What I Learned About Clamp’s Art

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Clamp has been creating beautiful art since the late 1980s. Come join me and see what I learned after examining their illustrations!

Clamp has produced many great works over the decades. Some of their best works include Magic Knight Rayearth, Chobits, and Cardcaptor Sakura. This time, I want to look at their works mostly from the visual art point-of-view. Since the start of their career, their art styles have evolved. However, there are many themes, both visually and conceptually, that persist in their stories. What are those? Continue reading to find out!

History

Clamp ladies in 2006
Clamp ladies in 2006

Clamp (クランプ, Kuranpu) started as an eleven-member doujinshi manga artist group then named Clamp Cluster. Over the years, members dropped and only four female mangaka remain. Nanase Oukawa (大川七瀬, Oukawa Nanase) directs and often write the stories, scripts, and storyboards. Mokona (もこな, Mokona) often acts as the lead artist and character designer. Tsubaki Nekoi (猫井 椿, Nekoi Tsubaki) has acted as the co-director, assistant character designer, illustration corrector, and more. Satsuki Igarashi (いがらし 寒月, Igarashi Satsuki) has acted as the production coordinator, the lead character designer for Chobits, and line artist for Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle.

Clamp’s first notable publication was RG: Veda (read as Rig Veda. Original title: 聖伝-RG VEDA- Seiden: Rigu Veeda) that came out in 1989. The manga has themes taken from Hindu’s Vedic mythology. Since then Clamp produced many interesting stories including X/1999 (known only as X in Japan), Magic Knight Rayearth, Cardcaptor Sakura, Angelic Layer, Chobits, xxxHolic, and more.

The group is currently working on Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card and xxxHolic: Rei.

Clamp’s Artistic Themes

For brevity and keeping in tune with the Throwback Thursday series, I will limit my observations to xxxHolic and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (both early 2000 series). There is plenty to look at, especially since their art has always been gorgeous!

In examining their art and story, there are some consistent visual-conceptual themes that appear in many of Clamp’s works. An easy one to spot is the recurring theme of beautiful people but imperfect individuals. Clamp’s main art style falls into the pretty shoujo genre and they tend to have handsome or beautiful characters (bishoujo or bishounen, anyone?) that often struggle with something. It could be their painful past, unfortunate preordained future, or simply born cursed and affecting people around them.

X's main characters
X’s main characters

The second one is their fondness for elaborate and beautiful costumes. You can see them as early as RG Veda, though in some of the stories that take place in modern times, they tone it down considerably. Case in point: Clamp School Detectives, X/1999, and Chobits. One most recent example of the elaborate costuming can be found in xxxHolic, where Yuko Ichihara is often dressed in lavish getups.

The third and last that I will mention here is Clamp loves using a method called Osamu Tezuka’s Star System. It is a character system first devised by Osamu Tezuka whereby the creator reuses the same characters for similar/different roles in their other stories. Clamp uses this story device as a mean to accommodate their so-called Clamp Universe. One example can be found in Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, where there are characters by the same name occupying many different universes. Their roles and personalities differ but may have similar drives or sense of purpose. Many times, the lead character designer working on that manga would update the looks of said characters. It is a great way to be creative within the constraints of different styles.

Early Styles

Let’s start at the beginning of their professional career, with the early creations like RG Veda, Tokyo Babylon, X/1999, and more. I call this the exploration era because Clamp was only starting out. They were testing out their art styles, with a mix of intricate designs for some manga and simpler ones for others. RG Veda, Shirahime-Sho: Snow Goddess Tale, Legend of Chun Hyang, Magic Knight Rayearth and other fantasy titles tend to have extravagant and flowy costumes.

RG Veda collage
RG Veda collage

For a group that was adopting the shoujo art style, Clamp’s take was different. Their take is bolder, more intense, and appealing to both girls and boys. When many other artists were drawing and coloring their shoujo illustrations with lighter and pastel colors, Clamp used darker shades and more saturated colors.

Their art has a softness that comes from the lines, composition, and colors, but the character poses and expressions can be full of strength.

At this point in time, the males have unnaturally broad shoulder and small waists/hips. Most likely they were drawing from the 80s fashion with shoulder pads and baggier cut clothes. This particular trend continues on to recent works like the Tsubasa series and Legal Drug.

You may also notice the liberal usage of orbs or jewels on clothes, armors, weapons, and accessories. I am guessing they include these because gems and crystals are associated with the mystics. In Clamp’s visual style, these ornaments usually appear in stories with fantasy and magic.

In the late 90s

Clamp's Cardcaptor Sakura
Clamp’s Cardcaptor Sakura

We see a shift in the group’s style and stories around the late 1990s to early 2000s. While Magic Knight Rayearth keeps a lot of visual elements from the early art style, Cardcaptor Sakura signals a fresh change. Clamp transitioned focus to rounder shapes and edges, along with simplifying the silhouette of the characters. However, they still include intricate details and the flowy feel they are known for. With Sakura, they successfully created their own brand of cute, something that will be repeated in Chobits, Kobato, and Angelic Layer later.

Around the time Clamp created Miyuki-chan in Wonderland, The One I Love, and Cardcaptor Sakura, the group started using more pastel colors. Sakura, especially, uses plenty of light yellows, pink, and baby blue.

Clamp's Clover manga
Clamp’s Clover manga

However, Clover (1997-1999) became an outlier with its cyberpunk and dystopian theme. The manga’s illustrations contain darker colors, with the gloomier mood in line with its central theme. Moreover, the manga panels are very much devoid of backgrounds. Perhaps this is intended as a way to evoke the feeling of emptiness and to draw focus on the characters and how the panels are laid out.

Early 2000s

Legal Drug which became Drug and Drop (left) and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (right)
Legal Drug which became Drug and Drop (left) and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (right)

Suki: A Like Story and Legal Drug ushered the turn of the millennium. Suki: A Like Story looks a lot like the typical shoujo manga of its time. Legal Drug, on the other hand, seems like the precursor to Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle’s and xxxHolic’s art style. The relationship between Kazahaya Kudo and Rikuo Himura, the two main characters, may have inspired the designs, personalities, and interactions of Kurogane and Fai D. Flowright from Tsubasa. Yes, Kudo and Himura are archetypes of the shounen-ai genre and it inevitably fuels the fan-shipping of Kurogane and Fai.

An illustration of xxxHolic
An illustration of xxxHolic

Though set in the same universe, Tsubasa and xxxHolic’s art styles are very different. Often, the illustrations of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle place the characters in an environment. The cover artworks for xxxHolic looks a lot more like a stage or a very elaborate photo studio. To me, T: RC looks like a natural evolution of Clamp’s shounen style: believable, action-packed, mysterious, and sometimes visceral. xxxHolic feels almost like a new style from the group. The illustrations are surreal, thought-provoking, and highly decorative. They remind me of ukiyo-e paintings because of the pale skin complexions contrasting against colorful clothing and the environment.

An ukiyo-e painting by Gosoutei Hirosada
An ukiyo-e painting by Gosoutei Hirosada

I have learned a lot in researching and writing about Clamp. Do you have a favorite Clamp story?

P.S. I am still waiting for them to continue with X/1999’s story. Please make it happen?

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Astra W

I am a Chocobo mug who loves puns and is driven by the thirst for nostalgia. You will usually find me writing about days past like an old person. Other than that, I usually gawk at different visual arts or exercising my fingers on games. Or napping in the kitchen cabinet.

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