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Tomoya Okazaki is a third year high school student resentful of his life. His mother passed away from a car accident when he was younger, causing his father to resort to alcohol and gambling. This results in fights between the two until Tomoya's shoulder is injured in a fight. Since then, Tomoya has had distant relationships with his father, causing him to become a delinquent over time. While on a walk to school, he meets a strange girl named Nagisa Furukawa who is a year older, but is repeating due to illness. Due to this, she is often alone as most of her friends have moved on. The two begin hanging out and slowly, as time goes by, Tomoya finds his life shifting in a new direction...
Clannad is a 24-episode series based on the bestselling visual novel from production company Key, whose other titles Kanon and Air have also received animated adaptations from studio Kyoto Animation. The series' format, naturally designed to maximise its appeal to fans of the source material, is made up of several-episode story arcs each focusing on one of the girls whom main character Tomoya befriends. Shy loner Nagisa, eccentric outsider Fuuko and socially isolated prodigy Kotomi are spotlighted in turn in these opening twelve episodes.
The constrained format of the Japanese visual novel - best thought of as a choose-your-own-adventure game crossed with a dating simulation, with minimal interactivity and hundreds of pages of dialogue between the viewpoint character and an assortment of others, who are more often than not cute girls waiting to be romanced - doesn't lend itself well to naturalistic storytelling, and Clannad's makers have done their best to turn the source material into a watchable anime. The animation is of good quality typical of Kyoto Animation, also responsible for hits such as K-On!, Lucky Star and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and the voice acting from the Japanese cast is excellent, no trifling matter when the script consists almost entirely of silly rapid-fire comedic back-and-forth and overwrought soap-opera confessions of tragic formative events. While the story and execution are serviceable enough, it's in the characters' relationships that Clannad's real problems lie.
Plenty of consideration in anime fandom over the last several years has been given to the ineffable quality called 'moe', the Japanese slang term which for brevity's sake might be best defined as 'charm based on vulnerability', and it's with this quality in mind that Clannad's various heroines are evidently designed.
The character designs are over-stylised even by anime standards, the female characters in particular having enormous eyes that might be intended to be expressive but verge on the offputting. More to the point, each of the girls appears incapable of acting on her own but exists in a kind of stasis until she comes to Tomoya's attention, upon which self-actualization, the resolution of past traumas and emotional closure can be achieved.
To its credit, Clannad rounds out its cast with some less dependent female characters - the acerbic Kyou, the stoical and athletic Tomoyo - but it seems inevitable that their turn to unburden themselves of problems that only Tomoya can help with awaits later on in the series. Where other Kyoto adaptations like Lucky Star and Haruhi Suzumiya poked fun at moe clichés - while still capitalizing on them - Clannad plays them dispiritingly straight.
The series has its moments of fun and comedy, with a well-written script and polished production, but as a prime example of the kind of mawkish and retrogressive storytelling that mars a lot of anime, it's probably the wrong choice if your tastes tend towards self-directed female characters.