While the other Key/KyoAni series' magic tends to be simple and clear, or at least explained in great enough detail to make even the more obscure parts of it understandable, Clannad instead relies on the viewer to figure out the details of what is actually happening, exactly what all the elements of the final miracle really are, and how they all got there. The implications of the events of the finale are clear enough for dramatic purposes; it is easy to follow what is actually happening on screen as you watch. However to understand it in detail you need smaller pieces of the puzzle which are strewn all over the series, to go with the larger revelations of the final episode. In this document I attempt to bring those pieces together and get a full picture from them, and also examine how the climax of the series works despite the viewer not being able to understand exactly what they are seeing the first time through. Of course, since it has been left to the viewer to figure out, this is just my theory, but I will back up my ideas with direct evidence from the series as much as possible, to avoid wander off into baseless speculation. The simplest place to start is actually at the end, at the moment when it all comes together. From there we can examine each mysterious element in turn to determine what it is and how it got there.
End of the World
The climax of the series presents us with parallel situations. On the one hand we have Tomoya standing on the hill in an altered version of the opening of the very first episode. Having now lost Ushio as well as Nagisa he is once again, this time more deeply, feeling that he should never have met Nagisa. That if he simply chose not to speak to her at this point in time, her life could be saved and their suffering could be averted. Time is stopped, except for Tomoya, who is doing nothing, and Nagisa, who is walking away in slow motion. The world is presented in the dull colours that represent Tomoya's original negative outlook on life. At the same time as this is happening, similar thoughts are going through the mind of the doll in the illusionary world. It has led the girl out into the winter snow in an effort to find a better place, the place it believes it came from. Now they lie half buried in snow, and the girl appears to be dead or dying. The doll thinks that it may have been better if they had never attempted the trip, though unlike Tomoya he keeps trying to move on. In the final moments leading up to the climax, it is revealed by the dying girl that she is Ushio and that the doll is Tomoya. She also reveals that she cannot leave the world with the doll, as she is this world, but she says that they can meet again in the other world. Once she is done delivering these sudden revelations, the world explodes. Climactic certainly, but not that helpful when trying to figure out what these final pieces of the puzzle mean.
To start putting it all together, I will begin with the general scenes presented to us, before moving on to the specific elements. First, the hill where Tomoya has to make the choice to speak to Nagisa or not. While this very literal visual reference to their first encounter may make one initially believe that this is the past, it quickly becomes obvious that it is something else. Tomoya remembers his life up until the final moments with Ushio which we saw; it is after all because of the events of his life that he is inclined to let Nagisa walk by. As for Nagisa, when she does eventually speak we find that it is not her past self either; not only does she remember her life with Tomoya (referring to it in the past tense no less), she also knows what is on his mind. Finally, looking at the world itself, time has stopped, frozen at this moment of decision. Looking at these details, this scene is obviously Tomoya thinking back to this moment, when he met Nagisa and set this chain of events in motion. What is less clear is what exactly it is that we are seeing on screen. It is not actually the past. Perhaps it is merely a visual representation of his thoughts? Perhaps he is experiencing this event again in his mind, and in his mind cannot bring himself to speak. Or, perhaps the pivotal choice he faces combined with the supernatural powers at work have made this a physical experience, a physical place out of time. Which is the case cannot be determined for certain and does not really matter. All that matters is that this scene embodies the choice he has to make, in the physical form of this important moment from his past. Nagisa's nature is similarly unclear. Is she actually a ghost Nagisa, drawn back to Tomoya in his mind or in this timeless place in order to play the role of her past self? Or is she merely a fragment of Tomoya's mind speaking for the real Nagisa? A difference in Nagisa's case is the fact that she speaks to Tomoya, tells him what she thinks, which pushes me toward believing that this is in some way actually her, and that this is in some sense a real physical experience which they have both been drawn to in order to facilitate Tomoya's final choice. The other scene is the illusionary world. It has been around since the very first episode, though it has never been clearly explained what it is. It is described by the doll as a world that has ended, a place where even time does not exist. The world that the doll came from, the real world, is described as being the past, the future, and even the present. Being without time, aligning the worlds chronologically is impossible, and it is simpler to think of them as linked worlds, one affecting the other, rather than one following the other. Kotomi's parents' research describes just such a world. We do know more about the illusionary world, the final pieces the girl gives us just before it is destroyed, but for now it suffices to make one final point about it. While a proper temporal relationship between the two worlds cannot be achieved, the illusionary world does seem to have a temporal connection to the timeless hill that Tomoya finds himself on. The scene is presented such that it seems that the destruction of the illusionary world is what causes Tomoya to 'wake up', suggesting that, being two timeless places, the hill and the illusionary world can interact in a temporal way, whereas it seems to come before, during and after the real world. Why the events in the illusionary world affect Tomoya in this way, I will get onto later.
