This weekend I spent much of my time reading many, many volumes of Claymore by Yagi Norihiro, after repeated recommendations from people whose taste I trust persuaded me to give the series another try. Those of you who have been reading this blog since way back when will remember that I was a bit underwhelmed by volume 1. I actually didn’t think volume 1 was much better the second time around, and volume 2 wasn’t very good either. However, starting with the origin story in volume 3, the series gets increasingly awesome. It’s such a pleasure to see familiar shōnen tropes like “I will protect my precious person!” and “I will learn new techniques and get stronger!” used in a story where the vast majority of the cast are women.
Nevertheless, though Claymore‘s women characters get a much better deal than they would in most other shōnen series, the series’s treatment of gender remains flawed. Yagi gives his readers truly compelling women characters–smart, strong, independent, driven–that subvert a lot of the shōnen genre expectations for the women characters to be token, disposable, or both. But who is he really writing for? Or more specifically, who is he drawing for? Fifteen volumes in, I’m ridiculously fond of Claymore‘s women warriors, but I still have a sneaking suspicion that Yagi’s target audience does not necessarily include me.
[Warning: The remainder of this post will have some spoilers.]
As I mentioned above, the series takes off in volume 3, when Yagi delves into Clare’s origin story. Over the course of that arc, we learn more about the previous generation of Claymores, and in the subsequent arc, Clare meets and forms bonds with her comrades from the present generation of Claymores. The connections between Claymores take center stage; Raki, the young boy who is Clare’s sidekick in the first two volumes, is pretty much forgotten by the story for chapters at a time. Instead we get Clare and Teresa; Teresa, Ilene, and Pricilla; Clare, Miria, Helen, and Deneve; Clare and Ilene; Clare, Jean, and Galatea; Clare and Flora. The list goes on and on.
All of this is easily enough to make Claymore the most female-positive shōnen series that I’ve ever encountered. In comparison, a series like Fullmetal Alchemist has its share of great women characters, but none of those characters are as central to the story as as Clare, Teresa, Miria, et al. are to Claymore. And let’s not even get into the dubious treatment of women characters in most Weekly Shōnen Jump series.
The main problem with Claymore is, well, the art. Even while the plot turns on the strength and determination of the Claymores, the art treads a dangerous line between celebrating the female form and objectifying these women’s bodies. The fan service isn’t enough to throw me out of the story entirely, but sometimes it’s too close for comfort.
Some of the problems with the art are not as bad as other. For example, all of the Claymores, with the debatable exception of Undine, have the same body type. They have big breasts and tiny waists, and their characteristic armor sets off their figures very noticeably. It’s not as exaggerated as it could be–I’ve seen a lot worse T&A in both manga and superhero comics!–but it’s enough to be mildly annoying. Women’s bodies, even those of athletes and soldiers, vary more than that. Still, this is less bothersome than it could be because Yagi is clearly celebrating the Claymores’ strength and power when he draws them in action. For example, in their post-timeskip black leather, the seven survivors of Pieta are undeniably sexy, but they don’t seem like anyone’s playthings. When they show up to save the day–which they do not infrequently–they get the sort of power shots usually reserved for male heroes in manga.
The bigger problem with the art lies in the depiction of the villains. The main villains of the series, male and female, are former Claymores gone bad. (The present Claymores are all women, but the first generation of Claymores were men.) Their humanity has been consumed by their yoma power; they’ve Awakened. The Awakened forms of the female Claymores are both monstrous and highly sexualized in a way that the male Awakened ones are generally not. For example, in volume 14, the main villain takes the form of a seductive nude woman standing on top of a mountain of tentacles. (Yes, tentacles.) Not only does Yagi create a very problematic connection between female sexuality and evil in his story; the way he draws the female Awakened ones is clearly pandering to the heterosexual male gaze in a way that is sort of a slap in the face to all his other readers.
Ultimately, all this is disappointing because Yagi is clearly capable of more subtle storytelling. For example, there’s a scene during The Slashers arc where Miria is being tortured by the male Awakened One that Miria’s team is hunting. The violence is clearly sexualized–it’s a metaphorical rape–but that fits the undercurrents of the story. Similarly, Yagi is definitely aware of some of the gender issues in his series setup, such as the strange power dynamics between the female Claymores and their male handlers within the organization; sooner or later; as a reader, I get the sense that sooner or later he is going to do something with it.
Who else is reading Claymore? Let me know what you think of the gender issues in the series. How much does it affect your appreciation of the story and characters?