One thing I’ve always found interesting was reading up on theories regarding Clannad, and how its mechanics “work”. The ending was, without a doubt, not very well explained, unless you rewatch it a second time and get the huge amount of small and subtle hints there. I have seen countless possible diagrams for how the Clannad timeline works, and none of them is agreeable to me 100%, so I decided to write down my own interpretation. Note that IW = illusionary World, and that understanding my points requires remembering the anime and the hints that it had, or just having read the visual novel.
I will be using both knowledge from the anime and visual novel, which is the same, only better explained (or rather, more obvious) in the VN:
World A: this timeline isn’t showed, just implied, and it happens before the events of Season 1. The reason why this World A has to exist is because I consider the Illusionary World story to have occured at the same time as the regular Story (Season 1 and Season 2), and with that in mind, the Ushio and Tomoya that exist in that world have to have come from somewhere – that somewhere is World A. Not only that, but in Season 1 we see how Nagisa’s play involves the story of the other world, though both Nagisa and Tomoya don’t know how they “remember” this story, only that it feels extremely nostalgic, plus Nagisa remembers the “ending” of the play (the doll and the girl going on a trip to attempt to leave the world) after it actually happens in the other world, meaning these stories are happening at the same time. So World A existing IS a necessity. In this world, we can assume Tomoya didn’t help any of the other girls, but had a boring high school life, though he dated and eventually married Nagisa. Nagisa and Ushio die in this timeline, and Ushio creates her Illusionary World in order to collect light orbs and attempt to reverse her family’s tragic fate. Tomoya also ends up in this world, possibly out of sheer will (never explained though).
World B: the timeline that we see in Season 1 and in Season 2 up until episode 22. Depending on whether we take the visual novel into consideration or not, World B can either be a string of timelines or a single timeline. In the VN, Tomoya collects the light orbs by “dating” all the heroines and helping them in the process, whereas in the anime Tomoya only helps them, but he gathers their light orbs regardless. This timeline exists because Tomoya was sent back in time, after World A happens, by IW Ushio, so that he can gather the light orbs that will make it possible to bring about the miracle. During Nagisa’s death scene, we see Tomoya in the hill where he met Nagisa the first time. Tomoya regrets having met her (as he had stated before, in a conversation with Sanae) because of the pain both of them ended up facing, and doesn’t call out to her, foreshadowing what happens at the ending, as Tomoya is just trying to escape the problem, not face it – he’s not ready to bring about the miracle. Episodes 17-21 are what allows him to grow up as a person enough that he chooses to accept the fact that meeting Nagisa is worth all that pain and much more. In the Illusionary World, the girl says how she had a dream where she was told who she was and her purpose in that world. She sends the doll, who turned out to be Tomoya, into the real world again, giving him a last chance.
World C: by being able to come to terms with his father, his daughter and himself, he’s able to use this chance and call out to Nagisa, and say how much she meant to him. This happens in Tomoya’s head, but is what allowed the miracle to happen, as Tomoya had finally faced the problem. We then see greyed-out images of a third timeline, World C, which are meant to represent how Tomoya lived the same life he did in World B, and Tomoya awakens with Ushio’s cry, and this time Nagisa lives, her connection to the city severed and her tragic fate avoided.
Now, this is made possible thanks to the light orbs I’ve been mentioning. By reading the VN and properly watching the anime two times, I figured out some facts regarding the light orbs:
a) they only grant genuine wishes. In Misae’s arc, Shima’s wish that the rain would stop falling on him was not granted – this was because it wasn’t a genuine wish. Same reason why Tomoya’s wish to never have met Nagisa wasn’t granted – deep down inside, he knew it was just a way to escape the problem, not a wish from his heart.
b) it grants the wish quite literally. Again in Misae’s arc, Misae wishes Shima to love her forever. But because she didn’t know he was a cat to begin with, and didn’t specify “to love her as a human forever”, he was only allowed to live in cat form, though he kept loving her, as the wish said.
c) they are not omnipotent. A large quantity of them are needed, and throughout the show such miracles were only granted to people who were prepared to work hard for them (Fuuko’s persistence on making the wedding happen even with many people refusing the starfish, Shima courting Misae and even offering to help her with anything, Akio leaving his career to take care of his daughter and Tomoya’s willingness to work hard to surpass his shortcomings as a person (eps 17-21 in specific)).
These are all facts that are hinted at, but never outright said (leading to many misunderstandings about the ending being an ass pull). The light orbs are an established plot point, they’ve been there since episode 1 of Season 1, as has the Illusionary World, and the anime dropped a good amount of hints regarding them, though they are much more noticeable if you watch the series a second time, knowing what will happen and searching for them. The anime could have done a better job at explaining them, as the novel did.
In Yukine’s route, the first mention of the light orbs by a real world character is made. Yukine speaks of the city’s legend, and how people in previous years could see the light orbs, but in the present time only a handful of them can – Tomoya being one of them. These light orbs are weak alone, only granting small scale wishes (like Misae’s), but if brought together, they can make a miracle happen. They are the represention of people’s happy feelings, and they go straight to the Illusionary World, where they are collected by IW Ushio. Her own happy feelings transform into light orbs that are sent to the real world, as seen in episode 22 of Afterstory. Interestingly, Tomoya became unable to see light orbs as years passed, as when he bid farewell to his father, only Ushio noticed the light orb going inside of him. This single light orb might very well have been his own, as he had finally come to terms with his father, who he had despised all this time. The fact that he helped all of those people in high school, plus him coming to terms with himself, is what allowed the miracle to happen, and that’s Clannad’s main point: to face the adversities and hardships of life and to accept oneself. So episodes 17-21, while they didn’t happen in the final timeline, were far from being useless or discarded, as they’re what allowed Tomoya to grow as a person.
