This Is a Certified CLAMP Classic: RG Veda

I’ve been a fan of the manga artist group CLAMP for almost as long as I’ve loved manga itself, but for whatever reason I had not read their first professional work, RG Veda. I decided to change that recently, motivated both by a desire to delve into older works and a realization that it was, in fact, a “mystery OVA” I had been unable to identify.

When I was quite young, a relative showed me a VHS anime fansub whose visual style stuck with me. There was the effeminate-looking kid with a hidden power, his tall guardian swordsman, the villain with long hair whose eyes were somehow still fully visible through his hair, and a general visual bonanza of beautiful swirls coming from the magic and weapons. Now, I know those are Ashura the “demonic” child, Yasha the leader of the Yasha clan of warriors, Taishakuten the God-King, and the influence of CLAMP’s style—which was, in turn, influenced by the series they themselves were fond of, such as Saint Seiya

RG Veda is very loosely based on an ancient Indian collection of hymns, here given manga makeover. Ashura is the last child of a people renowned for their battle prowess who were wiped out by the ruthless Taishakuten, who usurped the throne of the heavenly realm (Tenkai) in a violent conflict. In a world where destiny is said to be inevitable, a divine fortune teller speaks of six stars who will gather and overturn Tenkai—which has been interpreted as a threat to Taishakuten’s rule, and becomes the catalyst for gathering individuals seeking to defy the God-King. Though generally a naive child, there is another side to Ashura that emerges in rare moments, one that hints at the  terrifying true power lying within.

It’s funny to see how pretty much all of CLAMP’s hallmarks are right in this first series. I understand that they cut their teeth on doujinshi before their professional debut, but with a lot of artists, their earlier works come across as rough previews of later development. CLAMP, however, emerges seemingly fully formed like Athena. The impossibly beautiful men and women with flowing locks, the detailed eyes like voids, the heavy emphasis on inter-character dynamics, the tales of tragic and taboo love (including the problematic kind), the challenging of gender and sexuality norms, the major plot twists that force you to revise how you view the characters—I could just as easily be describing a manga of theirs from the 2010s instead of 1989. 

While this might be considered a lack of progress, I think it’s more that the CLAMP style always somehow feels both timeless and of a zeitgeist. Characters of all genders are portrayed with a plethora of personalities and motivations, though they tend towards whatever will provide the greatest amount of drama. Passions in both love and war flair with intensity, as the sheer amount of angst is only matched by the endless parade of ethereally beautiful violence. Even putting historical significance aside, RG Veda is a compelling read overall, though I do think it takes a couple volumes to really kick into gear.

I’ve sometimes seen readers express that they miss the CLAMP of old, and there is indeed a certain degree of relative simplicity present in RG Veda. Sure, the plot can feel overwrought and filled with shocking reveal, but it’s not as egregious as the kinds of rug pulls seen in something like Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles. And even though RG Veda is fairly long at 10 volumes (or three omnibuses if you read the Dark Horse release), it has a definitive ending that wraps everything up pretty well—not something every CLAMP manga can claim.

A lot of the elements of RG Veda have become fairly commonplace in manga. Despite that, it still holds up and never looks excessively dated. There’s something perennial about making everything and everyone as pretty as possible, and RG Veda backs up that aesthetic glory with unforgettable tears and tragedy.

Can the Dirty Wash Their Hands?

Cardcaptor Sakura is one of the most popular female characters ever. With such popularity, it’s very easy to look at Sakura and assume that she’s just a manufactured collection of moe features, or that she’s purposely designed to appeal to pedophiles, to which she is no doubt a popular character. Here is where I tend to argue that people who claim this to be the case are seeing the fruit and not the root. Sakura was not forged in the fires of Moedor but is rather an innocent character so well-conceived by her creators that people could not help but like her. This is what i believe.

