Clannad began life as a ‘dating sim,’ a genre of video game popular in Japan in which the player tries to form a relationship with one of the cast of characters by way of ‘choose your own adventure’-style decision points.
Given that, the end product shouldn’t be this good.
You can certainly see the influence of its origin in the set up. Tomoya, the protagonist, is living a dejected, hopeless life with no prospects for the future (much like the players of the game). Over the course of a few episodes, he befriends a number of girls, each with their own defining character traits (though all of them kind, sweet, and attractive; which is what the game player would want if he were taking on Tomoya’s role).
Most of these girls have their own dream for the future, and Tomoya feels compelled to help them achieve that which he has lost himself. What’s interesting is that the result is more depressing than enlightening. So many of the characters have their dreams dashed that, even when there is a small victory, there’s an oppressive feeling that sadness is soon to follow. Of course, Clannad: After Story is several degrees worse in that regard.
Tomoya’s father is an abusive alcoholic, but we never see that in the show, relying solely on Tomoya’s testimony for the account. In all his scenes, Tomoya’s father is serene to a Buddha-like degree. And in a way, it makes him so much worse. How easy it would be to simply hate him if he were screaming and fighting; but the fact that he is nice so often, that he fools all that meet him into thinking that he is a good man, leaves Tomoya in a constant state of disappointment. He sees the man his father could be; but knows that it isn’t real.
Tomoya does everything he can to stay away from his own house; leaching on his male friend, and later his would-be girlfriend Nagisa and her family. Nagisa’s family is everything that Tomoya’s isn’t. Her parents have chosen to give up everything for their daughter; While Tomoya has had everything stolen from him by his father. Nagisa is dopey and optimistic to a fault, Tomoya knows that the world is not as nice as she believes it to be, but wants to protect her lightness.
Part of that entails (or perhaps his dealings with Nagisa are an inspiration) helping the other girls in their circle with their problems. The problems are emotional, and touching in their own way. Typically, they involve overcoming some pain from the past, but beyond that, they vary wildly (one even has a ghost in it).
The 24 episodes are spread across three discs. Credits and titles are left in Japanese, and the audio and video look great. The only extras are clean op and end.