Love it or hate it, here’s one thing Clannad undeniably excels at: character animation. If you observe the visuals closely, much of the characterisation is expressed through body language and subtle visual cues. Even when the anime goes for low-brow, physical humour, the characters’ entire bodies remain quite expressive and dynamic. This is in contrast to the rather “stiff” delivery in most anime comedies.
If you don’t believe me, just observe Nagisa’s drunken scene and Chitoge’s one in Nisekoi. It boils down to the same joke, but there’s a world of difference in the delivery. It’s not so much that Clannad is more skillfully animated (although this is definitely true), but rather the storyboards themselves were conceived with quite different intents in mind; each shot in Clannad draws attention to the movements of all the characters inside and outside the frame, leading to a natural escalation of the situation, whereas Nisekoi’s scene is full of choppy transitions from one key frame into another.
Clannad’s visual strengths were particularly noticeable in the After Story portion of the tale, especially as far as Ushio’s characterisation was concerned. It would have been so easy for her character to become Generic Moeblob #85934, especially given that her role in the overall narrative is mostly one of symbolic importance. Yet Ushio never failed to have presence whenever she was onscreen, and much of this comes down to the way her body movements were animated. It was clear that the key animators put extra care into making her move like a real child.
Let’s go through some of Ushio’s establishing scenes in episode 17, which was directed and storyboarded by Teruyoshi Yoneda.
It takes almost a full minute before we see Ushio’s face after she’s first introduced. We see fleeting glimpses of her running throughout the house. The music slowly builds up as Tomoya moves out of the shadows. At 0:24, light streams in through the window, but then quickly dims as Tomoya sadly mutters Nagisa’s name. Yet still, the music doesn’t fade away, and soon enough Tomoya hears Ushio’s footsteps again. He moves quickly, and the anticipation builds. When Ushio’s face finally inches into view, light streams in through the window once more. The camera pans up quite purposefully here, firmly establishing the link between Ushio’s appearance and the new-found brightness in Tomoya’s life.
This introduction makes a strong impact, but we don’t get a clear picture of what Ushio is like as a child until the second half of the episode begins. Tomoya and Ushio share a stilted exchange, but it’s not until Ushio begins moving again that the viewer – and Tomoya – get the impression that she’s actually quite energetic.
In case the implication wasn’t clear enough, Tomoya spells it out for us a second later:
As the episode goes on, a few skits show that even if Ushio is a shy and withdrawn child, she definitely doesn’t act much older than her age. She trips in the hallway, breaks her toy because she doesn’t understand the concept of delayed gratification, and is a picky eater.
Her childishness doesn’t just express itself in the script, however. Notice how she plays with her food in this scene (esp. at 0:43 and 0:54):
Speaking of Ushio’s eating habits, she doesn’t hold her chopsticks properly yet (this scene’s from episode 20):
You can see that she’s trying to balance the food on top of that chopsticks instead of holding it between the two sticks. It looks like she has her forefinger and middle finger both placed on top of the sticks, instead of holding one stick between the two fingers as you’re supposed to. Try holding chopsticks that way and you’ll find that you can’t actually bring the chopsticks together properly. Now that is attention to detail.
If there’s just one thing that rings false about Ushio’s body language, it’s that she doesn’t look around very much. From my experience dealing with young children, even well-behaved kids are prone to turning their heads around a lot, especially when they’re in a new place. I guess when you’re five, you’re not very good at processing things with your peripheral vision.
Other than that, though, I find Ushio to be an extremely well-realised character. I don’t mean to say that she acts like a realistic child – she is way too well-behaved for that. Rather, her body language captures the essence of her solemn yet cheerful personality, which is the part of her character which matters to the narrative and its themes. You can figure out what kind of person she is just from watching her move in any given scene, even when the script doesn’t explicitly draw attention to those traits.
The more I delve into the animation medium, the more I find that “good writing” can’t be easily separated from “good animation”. Cool-looking special effects can’t drown out the effect of a poorly-scripted scene, but visual framing does shape how we respond to the scripting. I have no idea how Ushio comes across in the original visual novel, but she really came alive on the anime screen because the animators put clear thought into how to visually express a child responding to their environment. Had she lacked screen presence, her key scenes would likely have fallen flat, no matter how well-conceived they happened to be.
I also believe that animation speaks louder than words. For example, even when removed from context, any viewer can easily appreciate the non-verbal storytelling at work here [OBVIOUS SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 21]:
If you think that it’s just the sad music that makes this scene effective, try watching it with the sound muted. You can still feel all the weight behind Ushio’s steps. Walking is much harder to animate than it looks – to express the full weight of the action, you need to consistently convey the motion of the character’s hips and pelvis, rather than just moving the legs. It’s also important to note here that the center of gravity is constantly shifting as Ushio stumbles further and further forward. Even when you can’t actually see her legs moving, you can still perceive the momentum shifting.
(As a side note, this episode was storyboarded and directed by Noriyuki Kitanohara, who animated the infamous running scene in Nichijou as well as this hilarious scene in Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu. This guy has obviously mastered the walking/running cycle!)
So what’s the takeaway message here? If it occurs to you that an anime character is well-written, try paying extra attention to the way the character expresses themselves visually. Even with limited animation, you can make characters respond to their environment in ways that will make them come alive to the viewer. In fact, it’s because animation is limited that the viewer can appreciate the artistic intent behind any form of character animation.
In the end, I’m sure that some people find Ushio’s character rather flat and emotionally manipulative, just like the rest of Clannad. I certainly don’t believe that Clannad is flawless myself – there are loads of problems with it! Still, I hope that even Clannad’s detractors can appreciate the level of craft that went into its visual storytelling. If the story immersed you, then on some level the animation probably helped you relate to the characters. I’m surprised that Jacob Chapman didn’t mention it as one of the reasons why Clannad made you cry.
(n.b. I wrote about Clannad today because it’s a family story and I was originally planning to write a post around a Mother’s Day theme. But then I got caught up in the fascinating nitty gritties of animation, so I shifted the focus of the piece entirely. Oh well, Happy Mother’s Day, everybody!)