In 1994, the July/August issue of the now-defunct Anime UK (which sported none other than ur-fan Helen McCarthy in the editor’s chair) featured an essay by Peter Evans, “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," he wrote, "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’."
Evans 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.), back when such a thing was more of a selling point and less of a warning sign. Evans 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, and sometimes as much for women as it is for men (if not quite always for the same reasons). It's a shame Claymore wasn't around back then, because it would have been A-list evidence for his thesis.
And yet for Claymore to be a product of this more recent anime era, rather than the Nineties, makes it even more significant. In the twenty years since Evans's essay, anime has become all the more aimed at the fetishes and obsessions of an audience that grows ever more self-selecting. The all-female or predominantly female casts of shows like Bubblegum Crisis or Dirty Pair have given way to the likes of High School D×D or Bladedance of Elementalers, where we're invited to just gawk at the cast instead of admire them.
Claymore stands out all the more since not only the lead character but the vast majority of the cast, period, is female — but do not exist as objects of sexual conquest, and in fact dish out far more devastation and destruction than their ostensibly genderless enemies. And where they are feminine, it's not employed by the show as another excuse to let us leer; rather, it's in the way they bond with each other and use both tenderness and strength to lift each other up.
Monsters in a monstrous land
Claymore is 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 yoma 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.
In some ways the two fears are interrelated. The yoma devour humans, and in doing so can assume the memories and the identities of those they have consumed. Claymores were created by imbuing human females with yoma flesh, thus granting them the powers that previously only yoma could possess. They can withstand all but the most devastating injuries, survive for days on the most minimal sustenance, and tap into the yoma side of them to accelerate their strength. Unfortunately, that very strength is also a weakness: every now and then one of them taps in a little too much, devolves into a monster far worse than any yoma, and has to be put down by one of her own kind. If she's lucky, it's one of her own choosing, and she gets to have some say in the matter ahead of time. Talk about your small mercies. (It's a shame Pacific Rim came up with the tagline To fight monsters, we created monsters; that line was tailor-made for this show.)
Most of this information comes to us by way of one Claymore, Clare, and Raki, the human boy whose life she saves as a by-product of accomplishing one of her missions. It doesn't mean much to her that the yoma in question was Raki's brother, that the rest of his family was slaughtered by those monsters as well, and that with his family dead he can now cut all ties from the village where he lived and go as he pleases. Through some cajoling on his part, he convinces Clare to take him with 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.
Clare's nascent core of humanity is more than just a convenience for the plot: it’s the tension between that and the rest of her that forms the foundation of who she is as a character. In a flashback to Clare’s childhood, we see her as a shellshocked, mute young girl, one eventually taken under the wing of a Claymore mentor, Teresa. This does not happen right away, but by degrees, since 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, and eventually their fates are bound together that deserves to be seen unfolding rather than explained. Suddenly we see why Raki’s eager, wide-eyed approach actually worked on Clare: She was there once, too.
Demons at the door, demons inside
Clare and Raki's adventures together follow roughly three phases. In the first, the two of them enter a "holy city" — an analogue of Rome in both theme and architecture — and try to determine how a yoma could have penetrated an inner sanctum of the church there. Under no circumstances is she ever permitted to kill a human being — by that point in the story we already know how badly such things can end — but she also has to suppress her powers to pass for human within the walls of the city. As before, it isn't the monster that's the only danger; it's also the prejudice and ignorance of the very people Clare has been tasked with saving. Raki stumps for her relentlessly, and his emotional bond keeps her from losing out to her worst impulses more than once, but the story is wise enough to notice how most of the prejudice aimed at her manifests more out of ignorance than anything else. When you've got a monster in the house, you'll be happy to take all the help you can get, no matter what color its eyes.
But in time the show tips its hand, and reveals how the real challenge Clare and the other Claymores face is not with humanity itself, which is revealed over time (and doubly so in the original manga) to be by large powerless and bystanding. The real challenge is with the new order that is arising amongst and from the Claymores themselves — they are their own worst enemies, and everyone else's as well. To that end, the second phase of the story — barring the flashback that details Clare's history with Teresa — splits Clare and Raki apart, and sends them on separate missions.
Paired up with several other Claymores of dubious pedigrees and sent on a mission to hunt an "Awakened Being" (their term for a Claymore that has gone over the edge), Clare and the others realize they may have been sent to their deaths, as a way for their puppet masters to keep them on the shortest possible leashes. Each of them have mastered their powers to the point where they pose at least as much of a threat to the Organization as they do any yoma. This is, I think, where the show begins to distinguish itself all the more through its tone and approach. Most shonen action stories have fun being as colorful as possible with each characters' palette of powers, and while there's a certain amount of that here (some of which we also see in the Teresa flashback storyline), it's not played for the kind of breathless exhilaration commonly associated with such stories. Rather, it's a death struggle, one reminiscent more of an unsentimental war film, where every passing scene only fills us all the more with the feeling that the next battle will be the last one.
