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Thoughts on RWBY Volume 1 (Spoiler-free)

So the guys over at RoosterTeeth have put out a new anime1 called RWBY (pronounced “Ruby”). It’s a quasi-steampunk science fantasy set in the world of Remnant, where the protagonists fight primarily against monstrous creatures called the Grimm, as well as a school bully (in one small story arc) and an enigmatic criminal organization who has been robbing Dust stores. Dust is a mysterious element that apparently gives wielders special powers. Dust is controlled by means of special crystals. And…well, that’s about all they explain about it.

THE STORY
Our main protagonist is Ruby Rose, a young woman who wields a gigantic, shapeshifting scythe with virtually no effort. In the pilot episode, we find her in a Dust shop which happens to be the target of the enigmatic antagonist organization. She kicks major butt when they try to rob the place, and she gets into hot water when the besuited, readheaded villain turns his cane into a gun and starts shooting.

What follows is the first of many GLORIOUS action scenes, the end of which introduces a shadowy villainess with superhuman powers. Things are looking grim until the entrance of Glenda Goodwitch, a Huntress. After things blow over, Ruby is asked about her scythe, which she made herself. Glenda sees promise in the girl, who expresses interest in Beacon Academy and becoming a Huntress herself.

And this is where the show loses a little bit of its credibility. It goes from “Hmm, this is interesting,” to “Oh grief, not another high school anime.” And that’s honestly what we’re dealing with here. Yes, the setting is fairly unique, but that’s about it. From episode two onward, RWBY changes mood from an edgy, action drama to an over-the-top slice of life action comedy.

The plot follows a fairly formulaic line: Ruby makes a fool of herself on day one. Next, the protagonists consult the Sorting Hat get thrown into an entrance exam, in which they must work with a partner to retrieve an artifact and return to the starting point. Rather predictably, Ruby gets paired off with Weiß, the girl she made an enemy of the day before. The rest of the characters get paired off just as predictably: inept Jaune gets paired off with beautiful and talented Pyrrha, who is inexplicably crushing on him; bubbly, happy-go-lucky Nora gets paired off with no-nonsense Ren, whom she annoys beyond belief; and Ruby’s role model and older sister Yang, who is outgoing and confident, gets paired with bookish, quiet and insecure Blake.

After completing the exercise, concluding in an beautiful fight scene, all participants are sorted into three teams, based on the artifacts they brought back. There are two protagonistic teams, RWBY, and JNPR (pronounced “juniper”), and one antagonistic team, called CRDL (pronounced “cardinal”). The next story arc wastes spends time exploring this rivalry, particularly between Jaune Arc and his own personal bully, Cardin Winchester. But by the end of the arc, this is resolved. The next arc introduces Penny and Sun, two MacGuffins that will obviously play more of a part in the next season, but weren’t there but for show at the end of the season’s final arc. This arc also introduces a new plot device that drives a wedge between Weiß and Blake, one which felt far too random at its introduction, but upon playing out a little bit, turned out to be predictable.

Honestly, I was expecting a crappy ending to Volume 1, but I was pleasantly surprised when it ended with one of the absolute coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen, as well as a slight plot thickening that didn’t really constitute a cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to the next season, whenever that comes.

THE CHARACTERS
I’ve already talked a little bit about the characters, but let’s dive a little bit deeper, shall we? For the time being, I will talk about only the major protagonists and Cardin Winchester, who is the antagonist for the Jaunedice story arc. I’m not going to talk about character design because, frankly, they’re all very pleasant to look at. Kudos there.

