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.