Claymore Collection Review
As a proud and devoted member of the legion of Anime/Manga fans around the world who consider Kentarō Miura's Berserk to be the very zenith of Japanese manga serials - not to mention one of the greatest fantasy tales of all time - I feel the acute pain of being at the mercy of a notoriously work-shy manga-ka who makes his readers wait week-after-week for the latest instalment to make it to print (it's been almost four months since the last chapter of Berserk, so that pain is quite acute right now!). So I, like many, have had to feed my craving for bloody fantasy swordplay elsewhere, which is where Norihiro Yagi has been of help, for since 2001 he has been regularly churning out his own Miura-inspired fantasy series for Monthly Shounen Jump called Claymore, which was eventually picked up for a standalone 26-episode Anime series that aired on Japanese TV in 2007.
Claymore is based in a world which is very similar to medieval Europe, at a time when outbreaks of Yōma attacks are growing out of control. The Yōma are shape-shifting monsters that crave the entrails of live humans and infiltrate villages by taking human form during the day so they can prey on their neighbours at night. Yōma are usually too powerful for simple village-folk to confront and impossible to detect by eye when in human form, so a mysterious and powerful world organisation has trained and dispersed warriors across the land who can detect and destroy the Yōma.
These soldiers are called Claymores, strong-willed women who have been implanted with the flesh and blood of Yōma to create a human-monster hybrid with the strength and power to face pure-blood Yōma. They are recognised by their blonde hair and silver eyes - side effects of the Yōma implantation - and the huge claymore swords with which they cut down their demonic prey, and they travel from village-to-village dispatching Yōma on behalf of The Organisation, which later receives payment from the grateful villagers. One such Claymore is a distant young woman named Clare, who upon rescuing a young village boy named Raki from a Yōma who had killed his entire family, reluctantly gains a rather naive and warm-hearted companion on the road.
Clare's past mirrors that of Raki's and thus they share an affinity and bond rarely found between Claymores and humans, which puts her at odds with the strict rules and regulations of The Organisation. She is also hunting an entity known as an Awakened Being - an ultra powerful demon created when Claymores lose control of their Yōma powers and evolve into something altogether more bloodthirsty and dangerous, but as her actions and motivations become more and more personalised she discovers that it's not just the Yōma and Awakened Beings she should be worrying about...
Usually when I encourage anyone to start a long-running Shounen (aimed at boys) serial I warn them that it may take a good seven or eight manga volumes/26 anime episodes to get going, pretty much because more and more stories are being developed these days that play out across hundreds of chapters/episodes so you can only imagine how long the opening acts of these stories can be. Usually these early episodes are distinguished by very episodic narratives, an overload of melodrama to get us hooked into the character's morals and motivations, and a noted holding back in the action stakes so more complex abilities and opponents can be developed over time. This may not bode well for a single-season show like Claymore, but series director Hiroyuki Tanaka has managed to chisel down around 11volumes worth of material into 26episodes of Anime, developing a series that has a pretty swift pace and enough twists and turns to satisfy any fan of violently stylised fantasy.
With its shapeshifting monster villains and emotionally conflicted heroes with huge swords - not to mention gory limb-flying action sequences - the comparisons with Miura's Berserk are inevitable, which may be a little unfair to Claymore as Berserk has the advantage of being a Seinen manga (adults) with more freedom afforded to its writer than Norihiro Yagi would receive from a tightly-edited Shounen periodical like Monthly Shounen Jump. So while Claymore could very much be described as a markedly lightweight Berserk, it's still a well-developed and stylish fantasy serial in its own right, one with just enough of its own identity to lift it beyond petty comparisons to Miura's work.
Getting back to the limitations of those early stages in Shounen stories, Claymore's world is at first introduced as a rather drab, sombre place with little emotion exhibited by the lead character and rather simplistic cackle-and-slash action sequences when she's taking on the early personality-devoid Yōma. With Raki thrown into the mix the early episodes can be a bit of a chore as he sets himself up as Clare's moral compass and constantly whines on about her inner humanity, which is all very atypical and uninspired Shounen melodrama and something of a dampener on the pacing of the first handful of episodes - although truth be told Raki's personality never really improves throughout the rest of the series, but at least he becomes less central as an over-riding narrative develops.
That overarching narrative introduces us to the world and politics of The Organisation and the other 48 Claymores that operate within Clare's district, which is when things start getting really interesting as the cast becomes peppered with a number of heroic and/or antagonistic warriors who all have their own unique personality traits and Yōma-powered abilities, which means much more adventurous action sequences and hence better developed monsters for them to fight. The anime really comes into its own then, with Tanaka and his team staying true to the dynamics of the comic to develop very moodily stylised action sequences that emphasise the rather quick-draw hack-and-slash nature of the Claymore fighting style compared to the more contrived and sadistic attacks of the Yōma. As with every other Shounen series there is also an emphasis on categorisations and rankings, with each Claymore's strength being signified by a ranking from 1 (strongest) to 49 (weakest), which happens to be Clare's rank. Naturally this ranking - again as with every other Shounen series - is usually thrown out the window over-and-over again as we learn that certain characters have deliberately hidden their true abilities or potential.
