The beauty of Clannad is in how it shows love expressed through family of all different kinds – that kind of love has the power to heal, to restore, to give life, even in the midst of extraordinary difficulties, even when life itself isn’t fair. There’s a sincerity to the series that’s lacking in most anime; even though the series incorporates elements like fantasy and slapstick comedy, it’s centered right here, right in the heart. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that a story that so positively emphasizes community realistically (if not intentionally) also demonstrates how it can fail.
Major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched Clannad, I suggest you turn back from this page, go to the interwebs, and start it. It’s worth the watch. Then maybe come back when you’re done.
In episode sixteen of After Story, there’s a melancholy that haunts the episode right from the beginning and through until it’s devastating end. It starts with the clann/clan gathering for a New Year’s celebration, with a pervasive feeling that the get-together isn’t happiness and the same old interactions from high school, but a sadness in seeing how things have changed. The friends have visited each other rarely since graduation. Sunohara has been busy with work, the twins with school, and Kotomi studying abroad. Even without the event about to occur, this feels like the last celebration for the group (Note: I can’t quite remember how the group responds in later episodes—it’s been a while since I’ve seen the series, which I’m making my way through again).
Then the unthinkable happens: Nagisa dies during childbirth. Tomoya is ruined. He decides to pour himself into work (and alcohol) and abandon his newborn child, trusting in Sanae and Akio to raise her. And there is no indication here, in the hardest of times for Tomoya (though of course, the worst is yet to come), that any of his friends made any solid effort to reach out him, to be there for him, to be family (scroll down to Clannad on this page for some discussion of the friends’ disappearance).
Excuses are given. The series seems to take the angle and Sanae, the group mom, suggested that the friends stay away. In her wisdom, and her intimate knowledge of Tomoya, she knows he’ll eventually come around. And of course he does, so it seems like a wise piece of advice indeed, and it’s also something that I personally need to learn as a parent (“let them make their mistakes”), but in the context of this show, I don’t buy it. It’s not what I would expect of those characters judging by how intense their relationships had become and how much Tomoya and Nagisa meant to them.
You have to buy what the narrative is selling with you, and it’s foolish to go on too much of a tangent, to make your own head canon. So I don’t want to delve too much into reasons for why the group (Tomoyo, the outsider, included) didn’t gather around Tomoya like family and support him in all ways possible, except to say that it was perhaps a circumstance of the people they had become and of their already-distancing relationships. It became too easy to come to the conclusion that some of them reached when discussing whether or not to visit Tomoya in his grief: “We agreed it was best to leave you alone.”
I believe community is utterly vital for life. It’s necessary to be able to thrive with lives that approach our very best. I’ve suffered through long seasons where I’ve lacked authentic community. Even now, I don’t have the community I desire, and it sometimes hurts me deeply when I’m suffering and no one supports me – when it seems no one really cares.
Tomoya’s reactions to Kyou when he sees her again indicate that he is okay that his friends didn’t rescue him as he tried to do with them in high school – maybe it’s because he realized they were only really friends for less than a year, such a short time; or maybe he realized that of all the answers, the best for him was that he needed to be isolated and then gently led back when the time was right. After all, Tomoya’s loss was an incredibly painful and difficult situation.
The answers for how to care for the hurting are rarely wrapped up tidily with a white bow, but I think that just impresses upon that when we don’t know how to help our loved ones, we’re only really left with two choices: to cease being community, or to be a community that loves. And when put that way, the choice is crystal clear.
You can stream Clannad and Clannad After Story on Hulu.