The success of Kyoto Animation and Key's last collaboration, Kanon (2006), has brought about the fourth adaptation of a Key game: Clannad. Being the fourth Key game to be adapted (and KyoAni's third) means the pressure is on for this to scale the heights reached by Air and Kanon before it.
So, does it achieve this? The difficulty I had with Clannad is that the series found it hard to step out of the shadows of its predecessor Kanon (2006). The first few episodes almost felt like a continuation, to the point where Okazaki's scenes with Nagisa reminded me largely of Yuuichi and Shiori, but luckily, complex character motivations and some good character progression managed to drag me out of this perception. Nagisa's ambition of performing a play at the school festival becomes central to the plot, and it's actually the character development in these situations that become the focal point of the series.
What surprised me most when I reached the end of the series, though, is the noticeable lack of magical realism, which is generally present in most Key titles. While Kanon relies on it heavily, Clannad plays out much more like a high school drama, and in this area, it excels. It flirts with harem clichés but never crosses the line into being stagnant, and the comedy helps the series along nicely. The dramatic scenes are very touching at times, and the episode where the play is finally performed is one of those classic episodes that makes you hold your breath all the way through (though I found the resolution a little over-the-top).
My major problem, however, is with the ending. While the preview at the end of the series promises an "after-story" (an excuse for a second season), there are a lot of plot points that just aren't addressed. Several characters are left largely unresolved and the dreamlike sequence involving the girl alone in a world that has ended never appears to have a motive, remaining an enigma, even when the series ends. The series itself also seems a bit scattered - the Fuuko storyline is a strong one, but after it finishes, the series seems to lose its purposeful drive (which isn't a bad thing, merely somewhat offputting).
What can I say about KyoAni animation that hasn't already been said a million times? While not having as many awe-inspiring landscapes as Air (the school setting is a rather limited one), Clannad still manages to impress with memorable character designs as well as rich colour tones, especially in Kotomi's arc, which deals with a number of night-time scenes. KyoAni is still, in my opinion, the most consistent art studio working at the moment. Fortunately, they never appear to suffer from the budget problems that plague other studios' series.
One word: Dango. This recurring theme is impressively interwoven by KyoAni, with the subtle idea of having the Dango song that Nagisa loves so much as the ending theme -- meaning that the viewer is already aware of it before it becomes an important character motivation.
The seiyuus are of top quality too. Each emotion is expressed with accuracy and conviction, and in particular, Nagisa's seiyuu stays away from the "annoying" label that plagues previous Key heroines. The seiyuu for the other characters are also memorable, in particular Fuuko and Sunohara.
The only thing that lets Clannad's sound rating down, is the opening theme, which is frankly uninspiring and in an unnatural-sounding key, with the singer not having a strong enough voice to make the song work.
As with any Key adaptation, Clannad has a huge supporting cast. Each character that has a plot devoted to them seems to spawn several other characters (an example would be Fuuko's storyline where we meet a classmate of hers, her sister and her sister's fiancé), and it's actually a good thing that only a couple of characters have their own arcs, otherwise we'd be looking at a mind-boggling amount of characters.
As it is, the number of characters is just bearable, with some receiving a lot more screentime than others. Nagisa is my particular favourite (which is rare for a central heroine in a Key adaptation) as she seems the most rounded figure -- though, I found it slightly odd that her weak disposition isn't mentioned after the first few episodes when it seemed like a major plot point (after all, she's repeating a year because of it).
Other memorable characters are Fuuko who is much too cute to be true, Nagisa's parents, and Sunohara who provides most of the comedy in the series and is one of the best KyoAni characters since Kyon in The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi. Unfortunately, Okazaki falls into being a Yuuichi-clone at times (from Kanon), while some characters are never fulfilled, like Tomoyo and Kyo.
This leads to a haphazard amount of character development. The development between Nagisa and Okazaki is fantastic, drama-inducing stuff, and one of the best budding romance situations I've seen in anime, but beyond that, the other characters can be hit-and-miss. I personally liked how, after Kotomi's arc, the supporting cast became more focussed on one goal, rather than slipping into the background as usually happens in Key series. Even Fuuko reappears in cameo appearances after her arc has finished, which adds an extra element of comedy.
However, as I've said, some characters aren't developed at all, and seem to be removed from the plot to a large extent, leading to fans of particular girls becoming very frustrated with the direction of the series. Unfortunately, this is exaggerated by fewer arcs in Clannad; which means that, while in other Key adaptations, each character is largely focussed on to the same extent because they have their own arcs -- in Clannad, characters become overlooked and the equivalent of background noise.
Clannad is definitely a worthwhile addition to the KyoAni-Key canon and even though it has a relatively unsatisfying ending, with a number of points left completely unexplained, it's an enjoyable series to watch through. I recommend it for any fans of KyoAni's previous works, and anyone who wants to see how a high school anime should be done (Screw School Days and it's overhyped violence nonsense). Both dramatic and comedic at the same time, Clannad's step away from the magical scenery of its predecessors is a welcome one that will probably gain it more fans.
Tomoya Okazaki is a third-year high school student who is generally bored with life and doesn't take his studies, future, or anything else seriously. One day, however, he meets a lonely-looking girl in the school courtyard, Nagisa Furukawa. She explains to him the source of her loneliness: she had missed a lot of the previous school year and thus is repeating her third year; everybody that she knew has already graduated, and she is lonely. Tomoya is rather indifferent at first, but decides that he has nothing better to do and spends increasingly more time helping Nagisa restore the school drama club. As his relationship with Nagisa grows, Tomoya begins to open up to various other people around the school as well...