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June 2, 2016

Let’s discuss RWBY (Part 1).

If you’ve spent more than ten minutes reading my stuff, you might have noticed that I’m a fan of the ongoing Tales series of JRPGs.  I haven’t played every installment in the franchise -- it’s a good twenty years old, after all -- but what I have played has been intensely rewarding.  While I wouldn’t call it the perfect franchise (we don’t talk about Dawn of the New World), it’s got such a high level of consistency that you can almost always depend on them for a good time.  Well, I can, at least.  Don’t take everything I say as a ringing endorsement, or you’ll end up burning my name in effigy.

Part of what makes the Tales games special is, in my opinion, something that ties back to something I said offhandedly a while back.  To paraphrase, Tales is a JRPG series made by people who hate JRPGs.  The genre’s fine as-is, but it’s long since buckled from the strain of archetypes, clichés, and absurdities thrown out without a care.  At times, it feels like the effort starts and stops with the character designs -- and everything gives way to ludicrous plotting and/or an impassable wall of angst.  By and large, the Tales games sidestep that; they tend to do away with the emo ennui that the genre’s (rightfully) stereotyped with having, and skewers some of the classic tropes by the halfway point or earlier.  To wit: Tales of Symphonia does in about 10 hours what Final Fantasy X did in 30.  And I think X is one of the good ones.

Why do I bring all this up, given the post’s title?  It’s simple.  It’s because if you ask me, RWBY is an anime made by people who hate anime.  Well, in a sense.  But I’ll get to that.

This will be the SPOILERS you’re waiting for
This will be the SPOILERS that…uh…door…roses…crap, I’m bad at remembering song lyrics.


Okay, so here’s the setup.  RWBY takes place in an alternate world called Remnant, where magic -- such as it is -- manifests in some pretty powerful ways.  On one hand, you’ve got the Grimm, masked monsters that walk the earth in search of their next meal; their “next meal” in this case means taking a bite out of anything or anyone that gives off negative emotions.  On the other hand, you’ve got the would-be keepers of the peace: Hunters and Huntresses, skilled warriors who use weapons, magic, and more to protect their world.  In a nutshell, it’s heroes versus villains.

The key thrust of the plot -- at least in the first three volumes -- follows our leading lady, Ruby Rose.  After a run-in with some crooks, she ends up earning herself a spot at Beacon Academy, i.e. a magic school/training ground that’ll put her on the fast track to becoming a world-class Huntress.  Granted she’ll have to do that while enduring some tough training, making friends with an eclectic cast of warriors, and uncovering the mysteries behind an increasingly-deadly conspiracy, but whatever.  She’s taking it all in stride.  It’s not like she has much to fear, given that she’s faster than a greased-up Sonic the Hedgehog and wields a giant scythe that can turn into a sniper rifle.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, there’s a point I have to address.  If RWBY is effectively an anime -- albeit one rendered entirely in 3D, a rarity in the industry -- then on some level, it’d behoove us to think of how it compares to anime.  And what’s more important to an anime than opening (and opening theme)?

Let’s start with one of my favorites.


And here are two other strong ones.



Not bad, eh?  Now let’s look at one of RWBY’s openings.


I have to be honest here: thus far, I hate all of RWBY’s openings (a whopping three of them, I know).  After watching the debut of each opening out of courtesy, I skipped past it as soon and as best I could.  Sure, they’re technically proficient, and it’s not as if anyone who likes them is objectively wrong for doing so.  But I can’t stand the openings, and viewed at large, I’m not really a fan of the soundtrack in general.  I’ll scour YouTube for JoJo tracks or listen to Gundam Build Fighters’ best on repeat without complaint, but the thought’s never even occurred to me to look up a song from RWBY.  That’s kind of a problem, because as far as I know, most of the show’s main players have theme songs complete with lyrics.

You could chalk up my distaste to me not glomming onto that style of music, and maybe that’s the biggest part of it.  But here’s the issue: the opening of an anime -- averaging 1 minute and 30 seconds -- is supposed to be a tone-setter.  It’s supposed to get you hyped for an episode, as well as set up your expectations for what’s to come.  Through visuals, through music, through lyrics, through style, whatever -- no matter the tools, the end goal is to create something that’s contextually relevant.  When it is, you get a strong interplay where the opening supports the episode, and the episode supports the opening.  Otherwise, you basically get that “while I play unfitting music” meme in full force.


