Destroying the Magic: Clannad

This is a little thing I want to try doing where I try to ruin the magic from some of the saddest scenes in anime by analyzing them. Plain and simple

Clannad, and its second season, After Story, is famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for being one of the saddest animes ever made. Someone once described it as a show where you’re constantly crying – either from laughter or sadness. But the interesting thing, at least to me, is the degree to which Clannad is able to illicit such an emotional response. The  underlying concepts in the show have been done before. But when you see it in Clannad, the plot elements (i.e deaths or reconciliations) suddenly multiply in weight. The question becomes, “why?” What is it about Clannad that makes it so much more emotional than other animes? Now, I am no psychologist, but re-watching the saddest scenes from Clannad, I noticed a few patterns, certain elements within each scene that I think work on a subliminal level, which is why Clannad carries such emotional weight.

Before you go any farther, keep in mind that I am about to spoil the most important segments of Clannad: After Story. If you are offended by such material, stop. You have been warned

For this exercise, I’m going to be analyzing the scenes considered by fans to be the saddest in the entire show: Nagisa’s death, and Tomoya’s reconciliation with his daughter in the sunflower field.

so let’s start simple.

Nagisa’s Death

This scene, on its own, does nothing, so let me provide some contest. Nagisa, who’s pregnant with Tomoya’s child, gets sick in the middle of winter and goes into labor 2 weeks before her due date.

Nagisa’s death relies on two things. First, the emotional attachment the viewer has hopefully established between Tomoya and Nagisa. Being the main characters, they were given substantial amounts of screen time, and the more you see and “interact” with someone, you’re more likely to warm up to them and establish that connection. Second, Humans are empathetic creatures (at least, most of us are). When someone is in pain, we feel sorry for them, sharing their pain. This assumption is the main reason behind Clannad’s power, but there’s more.

This scene is divided up into three parts. I like to think of it as like being stabbed by a knife. The first part softens you up, the second part starts to cut into you, and the final part drives the knife in deep.

Part One: The first part of this scene is Nagisa going into labor, in great pain, of course. It’s a montage of certain moments during Nagisa’s childbirth, showing each character’s pain and suffering, both physical and mental. Combine this with Tomoya’s narration of what’s going on and his own editorial remarks (e.g “it felt like an eternity”, etc.).

Remember how I said how humans tend to feel sorry for others in pain? That’s the whole point of this montage. By showing Nagisa and Tomoya’s pain, the viewer is supposed to feel bad for them. It’s hard to make someone cry of sadness when they’re happy, so you need to suck all those happy thoughts of butterflies and rainbows out of them; that’s the goal of this first part. Also, note the foreshadowing at the beginning of the scene” (“we will live together”)

Part Two: Going back to that knife metaphor, part two starts to slowly inch its way through to your heart. Part two begins with Ushio’s birth, followed by Nagisa’s death. During this part, everything is white, save for Tomoya and Nagisa.

There are two things that come into play for all of this part: music, and mourning, both of which work together to set up Nagisa’s death, which occurs in this part.

Music has this powerful effect on our brains. The psychology magazine Scientific American Mind claims its one of six ways to “boost brainpower”. More importantly, it has the ability to make us feel. That’s why Pharrel WIlliams’ Happy makes us want to dance, or the Theme from Rocky gets you excited; there’s something, well, magical about music. And in this scene, Nagisa’s theme fits perfectly, partly because, well, it’s Nagisa’s theme, and this is Nagisa’s death, but also because it gets the tone right. Nagisa’s theme is flexible; it can be set multiple moods depending on the context; in this case, Nagisa’s theme is bittersweet. I like to describe it as a smile that has struggled through tears, and that’s exactly what this part is. More on that later. The second component to this scene is mourning. Now, what does that mean? I have this theory that deaths or dying scenes are not sad in and of themselves. If (spoiler alert) Mufasa in The Lion King just died, I don’t think many would have been as affected. What makes death scenes sad is the mourning. Grieving is sad (back to that empathy concept). Nagisa does not make the scene sad; Tomoya does. Part two does not focus on Nagisa. It instead focuses on Tomoya, who, by the way, is trying hard to smile; I think he realizes, as we do to some extent, that Nagisa is leaving and isn’t coming back. (remember that bittersweet tone I was talking about?). Also, this part takes advantage of the emotional investment you hopefully have placed in Tomoya and his relationship with Nagisa. Again, it goes back to empathy, particularly with someone you have been around a long time and, hopefully, you have grown to care about or, at the very least, sympathize with. I think that if you didn’t like Tomoya, his mourning would not be that big of a deal to you.

The interesting part of this scene is that Nagisa’s death is so anti-climactic. She is the second most important character in the entire series, behind Tomoya. She has been involved with almost every plot point in the show, and she’s gotten so much screen time. Yet, for all that, you never see her die. The camera looks away to Tomoya, then when you look back, she’s dead. For a long, scene like this, Nagisa’s passing is so short.