Some people were disappointed with the ending, and understandably so. They felt betrayed because there was a reset, and the main tragic events never “happened”. While this is true, it’s evident that Tomoya and Nagisa recall the events from the previous timeline. During the ending scenes, we see Tomoya visiting his father on the countryside, meaning he also came to terms with him in this timeline – no doubt influenced by the previous one. Episode 24 is a recap, and has Tomoya telling Ushio his and Nagisa’s story. But when Ushio falls asleep, he clearly remembers the tragic fate his family experienced during the last timeline. So the memories are there, the development is there, nothing was wasted.
There was another interesting thing, which was the very first scene of the anime, which is repeated two more times in Afterstory: in Nagisa’s death scene and in the last episode. This scene is extremely relevant because it’s what started Tomoya and Nagisa’s life together – their first meeting. It’s also Tomoya’s final test as a person, as choosing not to call out to her is the easy way out, and means he regrets meeting her, whereas calling her out mean accepting all the pain that is to come with that. In the first episode, Tomoya also mentions “We start to climb the long… long hill”. While this is definitely literal, it’s also metaphorical. In the last episode, we can hear both Tomoya and “the doll” saying “The long… long climb is finally coming to an end”. This is meant to show how the “climb” was another word for “life” and is meant to represent the hardships Tomoya would go through before bringing about the miracle at the end. It also shows how Tomoya and the doll are, once again, one person.
But symbolism aside, how about what started all of this – Nagisa and Ushio’s “incurable disease”? The thing is, even in the visual novel it’s not entirely clear what this is, though thanks to the themes of the story, I think I have an idea. Clannad’s themes, other than “family”, are related to “change”. The very first lines of the story are about this, and it’s a recurring theme in Afterstory. Nothing can possibly remain the same, everything changes, and all we humans can do is accept the flow of time and the changes it brings. Tomoya is shown to be almost incapable of doing this, as he is shown to be extremely depressed, and even angry, as he sees the places he grew up in changing so suddenly. Nagisa was also incapable of doing this, hence her first dialogue, but eventually, as she met people, her worries about change were lifted, especially since she was with Tomoya. But why is this relevant to Nagisa’s disease? It’s because, thanks to the events in her past, she was linked to the city, which allowed her to live back then. And the city keeps changing, and very quickly. As the new overcomes the old, Nagisa’s health deteriorates even faster, and in the Winter – the season she’s usually sick in – is when it strikes the hardest, as it’s also the season where even normal people are more likely to get sick. This causes Nagisa’s poor health throughout the series: as the city changes, her health is drained. While she is giving birth to Ushio, she’s already extremely sick, and the amount of effort needed to do it overwhelmed her, which resulted in her death. The same connection she shared with the city was carried over to Ushio, who also fell to it five years later, in the exact same way. This is why it was incurable to normal doctors, and there was nothing that could be done to save her. All humans fear change and struggle to accept it, and I think that’s what Clannad was showing, in a symbolic way, with Nagisa’s disease.
Finally, I’d like to address the final scene of the anime: Fuuko finds Ushio sleeping on a tree thanks to her “scent” and says “the fun is just beginning”. In World B, Fuuko commented on how she memorized Ushio’s scent. Her finding Ushio through her scent in the next timeline means she retained vague memories. The reasons why Fuuko remembers this are unclear, it might either be because Ushio was so special to her in the past or because she was somehow connected to the Illusionary World (as one theory states, she was the sheep who helped the doll find the girl in episode 2 of Afterstory). We are first shown a shot of IW Ushio, before being showed the real Ushio. In my opinion, this represents how they became “one”: the Ushio that experienced the tragic fate of her family and the Ushio who got to live happily ever after, as IW Ushio told the doll how they’d meet in the real world again. “The fun is just beginning” is meant to summarize how World C is a world where tragedy hasn’t happened, so Nagisa and Tomoya can raise Ushio together and be a happy family. The tree where Fuuko finds Ushio sleeping is the same tree where Akio begged for Nagisa to be saved many years before, an event that made him keep returning there many times, and Ushio was also seen going there alone at times, even not knowing why. I like to think that this place is the “Place where wishes come true in this town” mentioned in Nagisa’s play, as it makes perfect sense considering the events that transpired here.
So yeah, that’s my take on it. I’m sure there is evidence to disprove some points, but that’s the best I can do with my current knowledge, and it’s something I just had to write down, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night! At the end of the day, everyone will have their own version of what really happened, and that’s how it should be for a work such as Clannad. Regardless of us Clannad fans having conflicting theories, there’s one thing we all share: a strong love and passion for a work that is simply a masterpiece of the drama genre. That’s what drives all of these theories and discussions of the work. That’s the power of a work like Clannad.
Thanks for reading!