Monthly Archives: October 2013

Clannad review

It is a belief I strongly hold that anime in its many shapes and forms is a medium that has the potential to do much good for people, should they let it. Now, this is a philosophy that holds true for music and traditional film as well, but anime in particular strikes a peculiar chord in my heart. With that in mind, let’s talk about Clannad.

Clannad’s title comes from an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘family’. Indeed, I can’t think of a more appropriate title to describe this series. Clannad is as simple, precise, and understated as its title suggests – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Clannad is the story of Tomoya Okazaki, a 18-year-old delinquent in his final year of senior high school. He hates his town, his father, and pretty much everything but his best friend (who he still hates a little bit). One day, however, on his way to school, he meets the frail Nagisa Furukawa, another senior repeating her final year due to illness. She’s struggling to pluck up the courage to go back, but Tomoya uncharacteristically offers some words of encouragement and they set off for school together, starting a long chain of events leading to love, heartbreak and redemption.

The first season of Clannad follows a simple premise – Nagisa wants to restart the school drama club for her final year, and put on her favourite play. Trouble is, nobody wants to join the club and help, leaving her and Tomoya bound together to try to get things off the ground. This lays the basic groundwork for the plot, and other plot threads bounce off of that.

Now, Clannad being based on a romantic visual novel, most of the rest of the cast are female. Not that that’s a problem – they’re are all fleshed-out, likeable characters who serve an important role in the plot. Whether they be hard-nosed but jovial Kyou and timid Ryou – the Fujibayashi sisters – ass-kicker Tomoyo Sakagami, or Kotomi Ichinose, the brainiac in a world of her own, they’re all fascinating, well-rounded characters, with great personalities and stories.

Now, much as it pains me to say this, despite having a great cast of characters, Clannad is, to be frank, only a ‘good’ series. It doesn’t break the mould, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The dialogue is good, but typical of the genre. The plot threads are interesting, but ultimately predictable – the very first subplot involving a comatose girl being a great example of a plot thread that should have been a little bit trimmed. As it stands, it’s basically the same episode for about 2 hours of the series.

However, it’s easy to see why this is the case. Being based on a visual novel, with branching paths and alternate endings, it would have been impossible (not to mention wrong) not to cover the multiple plots of the game. But still, it says a lot that the best episode of Clannad – in my opinion – is the very last episode, the only one that is non-canonical. It tells a three act love story in 20 minutes and despite that it’s extremely well paced.

Which brings me to the major sticking point, the direct comparison I can make between Angel Beats and Clannad – both written by Jun Maeda with characters designed by Key. What elevates Clannad above Angel Beats (again, in my opinion) is pacing. Clannad takes its time. When you have an interesting cast of characters whose backstories the viewer wants to know, you let the viewer know, unless it’s for a very good reason. You can’t just set up characters and not capitalize on it, and capitalize Clannad does. There’s a fine balance in the picking of which characters to explore and which to not, and I felt that it nailed which ones just right. There are still a handful of obnoxious ‘FEEL SAD’ moments, but they’re thankfully kept to a minimum.

Now then, I’ve not been overly kind to Clannad thus far, and I feel a little guilty about that. But take solace in this fact: Clannad is still good and is essential viewing to give context to what comes next – Clannad: After Story.

My God.

I find it hard to come up with the words for After Story. I honestly do. Just bear in mind that since this is the second half of a story, there will be some very minor spoilers. You have been warned.

After Story takes place following the events of Clannad, after Tomoya confesses his love for Nagisa. It’s a very different tale from Clannad, eschewing the harem aspects of part one to instead focus on Tomoya and Nagisa’s relationship after Tomoya’s graduation, in the next few years of their life together.

Tomoya in particular goes through a lot of very natural character development in After Story, evolving from a generally good guy who just struggled to give a damn to a responsible adult determined to TRY to give a damn, now that he has something worth caring about.

What follows is a soulful musing on the ideas of change, employment, marriage, and even fatherhood. The trials of a life everyone – and yet no-one – wants to live. To say any more would be a betrayal of the effort gone into making this such a personal story.

Hence, for the sake of major spoilers which would ruin the storyline, I will stop right there and instead go over the technical details that make Clannad that bit more special.

First off, much like Angel Beats, the art in Clannad is utterly gorgeous. I wasn’t a fan of the doe-eyed, half-moe look of the character designs, but it’s a very aesthetically pleasing style in motion, especially when coupled with the warm colours and beautiful environments the characters inhabit – just look at this:

The musical score of Clannad is also one of the best I’ve seen (heard?) in recent memory. Personal highlights include Dango Daikazoku – penned by Jun Maeda himself – and Toki wo Kizamu Uta, performed by Angel Beats’ theme song’s singer Lia.

The voice acting, too, sets an incredibly high bar for other acts to follow. Familiar voices David Matranga, Brittney Karbowski, Greg Ayres and the wonderful Luci Christian do fantastic work and do Clannad the justice it deserves.

But most important in After Story’s success is, of course, its writing – it’s a pure-hearted, meaningful love story, free of the manipulative trappings of ‘this is the sad bit’ writing. When you feel sad, you do so because it IS sad, not because it wants you to be sad.

And it is sad. You will take the hits, you will cry. After Story pulls no punches in its portrayal of the hardships of life, but it never does so to depress. Rather, it serves as an example to keep going, to keep striving to make things better. To enjoy life no matter what might happen. To think of the losses you’ve taken and hold them in your heart. To learn from them. To make the ones you love proud.

I’m not lying when I say Clannad affected me on a deeply personal level. Watching it has made me re-evaluate certain parts of my life – it’s made me see myself and others in a different way, a new way. A better way.

