Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Claymore Review

"Eventually, either its corpse or my own will turn up in the streets of your village. That's your only certainty."

Claymore is a 26-episode anime produced by Madhouse, based on an ongoing manga by Norihiro Yagi. It first aired in 2007, and is currently licensed by Funimation. The manga is licensed by Viz Media.

In an unnamed land, humans live in constant fear of demonic predators known as Yoma that live by devouring human flesh. These monsters hide themselves in the guise of people they have killed, sowing the seeds of mistrust in the villages where they feed while slowly whittling away at their populations. Mankind's only weapons against these monsters are women imbued with the blood of these very creatures, creating hybrid monsters with strength unmatched by man or beast. These warriors have no name, nor does the organization they serve, but the general population knows them as Claymores for the swords they wield, and these women are feared by humans and Yoma alike. After all, who would trust a warrior who's given up her humanity? No matter what she may say or do, a Claymore is cursed to live alone until the day her Yoma blood overwhelms her and her life ends.

In a small village, a boy named Raki has been orphaned by a Yoma that continues to prey on his fellow villagers. Desperate, they send for a Claymore named Clare, who identifies the Yoma as his one surviving family member and promptly kills him. With nowhere left to go and the frightened villagers wanting nothing to do with him, Raki decides to follow the cold but not uncaring Clare in her travels across the country and along the way learns more about what the Claymore really are and what they gave up to fight the Yoma. Clare herself, meanwhile, continues to pursue a mysterious figure from her past named Priscilla, along the way uncovering secrets about the unnamed organization behind her and her fellow fighters that may put both her and Raki in danger.

Don't let the creepy designs and macabre setup fool you, despite its appearance Claymore is a shonen anime at its core, which means lots of weird powers and grand-scale fight scenes, speeches about honor and friendship, a conga line of weird villains, and a whole lot of swinging swords and screaming. I know that the word "shonen" makes some anime fans cringe on sight, but it is not automatically a bad thing. There are many shone titles that have stood out positively over the years, whether through captivating heroes and villains (Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho), a polished and distinctive style (Soul Eater) or some surprisingly mature themes thrown into the mix (Fullmetal Alchemist). While Claymore doesn't really excel in any of these categories, it is at least competent and often above-average in many of them, placing it a red and purple bloodstained cut above most shows of its ilk.

The name Madhouse usually promises at least above-average production values, and this is no exception. The backgrounds are expansive and nicely detailed, and Yagi's unusual, distinctive character designs are generally well-maintained throughout the many fighting scenes, not to mention some of the monster designs are just plain wicked. The action itself is half-and half. On one hand, this was definitely adapted from a manga, and during some of the less inspired battles you can practically see the seams from the panels being stitched together: speed lines, quick motions that look more like teleporting, all the shortcuts normally associated with shonen fighter series are here. Thankfully, the strong animation budget softens the blow considerably, with a fairly consistent level of detail, and when it's time to show off during a pivotal battle, the choreography and design work can get really impressive. In a nutshell, this show looks a lot like Naruto and Bleach, only a little more grizzled and much better.

Claymore boasts a rich and diverse music score that mixes folksy strings and winds with modern electric noise, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have any idea what to do with it. The music direction is so incredibly hit-and-miss that I honestly have to wonder what the show's creators were thinking for some of the choices they made. It will start too late and overstay its welcome, rarely playing loudly enough to make a noticeable impression and often completely failing to match the beat of whatever is happening on-screen. The end result is consistently either forgettable or distracting and only occasionally manages to hit the right beat. I half-suspect that they just went to a composer, asked for an appropriate soundtrack, and then put it on shuffle over the show and called it a day; if someone told me that was the case, I might actually believe it because some of the pieces would have been perfect if they weren't playing over the wrong scene. I should clarify, it's not that bad all the time, and sometimes it actually works really well, but it only takes a few slip-ups to sour the experience and there are more than enough to make this shortcoming noticeable.

Voice-wise, this series is a bit atypical for shonen in that it lends itself to low, threatening intonations instead of the overwrought screaming you usually hear. The Japanese track is a lot of fun to listen to in this regard from start to finish. By contrast, the English dub starts off a little on the dull side, but after awhile the voice actors really grow into their roles so that by the end, both tracks are solid listens. I do have one bone to pick with the dub, and that is Todd Haberkorn's portrayal of Raki. Haberkorn is a very good actor, don't get me wrong, but his voice is a little too snide and snarky to play innocence convincingly, resulting in Raki sounding overly whiny at all the wrong moments, whereas Motoki Takagi was able to carry the character more naturally. On the plus side, Brina Palencia turns out a fantastic performance as Priscilla, able to capture all her childlike purity and twist it into something hideous. Priscilla is a more interesting character than Raki, so I'll take it.

