I was nervous about watching this. I'd made the mistake of reading wikipedia, so of course I saw a spoiler. Unfortunately this particular spoiler sounded traumatic enough to make me unhappy about continuing with the show, because I didn't want to see that very very very very very very bad thing. These are nice people. They don't deserve that.
I've since discovered that quite a few people have similar apprehensions. Clannad: After Story is traumatic. It's also funny, mould-breaking and positive, but en route you can expect to have your heart torn out of your chest.
I watched it, of course. It's not that bad. In the end, it's happy, even if the way it gets there would make Tomoko spit blood. (She hates that kind of thing.) It can be very entertaining. However what needs saying loudly is that this is a million miles away from the usual anime formulae. Season 1 is popular, but this second season has blown people's minds. Its fans are absolutely loopy for it. They've coined the term "Post-CLANNAD Depression Syndrome" and claim that after watching it, it's hard to find anything else comparable. It spent years topping the Anime News Network's Anime Top 10 chart and even now it's still at number three. (The two shows beating it are Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Steins;Gate, while the anime it's beating include, for instance, all the Ghibli films.)
Season 1 was a school-based story based on a romantic "choose your path" computer game, aka. visual novel. It was good. I enjoyed it. However the cast wasn't the most colourful I'd ever seen (e.g. Ryou, the quieter twin) and it didn't seem special or anything.
Season 2 splits fairly neatly into thirds. The first third is just a school-based continuation of Season 1, with the agenda of giving more attention to peripheral characters. I approve. There's a Sunohara three-parter that'll make you wonder what's wrong with his head. He'd always been a clown and an loon, but here you'll think he's actually broken. It's unexpectedly powerful. I was impressed. After that, we have two-parters for Misae (eps.5-6) and Yukine (eps.7-8), who were barely in Season 1 at all and I'd have had to think hard even to remember them. Those were good too. This is ostensibly the light-hearted, normal stretch of Season 2, but it also contains some deceptively strong stories and important set-up.
After that, the middle third is fairly drab and low in entertainment value. Tomoya leaves school, grows up and get a job. It's not a job you'd be keen to do, either. He's going to spend his working life up telegraph poles. Tomoya was a delinquent who didn't bother attending half his classes, so obviously he wasn't going to be following his friends to college. It's all about life stuff. We see the problems of marriage, getting a flat, etc.
This is unusual territory for anime, but there's a reason for that. It's just not much fun. It's not depressing or anything, but we're getting the message that real life can be the unfortunate consequence of messing around at school. Most of Tomoya's friends have disappeared, so these episodes are centred on him and the Furukawa family.
In fairness, Akio and Sanae are clowns. They lighten the mood a lot. Get them together with Nagisa and even that middle third isn't without laugh-out-loud moments. Despite its reputation, Clannad is often funny.
And then the Bad Thing happens.
The last third of the show destroyed me. I was a wreck. It smashes you down and then slowly, agonisingly, picks you back up. Everything we watched before was necessary build-up for this. You see just how dysfunctional Tomoya is and how much he's been damaged by his relationship with his father. He didn't understand the concepts of family or parenthood.
The only potential problem with all this is the ending, which inattentive viewers have called an arse-pull. It's not. It's been obvious from the beginning that Clannad is set in a magical universe. It looks like the real world, but it's always had an element of the supernatural, not to mention speculation about a unique kind of anthropomorphism and (real) high-level theoretical physics. Fuko spent Season 1 as a ghost. Well, approximately. An astral projection, perhaps? Weird stuff was also prominent in Kotomi and Yukine's stories. We kept returning to the apparently unrelated side-story of a robot-building CGI girl in a fantasy universe. Look at details like Sanae and Akio's "new names" for Tomoya, or the ongoing discussion about the town itself being alive. Also pay attention to Nagisa's school play in Season 1. My favourite throwaway in the show, so far, is the bit where Tomoya quipped that the song she'd shoehorned into the end probably shouldn't really be Happy Dango Family. Watch to the end of Season 2 and you'll find that, actually, it is...
Personally I think the series earns its finale. Indeed, I'd been waiting for something like that, which was part of what kept me going. However it's still a bit disconcerting when it finally arrives and it arguably lacks the catharsis you might have been expecting. (It has different catharses instead.)
Except for short but intense periods, I wouldn't call this show a downer. It's being positive. Even that last third is almost all about the characters discovering good things and finding new ways of being good and beautiful. It's just that bad things have also been happening. Mind you, portions of Tomoya's mindset are so unhealthy that at the finale he nearly uses the magic for something desperately wrong.
I also can't not mention Fuko. She's amazing. She's magical, capable of annihilating any gloomy mood in any scene. No matter how you might have been feeling until then, Fuko will make you smile. I don't think it's just the comedy, although she is funny. She's like distilled happiness, coming to us straight from cloud cuckoo land.
Oh, and a little bird tells me that the 2006 Toei movie and the English dub are both unintentionally hilarious if you've seen this show before (in Japanese). I expect to watch the former tomorrow and the latter when Hell freezes over.
It's special. It's not perfect, but what it gets right is so powerful that everything else is pretty much a minor detail. It's about relationships and family, including those we make for ourselves. If you know someone who hates anime, try them on this.
"Dango, dango, dango, dango..."