While there is some pseudo-science thrown in, some psychological angles to consider, and discussion about the power of people's wishes/feelings, I'm going to label all the supernatural-esque stuff in Clannad as magic, because that is effectively what it is, and it is more convenient for now. Having looked at the two magical settings that comprise the setting of the climax, I will now examine the magical elements of those settings, starting with the illusionary world.
The doll in the illusionary world is Tomoya. Ushio states that the orbs in that world are the feelings of people in the real world, and that the doll started out as one of those lights. From this we can conclude that the doll started as the manifestation of Tomoya's feelings in the illusionary world, before being turned into the doll. There is obviously some difference between the doll and the other lights in the illusionary world, as they simply passively exist, while the doll was able to gain some degree of life with the help of Ushio, I'll examine this difference later on. Focusing on the doll for now, if it embodies Tomoya's feelings we would expect a link of some kind with the real Tomoya - and we find it. When Nagisa accidentally retells the story of the illusionary world in her play, real Tomoya recalls the story. Similarly, doll Tomoya recalls a life in a different world. This is one of the hints as to the timeless relationship between the two worlds - since both versions of Tomoya recall each other, this means neither one really comes after the other, otherwise only one Tomoya could remember the other. It also doesn't seem to be happening at the same time, as both speak about the other as if it is a memory from their distant past. It is simplest to think of both Tomoyas as being parts of a single whole. They are both part of a single complete existence, so they perceive each other, but because they are in separate worlds they each perceive the other part of that existence as a complete life outside of time, neither past, nor present, nor future, or perhaps all three at once. To be more precise but possibly less clear, time in each world is block time, and while in-world perception is classically linear, the perception of the other world is of the entire block, while cannot be reconciled with the perceived linear time of the reference universe and thus appears out of time, or as past, present and future.
The girl in the illusionary world is Ushio. However, her link to the 'real' Ushio is not the same as the link between the doll and Tomoya. While the doll, like the lights, is the manifestation of one real person's feelings in the illusionary world, the girl actually embodies that entire world. So while she has Ushio's appearance and apparently her thoughts, and recognises the other Ushio as herself, in reality she is actually part of the illusionary world, not a real person at all. This explains two things. First, why she cannot leave, which she states along with the revelation that she 'is' the world. Second, it explains why despite the fact that they both came from the same place and were together there, the doll can remember its other life, while Ushio cannot. The doll actually is Tomoya, and thus has some recollection of its other life, some knowledge of a world other than the illusionary one. But Ushio, being a manifestation of the illusionary world and not directly linked to the other Ushio, knows no world other than the one she is in, and it only able to see her other self in a 'dream' which reveals the truth of what is going on to her. Due to this difference Ushio is, like the doll, a special case which must have some reason for being different. Once again, I'll go into that in detail later.
The final element of the illusionary world is the orbs of light. Ushio says that these are the feelings of people in the real world. In the end it seems that Ushio and perhaps even the physical part of the illusionary world there are made of these orbs - that this world is in fact a more metaphysical place, but which took on physical form for a limited time due to Ushio and Tomoya. Ushio seems to turn back into the orbs at the end, what exactly happens to the rest of the world isn't clear, but it is safe to say that it isn't gone, since Ushio said that it was her leaving that would cause that, and she didn't actually leave as such. As with the two people in the illusionary world, the orbs also have a counterpart in the real world. The orbs in the real world, these ones differentiated by being blue, are the girl's feelings. However, since Ushio embodies that entire world, this may not mean Ushio's feelings personally, but rather the feelings of that world - the feelings projected into the illusionary world somehow projecting back into the real world at certain times. More on that later. These orbs supposedly appear when someone is happy or blessed, and are able to grant wishes if you can acquire one. The girl also says that they can be brought together to become more powerful.