But then consider the creators of Cardcaptor Sakura, the all-female manga duo CLAMP. CLAMP is no stranger to the world of otaku. They love manga and anime themselves. They miss deadlines because they played too many video games. Most importantly, prior to their big break they were doujinshi artists drawing things like Saint Seiya.

Kamichu! is the story of a junior high school girl who finds out that she is a god. It’s a sweet kind of slice-of-life story. The creator of Kamichu! is Naruco Hanaharu, artist of many, many pornographic comics.

The question  I ask here is, can a character truly be innocent if their creator has publishing material under their belt that is anything but? Is extensive experience on the adult side of manga a detriment to one’s ability to produce works of innocence, and if so is the damage too much?

I personally believe that it is possible to wash your hands clean and have work that is separate enough that they do not hold sway over each other if the creator so chooses. However, I know that some would disagree with me, and I have little confidence that I’ll be able to just outright convince people otherwise, especially if it’s a strong belief. What I will say is that in comics in general, there’s a lot of proof of comic artists around the world who have done children’s comics and then some “extra” work on the side. Are they all condemned as well?

That said, I do draw the line at a certain point, which is when you draw smut of your own characters who are supposed to be innocent. So sorry, Gunslinger Girl, you have author-drawn doujinshi of the non-wholesome variety. You do not pass this test.

Factoring Time into the Visual Aesthetics of Anime

Having spent yesterday and today hesitating on whether or not to buy the special edition Cardcaptor Sakura movies, I decided to sit down and watch some episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura, to see if it would swing my decision one way or the other. As of now, it’s still undecided, but just like every other time I’ve decided to re-watch Cardcaptor Sakura, I was reminded of how good the show looks. Years from now, the show will still look good. And this got me to thinking about the way time relates to an anime’s visuals.

In animation, there is a race to see the visual quality of animation improve over time. Though it’s not as drastic or hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated. This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it assumes that the shows you like today will be considered inferior in ten, twenty years. One might say then, that “timelessness” is the ideal to pursue, but at the same time I don’t think “timelessness” of visuals is necessarily a good thing. Much like how making anime for an international audience can take away some of the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, I think a similar problem can occur when the creators of a show try to isolate it from its own time. At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for a show to look bad or have poor art direction and using either “timelessness” or “representative of its time” as an excuse.

Different shows seem to approach this issue of time and its relation to the animation quality. In Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s the well-thought-out “camera” angles, transitions, and just the way the show flows naturally from scene to scene and action to action that makes it stand the oft-mentioned “test of time.” Koutetsushin Jeeg and Re:Cutie Honey, both updates of 70s Nagai Go works, merge the visual cues of 70s anime with a modern sense of perspective and consistency towards animation. Casshern SINS, a current show, takes an interesting approach. Its main character is said to be immortal, and to show this the design of Casshern references anime throughout the decades. Casshern himself is a 70s anime character, while his hair and musculature are similar to 80s characters, his figure and facial features are reminiscent of 90s bishounen, and the overall aesthetic of the show is very modern. Anne of Green Gables, a 1979 anime series directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Takahata Isao (with Miyazaki on staff as well), is an adaptation of an already well-known novel, and though there wasn’t a lot of resources in animation at that time, they worked with what they had to make the show very engaging.

“Working with what you have” may not always produce the best or most well-remembered shows, but I think it’s an important step in making a show whose visuals will be well-remembered years down the line when what was once cutting-edge will become as old-hat as wearing a skinned sabretooth tiger. One thing that Cardcaptor Sakura, Koutetsushin Jeeg, Re:Cutie Honey, Casshern SINS, and Anne of Green Gables have in common is that you can see the sheer amount of effort put into these shows. Judging “effort” is tricky business, and might even be scoffed at as impossible or even arbitrary, but when there’s this much effort involved I think you can’t help but notice. And when people, year after year notice this, that’s when a show’s visuals can be called “timeless.”

Though if you don’t aim for “timeless” art direction, that still doesn’t mean your show cannot be great.