Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore’s been dismissed as “Berserk lite,” but I don’t think that’s a fair description of what is one of the better new manga I’ve come across lately. It’s got some of the same elements of Berserk — a medieval setting ruled by violence and superstition, a single warrior alone against all, and so on — but it’s not a clone or a retread, and it carves out a very worthy niche for itself. Part of my curiosity about the series was sparked by watching the animated series that has been adapted from the comics with a remarkable degree of fidelity, and when I was offered the chance to read the comic itself I jumped on it.
The premise: In a world reminiscent of Middle Ages Europe, creatures called yôma, which are carnivorous monsters that prey on humans, have appeared. They’re tough to destroy, not just due to their strength but also their ability to disguise themselves as other humans, and they also assimilate the memories and personalities of those they consume. To deal with them, there exist a special class of warriors called Claymores — young woman who have been biologically modified in certain ways to grant them exceptional strength and regenerative ability. They hunt down yôma and exterminate them, often without the help of society at large, which fears them almost as much as the creatures they hunt. Worse, Claymores (all of which are female) have a very limited lifespan: since they’re created from yôma, they eventually turn into yôma, and if they know the end is near they can elect to have one of their own kind finish them off before they devolve entirely into beasts. Such beings have a label of their own — “Awakened Ones” — and are in many ways far more dangerous than the original monsters.
An interesting conceit, but a conceit by itself is nothing unless it’s used to support character and themes. The good news is that Claymore isn’t just a hackfest; it’s also devoutly interested in the people who populate its bleak world, and the choices they make. Most prominently featured is Claire, the Claymore who is the closest thing to the story’s hero, compelled to shed her nominally silent and stoic outer shell when she picks up a hanger-on — Raki, a young man exiled from his home after a yôma murdered his family. He both looks after her and looks up to her, but there is only so much she’s willing to teach him about her way of life. She understands that what she does is not something to be passed on to someone like him, and that someday he will have to live for himself and not just her. Her time is far more limited than his.
Volume 10 in the series features Claire as the commander of a platoon of Claymores in a far northern country, where a former male Claymore named Isley has dubbed himself “the White Silver King” and is now leading an army of Awakened Ones southward. The battle is difficult, not just because of the relative strength of their enemies but because Claire is still struggling with adapting to doling out responsibility to others of varying skills, and not simply going at it entirely alone. Isley himself is vaguely reminiscent of Berserk’s own Griffith, in both his androgyny and his will-to-power beliefs, but he has enough about his own character to make him stand apart. When he finds Raki wandering about in the wasteland, he takes him in and offers the boy something Claire wasn’t able to give him: a promise that he’ll help him learn the way of the sword. There’s no small irony in the fact that the boy is now in the custody of his friend’s worst enemy (he knows little about the politics of the situation).
Claymore was a pleasant surprise, since I was expecting a much less interesting story than I bargained for. It could have been nothing but bloodshed and power-ups, and it’s markedly more ambitious and absorbing than just that. Go back to the start, if you can, and get caught up in this one the right way: from the beginning.