You saw those earlier examples, right?  Soul Eater is an action series with a taste for the macabre, featuring some twisted visuals and characters that give “mental” a whole new meaning; naturally, the opening reflects that with a sort of flair that wouldn’t be out of place on a Halloween night.  Gundam Build Fighters is as much about the battle to become the number one battler with tiny plastic robots as it is about the intense bond between two boys (and their toys); the show’s opening has those sick fights, but couples them with a song that manages to have some laid-back yet passionate overtones.  The Stardust Crusaders arc of JoJo has long since established itself as a punch-happy frenzy, so the opening is unabashedly manly.  (Though to be frank, I prefer both the song and opening of Phantom Blood.)

RWBY’s opening implies that you’re in for a gripping tale -- a battle against endless hordes of monsters and the forces of evil.  Heroes from all over the world will have to face their inner demons, and come together in order to face off with devils that would do Remnant harm.  All three openings in general suggest that great struggles and pain await our heroines (and their friends and comrades, too).  Anyone who watches the show is in for a fight to the last breath.  And guess what?  Up until the last few episodes of Volume 3 -- the third season of a show that’s been bumping around for years -- the openings have almost NOTHING to do with the show.  I won’t say that they’re lies or false advertising, but they’re pretty damn close.

I hate the openings because they don’t sell RWBY as what it truly is.  And that’s a shame, because the things that the openings barely try to communicate are EXACTLY the things that make it such a strong, strong series.


Okay, let’s not kid ourselves here.  With so much emphasis put on fantastic weapons and fancy superpowers, it’s a given that RWBY’s got some slick fights.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I say that it’s an anime made by people who hate anime: because in a lot of ways, modern anime from the land of the rising sun has lost its way.  The stereotype these days is that anime’s nothing but a bunch of cute girls doing cute things (or cute girls in general), and it’s at the expense of the plot or the thrills.  I don’t actually watch that much anime -- I’ve only just now taken the JoJo plunge in earnest -- but I think that the reason for that is because there’s not as much material that appeals to me.

I’m not saying that I need every anime out there to have lots of lavishly-rendered punch-ups, because that’s a hell of a good way to wear out the charm.  But I take a look at anime blogs on a regular basis, and the sheer number of shows that have scenes where girls sit around a table eating food and/or being friends is astounding.  Cute girls in clubs, cute girls being friends, cute girls being idols, cute girls in school, cute girls eating, cute girls falling in love (for a given definition of “love”), cute girls getting embarrassed, cute girls acting like idiots, cute girls acting like babies, cute girls acting like idiot babies…I know it’s part of a movement to help keep that sagging industry afloat, but anime for the most part has been de-fanged.  It’s lost its edge.  It’s ice-cold oatmeal hidden inside a fistful of cotton candy.


That’s not true of every anime out there, sure.  But it’s true of enough anime -- the same tropes and clichés, delivered as typically and efficiently as possible via well-established archetypes.  Accepted archetypes.  (And let’s not get into how female characters are basically made into commodities, because that’d take an entirely different post.)  How much of anime’s modern-day disappointments are a result of an industry whose struggles have long since been documented, and on average its studios probably don’t have the resources -- or confidence -- to even produce a single good fight scene?  How much of the blame belongs to the stereotypical otaku that’ll shell out the big bucks for whatever panders to them best, and don’t want to be challenged by the art -- and medium -- they’ve presumably invested so much in?

It’s complicated.  That’s true of a lot of industries these days; as painful as it is to admit these days, most productions of stories demand huge amounts of money (and/or a huge return of investment).  We’ve seen with movies.  We’ve seen it with video games.  We’re seeing it with anime, too -- if we haven’t already.  Instead of embracing the infinite possibilities of the medium, creators -- such as they are, and not just the committees/executives/shareholders pulling the strings -- are doing what they can to survive, or simply get their stuff out there.  It’s a sobering thought that talent, ideals, dreams, and a creative spark aren’t worth as much as a twin-tailed little girl with a ribbon under her boobs, but I guess that’s our world now.

