Matt Kamen isn’t crying, honest.
Anime isn’t all action and explosions – for every pulse-pounding movie like Redline, there’s an emotionally devastating counterpart such as Grave of the Fireflies. And for every high-powered TV show, there are quieter, more considered offerings, such as the library of fan-favourite studio Key.
Founded in 1998, the Osaka-based company got its start as a producer of visual novels. Headed by Jun Maeda, Itaru Hinoue and Shinji Orito, the 1999 game Kanon was the group’s first effort. Originally an erotic tale for PC gamers, it was so popular that it was toned down and re-released on consoles as a ‘pure’ romance. Unlike many such titles, it was praised for its weaving narrative, captivating characters and lush visuals, cementing the developer as one to watch. Kanon was spun off into light novels, manga and an initial 13-episode anime series from Toei, which debuted in 2002.
Key’s next hit, Air, followed much the same pattern – an adult “visual novel” in 2000, edited down to a softer dating sim for Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and PSP, and followed by assorted multimedia tie-ins. However, this time Kyoto Animation was tapped to bring the dramatic story of love and loss set in a seaside town to the screen. The 2005 collaboration was so successful that a year later, Kyoto produced an updated take on Kanon, which this time enjoyed a full 24-episode run to provide a far deeper examination of its characters’ lives.
However, Key’s third visual novel marked a change in direction. Unlike its predecessors, 2004’s Clannad abandoned sexual content and was released for a general audience straight away. Taking on the role of Tomoya Okazaki, a delinquent teen with a tortured past, the player navigates various relationships, chiefly with the young would-be actress Nagisa Furukawa. Along with romantic intrigues, Tomoya’s story reveals the fractured and abusive relationship he has with his father, and the tragedy of his mother’s death. It was a slow, considered and humanising tale full of realistic, flawed characters, and even a gentle touch of the supernatural was dealt with in a poignant and appropriate manner.
Kyoto was once again the creative force behind bringing Clannad to the small screen, delivering a 23-episode run directed by Tatsuya Ishihara. The talented director (also responsible for Kyoto’s in-house schoolgirl-turned-goddess, Haruhi Suzumiya) channelled the multiple plotlines of the visual novel to create a singular vision that focused on the deeply personal connections Tomoya forms with Nagisa and the other girls – Kyou Fujibayashi, a fantastic cook with a terrible attitude; Kotomi Ichinose, a shy and studious girl whose only weak point is the violin; Tomoyo Sakagami, a street-smart fighter with academic ambitions; and Fuko Ibuki, a first year high school student with an odd habit of carving wooden starfish.
The story that unfolds in Clannad is a weighty and often moving one, but promises to engage viewers in the lives of its cast in a way few other shows can manage.
Clannad, part one, is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment.