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March 13, 2017

RWBY: What Happened?



I really, really, really don’t want to write this post.  But it’s gonna eat away at me until I commit my thoughts to (virtual) paper, so let’s get through this as fast as possible.  And let me start by asking an important question:

Why didn’t I enjoy Volume 4 of RWBY as much as I could have?

Notice the word choice here.  It’s not me saying “Why is RWBY bad now?” or “How can people still like RWBY after…well, that?”  This is a personal bit of introspection; as with everything I write, it’s an opinion piece.  It’s not meant to be taken as a straight review, and it’s certainly not espousing some idea that everyone should cling to like a koala to a eucalyptus tree.  This is my personal reaction, and my personal thoughts based on my personal experiences, buttressed by my personal evidence.  Assuming that you’re not laughing at my use of the word “buttressed” (because it has the word “butt” in it), you should not take this post with 100% seriousness.

It goes without saying, but this post is also going to feature spoilers.  This is Volume 4 of a web series that’s been going for a good while now, with the episodes, characters, world-building, and plot to match.  It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder who this post is for if it’s not at all newcomer-friendly -- and indeed, you should have a working knowledge of all four volumes before reading this post -- but that’s entirely the point.  You’re probably better off not reading this, because you’re about to see the majority of my disappointment laid bare.

But if for some reason you’re just jumping in (and by some miracle you even found this blog), then here’s a VERY quick rundown.

The story takes place in the world of Remnant, at once plagued by masked nightmare creatures - the Grimm -- and filled with warriors who wield mystic powers within and without -- i.e. the Huntsmen and Huntresses.  Those who learn to harness the power of their auras and make good use of their innate abilities (Semblance) can become heroes who protect the world from monsters, criminals, and all sorts of malcontents who would use their strength or forces to harm the innocent.  But as you’d expect, it’s a tricky business, wrought with danger and full of turns that can lead a well-to-do hero astray.  The counter: a series of schools where those with power, weapons, talent, and the will to use them can learn how to become world-class Huntsmen and Huntresses.

Our leading lady Ruby Rose is one of them -- or was, at least.  She teamed up with her stepsister Yang (a pugilistic joker with a bad temper), the huffy heiress Weiss, and the taciturn loner Blake to form the titular RWBY.  Even though they’re supposed to be at what might as well be Anime Hogwarts to learn how to be better Huntresses, they end up getting involved in the mysteries and misdemeanors going on in their city of Beacon; it’s not long before the students take on criminal organizations, mechs, and rowdy freedom fighters in their spare time.  But they end up pushing their luck too far -- or maybe not enough -- when the villainess Cinder Fall steps in.

Having infiltrated Beacon as a seemingly-average student, Cinder plays the long game to dismantle the world from the inside out.  She ends up triggering a riot while effectively standing on the world stage, which gives her the cover to probe Beacon’s depths and meet with one of four legendary maidens -- all so she can take that power for herself.  It doesn’t work; Ruby ends up stopping her, but not before massive losses are had. 

Beacon has fallen, allies are dead or MIA, and the ensuing chaos ended up forcing Team RWBY to split up.  Weiss gets dragged back home to live under the thumb of her wealth-absorbed father.  Blake goes on the run, having confronted the White Fang band of activists she once worked with.  Yang lost an arm, and her spirit has seemingly been broken beyond repair.  In the end, only Ruby soldiers on with a trio of her classmates -- because she knows there’s still a lot of work to be done.

So begins Volume 4 after a six-month time skip.  And, well, I guess that would make this RWBY Shippuden from here on out, for good or ill.  Mostly ill.

I don’t want to dwell too much on Naruto, because that’s a mass of tangles the size of the average boulder.  I will say this, though: there was a change of…shall we say, priorities that transformed the original story into something different, and not all of those changes were (in hindsight) for the best.  More pressingly, though?  It’s as if they had something that, while certainly not perfect, was still plenty enjoyable for the Naruto we got.  And then Shippuden happened, and…uh…let’s just say Shippuden happened and leave it at that.