Except here comes RWBY, ready to knock the anime world flat on its ass.


There’s a part of me that thinks that, even with its distinct artistic style, RWBY is both an anime and an anti-anime.  It’s not hard to draw lines to the show’s influences, but it still manages to become its own thing by rejecting what it owes its very existence to.  So again, the show features some slick fight scenes, and a good number of them -- as you’d expect.  Anime is world-famous for its armada of cute girls now, but it’s just as easy to stereotype it as a genre built on over-the-top fights.  We probably have Dragon Ball Z to thank for that, but the shonen genre’s prominence from then on in the west -- from Naruto, from Bleach, and many more -- means that for some people, the allure is (and always will be) “super-powered battles”.

RWBY’s in a position where it can enjoy the best of both worlds.  Cute girls!  Over-the-top fights!  That’s what anime is all about, right?  It might as well be, if we’re going by stereotypes -- though it’s worth mentioning that you’ll find no tentacles here.  But it’s like I said before: RWBY may show off all these badass heroines in states of emotional turmoil in its openings, but up until the back half of Volume 3, I’d argue that that’s not really the selling point.  I know I can only speak for myself here, so I’ll say it plainly.

I didn’t become a RWBY fan because of the action.  I became a RWBY fan because of the comedy.


I’ve been an anime fan for ages, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one that had me laughing it up as consistently as RWBY -- even if said anime billed itself as a comedy.  (Well, Binbougami Ga! is the exception, but the fact that it took so long to find one says plenty.)  I mean, just look at the main character, Ruby.  At a glance, she looks like something you’d see in the back pages of a nerd’s spiral notebook -- the stereotypical edgy fare (and flair) out to be cool.  But the Ruby in-universe is such a hyperactive goofball that she’s got more in common with Goku than, say, Sasuke.  And when I say Goku, I mean Dragonball Abridged Goku.

Speaking of Sasuke -- everyone’s favorite Naruto character -- you’d expect that someone like him would show up.  Judging solely by appearances, you’d think that such a hallowed duty would fall to Blake Belladonna.  There’s a lot to unpack with that character, but for now I’ll say this: Blake gets some of the best visual gags in the entire series, bar none.  Like, anime is no stranger to cat girls, but Jesus.  This is golden.


Let’s be real here.  RWBY is basically a CG spin on Harry Potter, and the tales of The Boy Who Lived have become popular enough to spawn many, many, many imitators across the globe.  How do you stand out?  Do what you do exceedingly well.  And in RWBY’s case, what it does well is comedy.  So many wacky characters.  So many absurd moments.  So many spot-on lines.  So many sick burns.  There’s a scene early on where the resident doofus Jaune doesn’t know about Pyrrha, one of the greatest fighters around, even though her exploits are described at length for him.  But he does end up remembering her eventually…because he realizes that she was the one on the box for his favorite cereal brand.  And then a giant cereal box image pops up behind her, and she talks about how said cereal wasn’t healthy.

I was already following along with RWBY by that point, but that was the exact moment when I jumped onto the hook Rooster Teeth had dangling in the water.  What the show demonstrates isn’t just an understanding of comedy and jokes (though let’s be real: that’s a huge selling point).  It’s an ability to create characters that endear themselves to you, the viewer, every step of the way. 

It’s not just with sick action beats, and it’s not with tugs at the heartstrings via tragic backstories or emotional baggage.  You’ll get to see the darkness of these characters over the course of the first three seasons, but you’re just as likely to see the light.  And it’s because of that light that there’s a stronger contrast -- that despite the students of Beacon being masses of polygons with big ol’ sand dollar eyes, they feel fully fleshed out.

I’m not sure if I would call any of them real.  Then again, they don’t have to be.  All they have to do is win over an audience’s heart, and they succeed with every new ten(ish) minute block.


The cool thing about RBWY is that it takes the best of anime while minimizing the worst of it.  In a way, it’s almost unfair to compare it to anime, because it’s trying to be its own thing.  That’s not to say that some old standbys and visual cues don’t pop up, but I feel as if the show tries to operate on its own terms, with its own strengths, with its own rules.  RWBY’s funny, but it’s not a pure comedy.  It simply weaves comedic elements into its story, and usually to great effect. 

