RWBY First Impressions (Volumes 1-5)

My job will have fully opened by the time you read this, but at the time of this writing, it was only partially opened. This gave me the chance to squeeze in one more Western animated series while my shift is substantially reduced. But what to pick? Steven Universe was a very emotional show, and I’m still caught up on DuckTales and The Dragon Prince, waiting for new episodes. Since I didn’t find the CG of the latter to be so bad, I thought I would watch a more… (in)famous CG series: Rooster Teeth’s RWBY. Even from beneath the rock I’ve been living under, I’m aware of the heated debates that occur over this franchise. So, because I love controversial media (for some reason), I thought I’d give the show a whirl to see what the hubbub is about.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust (which is basically Sepith from Trails of Cold Steel), and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.

Like with Dragon Prince, I must discuss the visuals of RWBY first and foremost. “The Dragon Prince looked great,”  I thought. “RWBY shouldn’t be so bad,” I thought. Oh, how wrong I was. I understood that The Dragon Prince was made with the backing of Netflix, one of the biggest entertainment distributors in the world, and also five years after the premiere of RWBY. But even with that in mind, RWBY takes some time to get used to. While the character designs are fine, everything else about the visuals is horribly wrong. I complained about The Dragon Prince’s choppy and inconsistent frames, but RWBY showed me that the smoother framerates of its animations look more stiff, unnatural, and awkward than in The Dragon Prince.

Fortunately, the visuals improve substantially over time, with it finally looking legitimately good by season 4. The fight scenes in RWBY are when it’s at its best… sort of. The camera swings too wildly for humans to possibly keep an eye on, and it relies entirely on pure spectacle. However, as a fan of over-the-top battle shounens, I love it. The animation is at its most fluid and impactful here. Also, the show is truly anime for one reason: everything is a gun. Scythes, gauntlets, even suitcases; they’re all guns. 

To be honest, the visuals served to make RWBY one of the funniest battle shounen I have ever experienced. The humor was legitimately on point in the show, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they had influence from the best of Weekly Shounen Jump. It’s the kind of stupidity that I’ve grown to love ever since I started reading manga all those years ago. The awkward movements made it even funnier for some reason.

However, despite the anime influences, RWBY is still a Western fantasy, and a modern one at that. And if you couldn’t tell, it is qualified to fall into the Harry Potter knockoff category. In the early seasons, the plot is mind-numbingly simple, with typical gag-shounen-meets-school-drama antics coupled with some YA awkwardness; a very difficult combination of tropes to get used to.

Being a modern fantasy, RWBY does another common thing: making its world an overly obvious mirror to our society, i.e. racism. The people who get targeted for discrimination are the Faunus. They are essentially furries, which ironically, adds another layer of social commentary. Anyway, the big problem with the Faunus is the White Fang, a terrorist organization that has resorted to rather… harsh methods of ending racism (which isn’t at all ten times more relevant in 2020 for any specific reasons). Honestly… I didn’t really care much for this line of narrative. It’s a topical topic for a reason, but this is one of the things I enjoyed The Dragon Prince for not having. I like adventure fantasies the best, and there really aren’t enough of them in this day and age.

Like any gag shounen, RWBY inevitably makes the transition to a more serious and plot-driven story. However, it’s not that simple. During production of the third season, the original creator of RWBY tragically passed away. The rest of the team has been carrying on with the series since, but it’s at this point where the show became the divisive debate-starting show it is today. It makes a transition that’s extremely risky for the genre: from gag shounen to straight-up seinen.

There are a couple of issues with this. One is that the transition is not at all organic. Normally, most shounen start out with short arcs, some of which last only one volume. Then, an arc goes for two volumes to make the reader think, “Finally, they’re actually doing something substantial with these characters and ideas.” Then, there’s an arc that’s really long and is generally considered the best, followed by a unanimously hated slog to the end. I get that not all battle shounen are like this, and RWBY definitely does not follow this pattern either (but in a bad way). There is a very visible instant in which the show completely changes with no build-up whatsoever: Season 3 Episode 6. After that, it packs on the emotional baggage to no end, and it becomes very hard to take seriously if you’re not super-emotional.

