Thursday, March 31, 2016

[Anime] Clannad After Story Review

Clannad After Story is an extension of the Clannad original series, moving from a story of friends in high school to the beginnings of adult life.  This is a rare move for series of this type, as they are rooted firmly in adolescent drama and nostalgia and cannot risk moving beyond these themes.  After Story attempts to tackle this transition, and on many occasions succeeds well.  Unfortunately, it also carries with it many of the elements that hobbled Clannad which, in light of the increased seriousness of the content, makes their presence all the more jarring.  Because of these similarities this review will echo my review of Clannad on many points.

The Good:

As with Clannad, when the series didn't become excessive (more on that below), it was genuinely touching.  The highlight of After Story is Nagisa's death and the subsequent episodes in which Tomoya grapples with the aftermath.

The greatest daring of After Story is that Nagisa dies.  One of the two main characters, one that you have come to know throughout Clannad and After Story, is gone.  Even for somebody such as myself, who had been spoiled beforehand, the move was significant.  To actually remove a main character while there are still so many episodes to resolve is exceedingly rare, and for good reason.  People are invested in them, and when that character is suddenly gone they are forced to confront the aftermath.  This is why the timing in Nagisa's death is key.  Many series will casually kill off main characters near the end, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that it is the end.  But Nagisa's passing halfway through forces both Tomoya and the audience to confront the fact that life goes on.

It is during this process of recovery that After Story is the most meaningful, revisiting its core themes of family and the importance of connections between people.  After Nagisa's death Tomoya becomes a hollow shell as he withdraws from everybody around him, abandoning his child to the care of Sanae (Nagisa's mother).  But after several years he is forced to confront Ushio, to reconnect with his daughter, and so be brought back to life as he realizes how much his actions have impacted not just himself but all those around him.  It is during this resurrection that he also gains a new appreciation for those around him.  The three best elements during this arc of the series were:
  • Closure with Naoyuki Okazaki: Tomoya's coming to terms with his father is handled very well.  Nothing is more frustrating in a series than when a character reconnects with an abusive figure through reinterpretation rather than understanding.  That is, in an attempt to explain why the audience should now care about the formerly "evil" human being, a series will offer up a feeble back story to explain why they weren't actually bad.  They were just misguided.  Or trying too hard.  Or had some tragedy that justified their harshness.  This approach is simplistic, hinging on the assumption that a person is singularly good or evil.  It cheapens earlier suffering because now it must be glossed over in a feeble attempt to say, "But they didn't really mean it!"

    Naoyuki was an alcoholic.  He was abusive at times.  He got into shady, illegal business.  He was lost.  But he tried his best for his son even as it cost him everything.  This last point doesn't excuse what he did, and the series doesn't say so either: Naoyuki's own mother comments that he was a failure as a human in many ways.  In rediscovering his father Tomoya doesn't find a good man underneath.  Instead he is finally able to understand why, despite everything, Naoyuki always had a bafflingly friendly smile toward his estranged son.  It was only now that Tomoya had lost so much that he could finally see his father for who he was.
  • The strength of Sanae Furukawa: Sanae is treated frivolously through much of the series, but this belies her true nature.  When Tomoya abandoned his life, it was Sanae that stepped in and raised her granddaughter even while suffering from the loss of her own precious child.  It was Sanae that put Ushio's wellbeing above her own loss.  This scene highlights her resolve beautifully, as Akio remarks that Sanae had not cried since Nagisa's passing.  She raised Ushio in a home of happiness rather than mourning, and there is nothing more to say.
Finally, as I close out this segment I want to tip my hat to how clean the series is.  Repeatedly in the past I have decried fan service as one of the perennial downfalls of good series.  Clannad (and After Story) avoids any sense of voyeurism by taking this more reserved approach.  In some ways, it may even go too far in the other direction: we never see the protagonists do more than hug each other, which is not very realistic in light of their relationship.  However, I will take this over a lurid romance that would have detracted from the series' underlying focus.