It’s the same story with RWBY.  Rooster Teeth had something really strong with the first three volumes of RWBY; it may not have been the greatest or most original thing ever (I would bet that the concept has been done elsewhere, in both official and unofficial releases), but it was still something that at least felt special.  I’ve got no problems saying that RWBY is the funniest anime I’ve ever seen, for one thing.  It’s a given that the fights are slick, but they’re made more enjoyable by having characters with charisma go about their daily lives -- lives that go from mundane to extreme in the space of a scene transition.  I’m more than ready to declare the food fight scene as one of the highest water marks of the series to date.

But by saying that, it forces me to ask a ton of questions about Volume 4.  What’s its water mark?  Where’s its charm?  Where’s its mundanity and extremity?  Where’s its cast?  Where’s its comedy?  Where’s the stuff that made me a fan of the series to begin with?

Volume 4 is a stark departure from the volumes that came before it.  It’s somber.  It’s slower.  It’s serious.  The ratio of action to drama undeniably favors the latter.  This is no breezy slice of life chronicle of Teen Girl Squad; the world needs to be developed, the pieces need to be moved into the proper places, and so on, and so forth.  So on that note, I’ll be clear: Volume 4 is not a worse volume because it doesn’t have as much action or comedy.  It’s absolutely not that.

Moreover, this is a volume that needed to happen.  The heroes’ home is in shambles, with a loss that shifts power further into the baddies’ clutches and a world that’s shuddering from the fallout.  Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang have all landed in bad places because of the story’s events (in a sense, but I’ll get to that), so there had to be a full sequence showing how they deal with the pressures of their lives outside Anime Hogwarts.  It’s always darkest before the dawn, as they say -- and in order to progress these characters -- and others -- beyond what we know and expect, they had to face the absolute depths of despair.  So in terms of design, Volume 4 had it exactly right.  There had to be a change -- a transition -- and taking the story through these paces was an absolute necessity.

So the design is right.  The problem is the execution.

Here’s one of my big issues with Volume 4.  See, the end of Volume 3 has Yang taking a nasty hit from Adam Taurus, one that leaves her without an arm.  Coupled with her ruined home and the stigma from the big tournament -- one which convinced the world that she was some sort of brutish blonde berserker, which wasn’t that far from the truth -- Yang’s got some major issues that need sorting out.  She more or less spirals into a deep depression, and it’s hard to bear with the fact that the spunky joker of the group can’t even be bothered to leave the house.  I mean that quite literally; having decided that enough is enough, Yang decides to head home and languish.

That’s more or less a plot thread that needed to happen.  You’ve got to deal with the fallout from a traumatic moment like that somehow, and Yang’s downfall is one way to do it.  And to be sure, there are some strong moments throughout it and Volume 4 in general.  But I feel like those moments -- and the plot thread at large -- would be even stronger if Blake didn’t go through basically the same thing.  Yes, the circumstances are different -- she feels responsible for Yang’s injury, can’t handle the pain of the things she cares about getting destroyed, and she’s left powerless in the face of Adam/the White Fang -- but she still goes to the exact same place: Blake decides to head home and languish. 

And then you get to Weiss, and -- guess what?  She decides to head home and languish, too.  Again, her circumstances are different -- she’s dragged back home by a father who doesn’t want his prized possession and key to social status “frittering her life away” as a Huntress -- but it doesn’t change the fact that she spends all but the last few minutes of Volume 4 in the confines of her home.  Same goes for Yang.  Same goes for Blake (with the exception of a boat ride). 

So my big issue with the volume is multi-faceted; yes, obviously, there’s too much drama without anything to offset it.  But the drama here isn’t nearly as distinct as it needs to be, at least from three of our four main characters.  This girl is sad.  This girl is oppressed by the world around her.  This girl is supported by her family and/or friends.  This girl finds the resolve to get back in the fight.  This girl gets ready for the next step of her journey.  In theory, these plot threads are supposed to help enrich our understanding of the characters, and give them arcs to transform them from mere students into true Huntresses.  In practice?  It’s all just a holding pattern for Volume 5 and beyond.

