"My brother is hopeless..."
Sunohara Mei is a recurring minor character in Clannad; she appears in Episodes 15 and 16 of Clannad (also returning for Episode 23, an extra episode), and then in Episodes 1 through 4 of After Story. Her (and her brother's) story arc takes place during Episodes 2 through 4. After that, she's only seen in during the final episode montage.
Mei is a middle school girl who is peculiarly mature for her age. When compared with her older brother, Youhei (usually referred to as Sunohara), she shows well why it's said that females mature faster than males. While Sunohara is possibly the most immature character in Clannad (although Fuko's childishness is a good contender), Mei is high up on the list of maturity...and she's one of the youngest characters (actually, besides Ushio, I think she is the youngest)! She takes it for granted that her brother is an immature boy, so she works to provide maturity to balance him out. Mei cares deeply for her brother, leading to her exerting lots of effort in trying to help him out. Her maturity does not mean that she is a Stoic stone statue, though; she has a bit of her brother's mischievousness in her (which can be seen easily when she prepares Nagisa and Tomoya's first real date). She also needs some love and care in return from her brother, which is the crisis behind her story arc (more on that below). Overall, though, Mei's key words are maturity and fraternity (as in fraternal (brotherly/siblingly) love). These aspects (and her relationship with her brother) can be seen in one of her first scenes:
Mei's first appearance is after a humorous confrontation between Sunohara and Nagisa about the former being in love with Tomoya. We quickly learn that she is paying a surprise visit to her brother. (Originally, it was not supposed to be a surprise, but Tomoya interrupted her communication.) Once arriving, Mei quickly sets to work cleaning Sunohara's room. Since she can't very well stay in her brother's room in a boy's dorm, the Furukawas let her live at their house while she's in town (their second guest of the show, after housing Fuko for a few episodes). Mei doesn't do too much while she's in town during her first visit; she mostly sets a counterexample of Sunohara's immaturity; she also helps cheer him, Kyou, and Tomoya on at the basketball game. Once that's over, she says so long, farewell (auf weidersehen, goodbye!).
Her second visit begins in the extra episode of Clannad. For whatever reason (probably because she found out how cool are the inhabitants of the town are), she comes back, and once again, she stays with the Furukawas. By this time, Tomoya is also staying there (guest number three!), and he and Nagisa are dating. After a laughter-inducing incident of bread-selling, Mei notices that Tomoya and Nagisa are not really "dating," i.e. they're not going on official "dates." Believing their relationship to be pretty stagnant, she decides to be their personal cupid of love (thanks to Wikipedia for that phrasing) and set up an official date for the two. She tells Nagisa the plan and then lets her use it on Tomoya. Nagisa, being the somewhat clumsy girl she is, messes up the plan to an extent, and Tomoya sees straight through it, realizing it is Mei's work, and he calls her out on it. After the spying Mei runs away, the "date" does end romantically for the two.
The next episode after this (in the show's time line) is the beginning of After Story, where Akio must get together a baseball team to defend his bakery's honor. What better team than almost all the major and minor characters in the show? Mei of course helps out, and she gets to meet one of her idols, Yoshino Yuusuke, the rock-star-turned-electrician. Following this fun episode, Mei's real story starts...
I've already explained this story in detail in my post on Sunohara, so I will summarize it here: Mei is concerned about her brother, in particular about his lack of a girlfriend. Tomoya and Sunohara decide to cover this up by getting him a fake girlfriend, who ends up being Sanae in disguise. While on their fake date (with Tomoya, Nagisa, and Mei following behind), they see a little girl being bullied. Sunohara doesn't help, and eventually the girl's older brother appears and defends her. After this, Sanae helps the children find their home.
Mei explains to Nagisa and Tomoya that she and her brother were like those children when they were little: she would be bullied, and Sunohara would save her. When he got older, he began to care more about soccer and less about her. Mei just wants that brother back. So she tries to provoke him to care, for instance, by telling him she is dating an older guy, and by later pretending that Tomoya is that guy. Sunohara doesn't react.
Mei, Nagisa, and Tomoya try one more last-ditch effort to knock Sunohara into shape: they try to get him back on the soccer team, which he was kicked out of his first year for not accepting the cruelty of the elder students. After a grueling task of collecting soccer balls, the team refuses Mei's request, and at her repeated insistence, they grab her and pick on her. Just as Tomoya is about to get back at them, Sunohara finally appears and acts as a brother should: he beats down the soccer team.
After this battle, the fight is not over: Tomoya begins to beat on Sunohara for not being a good brother. Though it's vicious, it ends with a reconciliation between Sunohara and Mei: he has once again become her protective, caring older brother.
Following this heartwarming reconnection, Mei ends her visit, and she departs the town for good. She isn't seen again until the montage of the final episode, where we see her, older, eating ice cream with her friends.