Moving on to the real world, the single greatest magical element is Nagisa's illness. However, it doesn't seem to be the illness itself which is magical, rather it is an ordinary malady from which she was saved by the city when she was near death. The tricky thing about Nagisa's illness is how it recurs, apparently randomly. What is interesting about this is that she was cured of her illness magically, yet it continues to trouble her - one would expect magic to set everything right. Obviously there are limitations to what was done for her. Aside from her general weakness and annual problems when winter comes around, it is also strongly suggested that she has become linked with the physical city. On a few occasions a worsening of her condition is linked with construction work destroying some untouched part of the city - in particular the area where the wish that brought her back was made. Akio even states that he considers that place to be her double. This is a strong suggestion that his wish, while enough to save Nagisa, was not enough to fix her completely, and these changes to the city interfere enough to allow the illness to resurface. Where this gets very interesting is that the same thing happens to Ushio, but even more so. Ushio is apparently ok for the first five years; at least nothing notable is mentioned by any of the characters. Shortly after being reunited with Tomoya however, the illness hits her hard, killing her first time, though it takes a while. Why is this illness passed on to Ushio and why, as happened with Nagisa, does it hit her suddenly and randomly? One possible explanation for this leads into a further explanation for why Ushio appears in the illusionary world, and why she is unlike the doll or the other feelings in that world.
As I suggested above, Akio's wish to save Nagisa is not completely effective. It wears off a bit at certain times and in certain circumstances. It is because of this that Nagisa falls ill again and eventually dies - without the power that saved her that time she is destined to die. So why does this same recurring illness strike Ushio? One way of looking at it is that Ushio is a product of Akio's wish just as Nagisa's health is - were it not for the wish, Nagisa would have died, and Ushio would never have been born. Of course, Ushio was more like an unforeseeable side effect of the wish, but there must be some reason that she dies the same way as Nagisa, and the idea that the wish covered not only Nagisa's health but also Ushio's gives us this reason. And the idea that Ushio was, indirectly, created by the power of the city and is thus linked to it may also explain something else - why she appears as a person in the illusionary world. This first requires a closer examination of what the illusionary world actually is.
We know that there is a metaphysical, supernatural, magical side to the city. We also know that the illusionary world reflects the feelings of those who live in the city. However, we do not know what exactly the illusionary world itself is. Not the physical form, which ends up being destroyed anyway, rather that dimension, reality, whatever you want to call it. It would not be a large stretch to suggest that this world is the metaphysical side of the real city. That would explain why the feelings of the people who live in the city - which Nagisa says are felt by and returned by the city - appear there, and why corresponding orbs appear in the real world. The illusionary world is the magical aspect of the city which is so often referenced. What has this to do with Ushio and the fact that she appears in the illusionary world differently to anyone else? We know that people, specifically their feelings, are reflected in the illusionary world. As I pointed out above, Ushio is a special existence in that she exists only because of the power of the city. She has a special, unique link with the city, and I think this is why she appears in the illusionary world as an actual person. In the illusionary world, she isn't just there, she actually is the world. It seems that she, like the physical world she inhabits there, embodies the metaphysical side of the city. Perhaps when the power of the city came together to grant a wish and indirectly create a person, it didn't just result in the physical person in the real world, but also manifested as that person in the illusionary world. Or perhaps Ushio's unique link with the city simply meant that she manifested there as a person and gained her special role through that manifestation. The details are, and will remain, unclear, but it seems likely that it is Akio's wish which tied Ushio to the city, and that link which resulted in her appearance in the illusionary world. Given this, the failure of the wish can be taken even beyond Nagisa and Ushio's real deaths.
Essentially, Akio's wish caused some changes in the world. Nagisa lives, Ushio is born, she appears in a physical version of the illusionary world. The wish, due to being somehow unstable, can not maintain these changes. Nagisa becomes ill and dies. This much is easily explained as the wish failing her and her illness suddenly returning. To explain Ushio, we use the idea I just explained, that even being an indirect result of the wish, even she must be maintained by the power of the city, and when it fails her, she dies. Extending this, we can say that any result of the wish will eventually fail - that things will tend to return to the way they would have been if Akio had never made the wish - and we see this happen in the illusionary world as well. Had Ushio never been born, obviously she would never have appeared in the illusionary world either. Since it was a world that only she existed in (originally) and that she embodied, her not being there would likely mean that the physical illusionary world would never have existed either - it would have remained purely metaphysical. This link is clearly illustrated when both Ushio and the illusionary world 'die' simultaneously. Ushio in the illusionary world and the physical illusionary world are one and the same - she is not killed by the changes in the world, rather those changes in the world are her dying. And why does this happen? Once again it is the failure of the wish. Nagisa eventually dies, Ushio eventually dies, and the illusionary world eventually falls apart as well. Just as with Nagisa and Ushio, the illusionary world carries on fine for a time, but then inexplicably starts to 'die' and eventually does. The existence of the illusionary world is the final effect of Akio's wish, and the final one to be undone. However, the temporary existence of this world afforded Tomoya a chance to change things in a more permanent way.