These clashes grow more vicious and difficult, with the monsters they face becoming all the more eldritch, diabolical, and near-indestructible. Clare sustains wounds that can only be healed by what amounts to an organ transplant from a fellow Claymore. The training sequence where she learns to make use of a donated arm (!) seems patterned not only after most every other shōnen franchise's I-have-to-get-stronger! sequences, but the source material for those stories — the samurai tales where a master passes on wisdom to his student, sometimes at the expense of his own life. But again, it's not her skill alone that puts her above both her competition and her comrades; it's her deep emotional connection to others, Raki in particular, that proves most valuable. The depth of Raki’s feelings for her also surprise everyone concerned; in one scene, he picks up a sword he can barely even 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 more genuinely romantic by the fact that the show has not twisted their arms, or ours, to get them there.
On the edge and looking over
The gifts the two have given each other are easiest to see when they are apart, and not together. In the show's third arc, Clare and Raki have been forced to separate, both dealing with different hardships. In Clare's case, she lends her strengths to a new group of Claymore battles (they are uneasy about her because of her unorthodox hybrid biology), with the other Claymores coming to the forefront during this part of the show. What's curious is how Clare's presence somehow always palatable even when the action doesn't directly involve her: the choices she made and the understanding she has brought to her situation allow us to see all of her comrades, and even their enemies, in a new light. I particularly liked how one of the team leaders, Undine, has her frailties unmasked by a team comrade, and how that revelation only bonds them all the more tightly together. Having seen how shared frailties brought Clare and Raki closer together, we see all the more how it can do the same for Clare's comrades.
Raki, on the other hand, finds himself in the company of the enemy: Isley, a male Awakened Being. He commands the army that Clare and her comrades have been sent to battle against in one last stand, but he and his quasi-ward, Priscilla (a "devolved" Claymore) take a liking to him, even going so far as to helping him learn to properly wield a sword when he could barely even lift one before. It is his attitude they find most sympathetic, his urge to improve himself — again, another staple of shōnen storytelling, but one informed here by darker-than-usual undertones. The main issue I have with the inclusion of such a thing is how it pays off only in the most indirect way, as the climax doesn't involve him putting such skills to use. Instead, it's a redux of his earlier efforts to save Clare by reminding her of the emotional bond she has with him. It's not that it doesn't work; it's just that it's a repetition of a dynamic we've already seen, albeit with larger stakes.
Some of this I am tempted to lay at the feet of those who adapted the show for TV, which forced them to deviate critically from the storyline of the manga for the sake of presenting us with a definitive ending. Maybe it was unavoidable, given how the comic was still continuing at the time, and I'm learning to lament a little less the fact that such is the case with far too many manga adapted for TV; I suspect that may be the price we pay for getting such a thing animated at all. If anything, it's the limitations of a TV-level production that pose the biggest obstacle; there are times when the show is visibly straining against its budget.
And while I don't think the ending we get is a gross violation of the show's precepts or a betrayal of its themes, I imagine anyone familiar with the manga will bite their knuckles in frustration at the way the show puts a pretty bow on everything. Perhaps with the manga now drawing rapidly to a formal conclusion as I write these words, there will be a chance to revisit it, and undo that bow for the sake of unpacking all the possibilities that still remain.
Woman of steel
When I wrote about Claymore for the Let's Film This series, I noted that it shared one common attribute with many other projects I singled out as being excellent candidates for a Western live-action adaptation: it was "pre-localized". Meaning there's little in Claymore that requires a specific knowledge of Japanese popular culture, or Japan itself, to appreciate directly. Some of the finer points might go missing — e.g., the way the show's shōnen tropes are given far more gravity than usual, something that might be lost on someone not familiar with said tropes in the first place — but most anyone could enjoy it on face value.
What I also found interesting was the way Claymore approaches a flavor of fantasy that has nominally been associated with the Western imagination — the Tolkien mode, for lack of a better way to put it. I was, I confess, on the verge of saying something patronizing about the way such a milieu is being "seen through Japanese eyes", but then I thought about it: the medieval milieu is just as removed from daily experience to modern-day Westerners as it is to Japan. That makes it ripe for creative opportunities, since a Western and a Japanese creator are going to bring different outlooks, different emphases, and different sensibilities to the material. Some of the most enjoyable and creative anime and manga have been produced when a Japanese creator elected to look at an ostensibly non-Japanese milieu: Berserk, Fullmetal Alchemist, Guin Saga, Baccano!, Michiko & Hatchin, Soul Eater, Black Lagoon, even Nyaruko all benefited from being constructed that way. What I don't believe, though, is that in such cases "Japan" or "the Japanese creator", generically, brings some singular, unchanging essence to such things. That's the kind of reductive explanation that assumes the country and its people are both monolithic (neither being remotely true), that willfully ignores the profound differences between all those creations, and that ends up not explaining much of anything anyway.
I'm tempted to chalk up Claymore's feminism to being some by-product of its fusion of sensibilities, but just typing that phrase made my fingers feel funny, so I suspect I'm better off just assuming it was a wise storytelling and characterization decision. That said, I do think the lack of titillation in the material was a by-product of it being an ostensibly shōnen-demographic production — although it veered all the more steadily into seinen territory as it went on, in the same way Rurouni Kenshin did — and that in this case the constraints imposed on the material actually complemented its higher aims. Like Moribito, the heroine draws strength from the "female" side of her personality, and not merely physical strength but also spiritual and moral strength. It's the male character who's inspired to rise to her example, not the other way around. And in the end, even the show's modified ending is put into the service of this vision: it gives us Clare and Raki walking away together, each having rescued the other in their own way, each no longer one of the damned.