The Bad:

While all of my praise goes to the middle of the series, the first eight episodes and the last plot episode (22) are, for lack of a better word, garbage.

The first eight episodes are painfully incongruous with the rest of the series.  They take place while the characters are still in high school and are far less mature than the rest of After Story.  The whole is diminished for their presence. The episodes in which the rival gangs made up struck me as particularly inane.  These episodes belonged with Clannad and its high school antics, not the transition to maturity that After Story was supposed to be.  I could only give a sigh of relief when they were over.

However, as frustrating as the first episodes are at least I could pretend they were part of another series.  But episode 22, coming at the end, utterly and completely negates the entire meaning and purpose of the anime.  In the final episodes a reconciled Tomoya is living with his daughter, but she is beginning to show the same signs of sickness that Nagisa did.  As Ushio gets more and more ill the series darkens again, and finally in a tearjerker scene she dies as well.  But, through the magic of...being a light novel with latent magical elements, the good karma of Tomoya rewinds time, Nagisa lives, everybody's happy, the end.

I cannot over emphasize how detrimental this cop-out is.  If it was not abundantly clear, Nagisa's death is the pivotal driving force for the best parts of the show.  Without her death Tomoya would have never grown into the man he is at the end.  He would never have reconciled with his father or viewed his mother-in-law as anything other than a fixture.  He would have remain emotionally stunted, a short-tempered teenager with a chip on his shoulder.  More than this, we lose the message that life involves pain, but continues anyway.  Before this excessively tragic end, the hope remained that there was a path out of dark places.  By attempting to go back and whitewash everything to be happier, episode 22 completely fails the series and undermines the power of Clannad's message.

This brings me to the other point, and that is that Ushio's death is utterly unnecessary.  Ushio was designed to be weapons-grade adorable.  Everything about her design and mannerisms screams "cute."  Too cute, really, considering we never once see her misbehave or act in a way that isn't formulated to evoke a sigh of affection.  Metaphorically, they fattened her up for the sacrifice.  While Nagisa's death was the catalyst that powered the story, Ushio's death is for no other reason than to evoke sorrow.  Cheaply at that, for she is functionally "dead" for less than 10 minutes of screen time before everything is magically fixed.  It is one of the most egregious cases of emotional pandering I have ever seen.

Finally, the same complaints I had about Clannad's inability to control the "emotional volume" and its tendency toward contrived and supernatural plot devices remain in force, although slightly more muted in After Story.  As I have already expounded on those in my Clannad review I am not going to spend the time here.

In summary, After Story follows in the same footsteps as Clannad: touching at key moments, but otherwise held back by its general mediocrity and deus ex machina resolution.

p.s. I think the ending I would have liked the most was if Tomoya had pursued his newfound relationship with Kyou and ended up marrying her.  It would have been a bittersweet conclusion to the series, with the memory of Nagisa slowly fading while his new life took off.  Shame we got the mess we did instead.

[Anime] Princess Tutu Review

Princess Tutu - 7.5/10

Princess Tutu is a traditional family friendly fantasy with modern finesse.  What is most charming about Princess Tutu is its earnest simplicity.  The setting is that of a fairy tale: princes are noble, princesses are beautiful, love is eternal, and dreams come true.  In a word, it sounds cheesy.  And yet, I found myself sucked into it as it executed its premise expertly.  While watching it I likened it to coming on a child playing make-believe.  At first you find yourself only patronizing them.  Clearly you know better; you just don't want to hurt any feelings.  But strangely, against your will, you find that the enjoyment is genuine and that perhaps you're not so superior after all.

I think the other key to appreciating Princess Tutu is just knowing that it isn't trying to be subtle or deconstructionist.  There are some twists and turns in the story that keep things interesting (more on that below), but these are merely the evolution of the genre.  They are not a grim negation of what has come before such as what Evangelion or Madoka aimed to do for mecha and magical girl respectively.

Finally, where I watched the series only had the English dub.  At first I considered this a bad thing but it grew on me rapidly. The anime has such a Western tone that hearing it in English seems natural after a short time. In addition, Luci Christian knocks it out of the park with her performance as Ahiru/Duck; after just a couple of episodes I had a hard time imagining this character with any other voice.

