Given that as I write this (February 2014) we have Marvel, DC, and Tolkien all taking turns eating the box office whole, this could scarcely be a better time to take a calculated risk and produce a live-action adaptation of Claymore. Consider this the flipside to the Fullmetal Alchemist live-action coin: a project that could be done well on a relatively small budget, that wouldn't need returns in the triple-digit millions to be considered a success, and which could in time be ramped up and expanded as the success of the project allows.
I say this not only as a fan of the material — both its original manga incarnation and its animated version — but as someone who's become convinced a healthy pop-culture ecosystem needs to be composed of all manner of entertainments, big and small and everything in between. Claymore also has an adaptability advantage in that it carries no existing baggage for Western audiences, in more ways than one, and could in time be built into a franchise more than capable of earning back its keep.
The sword is family
Most of my prime choices for anime-to-Western-live-action adaptation are stories that require no particular understanding of Japan to appreciate. Claymore is a perfect fit: it's set in a land that is vaguely reminiscent of Europe in the Middle Ages, where peasant populations eke out a hardscrabble living amidst a bleak landscape. But the greatest threats do not come from the marauding armies of neighboring provinces; rather, they're in the form of youma, monsters that not only hunt and kill humans but can freely assume their form.
As the movie poster ad copy would go — that is, if it hadn't already been swiped by Pacific Rim -- to fight monsters we created monsters of our own: a new subspecies of humanity, all female (for reasons that become critical later on), all sporting superhuman strength, agility, and healing factors. Dubbed "Claymores" by the regular human population, as a nod to the giant, near-indestructible swords they carry, they operate under the orders of a shadowy organization that sends them out into the world to clean up youma messes ... and maybe do a great deal more than that.
The story revolves around one relatively lowly Claymore, Clare, and the relationship she forms with a young man, Raki, after she is called in to exterminate a youma that has murdered his family. With nothing left to tie him down, he casts his fate with her, and an emotional bond develops between them at roughly the same rate Clare finds herself drawn into combat with increasingly dangerous, clever, and ever more morally bankrupt sets of enemies. Spoiled as I was on Berserk, it was hard for me not to think of Claymore on first viewing as a kind of Berserk Lite, but the show's innate strengths eventually won me over and convinced me how it deserved to be a live-action property in its own right.
Many cuts above
Much of the action in the show, and some of the plotting, is stamped from roughly the same shōnen action mold as many of Claymore's stablemates, but Claymore stood out from the pack — and still does, as the manga is an ongoing production — by dint of two things. One was the way action, character, and story are highly complementary and tightly braided together. It is a good deal more difficult than people realize to create high-quality entertainment with a capital E, and Claymore never fails to entertain.
The other thing is even more remarkable for being all the rarer. This is one of the few shows I have ever seen, live-action or animated, which a) sports a nearly all-female cast and b) does not attempt to wring fanservice out of that fact. It has, I think, a good deal to say about being female, but most of that discussion belongs in an essay exclusively about the show. Claymore also passes the Bechdel Test handily, but that's a little like saying Mario Andretti was a fast driver: the fact it does this is nowhere near central to why it works as well as it does.
Above and beyond the mere novelty of the heavily female cast, though, is how the women in question are strong (physically, mentally, spiritually), competent, intelligent — but most of all, interesting and compelling characters to watch. Most successful films revolve around a character we will follow off a cliff just to see what they do next. Claymore accomplishes this by showing us how the ranks of the Claymores, which at first glance appear to be homogenous and regimented, in fact give rise to remarkable differentiations of character. A good analogy might be a war film on the order of Platoon or Stalag 17, where the individual soldiers rise from being mere mud-slathered grunts to fully-formed personalities. Clare begins as an icy and remote figure, but by degrees the hardship she endures, and witnesses, humanizes her — or maybe better to say re-humanizes her. Any decent live-action version of this story would need to flash back to her origins as a mute urchin shielded from evil by another Claymore, a woman who serves as an embodiment of how any set of rules exists mainly to be broken creatively for the sake of a higher good.
Forging the weapon properly
Truth be told, one of the strongest pieces of evidence I encountered as of late for how filmable Claymore would be came in the form of — don't laugh -- Man of Steel. In an earlier discussion with friends about how viable Claymore would be as a live-action feature, one of them opined how you wouldn't want to film it as live action for the same reason you wouldn't want to film something like Bleach: if you tried to to literalize some of the over-the-top action in the story, it would end up looking silly, not striking. I agreed as far as Bleach goes, a title I don't think for a minute would work as live action for that precise reason: some things are better left relying on the kind of suspensions of disbelief that can only be enacted through animation.
But Claymore has an advantage in that it bends that much more towards both the serious and the realistic side of things — emotionally, certainly, if not always physically. And likewise, Man of Steel tried to do some of the same things — e.g., the "flash-step" attacks of the Kryptonian warriors are realized in a way that would make a spot-on template for some of the combat sequences featured in Claymore. Ditto the you-are-there camerawork, which lends that much more gravity to the goings-on even when the precise details of what's happening need a little heavy lifting from our suspension of disbelief.
That said, would Claymore need the kind of hundreds-of-millions budget as that film? I don't think so, in large part because some of the best things in the story are not the broad-gauge combat sequences — the best of which we could save for any prospective higher-budgeted sequels anyway. It's in the one-on-one moments, both the intimate personal stuff between Clare and Raki (culminating, in part, in one of the most moving on-screen kisses in anime in recent memory), and the Clare-versus-whoever combat sequences, where our heroine has to prove just how much she's leveled up. Those things work because they're restricted in scale and scope; they draw their weight from the emotions involved and not the amount of damage splattered across the screen.
Likewise, the logistics of shooting a movie with Claymore's general look and feel is more or less a solved problem. If a project like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters can be shot in Germany and brought in under the wire for some $50 million, then Claymore, with its equally forbidding Black Forest-style scenery, could be done for only incrementally more.
What's more, my bet is Claymore could easily rake in the kind of business as any number of other midrange-budget productions. Unlike H&G:WH, it wouldn't have to fall back on winking humor or gratuitous nastiness to be funny or entertaining. And dark as Claymore's material is, it's far more intrinsically life-affirming than the swinish likes of The Purge, another low-budget offering that seems to have made good in spite of itself. It isn't only possible to do better, it seems downright cinchy.
Let's have a live-action Claymore serve as further proof that "low budget" doesn't have to mean "cheap", and evidence for how "dark fantasy" doesn't have to mean "grim garbage".