STANDARD SPOILER WARNING: The contents of this page are intended for people who have seen Clannad and Clannad After Story. If you read this before watching these shows you have only yourself to blame.
Notes on the Ending
Many people who have watched both parts of the Clannad anime series have problems with the ending. It’s not that it is a bad ending exactly, it just seems sort of unsatisfactory, like a deus ex machina.
On the other hand, people who have watched the anime after playing the game it is based on invariably seem to think that the ending is wonderful. This probably has to do with the inherent differences between a visual novel and a television series, and the natural difficulties involved in converting one to the other.
I have not played the Clannad game, which is not available in English, but there are enough descriptions available on the Internet to give me a pretty good idea of how it works.
In the game, the first time you try to play the Nagisa arc you inevitably come to the “bad ending” where Nagisa and Ushio both die. After that you are dumped into the story of the girl in the empty world, in which you are told to collect hikari no dama (points of light.)
After that you can go back and play the other character arcs, and you will be awarded points of light if you help the other character achieve their dreams. Once you have collected enough points of light you can replay the Nagisa arc and this time you can reach the “true ending” in which Nagisa and Ushio both survive and everyone lives happily ever after.
This is pretty satisfactory for the game player. In the context of the game, the points of light are awarded to the player for causing the protagonist to make the right decisions, and the player wins by guiding the protagonist to the best ending.
Things are more problematic in the anime, where there is no “player” and there is only one storyline. Tomoya must earn the points of light without knowing what they are or even that they exist.
A diagram that has been floating around the Internet attempts to describe what happens in the anime, based on the sequences in the game.
(Click the image to see a larger version.)
The diagram is helpful but in my view it doesn’t really describe what we see in the anime. If the anime matched the diagram we would first see a short Nagisa arc in which Tomoya didn’t help any of the other characters. This would reach the bad ending around the middle of the first season. Then we would have the empty world story, followed by a reset. The Nagisa arc would start over, this time with interludes where Tomoya helps the other characters and collects points of light, finally culminating in the good ending.
It is understandable why they didn’t do it that way. It would be extremely tedious and unsatisfactory to watch. Dramatically it is necessary to do the whole thing as a single story.
But that feels sort of unsatisfactory too. By the time Nagisa dies, Tomoya has helped all the other characters and collected all the points of light except for two crucial ones: the ones for reconciling with Ushio and his father. By the time Ushio dies he has collected all the points of light, unless perhaps he gets a final one for comforting the girl in the empty world.
(Americans may wonder why Tomoya is even required to to reconcile with his father, but from a Japanese perspective any ending which left the hero estranged from one of his parents would be tragic, even if the parent was abusive.)
Finally the reset that we see in the anime only seems to take Tomoya back to the moment of Nagisa’s death, not back to the beginning of the Nagisa arc. However this is proceeded by a sequence in the afterworld where the spirits of Tomoya and Nagisa agree that they want to be together. The point, I think, is that Tomoya has to let go of his feelings of guilt and unworthiness before he can achieve happiness.
The Metaphysics of it All
I think that one of the keys to understanding the story is the grove of trees where Akio prayed for the two-year-old Nagisa’s recovery. His prayer was granted and she survives at least until her twenties.
In the bad ending the grove of trees is cut down to build the hospital. Perhaps this is the real reason Nagisa dies, because the trees are no longer around to protect her.
In the good ending the grove of trees survives. Presumably the hospital was built on an adjacent lot.
I suspect that in the original game this sacred grove is the same as the grove of sakura trees that Tomoya helps Tomoyo to save. This makes good dramatic sense: he helps her save the trees and thus paves the way for the good ending. However in the anime this produces a disconnect: Tomoyo saves the trees but then apparently they get cut down anyway, but then after the reset they are back.
Once we understand the sacred nature of the grove, some other confusing points become clear. One is that Ushio actually has three incarnations:
- Tomoya and Nagisa’s daughter.
- The girl in the empty world, who sees the dreams of the townspeople as points of light.
- The goddess of the grove, who watches over the dreams of the people of the town.
(As in Air, incarnations are allowed to overlap in time.)
This also explains how Nagisa could remember the story of the girl in the empty world from her childhood. The goddess communicated the story to her while she was being healed in the grove. One might object that at that point the story hadn’t happened yet. However Kotomi suggests that the timelines of the two worlds are orthogonal, so everything that happens in one world is equally accessible from any moment in the other.