The Good:
First, let's get the obvious out of the way: the music.  The entire series is based on various ballets, and many of the episodes feature orchestral music to match.  I am far from being an expert on the pieces, but I did enjoy them as they added some variety to each episode.

Next, I'd like to tip my hat to the child characters.  I normally criticize young characters in anime, saying time and time again how the choice of adolescents is to the detriment of the plot.  This is one of the few series where I would say the age choice is entirely appropriate.  The simpler emotional structure of the series would be drivel if coming from adults, but from 12-14-year-olds it is more believable.  Fakir's development in particular fits the mold perfectly, although the arc they took him on was unexpected.

And finally, I would like to give some praise to Princess Tutu's plot.  The most surprising thing about it was the lack of major plot twists.  They told us from the earliest episodes what would happen: Tutu returns the shards, Prince fights Crow, the story ends happily.  Drosselmeyer isn't reinterpreted as the good guy, the Crow isn't secretly a tragic figure.  But what makes the plot different are the small wrinkles thrown in along the way:
  • Tutu doesn't end up with Myuuto as his princess.  She reverts to a duck with no special powers.  I was confident that a way would be found to avoid her fate, that she would overcome her inability to confess her love and live happily ever after.  Instead she really does sacrifice her abilities, fulfilling her mission in spite of her fear, and ends with no regrets.  When reading others' comments I found many to regard this as a negative result, but I found it to be a very sincere conclusion to the anime.
  • Fakir's development was similarly surprising.  Most stories would resolve Fakir's plight by having him overcome this weakness and finding the courage to be a great knight.  Instead he finds out he really is a mediocre knight, and that his ability lies elsewhere.  Again like many of these modifications, it was simple but unexpected in light of traditional stories.
  • The events of the story are actually being written by Drosselmeyer, a character within that story.  While the story is intelligible without this aspect, it neatly explains why some of the coincidences occur, such as why people are saved at the last second and how they never quite give up.

    One interesting effect of this storybook setting is how easily we overlook the strangeness of the animal people wandering around town.  When first confronted with them I was surprised, but when the characters didn't act surprised I simply assumed there was an explanation.  At the end the series draws your attention to this oddity, reminding you that this is not normal and that no explanation was ever offered.  In short, it uses our own suspension of disbelief to trick us into accepting something outrageous.  A small, but delightful, twist to be caught in as the viewer.
  • Tutu doesn't use violence in any way.  I'm not sure if this was a personal surprise, but when some of the interactions turned ugly I expected her to break out some sort of special magic or something.  But no, her only power is emotional comfort.  It was an aspect of her personality that made so much sense but it was so easy to expect something otherwise.
This gives a taste of how the practical execution of these small modifications on a traditional framework kept Princess Tutu recognizable but fresh at the same time.

The Bad:
If I had to level a criticism at Princess Tutu, it is that there were some aspects that were overused.  Through the entire series, all 26 episodes, they skip Tutu's transformation scene once (it is in the second to last episode; trust me, I was watching).  This obviously isn't a major sin, but it reflects the fact that at times Tutu's scenes are remarkably repetitive.

Initially the repeated approach of Tutu showing up, asking them to dance, and solving their problems was to be expected.  It lays the foundations so when things don't always follow that formula later it has more impact.  After these deviations the second half of the series returns to this pattern as the corrupted Myuuto tries to steal the hearts of various girls and Tutu must save them.  Unfortunately, these situations were nearly identical, evoking a sense of déjà vu as similar scenarios are rehashed.  Entire episodes dedicated to flower girl or love-letter-carrying girl were unnecessary and made the middle of the series drag.

There are also some times where I would have to criticize the use of stills, again as part of the repetition issue.  However, I don't judge the series to harshly for this.  It is merely something I noticed.

In closing, Princess Tutu is a series that I feel doesn't get nearly enough recognition.  It might not sound or look like much at first, but it dances circles around many flashier series.