Weiss starts out as a headstrong young lady that’s out to prove her worth without her daddy’s permission.  Who is she at the end of Volume 4?  A headstrong young lady that’s out to prove her worth without her daddy’s permission.  How has she grown as a character?  What has she learned?  What struggle did she overcome?  I mean, I guess her arc had her escape the clutches of the family name and corporation, but she already did that…at the start of Volume 1.  Blake goes back to being a loner who does her own thing, but once people drag her out of her shell, she goes back to being a resolute Huntress with a heart hungry for justice -- and that’s exactly who she was from Volume 2 onward.  Yang might have spent six months wallowing in despair, but she still managed to go back to (or start going back to) being that lighthearted joker with a mean right hook with a sweet bike at the end of Volume 4.  And that arc -- and Blake’s, and Weiss’ -- is only made possible after a crapload of whinging and indecision. 

It’s like…Volumes 1 through 3 of RWBY played out as the idealized form of anime.  And now Volume 4 of RWBY plays out like what anime is often actually like.

The only exception among the core four is Ruby, and not for the right reasons.  On the plus side, she’s actually on a mission to protect the world and stop the baddies; to do that, she travels the countryside alongside the bumbling swordsman Jaune, the spunky powerhouse Nora, and the soft-spoken gunslinger Ren.  I can appreciate that level of proactivity, for sure.  You can develop characters while having them go on the road; there is a little thing called “The Hero’s Journey”, after all.  And to be sure, the members of the now-defunct JNPR (following Pyrrha’s death at the hands of Cinder) have some great moments.  Jaune continues to be the best character in the show by evolving from that cowardly bumbler into a strategist and paladin in the making -- and beyond that, he went from a loser who pined after Weiss into a hurting, heartbroken hero.  He’s forced to confront his pain and loss each time he has a solo training session -- because he’s constantly, constantly listening to Pyrrha’s advice on his phone.

But the problem is that Team JNPR (what remains of it, at least) ends up completely overshadowing Ruby -- and even then, it’s not with the most ideal results.  Jaune gets it best because even if he is suffering, it’s done in a pithy yet powerful way; the rest of his development is onscreen, natural, and progressive, yet not so in-your-face that it dominates everything else.  Then you get to Ren, who has his backstory fleshed out…and fleshed out…and fleshed out…and I was just like “Yeah, okay, I get it.”  That kind of extends to Volume 4 as a whole.

It was kind of a throwaway line in Volume 3, but Nora quickly and offhandedly mentions that she and Ren don’t have parents -- or at least, no living parents.  And you know what?  That was all I needed.  Ren and Nora may have more prominence than some of the other teams/team members (quick -- name the other members of Sun’s team without using Google), but they’re not on the same tier as Team RWBY, or even Jaune and the late Pyrrha.  I wasn’t chomping at the bit to learn Ren’s story, but there’s a whole episode devoted to it anyway.  Fundamentally, it’s a fine episode -- but it’s a far cry from interesting or original.  An innocent kid with a happy home life ends up bearing witness to the destruction of his hometown and the murder of his parents by [insert villainous threat here].  How many times has that been done?

I felt more impact from seeing Nora struggling to survive as an abandoned street orphan -- something shown in a few minutes’ time, if that -- than Ren’s entire flashback sequence.  But the show doubles down on it; you know that it’s only a matter of time before Ren gets his backstory revealed prior to that big episode, because suddenly the volume drops all of these hints and dramatically increases the amount of dialogue for a character who was borderline mute in the volumes beforehand.  And it’s like…yeah, okay, I get it.  I have a good feel for this character, even if he’s just a cut above a bit player.  I don’t need to see anything more for him, because I already like and understand him enough to -- oh, what?  You’re giving him a flashback sequence?  And you’re giving him uncharacteristic outbursts of anger?  And you’re trying to raise death flags?  And you’re making the final fight of the season more about him than the title character?  Uh…yeah…okay, that’s cool too, I guess.

There’s no time for Ruby here, or at least not enough.  At the end of the volume she writes a letter to Yang (complete with ten-minute montage of everything that’s gone down/will go down in volume 5); in it, she talks about how hard she’s had it, and how much pain she’s been forced to witness.  Throughout that montage, I basically went “Yeah, okay, I get it” every other minute, because I did get it.  Why?  Because in a lot of ways, there’s nothing to get. 