For example, what do you get when you fuse a bunch of laughs with a bunch of action?  You get the food fight from the start of Volume 2, which basically sets the benchmark for all action to come (relative to its budget, since you can’t quite compare a web series to, say, a $200 million Marvel movie).  It’s got a level of spectacle that wouldn’t be out of place in a Platinum game, but it’s laced with a ton of laughs that tell you “Yeah, you’re watching RWBY.  Soak it in, baby.”

Some fights have higher stakes than others, given that the good guys have to fight invading beasts, criminal scumbags, and scorned revolutionaries.  And yeah, it’s a given that they’ve also got a lot of visual splendor to them while also putting the show’s character (and characters) on full display.  Consider, for example, the Yang vs. Neo fight.  Who the hell’s Neo?  This is Neo.


Up until that point, Yang Xiao Long had done a pretty good job fighting off the bad guys.  That’s kind of a given when your latent ability is the K-Groove from CvS2, but that fight is a stark reminder of the difference between an amateur and a professional.  Yang’s the team powerhouse thanks to her penchant for punching and firing explosive shotgun rounds from her gloves.  But all that power is worthless against the skill and finesse of Neo -- and her muted teasing makes Yang press even harder, which makes her even sloppier, which…well, anyone with experience in fighting games knows what happens when you lose your cool mid-match.

It’s not required to unpack every moment of RWBY frame-by-frame, but you can get plenty out of it if you do.  Yang may seem like a joker on the surface, but it doesn’t take much to show that she’s got a real mean streak; she’ll let the hate flow through her, even if she only starts by showing it with a muted growl.  Then again, this is a girl who’ll go berserk if anyone messes with her hair -- which I kind of wish happened more often, seeing as how she’s got so much of it -- and doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “back down”.  Luckily, it’s not as if her penchant for violence, anger, and rash on-the-spot decisions ends up being a major plot point later on.  OH WAIT. 


It turns out that Yang was basically the pawn of an illusion (and a conspiracy) in that scene, but it raises some interesting questions about the character -- and the world at large, but I’ll have to get into that another time.  Yes, the pretty little pugilist got tricked into breaking Mercury’s leg, but the baddies couldn’t necessarily have predicted that Yang would react in such a way that she would create a major scene on the global stage. 

Unless, of course, that they had been watching her enough over the past year or so and learning that she’s a loose cannon who would use brute force to shut down any opposition.  In other words, the baddies didn’t have to brainwash Yang at all.  They just had to put her in a situation where she would react naturally, and according to her basic instincts.  Those same basic instincts had at least been hinted at over the course of the show’s run.


It does kind of call into question the severity of the Hunters’ and Huntresses’ attacks throughout RWBY, though.  The four main characters alone use swords, bullets, scythes, chains, and explosive force to do battle, even when they’re fighting against human opponents.  I’d imagine there are safety measures and barriers up throughout the school (and beyond that, each character’s “Aura” acts as a sort of shield), but given that the story is sliding more and more into darker territory with real consequences to battles -- in a pivotal scene, Yang actually loses an arm -- it’s something that’ll have to be reconciled at some point.

Speaking of darker territory?  Yeah, the same episode where Yang breaks a leg is coincidentally the same one where the YouTube descriptions explain that going forward, there’s going to be more violence and viewer discretion is advised.  The showrunners aren’t playing around, given that that’s also the episode where Mercury’s past gets touched on, and we see blood for the first time in the form of his wrecked legs.  What does that mean for RWBY from now on?  I mean, it’s a show that won me over because of its comedy and charm, and now look what’s happened.  Team RWBY is broken into pieces, at least two major characters are dead, and Anime Hogwarts is in ruins.  Should I be worried about the show sliding into grimdark territory?

No.  Not really.  Why?  It’s because RWBY already set the groundwork for things to get darker…however clumsily.


What do I mean?  Well, I’ll explain next time, along with several other things -- like some of the world-building elements I can’t help but find intriguing.  Also, I NEED to talk about some of the characters…and decide once and for all who my favorite is.

Oh, wait, I already know.  It’s Jaune.  Jaune’s the best out of the non-RWBY team.  But if we’re strictly talking about Team RWBY?  Then there’s only one cat girl that can take the crown.  You know this, don't you?


You do now.


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