The Key to Your Heart: Restructuring the Maeda Ideal Through Clannad and Air’s Theatrical Adaptations

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Do I have any agency yet, uguu~.

Maeda Jun would be considered one of fandom’s more notorious figureheads, revered yet slated on all corners of the internet. If one were to harbour even a passing familiarity with his oeuvre however they would find that such a profoundly incongruous reputation isn’t exactly unearned, commendation and condemnation perhaps equally deserved. His devastatingly conflictive opus tends to be filtered as a collective whole through Kyoto Animation’s polished lens, lush mise en scène earning a place in fandom’s beating heart; the studio’s Maedian tear-jerker trilogy considered to be among the medium’s more iconic in terms of interpersonal dramatics. Despite undoubtedly sincere meditations on the familial unit and bonds sustained in one’s darkest hour however, I find the clamorous brouhaha following in Maeda’s wake mystifying, the notion that he is unmatched in terms of drawing out heart-wrenching spectacles questionable. Sequences such as Misuzu stumbling towards Haruko and Tomoya gripping onto Ushio are undeniably stirring, yet glimmers of potential fade as tic-spewing ingénues shuffle off their mortal coil, dousing sympathetic flames of pathos. Despite compassion earned with domiciliary narratives it is something of an inevitability that the writer’s seventeen-going-on-seven daughter creatures will eventually succumb to mysterious illnesses; heroines written so as to induce a bewildering mixture of carnal desirability and paternal warmth within the reader-as-proxy leading to jibes regarding the Maedian feminine ideal.

When taken in comparison to Kyoto Animation’s offerings the cinematic spectacles of Clannad and Air slip through the cracks of fandom’s collective conscious, doomed to languish within the depths of oblivion. Although I would consider Maeda’s model to be my bête noire, auteur par excellence Dezaki Osamu’s voice reverberates through otherwise restrictive confines and graciously elevates Maeda’s sad-girls-in-the-snow shtick to reputable heights. As a director he is unrivaled, weaving rich cinematographic tapestries from even the most frayed of thematic strands, resulting in arresting pieces deserving of admiration. Although disparaged by the community at large to this day both films are arguably Maeda’s material at its most striking and succinct, omitting the more ludicrous elements arguably undermining any potential gravitas Kyoto Animation’s adaptations could have potentially offered. Misuzu and Nagisa are portrayed as unusually grave figures, a far cry from their respective reputations as doe-eyed ingénues with a distinct whiff of melancholia suffusing their actions.

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Gloomy shadows stretch out into the furthest reaches of eternity as Misuzu ruminates on folkloric elements inextricably linked to a congenital destiny, chains of tradition oppressive and threatening to drag her down. Admirably broadening Air’s dramatic scope through lingering on the mythos’ ineffably baleful timbre, its environment responds in kind to Misuzu’s disorientation. Deliberately offset against summer’s pleasurable languor she stands isolated on the shrine’s steps, all sweat-mopped brow as this gnawing something shadows her existence. The sweltering heat does little to comfort as a chill settles and Dezaki gulls loom; a Greek chorus soaring through ruinous skies, ancestral pleas drowned out by the keys of a discordant score. Unlike Misuzu’s sleazy in-game portrayal, her film counterpart cuts a curiously reflective figure as the cinemanarrative emphasizes her solitude and the script’s inherent sense of cosmic horror. It’s all wistful smiles where she’s concerned, plaintive stares off into the distance juxtaposed with past sequences, the film showing its hand from the beginning.

Otherwise cloying affectations heroines of Misuzu’s ilk are notorious for come across as intentionally feeble, verbal tics unconvincing to the audience (but most of all, herself) lending a vaguely subversive cadence to her portrayal of the Maedian ideal. Perhaps most remarkable however is the convincing sentimentality underscoring the primary relationship, bolstered through a sense of agency lacking in Air’s other renditions easily rendering Dezaki’s take the most compelling. Two lonely individuals draw closer of their own volition sans alarming connotations, and when Yukito is later invited into Misuzu’s home it no longer feels as if she is falling prey to a leering vagrant. Their connection instead paints a gravely supernatural tale spanning across time and space, a rather mournful summer segue placed in jarring contrast to Air’s absurdly melodramatic television adaptation.

Clannad likewise eschews its medium’s often juvenile pitfalls through divesting the gormless milquetoast of his nigh-omnipotent abilities, no longer characterized by his rushing to the aid of every swooning heroine within a ten-mile radius; another box to be neatly ticked off on the Everylead’s quest to the true end. Dezaki’s approach is more After Story, less achingly mid-noughties visual novel adaptation in its rawness as skittish affections bloom amidst a deluge of cherry blossoms. It is all that Clannad ought to have been, and removing auxiliary otaku-orientated mechanisms results in an affecting portrait of a man besieged by trauma who finds the strength to press on due to interpersonal relationships. Strained communicative efforts are reflected through every drop of water falling into a sink swarming with dishes, every discarded bag of rubbish strewn about the Okazaki family home as Naoyuki sits in deep, deep silence. Juxtaposed with the easy sincerity of the Furukawa family home, Naoyuki’s tentative offers at restoration being brushed off by Tomoya hints at cyclical behavioural patterns with his indifference distressing; developmental scars manifest.

Rather suggestively once Tomoya confides in Nagisa he cuts a distant figure, lost in the annals of harrowing reveries as narrow black confines threaten to overwhelm. In response to burdens shared and the broadening of interpersonal horizons however, the following frame depicts both Tomoya and Nagisa standing side by side. And so the future is filled with possibility, no longer as daunting. Scars may be ever-present, but they fade over time. A fundamentally redemptive testament to the power of humans being social creatures, the film remains all the more powerful for not succumbing to the obvious at the eleventh hour.

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Where fundamentally challenging oeuvres are concerned, is restructuring in a manner that posits a legitimate case for revising otherwise difficult material justified? Despite feelings of ambivalence towards Maeda Jun’s body of work I nevertheless journeyed deep into the most cavernous of narrative depths time and time again, stumbling through ‘but maybe this time’s at every turn. Fragments of catharsis and lingering resonance softened by plodding routes written to appease, daughter creatures muttering “uguu” amounting to little more than pillow-shaped reveries. Despite the best of intentions I found myself exasperated time and time again, consistently finding fault no matter what form Maeda’s works took. Were the elements I found myself drawn towards illusionary flickers on a horizon cushioned by daughter-pillows? Was it really worth all that effort when I knew frustration awaited, my goodwill being sapped each and every time?

I was beginning to think as much until I bore witness to Dezaki Osamu’s approach, in which otherwise conflictive material marred by indulgent otakuisms were at last elevated to heights deserved. With an element of sympathy and grace, Air and Clannad solemnly coalesce into treatises on the strength of connection in one’s darkest hour, grave reminders that redemption is eternally in reach. Despite both films being snubbed by fandom due to not being as fluidly animated or as lengthy as Kyoto Animation’s beloved offerings, they are arguably Maeda’s material at its most affecting. Structural issues persist, yet Misuzu and Nagisa amount to relatively well-rounded figures imbued with a level of nuance, their respective narratives lacking insidious visual novelisms for the most part.

After waiting for so long, I’ll gladly take it.

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