It’s kind of hard for me to write about Clannad in a coherent way. A lot of what it means to me has nothing to do with the game itself. The shame that masculine culture embedded into me, the fear of intimacy, the patheticism of virtual romance; that the act of playing would be my failure. That’s what overwhelmed me when I turned on the game. It felt deviant. A hyperbolic reaction to things that were later affirmed by my dad’s teasing: I’m here because of a personal failing.
What an awful narrative.
I participated in it without reproach, because my shortcomings have always seemed the root cause of everything. It’s great that Clannad is not about the individual. Clannad isn’t clean fulfillment. Everyone in Clannad has individual pain, burdens that they can’t hope to, or believe they can share. People aren’t defined by their failings or their shortcomings, but, in how they handle them, in how they help others, and get help for themselves. Personal failings are not personal shame.
There’s so many things I want to say about Clannad, that I feel I can’t give justice. I guess I’m not going to really give any of it justice. The light, flowing conversation, rarely focused on exposition, but with humor. Comedy is pleasure and it invites vulnerability, something that seems understated in modern drama. The delinquency of the protagonist Tomoya and how it mirrored my high school experiences. That even a fictional character shared experiences I had, that he thought and felt similar to me, brought great solidarity. Disconnected socially, Tomoya couldn’t muster any effort or goodwill to his school life, but he never let it break him entirely. He never is forced to reconcile with this pain – why should he? – and he is always justified by others helping him, and by him helping others. It did a part in convincing me that I wasn’t broken, that there are people that my life can touch.
Tomoya’s friendship with Sunohara is exaggerated, but Sunohara is such an endearing and complex character. Sunohara is relegated to pure comic relief, and seems to follow those tropes and stereotypes, but has staged moments of deep introspection. It demonstrates the great depth any individual posseses, the power of even the least assuming perspective. Some of the routes that focus on Tomoya and Sunohara have powerful conclusions about their homosocial relationship. The power of friendship might be overstated, but what about the nuance of it? The requisite of it, the simplicity of it, the importance of it? Tomoya realizes he wouldn’t have been able to make it through highschool without Sunohara… and Sunohara wouldn’t have made it without Tomoya.
Clannad models cycles of defeat. In its climax, its true end and final route, Tomoya finds himself living a role he hated as a teenager, he finds himself becoming an ineffectual father, in a circumstance that mirrors his own father’s pattern of behaviour. Tomoya not only realizes that ignoring his child – ignoring his pain and grief – is not a sustainable behaviour, but it’s even accelerated, it’s idealized, when Tomoya also forgives his father. Because Tomoya can forgive himself for his necessary avoidance and numbness to cope with the pain, he can apologize to his father with no malice, because he understands. His father is never justified, he doesn’t lay any claim to Tomoya’s time or life, to show he knows what he’s done can never be apologized for. He moves on though, he’s let go. No matter the legacy, no matter how much hurt there is, there is a space, and a time, for healing.
Clannad is really, personally, about how it’s okay to hurt, and it’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to seek help, but there’s something in the construction of the game that underscores the effectiveness of the work as a whole. A few of the more longer and involved routes, routes that focus on girls featured in the game’s promotional material and concept art – the main heroines – share play out in a distinctly similar way. The path to conversate with and to befriend these girls start from the same point: talking to Nagisa.
Tomoya encounters Nagisa during the prologue of the visual novel. He gets wrapped up in gawking at her strange mannerisms, wondering why a docile looking girl was so late to school. Tomoya catches her reciting some kind of mantra, speaking to someone distant. “Nothing can remain the same forever. Even fun things and happy things, nothing. Nothing stays unchanged. Even so, can you still like this place? I-”
Tomoyo cuts her off, “You just have to find it, right? You just have to find the next fun or happy thing, right? There’s more than one of those.”
Simple and direct encouragement, stark literalism to abet negativity. Sometimes – or a lot of the time – a cool, clear sentiment can cut through self-doubt. Tomoya isn’t a reserve of positivity or confidence or anything like that. He’s a pragmatic and a realist, which gets him through the best and worst of times.
Later that same day, our straightforward delinquent notices Nagisa eating lunch in the courtyard by herself. A choice to go down to the courtyard, or to ignore her, is presented to the player. I feel that in most visual novels, the player isn’t what I’d call an actor, they’re more like a director. It is still predetermined, but, I get to choose what I think the actors are going to do, what best fits the situation. I ignored Nagisa.
Out of the game’s heroines, I care the most about Kotomi. I don’t think I would really enjoy being with her, I don’t think that’s what I’m saying, I don’t know what the extent of caring for characters means, but I still admire her incredibly as a person. I had previously watched the anime so I, well, I knew who I wanted to befriend, I knew whose story I wanted in full detail and nuance first. It was Kotomi’s. Kotomi pursues knowledge, she pursues self-betterment, as a way of avoidance, as kind of a solution to trauma. This is a coping mechanism of my own. I end up over-indulging myself with self-teaching in a manner of self-care, as if there is a solution at the end. As if, if I can see myself more skilled, or if I become more reasoned, then no matter what I encounter, I’ll be able to handle it. No matter how down I get, I can assuage my own worth by these connections I’ve made to the world. It doesn’t work like that though. Life has all the power to strike me down, no matter what I know or don’t know. All of the time I’ve spent, and still spent, supposedly learning and growing, close me off from other people, it isolates me from the world around me.
Kotomi’s route will, I will – I cry my eyes out. There’s a demonstrated unfairness, Kotomi’s loss is so massive, so that her behavior can be entirely justified. I don’t believe her behaviour needs to be justified by tragedy, but, seeing her life idealized, seeing that it’s appropriate to hurt and to cope with it in the way most natural, it’s so comforting, and I don’t want Kotomi to be alone! I don’t want her life to be defined by her self-destruction. I don’t want Kotomi to resign herself to being withdrawn, into accepting that her closure is going to rule the way people treat her.
I don’t want to be alone.
I identify too much with her experiences, it hurts, and I cry. I don’t want Kotomi to be alone, because, I don’t want my hurt to define my life. Things I’m compelled to do, things that I feel I have to do, such consequences can’t define my life, they can’t be a means to an end. I don’t think I deserve to be alienated, to be alone, but other people have told me as much. It’s something tacitly understood. Unless I make time for others, there will only be time for myself. It’s beautiful still, maybe it’s a personal redemption, that Kotomi doesn’t have to end up alone.
Tomoya ignores Kotomi, if I thought it was best for him to ignore Nagisa.
It comes at a complete surprise. Though their conversation at first is somewhere between strange and dull, Tomoya doesn’t put it on the other. He decides, in a tired snappish way, that he’s worthless. That his social status makes these interactions pointless, because in the end, he won’t be taken seriously. Tomoya can’t define himself by his own worth when he doesn’t know what it is.
Without talking to Nagisa in the courtyard, Tomoya doesn’t know someone else hurts in the way he does. He isn’t confronted with the idea that people aren’t defined by where they come from, but they’re defined by the kind of experiences they have. It seems to be a small thing in some of the routes; this conversation is the only interaction Tomoya has with Nagisa in the entirety of Kotomi’s story. It’s the raw power of coincidence and of the individual. Everyone has greater reach than it is possible to know or understand. All around us, we can cause hurt, and we can heal, with the most innocuous conversations. That’s what Clannad is constructed to represent.