Thigh-boots ahoy, as Andrew Osmond weighs the pros and cons
The Discworld author Terry Pratchett quipped that once a male writer invents a fantasy female warrior, then he’ll go on about thigh boots and bare blades until it’s cold shower time. Both Claymore and Corpse Princess – Shikabane Hime have some of this syndrome. Claymore creates a whole race of silver-eyed babes in armour, while Corpse Princess serves up a present-day warrior schoolgirl who appears to be going commando under her skirt. But both shows have more going for them; they’re dark, gory fantasies, pairing up tough heroines with much weaker boys – a gender spin that Hollywood has only just caught up with in the Hunger Games films.
The title warriors in Claymore are named for the swords they wield against Yoma, demons who eat human viscera. Sadly, the swords’ Scots origins go unacknowledged (wouldn’t the offal-eating Yoma love haggis?). Claymore is set in a fantasy world, heightened but earthy, conveyed in a striking yet simplified colour palette.
Unsurprisingly for anime, the Claymore women are half-demons; more interestingly, they never hide this fact. Normal people rely on Claymores to kill Yoma, while viewing the women with fear and disgust. Infamously, feudal Japan had an underclass, the Burakumin, who took on “unclean” jobs like executions and grave-digging. The Claymores often seem cold and uncanny mannequins (shades of Ghost in the Shell), as they fight lusty male monsters.
But there are also elements of Terminator 2. The Claymores are shown to fascinate children, who see them as angels of light in a cruel world. The main Claymore in the story, a woman called Clare, impresses a young boy, Raki, who has a moe-style obsession with “protecting” a woman who’s way more capable than he is. Another storyline has an abused girl who’s devoted to a different Claymore warrior. The two plots tie together in a shocking way.
The fights are stylized affairs, action-to-action poses, with pregnant pauses between a sword-strike and a diced baddie falling gorily apart (something which harks back to Fist of the North Star). We see people baptised in water or blood. As the show continues, the beautiful doll-like women are tortured, pierced and dismembered; sometimes the limb-lopping is so heavy that it approaches Monty Python. A queasy highlight is the villainess Ophelia, a psycho-sadist Claymore who sees Clare as a toy with detachable parts. Ophelia is voiced in Japanese by Emi Shinohara, who previously played B-ko, Sailor Jupiter and Kagero, the hard-ass woman fighter in Ninja Scroll.
Corpse Princess – Shikabane Hime is initially more genric. In contrast to the fantasy setting of Claymore, the show takes place in today’s Tokyo. The viewpoint character is Ouri, a foundling boy raised by a kindly young Buddhist monk as his little brother. Though very innocent, Ouri has oddities; he’s unafraid of death but feels close to it, and he has an invisible kitten familiar. Then he bumps into Makina, a gun-toting undead girl who exists to fight other tormented undead. It’s like Bleach with more violence – think Ichigo and Rukia in Ouri’s and Makina’s roles – though Ouri doesn’t fight and remains a bystander to the main drama for a long time. Despite the many differences between Corpse Princess and Claymore, their fantasy set-ups are very close. Makina is one of many “Corpse Princesses,” and she’s employed by monks who think she’s cursed and defiled.
Corpse Princess has cheesecake, gunplay and goofy gags for anime fanboys (though the gags thin out notably as the show progresses). There are also lively ghosts, including a very twisted haunted car, and a sympathetic treatment of how teens perceive death. The character relationships win you over, and the developing story is properly engaging. Whereas Claymore has elements of high fantasy – the most heroic Claymores have a purity like Tolkien’s elves – Corpse Princessis a scuzzier piece which displays its trashy credentials from its lurid opening titles (watch that skirt!) Yet it ends up being surprisingly respectable.
Readers interested in warrior women are also recommended to the live-action Japanese sword-swinger Ichi. It’s directed by Fumihiko Sori, who made the CGI anime Vexille, and the sports manga adaptation, Ping Pong. Ichi has nothing to do with the grisly Ichi the Killer; rather it’s a gender-swap on Zatoichi, the blind swordsman hero who was a staple of Japanese cinema in the 1960s, then revived by Takeshi Kitano in 2003. Sori’s film makes the swordsman a swordswoman. The setting is feudal Japan, and Ichi is a beautiful blind wandering minstrel (Haruka Ayase), who’s drawn into an archetypal rumble between small-town honchos and neighbourhood bandits.
Ichi’s opening is a virtual replay of Kitano’s Zatoichi, down to a gambling den routine where Ichi demonstrates her quasi-magical powers of perception. However, you don’t get Kitano’s STOMP percussions or playful theatrics. Sori plays his film straighter, letting Ichi’s main characters ring the variants on the manly formula. Ichi hides a life of pain under her tranquil mask, and her tagalong companion (Takao Osawa) has, ahem, male problems – he’s incapable of getting his sword out, thanks to a convenient childhood trauma. Both leads, then, are damaged and angsty, and their operatic characterisations are the kind you would expect in anime.
Ichi is not for viewers who prefer their heroes hard-nosed and nonchalant, but it still offers beautiful backdrops and stylish swordfights – good grief, slomo action used properly! There’s also a masked baddie (Shido Nakamura II), who has the signature guttural chuckle of a shinigami Death God – unsurprising, as the actor voiced Ryuk in Death Note. If you enjoy Ichi, then drop a thank-you to Quentin Tarantino; it was Kill Bill which prompted the production of this warrior-woman saga.