  • Ruby Rose: Ruby is the main protagonist of the series, and she is stylized after Red Riding Hood. She is named for the color her hair, but you can’t really tell unless you see her compared with Blake. I’ve never seen such a dark color described as “red”. She is the captain of team RWBY, and she wields a scythe that converts to a sniper rifle, a weapon she designed and built herself. She seems to be one of the most nuanced characters of the lot, but she still falls into a certain archetype. She is the naïve and shy, yet eager protagonist who is insecure about herself and is thrust into an environment for which she is not ready. Despite her natural talent and undiscovered leadership abilities, her naïveté is one of, if not her only weak point.
  • Weiß (or Weiss, if you prefer) Schnee: Weiß is the second member of team RWBY, and she is who I would call the “anti-protagonist”. She is one of the protagonists, but she is at odds with Ruby, the show’s main protagonist. She also happens to be Ruby’s school partner, paired up in the initiation challenge. (“The first person you make eye contact with when you land is to be your partner for the rest of your time at Beacon.” Yeah, I saw that coming a mile away.) Weiß’s name is malformed German for “White Snow”2, and her name is an allusion to the fairytale character Snow White. She is the heiress to the Schnee Dust Company. She fits the archetype of the know-it-all who can’t stand carelessness, the polar opposite of impulsive Ruby, who trips over her on the first day, spilling a load of Dust and Crystals. Her weapon isn’t as interesting as Ruby’s; it is nothing but a rapier, but it also has the ability to channel Dust and cast powerful spells, which she often uses in combat.
  • Blake Belladonna: Blake represents black, and I think by now you can see a trend in naming conventions. (Rubies are red; weiß is the German word for “white”, Blake is a name derived from Old English blæc “black” or blāc “pale”, and Yang will be discussed in a moment.) She is the anti-protagonist juxtaposed against Yang. Her character is deep and mysterious, but superficially, she is the quiet, bookish introvert. She is not only quiet, but oftentimes downright standoffish. Her past probably shows the most extensive back story of the eight protagonists, but if I were to delve any deeper, I’d be talking spoilers. Needless to say, the plot twist that reveals this back story is sudden and it will prick your ears in the midst of an otherwise dull final story arc. Her weapon is…I have no idea what it is. It is a gun with a blade on it, all of which is at the end of a cable. It doesn’t see much use, other than as a glorified grappling hook, and it isn’t nearly as cool as Ruby’s scythe.
  • Yang Xiao Long: Yang is Ruby’s sister. Bubbly, confident, and outgoing, she is Blake’s polar opposite, and exhibits many characteristics that contrast with Ruby’s. The name Yang comes from 陽, yáng, which in this case means “sun” or “light”. She represents the color yellow (though, if we were to stick to naming characters after colors, a better name would have been , huáng). She acts as a role model for Ruby. Her weapons are a pair of shotgun gauntlets (think of the Ballistic Fist from Fallout: New Vegas), which she can fire either as part of a punch, or at a distant target. I will mention her character design here only to say that hers is one of my favorites. She has a tomboyish look that matches her personality perfectly. In fact, now that I think of it, all of team RWBY has designs that match their personalities.
  • Jaune Arc: Captain of team JNPR, Jaune is an incompetent fighter who is clumsy and socially awkward. But inexplicably, he still manages to land not only the captain position of JNPR, but also the affections of Pyrrha Nikos, one of the wisest and most attractive (IMO) characters in the series. He predictably becomes the prey of snobbish, power-hungry Cardin Winchester. It is revealed during Jaune’s personal story arc that [SPOILER ALERT], and then his incompetence suddenly makes sense. This, of course, puts Pyrrha on edge, but after [SPOILER ALERT], they make up. The quasi-romantic interactions between Jaune and Pyrrha are actually some of my favorite moments3 outside of the action scenes. Jaune’s name is an allusion to Joan of Arc, and it also means “yellow” in French, matching the color of his hair. He wields a fairly average sword and a collapsible shield.
  • Nora Valkyrie: Nora is…. She’s a lot like Pinkie Pie. She’s bubbly and optimistic, and not much else. She’s obviously interested in her friend Lie Ren. Her weapon is another one of my favorites, a grenade launcher that converts to a giant battle hammer. Her last name refers to the Valkyries, female warriors in Norse mythology who decide who lives and dies in battle.
  • Pyrrha Nikos: Pyrrha is another mysterious character like Blake, but rather than coming across as standoffish, she is quiet, kindhearted, and wise. She becomes fast friends with Jaune, in whom she is obviously interested. Honestly, he doesn’t seem too preoccupied with romance, and Pyrrha seems to be fine with it, but I think she wants him to be something more. She works with him to overcome his shortfalls and acts as a role model for him, just like Yang does for Ruby. In addition to her shield, she wields one of the most versatile weapons of the series, a xiphos which converts to both a javelin and a rifle. I’ve already mentioned that I think Pyrrha is the most attractive of the protagonists, and the same goes for her weapons. She shares her name with the daughter of Pandora in Greek mythology, who was apparently named for her red hair. (In ancient Greek, πυρρός “pyrrhos” means “flame-colored”.) Her last name is a reference to Νίκη (Nike)4, the Greek goddess of victory.
  • Lie Ren: We don’t see much of him. He seems to be there just to contrast with his longtime friend Nora. He is obviously weary of her constant chatter. He is quiet and reserved, and he wields a pair of machine pistols with bladed trigger guards. His name comes from 猎人, which translates to “hunstman”.