For starters, Ruby chose to go on this journey -- on foot, even though other characters end up traveling to the same destination instantly by using planes, trains, and all sorts of vehicles.  I guess the idea was that Team “RNJR” wanted to keep a low profile/not be identified as Huntsmen by the authorities, but A) to my knowledge that’s not a point well-articulated in the show (though I could be wrong), and B) they’re acting like they’re destined to be treated as second-class citizens despite being minors, Huntsmen, and…well, heroes, more or less.

But I digress.  The bigger issue is that point-for-point, Ruby’s struggles don’t feel nearly as pointed as they need to be for her to justify her near-breakdown into tears at the end.  What does she have to deal with over the course of Volume 4?  She and the others wander through the wilderness, having lost their map (so I guess their phones are no help, then?).  They see some towns destroyed by the Grimm, which would’ve served as a reality check if Ruby hadn’t already seen cities destroyed by the Grimm in previous volumes. 

Speaking of which: they fight the Grimm on occasion -- and they would be more of a threat if the show hadn’t already demonstrated the core cast’s ability to rip through them like blenders.  They fight a scorpion guy who puts up a good fight, but then Qrow shows up for the assist.  Qrow exposits at them.  They discover that Qrow got poisoned during the fight with The Scorpion King, which in hindsight should’ve been obvious when fighting against The Scorpion King. 

They have to hurry and cart Qrow to any place with medicine.  They fight the Grimm that wrecked Ren’s village back in the day -- and what a coincidence for it to still be bumping around in the same place without ever bothering to search for more prey, given that the Grimm are explicitly stated to be drawn to places where people (presumably the living) gather and expel negative emotions.  They win.  They get airlifted to their destination.

Where’s Ruby’s big character moment throughout all of that?  I don’t know.  I mean, she does get little ones sprinkled throughout -- she calls out Qrow for withholding knowledge -- but there’s nothing that suggests she’s had any truly perceptible growth since the end of Volume 3.  Still, I think my bigger issue is that Ruby doesn’t feel like Ruby anymore.  She was the mood maker of the team, and the show at large; she was full of energy, happy-go-lucky, a goofball.  I get it, though; you can’t have Ruby being her usual goofy self when Volume 4 is supposed to be a darker, quieter, more serious tale.  The problem is twofold, then; they stripped away those elements from Ruby, which ended up hurting RWBY (and vice versa).  And more pressingly, they didn’t replace what they took from Ruby or RWBY with anything nearly as substantial.

I mean…she got a new outfit, yeah.  But some fancy threads aren’t enough to hide some glaring flaws.

…Maybe they should knit a quilt.  I bet that’d help.

The art and animation have seen another uptick in quality, that’s for sure; there were times when I thought that RWBY could’ve passed for an off-the-cuff version of Tales of Vesperia.  That’s a good comparison to make, all things considered.  The problem I have is that I’ve got this niggling feeling -- this sense that despite the visual uptick, the animation isn’t being used to its fullest.  There’s significantly more talking in this volume than in other parts, which comes at the cost of some extra action scenes slipped in.  Fundamentally, I’m okay with that as long as the content is interesting.  More often than not, it’s…not.

More pressingly, though, there’s a level of stiffness -- in fights and out of them -- that’s getting harder and harder to ignore.  Even if the models and environments have improved in quality, the actual animation seems like it’s going backwards at times; I don’t know if it’s because I’m watching on YouTube, which in turn hamstrings the final output, but Weiss and Yang’s grasps of anguish in the opening seem unusually rigid.  I don’t want to be that guy and say it’s the fault of the framerate, because Volume 3 wasn’t running at 60 and it still seemed more than OK.