When the concept of an Awakened Being is introduced the action evolves into something more internal and fantastical at the same time, as various Claymore's find themselves drawing on more and more of their Yōma power and hence mutating and risking becoming Awakened Beings themselves - an obvious metaphor if ever there was one. The only problem with the introduction of this dynamic is that it soon becomes very clear that Clare will have to develop her partially-awakened Yōma side in order to step up to the plate against some of the more powerful beings that we are introduced to at various points in the story, which leads to the nagging realisation that there isn't enough episodes in this season to really start developing that.
What we get instead is a rather rushed but certainly very stylish conclusion that sort of half-heartedly ties up one major plotline whilst leaving a whole slew of subplots lingering on like an unsatiated hunger pang - but hey, you can't everything right? So we basically have to just enjoy Claymore for what it is: a pretty good opening act to a much broader and more engrossing fantasy serial, and hope that another season or a series reboot will eventually occur once the manga approaches its own natural conclusion.
PresentationIt's well documented that the US Blu-ray release of the Claymore Collection by FUNimation is a Standard Definition upconvert, and sadly this is indeed the source for Madman's Australian Blu-ray release. So what we have is a bitterly disappointing 1080i transfer that in no way shape or form looks remotely High Definition, but before you immediately condemn this release it's worth noting that to my knowledge Claymore was never actually broadcast in HD in Japan, so FUNimation were probably at the mercy of the same old interlaced NTSC masters that would have been sent their way for production of the DVD release.
What this translates to on-screen is a transfer that in HD terms is soft as marshmallow, with little textural detail and grain resolution and a generally blurry/hazy look and feel. Colours seem pretty accurate though, Claymore has an extremely dreary, earthen scheme with greys, browns and flat blues creating a sense of drab authenticity about the series' medieval-style setting. With that in mind then Claymore has an extremely muted palette until the Yoma sequences start and bold primary hues - ie: red create a stark contrast to the otherwise tone of the visuals. The fight sequences in particular exhibit a strong contrast between the setting and the bloodletting, all rendered reasonably well here with little in the way of bleeding, but banding is an obvious issue and some of the grey tones do exhibit some intrusive patches of inaccurate colour thanks to the choppy gradation.
In general the AVC compression appears reasonably solid, but there's a distinct amount of very fine noise in the image that looks almost like grain trying to peer through but has been digitally scrubbed so you get patches of something akin to mosquito noise. It's an odd effect that may be a result of the zooming required for a SD upconvert, but either way it gives the image an eccentric texture - some very thick Edge Enhancement in places also doesn't help either. Elsewhere the transfer performs solid enough, brightness and contrast levels seem appropriately balanced (read: muted) and black levels are a touch low but again that is probably the intention. If this was a DVD release then I would probably have given it a favourable mark, but for Blu-ray it certainly feels lacking - although you have to wonder just how good this show could possibly look in High Definition.
Further disappointments abound with a Dolby Digital 2.0 option only for the show's original Japanese audio. I can almost forgive FUNimation for being lumbered with SD masters, but they've got no excuse for not making sure they could at least include the LPCM 2.0 track found on the Japanese DVD releases. Maybe it's just me but I feel US/UK/Aus Anime distributors have an extra obligation with HD releases to hassle the Japanese studios for the highest quality masters and not just sit back and rely on the same old lossy, interlaced sources.
With that rant out of the way the Japanese DD2.0 track sounds pretty good, with solid dynamics, a reasonably expansive sound field, and a generally smooth and inviting sound with clear audible dialogue. If the English dub is your primary focus then your sole option is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that has a noticeably more expressive sound field, punchier bass, and slightly more defined dynamics. But the jump in quality over the Japanese DD2.0 isn't exactly night and day. Optional English subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasFUNimation have not rested on their laurels when it comes to the extras, gathering together their US vocal team to record a number of episode commentaries for the series, as well as porting over some interviews from the Japanese DVDs - all here on this Madman Region B Australian Blu-ray. Going disc-by-disc they are:
Note: Unless otherwise stated all Japanese dialogue (including song lyrics) in the extra features comes with removable English subtitles.
Trinity Blood Trailer (00min:33sec, 480i, English DD2.0)
Before the main menu loads up you are presented with a (skippable) SD trailer for Trinity Blood. Not selectable in the main menu though.
Episode 1 Commentary
The voices of Clare and Raki: Stephanie Young and Todd Haberkorn are our commentators for the show's opener, which was also ADR directed by Haberkorn. With less people comes less banter and joking about; and hence more focus on the technical aspects of developing and recording the American dub for the episode and series in general, so Young and Haberkorn should at least hold your interest.