The Ushio is the illusionary world says that the orbs which appear in the real world are her feelings, just as the orbs in the illusionary world are the feelings of the people in the real city. Given that Ushio embodies that world, the world which I suggest is in fact the metaphysical side of the city, it would seem that the blue orbs are in some way also the feelings of the city, reciprocating the feelings of the people in it - hence why the orbs appear in the real world when people find happiness. It is shown quite early in the series that these orbs are able to grant wishes to those who possess them, and Ushio says as much as the illusionary world is falling apart, though she says that they are not very powerful individually.
Tomoya gets one of these orbs during the original timeline when he reconciles with his father, thought he does not realise it at the time. Later on, when real Ushio dies and we switch over to the illusionary/timeless worlds we see that orb leave his body, though exactly what it does is not made clear. At the time he is begging for Ushio to be saved, but this does not happen, not directly at least. Ushio says that the individual orbs are not very powerful; this is probably why Ushio is not simply saved the way Nagisa was. So what does the orb do? It is probably the orb that is responsible for Tomoya appearing in the illusionary world. Everyone's feelings manifest there, but it was only Tomoya whose mind, whose consciousness, also went there. Ushio says that he managed to traverse the distance between the worlds; it was most likely the power of that orb which allowed him to do that. This is why there are no direct immediate effects from his wish even though we see the orb leave Tomoya when he is in the snow with Ushio. The effect is actually all the way back in the first episode of the first season, when his orb in the illusionary world first gains awareness.
In the end, this small act of finding Ushio in another world achieves quite a lot. Aside from being reunited with Ushio for a time, illusionary Tomoya is able to learn the truth about the orbs, learn that he can meet Ushio again in the real world, and is able to travel back to the real world to give his original self a nudge in the right direction; to prevent him from giving up and choosing never to meet Nagisa.
Top of the Hill
Having discussed all the elements which make up the climax, we can now step through it and examine the meaning of each event. Due the to failure of Akio's wish, as with Nagisa and real Ushio, and due to the doll's interference, the illusionary world is 'dying' - thus illusionary Ushio, who reveals that she is that world, is dying. The doll realises that he has caused this, and regrets bringing the girl on this journey. At the same time, Tomoya is standing on the timeless hill, feeling the same regret with regard to Nagisa. This is important - they are presented on screen as feeling the same thing at the same time. The critical difference is that while the doll regrets what he has done, he tries to wake Ushio up, to try to carry on, while Tomoya has apparently given up. Illusionary Ushio's death is not death as such - her physical form is dying, but her essence will still exist. As she puts it, she will simply no longer be human. Due to this she has gained a greater understanding of both worlds and of their identities, and is able to finally explain how the illusionary world relates to the real world. She tells the doll that she cannot go with him, as to do so would destroy the illusionary world - not merely the physical manifestation they are in, which is falling apart anyway, but the entire existence of it. However, she tells him that he will see her again, and that he is now going to travel to the real world. The illusionary world then falls apart, Ushio turns into a bundle of orbs, and the doll is destroyed. At that moment, Tomoya 'wakes up'. Recall that the doll is the manifestation of Tomoya's feelings in the illusionary world, but that unlike the other orbs he has the capability to experience things there. Doll Tomoya has gained a resolve to continue which real Tomoya lacks, and has been told that he can see Ushio again. Since these are Tomoya's feelings, this should have some effect on real Tomoya - and it does. While the two are mostly independent throughout the series, the doll travelling to the real world as illusionary Ushio predicted allows these changes in Tomoya's feelings to alter his real self. So, at the moment the doll is destroyed and goes to the real world, Tomoya 'wakes up', and chases Nagisa. He gains the doll's resolve, if not its memories. When he does this, Nagisa echoes Illusionary Ushio's words shortly before; that having met him was enough, regardless of how it ended.