Either way, what this means is that Volume 4 is low-key, which is fine…but it’s also low-energy, which is not okay.  There are ways to make moments of confrontations and conversation tenser than the most lethal of fist fights, but that’s a lesson RWBY seems to have forgotten -- not missed, but forgotten, because sequences from previous volumes got me good.  It’s a combination of things, really; there’s too much focus on the drama, which would be fine if ALL of the drama was good instead of some of it.  But because we have to deal with Ruby’s drama, and Weiss’ drama, and Blake’s drama, and Yang’s drama, and Jaune’s drama, and Ren’s drama, and Nora’s drama -- well, it gets wearisome.

And that’s not even the worst part of it.  I’m legitimately starting to resent the mere presence of the adults in this show; they were hands-off and background voices in previous seasons, and they need to stay that way.  But thanks to them, we have to deal with Ozpin sitting pretty inside farm boy Oscar, who in turn takes up screen time for a plot point that won’t have relevance for another six to eight months. 

And we’ve got to deal with Qrow’s drama and his angst over his aura of perpetual bad luck (the reveal of which would be a lot more potent if Qrow himself didn’t just become a thing in the previous volume, and even then stayed on the sidelines).  And we’ve got to deal with one adult after another arguing and/or being a bag of dicks with other characters.  They’re actively pulling away screen time for characters that need it a lot more.  Well, I say as much, but I fear the next step would be us getting a flashback on why Nora became a street urchin.

It’s been a while since I read them, but I thought that a core tenet and appeal of the Harry Potter books was that it focused on the exploits of the core three characters.  We followed Harry, Ron, and Hermione over the course of about seven years (in-universe) and watched them struggle on their terms.  Yeah, the adults had a hand in it -- more often than not, ostensibly -- but the viewpoint was strictly from the main trio’s perspective, and Harry’s most of all.  It’s what we identified with; plus, since Harry was the main character, it made sense to guarantee that he was the key player alongside his chums.  We saw the world through his eyes, and that world included adults.  That was part of the charm -- and every time RWBY deviates from that, it risks driving right off Dead Man’s Curve.

Also, there was a moment where I went “that’s fucking dumb” in this volume.  So it turns out that the four maidens that are essential to the bad guys’ plans were (and still are, in a couple of cases) being kept in the depths of Remnant’s major schools.  The justification behind it?  The Huntsmen and Huntresses there would protect the maidens from harm.  It’s a fair point, I suppose…until you realize that these schools are filled with Huntsmen and Huntresses still in need of training.  (Remember Jaune at the start of Volume 1?  Yeah.)  And beyond that, there’s the problem that children are being forced -- without their knowledge -- to protect ancient powers from evil.  Evil which, as demonstrated, has no qualms about inciting a riot and driving an army of hellspawn onto campus grounds.

Adults willingly putting children in harm’s way without their consent or even the vaguest of warnings?  Cripes, it really is Anime Hogwarts.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so frustrated by a story.  But here we are.  RWBY occupies a strange space in my mind right now; no, it’s not one of the gold-starred exemplars who have earned my respect with their tireless service and quality.  Then again, it’s not the sort of refuse I’d toss into a dumpster, which would get tossed into a bigger dumpster, and then blasted with a grenade launcher.  It’s not a bad show, is what I’m getting at here; it never was, and I would assume that it never will be.  Despite all of my complaints, I’ve got no problems saying that -- as of the Volume 4 finale -- RWBY is still basically fine.  It’s totally, acceptably fine.

I guess the question now is, once again, twofold.  Am I okay with it being fine?  The show’s not my favorite ever, and it never was; still, I found plenty of stuff to enjoy about it, and I didn’t feel like my time was wasted.  Volume 4 tipped the scales toward that nightmare zone -- the opinion where I did feel like I wasted my time -- but it’s not there yet.  It’s still fine.  But that’s the second question: when will it stop being just fine?  I only ask, because I’ve seen the highs.  I know what it can do.  I know that Volume 4 was a slump, but a necessity that needed to happen so it could evolve from there.  Will that promise be fulfilled, though?  Will it genuinely, actively justify that slump?

I hope so.  But for now, I’ll say this much: I actually kind of like Volume 4’s theme song.  That’s a small win in my book, at least.

See you next time -- which I say to both you readers and RWBY in general.  Although…if Blake and Yang don’t become the official couple by story’s end, I’m gonna be pissed.

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