Clannad that makes it so dealbreaking?

The most egregious problem with Clannad is the pacing. For those with limited patience, Clannad is an utter snore-fest. Yes, the brilliant comedic bits foster alertness, but the story, particularly in the first season, is really damn slow. Unlike Lucky Star or Azumanga Daioh, however, you’d be hard-pressed to call the series empty or inane. If a situation, interaction, or conversation isn’t being played for laughs, it’s distinctly progressive and pertinent. Still, this doesn’t stop the series from being a yawner at times.

Now, I’m pretty sure the next complaint is something that every stubborn skeptic will lodge with great fervor. And I really do hate to butt heads with them because, as much as I love Clannad, they do have a point.

Truth is, the traditional visual-novel adaptation formula can easily be interpreted as morally questionable and indulgent. It’s a format that flourishes in its freedom from the cage of reality.

Why exactly is it that a scruffy, good-for-nothing delinquent like Tomoya has girls flocking to him at every turn? Yeah, he’s a nice, genuinely-selfless guy under all his snide snarking but even his admirable altruism comes off as forced and exaggerated. With his reputation, it’s hard to believe the lengths he goes go to help a girl in need. Shouldn’t he be like community role-model-of-the-year or something?

But of course the most glaring flaw with the formula is how Tomoya is, without fail, precisely the person most suited at relieving whatever ails the troubled girls he crosses paths with. It’s the aura of messiacness that keeps eye-brows cocked and skepticism soaring. That, right there, is the internal inconsistency that everyone labels as a morally repugnant pipedream; a no-name everydude who, out of nowhere, decides to play Good Samaritan and instinctively finds himself to be the panacea to the scores of Broken Birds surrounding him.

Now, I personally have nothing against this and disagree with this point completely. But I can totally see why people would flout such a childishly-convenient fantasy of a scenario.

Then there’s Tomoya himself. While he’s definitely a far cry from the traditional harem lead in that he feels like an actual human being rather than a hapless cardboard surrogate, he’s sorely lacking in character development, even though his characterization is rich and complex. And yes, in the context of the series, it’s true that he skirts the boundaries of Marty Stu from time to time, which feels like the series is reluctant to break free from its harem-roots (such a problem is remedied brutally by the end of the second season, however).

As for the rest of the cast (i.e. the girls), while I personally adore them, they’re definitely not without their fair share of flaws. For one, while they are emotive and articulate well, they’re still married to same tired anime clichés. Kyou is the tsundere du jour. Kotomi is the shirking violet prodigy. Tomoyo is the rebellious bruiser. And Nagisa is the innocent, pure-hearted Yamato Nadeshiko. Don’t get me wrong; they’re about as complex and enjoyable as these roles allow them to be and are positively glowing with personality. It’s just that characters can only go so far when within the confines of their banal stereotypes.

Finally, the ending. No, not the one to ~After Story~. That miserable cop-out of a conclusion could give Neon Genesis Evangelion a run for its money. In retrospect, the ending to the first Clannad was fairly negligent as well. Though very emotional, it took things just a step too far and came off as overwrought. While people like myself have no problem with the climax of the Drama Club arc, those wearing the Jade-Colored, “Tomoya-is-a-messiah-to-all-these-girls” Glasses will be writhing in their seats at the cheesiness of it all.

To be fair, a lot of Clannad’s flaws and pretensions to harem get smoothed out by second-half of the sequel when Tomoya and Nagisa’s relationship reaches its halcyon days. Even the most embittered of cynics would find it difficult to deny the unbridled emotional beauty that ~After Story~’s back-half has in spades.

Problem is, those who can’t stand Clannad for the aforementioned reasons will find it challenging to drink down 30+ episodes worth of slow, school-related affairs just to get to the tantalizingly juicy bits. And I can’t blame them. Clannad doesn’t truly get universally tasteful until halfway through ~After Story~, and that, my friends, is why there is such a dire disconnect between vociferous fans and haters.

So, no, Clannad is does not sit in at the pinnacle of perfection nor at the bottom of the senseless moe dumpster. There’s a lot of unblemished, wholesome drama to be had here, but I won’t deny that it reeks of moe just strongly enough to ward off the uninitiated.

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