All of this can be hard to keep up with on the literal level as the details needed to understand fully it are spread liberally throughout the series. However, what makes the finale work so well is that it doesn't merely work on a literal level. The events in and state of the illusionary world parallel elements of the real world. Dealing with the events first, while the doll and the girl are literally Tomoya and Ushio, they also represent Tomoya and Nagisa. Nagisa exists in a world which won't stop changing around her, change which she is unable to cope with. Tomoya is stuck in a world which is static, and which he is unable to change. When he meets Nagisa, he helps her to deal with the changes in her world, and in return she changes his world. However, in the end, these changes result in Nagisa's death, and Tomoya finds himself back in an unchanging world again. The doll finds himself in the same situation. He finds himself in a world in which nothing ever changes, and in which he can effect no change, as only the girl can make new things successfully. However, with his encouragement, the girl starts to make changes to the world they are in, thus changing the doll's world as Nagisa changed Tomoya's. The doll tries to help the girl to cope with the changes he caused her to make, but as with Nagisa this ultimately fails. The doll too finds himself back in a static world. However, it has the resolve to continue, where Tomoya gives up. Because the events of the illusionary world reflect the events of the real world, the meaning of the events of the finale are clear even if they cannot be fully understood. The doll and Tomoya find themselves in a similar situation due to taking similar actions. Where Tomoya gives up, the doll wishes to carry on, and it is then revealed he in fact is Tomoya, and will now go to the real world, at which point Tomoya 'wakes up'. Just as these events can be explained in terms of magic and plot details, they are also made clear through paralleling the main story. Related to this is the fact that the state of the illusionary world reflects the state of Tomoya's mind, or perhaps his worldview. Again, initially it is a static unchanging place, the way Tomoya perceives the real world. Over time this world begins to change along with Tomoya's worldview. However, with the death of Nagisa, the world starts to take a negative turn. It starts to become an even worse place than before; static and unchanging, and now a frozen wasteland, reflecting Tomoya's return to his old mindset. Reuniting with Ushio offers a reprieve, but her death puts an end to any hope he had. The illusionary world no longer resembles its original state at all. The tragic end of the doll and the girl's journey coincides with Tomoya deciding that he should never have met Nagisa. However, as the doll finds out the truth, as its resolve finds its way into the real Tomoya, the world bursts into life again. While in literal terms it is being destroyed, the sunlight breaking through the clouds followed by the destruction of this barren, frozen world reflects the change that occurs in Tomoya's mind as he 'wakes up', and decides to chase Nagisa. While the somewhat unclear nature of the magic can make it difficult to follow exactly what is going on in the finale, the use of the illusionary world on a less literal level actually manages to communicate the meaning of the events of the finale, even without a full understanding of what is actually happening.
The events which follow Tomoya's choice to stay with Nagisa are sometimes referred to as a deus ex machina. Before 'dying', Illusionary Ushio mentioned the power of the orbs, importantly that they are more powerful when brought together. The combination of real Tomoya and doll Tomoya now use this power to travel to the moment when Nagisa died and change the outcome. This time she lives. And since the power which granted this wish was the power of all the feelings of the city, shown by the numerous blue orbs, rather than one man's wish, it will work properly this time. This may seem to be a case of conveniently undoing a bad end using magic. However, Tomoya later reveals that he remembers the original version of events. This is not a case of going back and rewriting an unhappy ending. The unhappy version was a necessary stepping stone to get to the happy ending. Tomoya starts as a person stuck in an unchanging world through his own inaction. Throughout the series he consistently has to improve his lot in life by taking action. Helping the people around him, moving on with his life, moving out and getting a job, reconciling with Ushio and his father, helping Ushio in the illusionary world, constantly pushing forward. Having gone through all this only to lose everything, he is presented the choice of going back to his old life, or sticking with his new life regardless of the consequences. Rather than undoing the character development after episode 16, the fact that he does remember everything that originally happened, is forced to choose to face it or to give up, and chooses to face it, validates and completes all of the character development throughout the series. Having reached the end of the journey he is faced with the ultimate question - knowing how it ends, would he do it all again? As for the actual ending, it fits into a pattern throughout the series wherein the positive actions of the protagonist always bring about a happy ending. After Story isn't a story about living with the harsh realities of life, it is a story about the willingness to take on the risk or even inevitability of those harsh realities to seek whatever it is you desire. Such a story would be sabotaged by having the protagonist lose out in the end despite his perseverance. Were it to end that way, the story would be that Tomoya sought to set his life right, and instead only made things worse, a message a series like this is obviously not going to try to convey. While Tomoya did eventually get the convenient happy ending, he only got it by proving that he would accept the harsh reality of the original chain of events. The point of the series is in the journey, not the destination.
Written by Crumplecorn
Last Updated 17/04/2010