Antagonists and others
I said I wouldn’t really get into these outside of Cardin, but I’ll make some mentions and predictions.

  • Cardin Winchester: Cardin is the school bully, and he is pretty stereotypical. He chooses to pick on Jaune, who in his mind doesn’t belong at Beacon. His name is an allusion to the Cardinal of Winchester, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc. He is the only member of team CRDL who has any sort of depth or, really, any screen time. He wields a bladed mace which reminds me in a way of Saruman’s staff from the Lord of the Rings movies.
  • Professor Oobleck: The history teacher, who appears in the first episode of the Jaunedice story arc, is constantly drinking coffee. Literally, he always has coffee in his hand. As a result, he speaks at a rapid pace and moves like a Weeping Angel. I just found that amusing.
  • Professor Ozpin: This guy is the headmaster at Beacon, and if he doesn’t turn out to be evil, I’ll eat my hat. He and Glenda Goodwitch are named after the Wizard of Oz and Good Witch Glenda respectively.
  • Glenda Goodwitch: I don’t have much to say about her. She’s a huntress, and she kicks butt. She’s also the reason Ruby got accepted into Beacon in the first place.
  • Penny: Her last name should be MacGuffin, because that’s what she is. She isn’t there for much, but in the final fight scene, let’s just say that when she claims to be “battle ready”, she does not disappoint. I won’t say anything about her weapon of choice because [SPOILERS!]
  • Sun Wukong: a.k.a. Monkey Boy. He’s a Faunus (read: furry) who stows away aboard a ship and plays a role (sort of) in the final story arc of the season. Blake is smitten with him, and they become fast friends because– NO. I will not finish that sentence. I’ve already said WAY too much about [SPOILERS, DOCTOR]! I’ve already said that Pyrrha’s weapon is the most attractive, but Sun’s is my favorite. It’s a bō staff that converts to two gunchucks. YOU HEARD ME. Gun/nunchaku HYBRIDS. I’m literally as giddy as a kid at Christmas just thinking about it.
  • Roman Torchwick: The orange-haired, snappy-dressing Dust thief from the first episode isn’t seen again, at least in a major sense, until the final episode of the season. He’s not the worst villain I’ve ever seen, but for now, he’s pretty much a stock character.
  • Cinder Fall: She never speaks, she never shows her face (except for maybe once at the very end of the season finale), but she is quite the powerful fighter. And did I mention, she’s HOT? Maybe it’s the fire in her eyes.

Everybody else isn’t worth mentioning, honestly. All of the characters have stock character attributes, but they have enough individuality to be decent characters. My biggest problem is that none of them were given enough time to develop due to the series’s length. More on this later.

THE ANIMATION
The animation in RWBY is a mixed bag. It was created by Monty Oum, who is best known for Haloid, his Samus vs. John 117 brawl. (Seriously, click the link and watch it. It is glorious.) As such, the action scenes are beautiful. And I mean BEAUTIFUL. They are fast paced and intense, and they usually last for a good, long while. But there’s one problem. There aren’t that many of them.

There is at least one major action scene in each story arc, fortunately, but in between them is where the animation suffers. I will say that the animation does make a vast improvement as the series progresses. Namely, the lip sync goes from utter crap to passable over the course of the sixteen episodes. There are still little bits and pieces here and there that are a bit robotic, but for the most part, things smooth out near the end of the second story arc.

THE SOUND
The sound is also a mixed bag. Some of the weapon sound effects are lifted from Halo, but I’ll excuse that. The voice acting isn’t what I would call great, but it is far above “decent”. But the foreground music (namely, the opening and credits) is where this anime really shines. But, while the opening and ending songs are fantastic, but I don’t think they properly convey what the series is trying to be. But still, I totally wouldn’t mind buying the soundtrack (which is on iTunes for ten bucks).