Episode 8 Commentary
Two voice actors this time round, namely: Brina Palencia (Priscilla) and Wendy Powell (Illena), so naturally the focus is on the performance of each actress and some of the other cast members who appear in this episode. I can't say I was enamoured by this commentary, but it's a relatively inoffensive way to pass twenty minutes.
Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone (02m:09s, 1080p, English DD2.0)
This time before the main menu is a full HD US trailer for Evangelon: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone. Also not selectable in the main menu.
Episode 11 Commentary
Colleen Clinkenbeard (Galatea + Line Producer) and Monica Rial (Miria) provide a very ditzy commentary that covers much of the same ground as the Palencia & Powell commentary, so you may find it hard going if you listen to these commentaries back-to-back like I did. The only really surprising thing about this track is in hearing Monica's actual voice, as it's completely opposite to the voice she adopted for Miria.
Episode 16 Commentary
Laura Bailey (Jean) and Leslie Patrick (Claudia/Tabitha/Wendy + ADR Director) provide a totally insipid commentary with both actresses rambling on and on about pointless details outside of the show, and when they do remember to get back on topic they just sit there pointing out aspects of the show/episode that are abundantly clear to any viewer!
Nabari No Ou (01m:02s, 1080p, English DD2.0)
The final pre-menu trailer, which once again is not selectable in the main menu.
Episode 19 Commentary
Caitlin Glass (Deneve + ADR Director) and Jamie Marchi (Helen) offer a discussion that is more focussed on the dub recording and show itself than the previous commentary, but by this point in my Extra Features marathon my tolerance for vapid US voice actor commentaries was reaching its limit and I was struggling to remain awake!
Episode 26 Commentary
Brina Palencia (Priscilla) and Stephanie Young (Clare) return for another focussed commentary that features less waffle and more production talk, but again I found myself nodding off as there's very little revealed here that hasn't been said in the previous commentaries.
Cast Auditions (04m:05s, 1080p, English DD2.0)
Very brief audio clips from the auditions of Stephanie Young (Clare), Christine Auten (Teresa), R. Bruce Elliott (Rubel), Eric Vale (Sid), and anonymous Yomi voice track. I cannot fathom what FUNimation thought was noteworthy about these bland clips of random lines being performed by each actor in character, but at least each clip comes with personalised 1080p title cards for each character in question.
Interview with Director Hiroyuki Tanaka (07m:01s, 480i, Japanese DD2.0)
A rapid-fire interview with lots of questions being asked of the director in just over seven minutes, which means his answers are a little too brief to offer much insight into the show, but he at least conveys some of his directing philosophy and approach to the material.
Interview with Sound Director Yasunori Honda (08m:37s, 480i, Japanese DD2.0)
Honda discusses the goals of the sound design and what they were attempting to achieve with the Japanese dub and sound effects. Not the most substantial or riveting of interviews, but you do get a little feel for how different the Japanese approach voice dubbing than the Americans.
Interview with Art Director Manabu Otsuzuki (06m:26s, 480i, Japanese DD2.0)
A decent interview with Otsuzuki discussing his approach to the backgrounds and colour scheme of Claymore.
Interview with Art Settings Nobuhito Sue (04m:17s, 480i, Japanese DD2.0)
Despite being the shortest this is by far the most interesting and technical of the interviews, with Sue revealing the details of how a number of the show's locations were developed - including early design artwork. You can really get a feel for how much authenticity was pumped into the artwork here.
Original TV Commercials (07m:04s, 480i, Japanese DD2.0)
I'm not sure how the two commercials in this feature originally played on Japanese TV as the first is just a roughly four minute montage of clips from the show with no voice over or on screen text until the very end. The second clip is a slightly more conventional advert.
Textless Opening - Raison D'être (01m:02s, 1080p, Japanese DD2.0)
Not much to say here other than the song Raison D'être was recorded by Japanese rock outfit: Nightmare, who may sound familiar to fans of Death Note.
Textless Closing - Danzai no Hana (01m:12s, 1080p, Japanese DD2.0)
Riyu Kosaka performs Danzai no Hana: Guilty Sky (although the literal title translation is Conviction Flower).
Trailers (07m:14s, 1080p/480i, English DD2.0)
A number of FUNimation trailers here, all presented in a mix of SD or HD. In order they are: Strike Witches, Darker than Black, Dragon Ball Z, Gunslinger Girl, D.Gray-man, Tower of Druaga, Shigurui: Death Frenzy, and finally Soul Eater.
OverallClaymore is an engrossing Action Fantasy with a sombre style and lots of gory battles, but one which is clearly part of a much grander plotline that is only touched upon in this single 26-episode season, so don't expect a very satisfying conclusion and there's lots to enjoy. The Claymore Collection Australian Blu-ray from Madman comes courtesy of porting across the US Blu-ray from FUNimation, which means a rather mediocre Standard-Definition upconvert and lossy DD2.0 only for the original Japanese audio. If you're an English dub fan though you can console yourself with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track and a slew of extras focussed mostly on the US dubbing process.
Claymore is available to buy direct from Madman and all good Australian retailers.