Also, Eastern angst and Western angst are two completely different things, and if you’ve read any of my YA novel reviews, you’d know I don’t entirely enjoy the latter’s company. While a lot of edgy stuff from Japan can tackle some uncomfortable themes with surprising elegance (Chainsaw Man, Torture Princess, Tokyo Ghoul, Monster, etc.), I’ve found a lot of the same from Western culture to be pretentious and heavy-handed. Additionally, some of the voice acting has enough gravel to pave a whole interstate highway. At the point I’m at, the few gags they do use feel jarring instead of something meant to break the ice. But in all honesty, it’s not terrible. The show is still enjoyable, and if I had liked the characters better, the feels would’ve actually struck a chord with me. However, due to the fact that it gets more and more controversial from here, I can’t guarantee that my opinion isn’t going to sway drastically in later seasons.

Regardless of the narrative, there is a somewhat great cast of characters to motivate you to keep watching. Each of the four girls are typical tropes: Ruby, ditz; Weiss, tsundere; Blake, YA protagonist; Yang, brash. But they all have genuinely good interactions with each other, and overall truly feel like a ragtag team of young’uns. They go through a lot of character development, even if it makes them come off as typical YA drama queens. Unfortunately, their fellow peers are similarly tropeish but with less… interestingness. A boy named Jaune is a typical underdog, a girl named Pyrrha is a typical hyper-justice-girl, a girl named Nora is Ruby but with a hammer, etc. Even when they all go through big emotional crises in season four, I didn’t care for any of the kids besides the four main ones.

However, the adults make up for it. My favorite character ended up being Ruby’s uncle, Crow. He’s your typical bad-ass, trollish, yet down-to-earth father figure guy, and it’s hard not to like him. There’s also a fast-talking professor named Oobleck, but he’s- sadly- a pretty minor character. Also, this one guy named James Ironwood has the best worst name (I’ll leave society’s many euphemisms to explain why).

I can’t say the same for the villains, though. As much the show really tries to do a moral ambiguity angle, the major antagonists fall under the typical Saturday morning cartoon villain category, at least up to where I’ve watched. This one swindler named Roman Torchwick is entertaining enough, but it’s not the case for the people he’s getting his fat stacks from. He reports to this woman named Cinder, who is literally Azula from Avatar. Her two minions, Mercury and Emerald, are just about as uninteresting. Cinder reports works under the true mastermind of the series, some alien(?) named Salem, but there’s not yet enough information to really say anything about her.

Before I get to my current score, I must clarify that I’m not criticizing RWBY because it stopped being what I wanted it to be; it’s just that the show felt more generic after the tone shift. I wholly understand that not everything can be original, but a lot of the content felt like it was ripped right out of How to Make Your Audiences Bleed Tears in Five Easy Steps with no finesse or variation. Compare the portrayal of the Faunus- which is the same exact allegory to American history that’s been done eleventy other times- to something like Eighty-Six. Both are commentaries on the exact same topic, but Eighty-Six does it in a way that feels much fresher than what RWBY does. 

Television is also a deceptively limiting medium for visual storytelling. Once in a blue moon, you’ll have someone like Satoshi Kon who can do something interesting with film as an entertainment medium, but RWBY is not a Satoshi Kon film; a lot of it had bog-standard cinematography, such as those “hard-cut-to-black-with-some-kind-of-distressing-sound-effect-cliffhanger” techniques. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by manga, which have billions of combinations of panel layouts that all subtly contribute to the mood of a scene, or books, which can use the written word to at times convey more emotion than an image ever could. Also, Legend of Korra taught me that I should be examining television through an entirely different lens, as a lot of things I find typical are less common on TV. I’m even willing to bet that RWBY wouldn’t even have been allowed to air on network television, and could only exist as an indie program, for whatever dumb bureaucratic reason.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 8.35/10

RWBY is a typical battle shounen in presentation and plot structure. It is great mindless entertainment, and I honestly don’t see why so many people take it so seriously. The food fight at the start of season two shows what I believe RWBY is at its best: over-the-top action with goofy slapstick. Unfortunately, I don’t entirely like the darker turn it took, mainly because it took it too fast. RWBY seems to be trying to be a fantasy epic on the scope of something like Trails of Cold Steel, but without the foundation that those games took time to build. Overall, the show is pretty middle-of-the-road, and I do not understand either side of the arguments with this show (but like I said, that could change). These seasons are stupid short, so I should be able to see RWBY through to the end without much hassle.

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