FINAL THOUGHTS
I don’t really think RWBY knows what it wants to be. The opening and credits advertise a much edgier tone than the series actually achieves, and that’s because RWBY makes heavy use of cheap comedy. (Cheap like puns and anime comedy tropes, not cheap like Adam Sandler movies.) The action scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat, but without the little bits of comedy, the long stretches between action scenes could get really boring5. If RWBY stuck to being an over-the-top action show, it would be very nice. If it was on its face an action comedy, I would have no problem with that. It may have even worked well as an action drama. But instead we get a bipolar action slash comedy slash drama, which changes mood faster than a sad puppy when you scratch behind his ears. That being said, I liked it. I think it has a lot of potential, and as I’ve said before, I’m eagerly awaiting Volume 2.

One thing I want to make special note of is that Rooster Teeth is known for their free use of four-letter words, and even their name is a euphemism for a vulgar epithet. But, refreshingly, RWBY is squeaky clean. If it were on TV, it would get a rating of Y7-FV. Some of the characters (namely, Yang) wear revealing attire, but it isn’t tastelessly so. And the action scenes can be violent, but it is highly stylized fantasy violence no worse than, say, Transformers: Prime (which I will review soon). There are two beheadings of Grimm creatures, but there is no blood, only a bright red blotch on the animal and, in one case, rose petals blowing in the wind (this fits well with the highly stylized aesthetics).

One really big quibble I have with RWBY, though, is its length. The whole first season has a run time of just under two and a half hours if you take out the openings and credits of each episode. A sixteen-episode anime of normal episode length (22 minutes per) ends up being just shy of six hours. And honestly, it wouldn’t be so bad if RWBY’s episodes were more homogeneous in length (averaging nine and a half minutes in length). But that is definitely not the case. The longest episode is around sixteen minutes long, and the shortest is under four. I remember watching while doing my homework and hearing the theme song, thinking, “What? It’s over already?!” The short length of season one makes it hard for the series to develop characters and explain things like Dust, and it almost totally ignores the series’s primary antagonist. But if this doesn’t bother you, then you can disregard everything I said in this last paragraph.

If you want RWBY to be a serious anime, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. I think it wants to be an action drama, but it chooses instead to be an action comedy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it might be a good first anime for several reasons. First, it has gorgeous action scenes and isn’t very hard to follow. Second, it is light-hearted without slipping into ridiculousness. Third, it is accessible to boot; the whole first season is available for free on YouTube (playlist below), RoosterTeeth.com, and I believe Crunchyroll. It won’t cost you a nickel unless you buy the DVD or Blu-Ray, which contain the entire first season and some bonus features.

After taking everything into account, I give RWBY high marks, and I say that you should definitely watch it if you’re even remotely interested. Again, it is available for free on YouTube (link below), but if you are so inclined, RoosterTeeth.com’s store has it on DVD and Blu-Ray (I might actually pick up the Blu-Ray at some point, because 1080p action scenes).

Until next time,
MBR

Footnotes

  1. I use the term anime loosely. It is styled like an anime, but it is produced in the United States by Americans. Some purists would assert until blue in the face that RWBY is not an anime, because it doesn’t come from Japan. But I still call it an anime.
  2. The proper German would be “Weißer Schnee”
  3. Though it’s obvious that Jaune and Pyrrha are a thing, I think that Jaune and Ruby would work out very well due to a late night conversation in the last half of his story arc. But things are obviously platonic between them…for now. *evil chortle*
  4. Also related to Νίκη is the word νικαω, nikaō, which is translated in the Bible as “I overcome”. It is usually seen in the participle form as a nominative absolute, e.g. ὁ νικῶν ποιήσω αὐτὸν στῦλον, “The one who overcomes: I will make him a pillar” (Rev 3:12).
  5. Notable exception is taken for the aforementioned quasi-romantic scenes between Jaune and Pyrrha, and one scene between Jaune and Ruby.

See also

Star Wars: more than just a fandom

Note: this blog post was originally an answer to somebody on the NaNoWriMo Facebook group who asked why people hated the Prequel Trilogy. It isn’t actually a review, but I’m putting it in that category anyway.