The key scene that ties everything together is the final scene of the Episode 22, in which Fuuko finds the goddess asleep in the grove. Presumably the time Fuuko spent as an ikiryou has given her a special spiritual sensitivity which allows her to sense the presence of the goddess.
Nagisa at the end of the main story says that it is the town (rather than the trees) that caused the miracle because it wants the people to be happy. I don’t think there is any real contradiction though. The goddess of the trees is the guardian spirit for the town, even though she doesn’t have a proper shrine and Nagisa probably doesn’t know that she exists.
Since I said that the diagram above doesn’t match what is shown in the anime, what would be my alternate explanation? If I were to draw a diagram it would show a sequence like this:
- Ushio is born as Nagisa and Tomoya’s daughter, but dies at age five.
- She is reborn as the girl in the empty world. At first she is lonely and sad, but then Tomoya comes to her in the form of the junk doll. Eventually she attains Enlightenment and realizes who she is and who Tomoya is. She resolves to devote herself to safeguarding the dreams of the townspeople, which appear to her as points of light.
- She goes back in time and becomes the goddess of the trees. She heals the young Nagisa and imparts the story of the girl in the empty world. Later she changes her own past so that Ushio, Tomoya and Nagisa can spend a normal lifetime together. To do this she needs not only the points of light collected by Tomoya, but also Tomoya and Nagisa’s consent–thus the scene where Tomoya and Nagisa meet in the afterworld. Once they say that they want to be together, the reset occurs immediately.
The time loop of course creates a paradox, which Tomoya dismisses in the recap episode by saying that both the good ending and the bad ending are true.
As I indicated above, none of this is necessary to explain the game; it only applies to the anime.
Notes on the Girls
As usual we have complaints that the hero picked the wrong girl, and in this case Kyoto Animation has cashed in on them by releasing alternate endings as OVAs.
It’s worth noting that there seems to be a consistent rule about video games by Key/Visual Arts: there is always a “true love” ending and the true love is not the sexiest girl, or the richest or the smartest, but the one who offers the hero the thing that he has been unconsciously searching for all along. So I’m going to list what I think each girl offers Tomoya:
- Kyou offers him passion. If they get married their relationship will be punctuated by fierce arguments and fiercer lovemaking.
- Tomoyo offers him success. If they stay together she will not permit him to achieve anything less than his full potential.
- Kotomi perhaps offers him the chance to serve humanity. He can give her emotional support while she uncovers the secrets of the universe. Of course he will never understand her research.
- Fuuko offers him starfish. Lots and lots of starfish.
- Ryou is a mistake. He’s not really all that attracted to her, but given his self-esteem problems he may go along if she takes the initiative. In the game, choosing Ryou always leads to a bad ending.
- Nagisa represents the thing that he secretly desires most: the chance to be part of a happy, supportive family. (Hence the name of the series: the Irish word for “family”.)
No, Tomoya and Nagisa don’t have sex on their wedding night. She does everything possible, consistent with her shy and ultra-polite personality, to signal that wants it , but he is too wrapped up in his own feelings of worthlessness to understand. Eventually she has to ask him fairly explicitly.
Of course Ushio can go to the toilet by herself. Everything she does in that episode amounts to an attempt to get Tomoya to act like a real parent. This is just one of her ploys.
When Tomoya first agreed to help Nagisa, did he remember the dirty trick he and Sunohara had played on her the year before? He never explicitly says so, but it would be in character for him to feel guilty about it and want to make amends.
Just how abusive was Tomoya’s father? A Japanese TV show is not likely to give us much detail, but he was probably pretty bad. We only see Naoyuki in a drunken stupor or sober and wracked by remorse, but chances are when he was less drunk he tended to get angry and violent. We know that he broke Tomoya’s arm. If Tomoya thought this was an accident or an aberration, he might be ashamed of his father but he wouldn’t hate him. Also, given Tomoya’s attitude problems, he may have been subject to a lot of verbal abuse when he was too young to defend himself.
When Sanae introduces herself to Sunohara and claims to be 17 years old, this is an in-joke. Kikuko Inoue, the seiyuu, always claims to be 17 years old in interviews and public appearances, and has done so for many years. When she plays an anime character who could not possibly be 17 years old, the writers will often try to work that line in.
 In Japan it is considered important to shower before sex if at all possible.