Setting aside its shonen trappings for a moment, Claymore is not an entirely brainless story. This series is at its very best when it is portraying the most basic, carnal side of humanity: fear of the unknown. Humans don't know or understand the Claymores that protect them any better than the Yoma that hunt them, and they're understandably afraid to get close enough to find out. The Claymores do nothing to discourage this attitude toward them, they're cold and often intimidating toward their charges, and as we find out more about them it becomes clearer and clearer that even if they tried to be accepted among humans, what they are would make that more or less impossible. Priscilla's origin story (which also covers Clare's backstory) is a definite high point of the show, clearly showing just how dangerous being "too human" can be when you're constantly battling monsters both within and without. Unfortunately, said flashback takes place from episodes five to nine out of twenty-six, and it's generally not a good sign when a series reaches its high point so early on.

Not that the rest of the show is in complete nowhere land, there are still some good bits here and there, but after unloading its guns far too early the show has to keep its audience entertained almost purely on action sequences, so it's a good thing the action is still fun to watch. This is how a shonen action title needs to be done: lots of cool heroes and scary villains with weird and memorable powers, a simple (rather stupid) plot, maybe a little conspiracy thrown in somewhere, and none of that waxing philosophical nonsense. Most of the characters can be boiled down to "how they fight" and "why they fight", but who cares as long as they're still entertaining? It's a little darker and bloodier than its classmates from the school of Jump, which lends it a distinct flavor and a bit more of an edge. The darker and more twisted this show gets, the more wicked the villains and the more intense the battles, the better. Seriously, forget the heroes, forget the ordinary rank-and-file Yoma, the major villains like Ophelia, Riful and of course Priscilla are the real reason to watch this show. That, and all the creative ways the show finds to cut its characters to tiny bits.

The low point of the show is undoubtedly Raki, and not just because of the voice acting. Make no mistake, he could have been a very important character to help Clare rediscover what it means to be human and given her the companionship she needed to let her past go, but for the most part his role borders on that of her pet (she even gets called out on this at one point). As the first human to ever view her as a person rather than a monster I get why he's so important to her, but throughout the series he constantly needs to be protected by Clare while offering very little in return. He tries to learn how to fight, but he's only human and never really gets a chance to be useful, and as far as good company goes his relationship with her is underdeveloped. If they spent more time talking to one another and had more of a natural chemistry things might be different, but most of their conversations are just generic fare along the lines of: "I'll definitely protect you, you're really important to me, blah, blah, blah", which is a shame. He's a tag-along character done wrong.

Even so, the show remains consistently entertaining from start to... well, not quite to finish. Continuing to rub salt on the wounds, Claymore ends with a "read the manga" conclusion, and a pretty poor one at that. The final arc of the TV series concludes a little too easily while ignoring all the hanging plot threads you could've sworn were leading to something much bigger and signing off with a hokey declaration that "the adventure continues" (okay, they don't actually say that). The possibility of a second season covering subsequent events is looking a little slimmer with every passing year, so you'll have to read the manga if you want answers.

For what it is, Claymore offers a slightly atypical, fairly engaging take on the tired Shonen Jump formula. It doesn't really live up to its potential of being a dark and mature fantasy, but it's still fun to watch and as far as shonen goes that's really all that matters. It doesn't have much to offer anyone aside from the usual action fans, but if you want to see badass ladies fighting monsters with swords, give this the time of day and see if it sates your craving. Next time around, I'll examine a more conventional and better organized (but far more poorly-named) military unit: Pumpkin Scissors. Remember to wipe your swords clean on the way out, and always keep it classy.

Thanks to name93 for the request.

Final Grade: 6/10

A decent diversion for action fans, though it gradually loses its edge to genre trappings.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I would have rated the series a bit higher than that though. I think Claire is a wonderful lead/hero (if you talk of a shounen). And I agree on your view about Raki. But I think Raki is there to subvert the genre, don't you? He is there to show that a female lead is protecting a weak male character; so somehow the roles are reversed.
    And yes, read the manga conclusion is the worst!