Clannad isn’t just good for your entertainment, it’s good for your soul. It will make you a better person.

Clannad is life, it’s love, it’s loss. But most importantly, Clannad is family.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A stirring, heartbreaking, beautiful masterpiece from start to finish. Though the initial season of Clannad is somewhat predictable, After Story more than makes up for it, and with interest. It receives the highest praise I can possibly give, and I stand by my words wholeheartedly.

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Angel Beats! review

Today I’m going to be reviewing an anime I’ve been looking to acquire for a long time, Angel Beats! Guns? High school comedy? Emotional? Sign me up!

So, was it all I hoped for? Well… let’s find out, shall we?

Angel Beats is the story of an amnesiac named Otonashi, who wakes up in a high school courtyard near a girl with a sniper rifle, with no idea how he got there. Turns out, he’s totally dead, and the world he woke up in is a limbo for students who still have attachments to the living world.

Gun girl’s name is Yuri, and she’s got her sights set on an innocent looking silver-haired girl on the playing fields. Not being a man who is keen to see pretty girls get shot in the face, Otonashi opts to talk to her instead. Unfortunately, he ends up getting stabbed in the chest for his trouble.

Oops.

To his surprise, he wakes up in the school infirmary without a scratch on him, before being recruited into Yuri’s band of merry hangers-on, the Shinda Sekai Sensen (or Afterlife Battlefront to us gaijins). They are trying to fight the silver-haired girl – who they call Angel – and beat the system of their limbo. With guns.

The rest of the 13-episode series follows the gang through their trials, tribulations and zany schemes, usually involving their subsistence tactics, like hosting a rock band to steal meal tickets from the artificial students that inhabit the school.

You see, if they behave like good students, then the system wins and they are ‘obliterated’, disappearing for good and moving on to the next life as Buddhist scripture dictates. It makes for some interesting set-ups and, naturally, some dramatic moments. We don’t want to see these characters vanish, because they’re so well characterized and unique.

We have TK, the mysterious music enthusiast; Matsushita the Fifth, a heavy-set martial artist; Shiina, a female ninja or kunoichi; and Yui, a pink-haired puckish rogue.

The less said about her, the better.

Unfortunately, this is exactly when problems with the formula of the show emerge. Angel Beats has an extremely large cast (so many characters that I often forgot their names), and the problem is that they are just TOO interesting! With only 13 episodes and a main plot thread to explore, there just isn’t enough time to effectively explore character backstories. Normally, this might not be as much of an issue, but these characters are dead. We want to know how they died! Even more annoying is that some characters are asked how they died and they just dodge the question. Worse, it goes past infuriating when characters don’t get any backstory whatsoever. Did those characters I described above sound interesting? Well, too bad. Apart from Yui, we are never told who they really are or why they are in the limbo world.

I would love to say that the characters who are explored have really great backstories, but lamentably this just isn’t the case. Yuri’s backstory in particular stands out as a personal lowlight, a bombastic display of atrociously overblown writing for the sake of a cheap, manipulative “BE SAD” moment. Did I mention it’s never explained how she died, other than “I didn’t kill myself”?

“EXPLAIN, DAMMIT!”

It’s clear to me that Angel Beats was originally pitched as a longer series that had to be cut down for whatever reason, which led to the writing suffering substantially. Particularly near the end of the season, plot points come out of nowhere and feel extremely rushed, almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Not that I would ever call Jun Maeda a bad writer, but there was potential for so much more from this story.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll stop being mean now.

Whew. That was quite a venting session, even for me. Well, I’ve gone through a lot of the negatives, so lets get to the positives.

I know I say this a lot in my reviews, but Angel Beats is an absolutely stunning anime from a visual perspective. Environments and characters are beautiful, with bright saturated colours and warm tones. This lovely style comes through particularly well in the Blu-ray release, which is definitely a worthwhile investment for enthusiasts.

The English dub is similarly up to par, and is mostly made up of actors who have participated in other Jun Maeda penned projects like Clannad and Kanon, including Brittney Karbowski, Blake Shepard, Emily Neves, Hilary Haag, David Matranga and a great (if brief) performance from the chameleon-like Luci Christian, playing rock chick Iwasawa – one of the few characters in Angel Beats to get a great backstory.

The music in Angel Beats is also great, with a strong opening theme performed by Japanese artist Lia called ‘My Soul, Your Beats!’. Aside from that, the show includes a wonderfully minimalist score that sets the tone perfectly.

Another major positive to be found in Angel Beats is the very last episode of the series. Despite several unresolved – or worse, unintroduced – plot threads, the final episode is incredibly powerful and nearly overwrites all the problems from earlier in the series. Jun Maeda describes his style of writing as ‘the crying game’, and cry I did. Episode 13 of Angel Beats stands as one of, if not the saddest epsiode of anime I have ever watched. It’s very effective, and very affecting, as expected with Jun Maeda.

But where does that leave the review? Well, much as I like the last episode of the series, Angel Beats has a lot of problems. It’s by no means perfect, nor ‘the greatest anime ever’. What it is is enjoyable entertainment, that tells the story it wants to tell. Yes, I wish there was more. Yes, I wish some of it was better written. There are an awful lot of fighting scenes, and I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if they were entirely written out – would the show be better or worse? Would it have left more time to explore backstories and philosophise on the nature of the afterlife? We may never know, though I hope somewhere down the line Angel Beats will (like Kanon) be remade, this time with the longer runtime it deserves.

NOT GUILTY

Angel Beats is full of problems, but is immensely watchable, with real humor and likable characters. Though some ’emotional’ moments feel insincere and forced, when they hit the mark they hit hard. Cautiously recommended.

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