Effect on the Main Plot
Mei's is one of those arcs which does not really affect the main plot at all. She provides another powerful tale of family, and she adds to the show's themes that way, but all in all she doesn't do much to advance Tomoya and Nagisa's relationship, except for the extra episode of Clannad. In that episode, Mei pushes the two main characters to deepen their relationship by taking it another step: to actually go on a real date. While the date does not go as planned, it still accomplishes its goal: it gets Nagisa and Tomoya to spend some time together, alone.
Like most characters, the biggest theme with Mei is family. As I mentioned in Sunohara's post, the sibling relationship between these two is unique. In that post, I mentioned its imperfection and how we truly delve into it, seeing the issues underlying the struggle. But what I think is even more special about this relationship is that we see it from both sides: Sunohara's and Mei's. With Fuko and Kouko, we see a bit of that, but we mostly just see Kouko's devotion to her sister (plus the bit of backstory on trying to get her to make friends); with Kyou and Ryou, we mostly see it from Kyou's side, while Ryou is mostly in the background; with Tomoyo and her brother, we only see Tomoyo's side, and we don't even meet her brother; with Yukine and her brother, we only see her side, because her brother is dead. Do you see my point? The sibling relationship between the Sunoharas is unique because it is seen from both sides, and its imperfections are delved into. Sunohara's side can be seen in the videos of him beating down the soccer team, and in his fight with Tomoya (along with seeing him throughout the series). Mei's side is seen prevalently in her arc in multiple places; one of the most significant is when she explains her story to Nagisa and Tomoya.
Sunohara and Mei's relationship shows that just because two people are related by family, they won't automatically be perfect friends; even if they're brother and sister, that friendship isn't automatic. And it shows that sibling relationships, like all friendships, can be strained by the actions of one or both parties. Of course Sunohara's apathy towards his sister initiate the conflict, but Mei does antagonize him during the arc as well. But this story also shows that, like all friendships, sibling relationships that are strained can be repaired; a bent friendship is not permanent; there is hope for change and forgiveness. This is also a bit of a preparation for Tomoya's long-awaited reunion with his father near the end of After Story (which has another slight parallel in the relief of the tensions between Nagisa and her parents at the end of the first season).
Besides the obvious theme of family, the Sunoharas definitely show the influence of the past on the present. If Sunohara had not been such a responsible brother in his early life, Mei would have had no expectation of him ever being a good brother, and the conflict of their story would not have arisen.
There's also the theme of breaking out of conventions. In the first season, we see Mei as a very mature girl who seems independent and self-confident. She doesn't depend on her brother; quite the opposite: she provides for him. That's our impression of her and their relationship after her brief visit in the first season. But in After Story, we see she is not completely independent: she needs love too, especially the love of her brother. Though she is mature and self-confident, she is not an island; she needs others, especially her brother. She can show weakness.
Mei also shows perseverance; when her brother won't care for her, she keeps trying to provoke him, and when the soccer team denies her request, she keeps asking. This is not so much the perseverance that the opening scene points too (persevering in tragedy; finding hope in darkness), but it is perseverance all the same.
I've always like the character of Mei. Her maturity is an excellent contrast to her brother, and overall I'm more a fan of maturity than immaturity. Also, her somewhat sarcastic and snarky comments about her brother would make me chuckle: he is a pretty obnoxious, slovenly, immature klutz. But her arc in After Story really hit me, to see just how wrong my original evaluation of their relationship was. It's not just her caring for him; he has to care for her as well. Now, I didn't catch that on my first viewing of the series: my first time around, I hated the beginning of After Story. I just kept thinking, "I want to see more about Nagisa and Tomoya, not these minor characters!" On repeated viewings, though, I'm realizing just how important these minor arcs are. As I said in my introduction, they help build the themes of the show, especially that theme of family. And without family, what would Clannad be? Even its title would be meaningless.
I also like the reconciliation and forgiveness found at the end of this arc. Again, my first time through it meant nothing, but now it touches me. It also, oddly enough, reminds me of a poem from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. It reads:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not touched by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Of course, this poem has a specific meaning in context: it refers to Strider and his eventual destiny (if you think that's a spoiler, go read and/or watch The Lord of the Rings: you should have done so already). Out of context, though, I can see this poem fit in well with Clannad. It can be seen to reflect two major themes: perseverance and forgiveness. I mean, come on: "A light from the shadows shall spring." When all the happy and fun things fade away, what do you do? You find new happy and fun things. When you're surrounded by shadow, you find light. It's a very important theme of Clannad.
Now I've gone a bit off-topic; I'm realizing new aspects about this show as I go through these posts, just like you are. And now, since I've discussed all I need to about Mei, I end this post with her final shot:
Thanks for reading. God Bless, and peace.
Nota Bene: All clips (except the Tolkien poem) are from the Clannad Central YouTube channel run by the Clannad (クラナド/Kuranado) fan page on Facebook. All character themes and other music from the show can also be found on said fan page, in the music player. My gratitude to them and all the work they do. Thanks also to Wikipedia and its clever phrasing.