RWBY is a show (web-series, rather, by Rooster Teeth) that runs on a fuel of pure awesome. I’m just going to put that out there now because that, I have to say, is the big pull for me. It lacks a lot of originality in terms of story and the concept of pitting young people against monsters is certainly nothing new, but it has a tremendous amount of adorable, stylised, anime-esque fairy tale-y let’s-bond-on-field-trips-where-we-shank-demons-in-the-face-in-the-coolest-way-possible fun with itself.
RWBY takes its name from the team of aspiring ‘huntresses’ that it centres around; the prodigal but awkward and eager Ruby, the well-studied, suitably stuck-up and (sometimes literally) icy Weiss, quiet and mysterious badass Blake and happy-go-lucky cool big sister to all Yang. There are a bunch of other characters also attending Beacon Academy for Future Fantasy Badasses, who get attention of their own when we’re not watching the heroines. This can leave characters feeling sidelined and undeveloped, but the series is brand-sparkling new so it still has a lot to cover and develop as it gets up and running. Despite its many flaws and rough patches, so far it’s certainly garnered a huge following, if that tells you anything.
Of its rather clichéd nature you can say “Oh but it’s an amateur production” and I can reply yes, well, but the lack of experience of creators in a field and the budget they have is no measure of their inherent creativity or skills. Granted, a lot of writers and animators get better as their work progresses and they do more of it, because that’s how that works unless they’re some sort of divinely gifted genius. Which the RWBY team, I have to say, is not, but never let it be said that they haven’t made a darn good and fun series that will no doubt get gooder and funner as it goes along.
There’s a lot going on in RWBY, a lot of puzzle piece concepts that haven’t quite meshed together yet. The world it’s set in is an interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy, the characters are endearing if in need of exploring, and there’s a lot of intriguing hubbub in the background in terms of motifs and symbolism, of which there seems to be a lot. Ruby, for instance, seems inspired by Red Riding Hood (if Red had a mechanical scythe), and the other members of her team all supposedly have symbolic grounds in different fairy tales. However, it’s difficult to confirm this not knowing much about anyone’s backstory or the world they’re occupying, or to work out exactly what they’re trying to say with all that.
What I personally feel is that the creators looked at the veritable buffet of inspirational resources before them and, like any sensible person does at a buffet, decided to try everything since it all looked so good and walked away with a plate piled high and maybe a few bagels tucked under their chin too. Fairy tale motifs are always an interesting thing to examine, but here they’re mixed in with references to historical and mythological figures and nods to, of all things, The Wizard of Oz. The villain is also modelled exactly off A Clockwork Orange which is, well, tonal dissonance and a half. Though it’s mostly in names—the headmaster and first huntress we meet are named Professor Ozpin and Glynda Goodwitch, and one of the only male students focussed on is named Jaune Ark, which gives me mixed feelings.
On the one hand, whenever he does something dumb out of stubbornness, sheer dorkery and other traits he has been gifted with as the one to fulfil the Standard Young Fantasy Hero role, I can say “Oh shut up Yellow” because that’s what his name means in French. Which happens a lot, because he’s completely and heroically incompetent—which is kind of fun considering that not only is the usual 3:1 ratio of female to male characters totally reversed in RWBY but Jaune falls into the damsel in distress role an awful lot. If it wasn’t for his teammate Pyrrha, who also has confusing undercurrents to her name, he’d be dead in a tree by now. On another hand, his name is clearly a Joan of Arc reference, and the symbolism of that isn’t immediately evident. It also strikes me as weird that a male character is given that naming nod since one of the big historical deals about Joan of Arc is that she was in fact a girl.
Pyrrha’s name could be a nod to the concept of a Pyrrhic victory, an archetype about a victory that comes at great cost, and the ever-vigilant fandom has pointed out that teamed up with a guy named after someone who got burnt at the stake it doesn’t exactly spell good news. Another member of their team is also named Nora Valkyrie, like the Viking gods of battlefield death. This is all rather ominous, and I wonder if that really fits with the tone that RWBY is riding on so far.
Is it playing with fairy tale archetypes? Is it exploring the concepts of myth and magic? Not particularly. There’s some interesting room for development of the symbolism they’ve set up, especially in the case of Blake, who is a member of the part-animal race that gets the buckets of fantastical racism chucked at them in this world. She’s meant to be a reference to Beauty and the Beast, and I think the question there is, is she meant to be the beauty or the beast? Or both? Also worth a mention is the fact that there are soulless monsters of darkness prowling the outskirts of cities and criminal organisations running rampant within. There’s a lot of potential darkness going on here, but the series feels air-light, dancing along the well-practiced steps of just about every ‘magical boarding school adventures’ trope there is.
What it lacks in originality on the storyline front it makes up for in style, though, and whether the two cancel each other out is a matter of personal preference. I for one was reeling into full-on geek mode at the sheer artistry and awesomeness of the fight scenes, weapon mechanics and character designs. The soundtrack also qualifies as amazing, and the way it’s paired with the battle choreography and levels of imagination and coolness in the weapons and tactics used makes a very video gamey spectacle. There’s just something about stunning but logical fantasy powers and weapons that gets me right in the heart, okay. Watch Ruby’s trailer (a conceptual demonstration of the show before it came out) to see what I mean. Because damn.
The character designs are all original, distinctive and visually interesting, as well as each character having a look and a weapon that tells you something about them, which is how these things should work. Also, everything is secretly a gun. Fold-out mechanical scythe? Has a gun in it. Spear? Turns into a gun. Rapier? Shoots magical energy of different kinds depending on how you tune it. Staff? Turns into guns on chains. Gun-chucks.
RWBY has a long way to go in many respects, and I wonder if it will take the dark turn that it seems to be foreshadowing within its patchwork of symbolism. Either way, it’s great to see an independent web series come this far, get this much recognition and contain this much pure awesome even with the limited resources it has. Can you imagine what some of those fight scenes would look like in cinema-grade animation? I am weak at the knees at the very thought.
It would be lovely to have some more substance to go with the style, but I have faith that RWBY can sort itself out in coming episodes. A little character development here, some world-building there, and maybe we can get to the heart of this thing.