Part Three:  This is where the tears start flowing. Part three is yet another montage, this time of Tomoya’s memories with his time together with Nagisa. These kinds of montages are designed to illustrate the relationship between two characters, and considering Nagisa was Tomoya’s wife, these moments mean significantly more, both to Tomoya, and the audience, because the latter was right there with Tomoya. Over the montage is Tomoya’s voice, tearfully damning Nagisa. I’m starting to wonder if, during this part, Tomoya goes through a few of the five stages of grief, namely anger, and depression, to a certain extent. While the montage is powerful, it pales in comparison to what I believe is one of the strongest parts of this scene.

The website TV Tropes and Idioms coined the phrase “the meaningful echo.” This is “when characters, in their usual way, say things to one another. Normally, these things aren’t all that notable or special—they’re part of normal dialogue. However, later on in the story, one of these “ordinary” lines is repeated. But unlike the original line, it isn’t in a normal, throwaway context. It’s at a moment of emotional height, when the viewer or reader is deep into the work, making a callback to an earlier scene. Suddenly, the line isn’t simple or meaningless anymore. It’s heartwarmingtear-jerking, or awesome. If it had meaning before—however minor—it’s now been expanded to a much greater context. It’s gone from being something ordinary to something extraordinary.” (Television Tropes and idioms). Clannad uses this trope to great effect in the last few seconds of the scene, with Nagisa saying these lines to Tomoya (yes, she’s dead. It’s kind of a long story): “Do you like this school? I have to say that I love it very, very much. But soon everything changes. Well, at least it does eventually. Fun things…Happy things…They’ll all…They’ll all eventually change some day, you know? But can you still love this place?”. Back then, these lines were only relevant to Tomoya’s view on life and his school. Now, with Nagisa’s death, these words take on a whole new meaning. It’s like a slap in the face to people who still remembered the opening scenes of Clannad.

In short, Nagisa’s death works in a very systematic way to break you down. It first softens you up via painful montages, starts the tears flowing with Tomoya’s mourning, then drives the scene home with the sentimental montages and the meaningful echo.

Reconciliation in the Sunflower Field: 

There is something magical about children. They hold sway over us in a way that not many other things in life do. Inherently, we get attached. That’s why babies tend to get showered with attention, even when said baby is not your own. How does that all relate to the Reconciliation in the Sunflower field? Again, I need to provide some context.

After Nagisa’s death, Tomoya lived alone from his daughter, Ushio, for five years. She was raised by her grandparents, Nagisa’s parents. One day, Tomoya visits Nagisa’s parents only to find a lone Ushio, who wants to go on a trip. After a lot of begging, Ushio gets her trip, with Tomoya buying her a toy robot along the way. One day, when speaking to a relative he bumps into near a sunflower field, Tomoya realizes how much of a dick he’s been and rushes back to find Ushio looking for said robot in the field.

This scene contains two moments, both Ushio’s that really stab at you, that’ll I’ll try to break down. Let’s start with the first.

First thing from Daddy“: (0:58) The main reason this line is so emotional is the ethos behind it. This is coming from a five-year old who after years, still loves her father, who’s neglected her, who’s never showed her any affection. “Firsts” of anything mean something. Your first words, your first day of school, your first child, all mean something; they’re significant. Combine that with the person who’s saying this and it’s a perfect scalpel of feels. After this comes the song “the place where wishes come true”, which fits perfectly with this scene, conveying that bittersweet tone, like a smile that has struggled through tears, kinda like Nagisa’s theme mentioned in the first scene. Tomoya’s reaction, when he bows his head in shock, is the perfect reaction as well.

“The two places I can cry are in the bathroom……and Daddy’s arms“: (2:24) TV tropes labels this as a meaningful echo, but this is powerful simply because it’s profound and it’s said by a five-year-old. (Again, Ushio makes this scene happen). We have a certain expectation of the kinds of things children say. This is certainly not one of them, adding a shock factor that amplifies the power of this line. The kickers in this line are the last three words and Ushio pauses just long enough before her delivery to drive home the “punch line”. You’ve already been softened up by Ushio’s first line (see above) and subsequent lines from Tomoya begging for forgiveness. Along the way, you realize how much Ushio suffered over the last five years and she, sounding close to tears, asks, “Is it ok to not hold it in anymore?” This line sums it up in the most powerful way possible; it sends a powerful message with the vocabulary of a child. And if there’s one thing my english class taught me, it’s to say what you mean as simply as you can. The scene concludes with a swell in the music, perfectly timed right when both characters start bawling their eyes out and Tomoya apologizing profusely. The hug, showing Tomoya’s acceptance of his daughter, is the icing on the cake. It’s a tearful moment for the characters, and being the empathetic creatures we are, it’s hard to not feel for them.

I plan to do more of these kind of analyses (if you want to call it that) in the future, unless people don’t want me to do them. Hopefully, I’ll have crushed all the magic that has resided in these scenes for you. Thank you for your time.

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