I think what it boils down to is that the dislike is either conditioned (like hatred of Nickelback by people who have never heard them) or inherent only in those who look at it from the wrong perspective.

I was nine when I saw The Phantom Menace. I loved it. I thought Jar-Jar was funny, I thought Jake Lloyd was a great actor, and I scoffed at the thought that Senator Palpatine and Emperor Palpatine were one and the same.

I was twelve when I saw Attack of the Clones. I loved it. I thought Padmé was hot. I thought Hayden Christensen was a great actor. (You can see a trend here.) I facepalmed when Jar Jar basically brought down the Republic singlehandedly, but I forgave him because he was a few fries short of a tool box.

I was fifteen when I saw Revenge of the Sith. It was dark, gritty and, frankly, traumatic. I was no longer star-struck by the actors I saw on the screen, but rather by the raw emotion when Anakin roared at Obi-Wan, “I hate you!” This was May 2005, only a couple of months after I had started my first novella in March, so I saw it through the eyes of a storyteller rather than those of a listener.

That brings me to my point. I never looked at Star Wars as cinema. I looked at it as a story, especially because I kicked off my writing hobby around the end of the prequel trilogy. I honestly think that people don’t give it a fair shake, and I have a number of reasons for my hypothesis.

First, they want nostalgia. Much of the hate comes from people who were young when the original Star Wars, A New Hope, was in theaters. It was a new and groundbreaking sword and planet space opera with lovable characters and a glorious setting. The Empire Strikes Back contained what I would argue to be the greatest plot twist of all time. And Return of the Jedi tied everything together in an epic conclusion (with Carrie Fisher in a metal bikini to boot).

The Phantom Menace leaned heavily upon its stunning visuals rather than an enthralling story. You have dazzling martial arts displays, beautiful locales, and action-packed space battles. But that feeling of nostalgia isn’t really there.

Second, some people argue that George Lucas wanted to squeeze every last drop of money out of his Star Wars empire, and that he could have done this without creating crappy prequel movies. Of course George Lucas wanted to make money hand over fist, which he has been over the years through licensed merchandise, the Expanded Universe, the Special Edition, and so on. But I see George as an artist who is constantly trying to improve his works. And he created the prequel trilogy to finish the story he started in the 1970s.

Third, Star Wars admittedly doesn’t make for the best cinema. Yes, you have better and better visuals as you progress through the prequel trilogy. But throughout the prequels, you have substandard casting for Anakin. You have the hackneyed romance between him and Padmé Amidala, especially as displayed in the Naboo scenes in Attack of the Clones (how not to do an on-screen romance). And to compound it, there is the ever-present menace of Jar Jar Binks, a character whom many people (not me) find insufferably annoying, be it his high-pitched pidgin (that comes down to taste), that his character is fundamentally racist (that’s a stretch), or that his naïveté knows no bounds (I can’t argue there).

Ultimately, I think most of the hate stems from the fact that many people think of it as two trilogies and constantly compare the two. The classic trilogy suffered in the area of visuals as compared to the prequels (notwithstanding that the classic trilogy has amazing visuals for its time). The prequel trilogy suffers in the area of story as compared to the classic trilogy. Where the classic trilogy was cohesive and exciting, with the aforementioned biggest plot twist in history, the prequels are shaky and predictable. But this is only because we knew exactly what was going to happen. People wanted new surprises, when there were no new surprises to be had.

For twenty years, we had all known that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were one and the same. We had known that a volcano had scarred him for life, forcing him to wear the suit. We had known that Padmé was going to die. We had known about the Clone Wars. We had known that Palpatine was going to become the Emperor. But people still wanted the same space opera that the classic trilogy was famous for being. That, they didn’t get. Instead of action and adventure, they got a plodding march through a quasi-literary fiction novel: an analysis of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into madness. Instead of ending high and light, the prequel trilogy ended dark with death and desolation, with fear, anger, hatred and suffering, with the rise of the Darth effing Vader. It’s no wonder people were disappointed. Unless they saw it coming, like I did.

If anybody is to give Star Wars a fair shake, they need to look at it as an insoluble whole, as a single story. They can’t compare the classic and prequel trilogies. Doing so can only lead to the Dark Side, where Star Wars is just another fandom. But Star Wars is much more than that. It is one of the most significant pieces of literature of the twentieth century.