1994. The dawn of anime fandom. Huddled in my little ratbox NYC apartment, I sat down with a copy of the July/August issue of the now-defunct Anime UK, which sported none other than ur-fan Helen McCarthy in the editor’s chair. On page 27 I read Peter Evans’s “The Beautiful and the Terrible”, a paean to all strong female leads from Ellen Ripley on through Motoko Kusanagi and beyond. “I find it a constant joy that anime continues to give us a welter of strong, competent, sensible heroines who do not exist purely as a prize or objective for the male ‘hero’,” he wrote, and went on to ask why there were not only so many female leads, but all-female casts for so many shows (Knight Sabers, Eternal Story, et al.). He mused about biology and physiology, the sociological implications of “male” and “female” role behaviors, and in general found a lot to mull over apart from the fact that, yeah, hot chicks in armor kicking ass is a major ratings draw.
2009. The grand tradition of the Beautiful and the Terrible continues. Evidence for the defense: Claymore. Here, again, is another show where not only the lead character but the vast majority of the cast, period, is female — where they do not exist as objects of sexual conquest, and in fact dish out far more devastation and destruction than their generally genderless enemies. The Claymores are presented as chaste but powerful Joan of Arc-like figures — nominally female in form, but unmistakably female in the way they bond with each other and use both tenderness and strength to lift each other up. Clare and her friends may look good, but we’re never in doubt that it’s what on the inside that matters. This is a series about blood and guts, make no mistake, but it’s also about heart and soul, and how “please kill me” and “I love you” can both be words of tenderness.
A brief story recap, for those who didn’t catch the reviews of the individual volumes. Claymore’s set in a land vaguely analogous to Europe in the Middle Ages, where the human populace live in perennial fear of the monstrous yoma. A special squad of half-human, half-yoma hybrids — the lithe, all-female “Claymores” (the name applied to them by others based on their massive weaponry) — journey from town to village, from city to countryside, dispatching all Claymores found in the wild. Their operations are strictly supervised by the shadowy Organization, and people fear the Claymores about as much as they do the yoma themselves.
The series breaks into roughly two extended arcs. The first half gives us Clare, a low-ranking Claymore called in to destroy a yoma who’s dined on most of a young man’s family and masqueraded as one of them (a common yoma talent) to avoid detection. The survivor, Raki, develops a fascination for her. Clare’s taken aback by this: she’s never met anyone dumb or brave enough to want to stick around her. But stick he does, as both her cook — not that she eats much to begin with — and an anchor to draw her that much closer back to humanity.
Her core of humanity is more than just a convenience for the plot: it’s the very foundation of who she is. In a flashback to Clare’s childhood, when she was entirely human, we see her under the wing of her Claymore mentor, Teresa. The older woman is as cruel and detached as Claymores are; she sees the girl as she does all other mere humans, a pet or a nuisance. Then Clare breaks through Teresa’s frigid exterior, in the guileless way children do. Suddenly we see why Raki’s eager, wide-eyed approach actually worked on her. She was there once, too.
She has no idea how valuable an anchor with humanity will be. We receive strong hints about it early on, though. The more Clare draws on her yoma side to fuel her strength and fight her battles, the more difficult it becomes for her to remain human at all. It’s the fate of most every Claymore to succumb to their yoma nature and be killed by one of their compatriots. This we learn early on when Clare is summoned to perform that very duty for another comrade. (The less story spoilage about that and its implications, the better.)
As the battles grow more vicious and difficult, Clare sustains wounds that can only be healed by what amounts to an organ transplant from a fellow Claymore. That in turn means that much more dependency on her yoma side, and to master such power requires her to develop a merciless level of discipline over herself. Such discipline can only come through her humanity — or, rather, though a connection to another full human being: Raki. The depth of Raki’s feelings for her surprise everyone concerned, especially when he picks up a sword (which he can barely lift) and risks his neck to buy Clare half a chance against a rogue Claymore, Ophelia. “I don’t care when I die, as long as it’s when I’m near you,” he cries out, and her response is a kiss — their first — and the words “Don’t ever say you don’t care when you die.” It’s a great moment, made all the greater by the fact that the show has not faked it to get there. They mean what they say, and we believe it as well.
The second arc comes years after Clare and Raki have separated, each seeking the other while dealing with different hardships. Clare lends her strengths to a new group of Claymore battles, with the other Claymores coming to the forefront during this part of the show. It’s striking to see how Clare is in fact quite unlike the rest of her comrades — not just in ability but in attitude. The climax of the series is spread out over the last couple of discs and centers around two story strands: Clare putting herself through a terrifying amount of punishment, bringing her closer than ever to the point of becoming everything she fights against — and Raki forming an odd bond with a girl who holds her own monstrous secrets, a development that parallels many of the other relationships (Raki and Clare, Clare and Teresa) from before.
People have criticized how the manga and the TV series deviate. They do, in major ways, and there’s no getting around it. That said, I don’t feel the show deviates so far from the original material that it invalidates its own conceits. The biggest changes come at the climax, which unfolds in a way very unlike the manga (avoiding spoilers here is like tiptoeing between raindrops) — but, again, the changes don’t come at the cost of the story’s integrity.
In the same way, FUNimation’s repackaging of the show in a single set hasn’t done damage to its original presentation. The show’s been issued on the same number of discs, with the transfers and the extras being the same on each disc — and with two booklets that reprise the printed bonuses that came with the single-disc sets as well. Note that the default language is English; normally I grouse about this sort of thing, but the dubbing’s decent and the setting is more pan-European than Japanese in any respect. (Another reason a live-action version of this series would be worthwhile.)
My first glimpses of Claymore were via fansubs, and I stopped watching after the second episode. Not because I hated it; rather, I wanted to see it the first time properly, in a domestic DVD edition that did it justice. This set caps off the wait for such a thing in fine fashion. The only way it could be improved upon is through a Blu-ray release — but that doesn’t mean you should hold your breath.