Unpopular Opinion: RWBY Franchise

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I love RWBY.  There you go, if you were looking for a recommendation to watch RWBY you’ve got one.  From here on I’m going to spoil the shit out of RWBY especially the latest season, Volume 4.  This is will be long.

One of the things I find most impressive about RWBY as a whole is how it just keeps getting better.  It’s amazing how far RWBY’s come since it’s humble beginnings and boy were those ever humble.  The biggest reason to avoid RWBY is undoubtedly Volume 1.  Even I, huge fan of the series that I am now was not at all convinced RWBY would be good as of Volume 1.  In Volume 1 episode lengths were wildly inconsistent and generally ranged from about 5 minutes to 13 minutes, with the climax of the exam being by far the longest episode, something that happens mid-season rather than at the actual climax of the season.  Moreover the entire experience suffered from a number of problems such as awful comedic effects, some cringe-worthy lines in the script, a pretty bog standard bully arc and most notably a lack of chemistry between all the characters, mostly thanks to the fact I didn’t feel like everyone had really come to own their respective roles yet.

All that said it was still a decent time, especially some of the battle sequences.  The exam final is the most noteworthy on that front, but there’s tons of fun choreography made possible by the ludicrous hybrid weapons and aura and Semblance powers which fill the RWBY-verse.  Perhaps most impressive about the exam final though was the use of tactics, wherein the hastily formed teams of teenagers managed to bring down the toughest enemies in the testing grounds by really making the best use of their own and each other’s powers and and weapons.  The monsters were also pretty good, I mean some were pretty generic in concept but their overall designs given the restricted black-white-red palette of the Grimm were great, especially the giant scorpion (Death Stalker) and the boar (Boarbatusk).  Not to mention despite the many goofy lines in the script my favorite line in all of RWBY comes from Volume 1, specifically where Ruby says that seeing  new weapons is like meeting new people, only better.  On that note the groundwork laid for Ruby’s character in Volume 1 is absolutely critical and it’s handled very well amid the painful comedy and otherwise very basic character intros and plot.  I think Volume 1 is best described as a rough draft or a proof-of-concept, something that isn’t ready yet but shows hints of something far more promising to come.  And say what you will about Volume 1 but those hints came to shine forth in Volume 2.

Volume 2 has more consistent episode lengths with 12 minutes being a pretty good gauge of how long the episodes will be, a trend which continues in later Volumes, though the longest is probably like 17 minutes.  More importantly almost all of the problems that riddled Volume 1 are gone.  Volume 2 opens on an amazing food fight scene that remains the funniest moment in RWBY to this day, finally breaking free of the weak comedic effects of Volume 1.  Even the action scenes, which had still been fun and mostly good, have improved significantly with most people citing better fight direction as the main cause.  Also we meet Penny and a giant mech suit which give us a better idea of what kind of tech humans have in RWBY beyond absurd weapons.  All of the characters have definitely come into their own by now, save perhaps Ren who gets neglected more than anyone else until Volume 4, and as a result their chemistry is solid.  We get more involved character stories, especially Blake, who up until Volume 2 was a mostly silent bookish type that we didn’t know much about.

In Volume 2 Blake reveals herself to be a Faunus, a beastman of sorts and a group which has faced and continues to face discrimination or outright persecution.  She also reveals herself to have at one point been part of the White Fang a Faunus rights advocacy group turned terrorist organization, and it’s clear she still stuck around for a while after the shift from peaceful protests to violent action.  This puts her in conflict with Weiss because Weiss’s family has suffered greatly at the hands of the White Fang for their business’ discrimination and exploitation of Faunus workers, something we have very few specifics about beyond Blake’s assertions.  This is built upon even further because Volume 2 makes it clear the White Fang is involved in terror plots attacking Beacon, the academy-city where the main characters live, where they go so far as to flood the city with a horde of Grimm by breaching old and forgotten underground defenses.  We also get a good contrast to Blake in Sun Goku, another Faunus without her dark past and serious attitude, but who is equally up for fighting the White Fang.  Amid all of this one of the most interesting character scenes comes about during the Hunter assignment, where this goofy history professor-cum-warrior asks all of team RWBY why they want to be Huntresses, save for Ruby, which is telling in itself, and the other three girls really have to mull over their motivations while Ruby gets to observe giant elephant monsters (Goliaths), by far the most imposing Grimm shown in the Volume.

I have to admit though that while RWBY Volume 2 was definitely good, excellent even, I wasn’t quite ready to put it on par with great anime I’d seen.  Maybe it was the CG, some of the really goofy stuff, or maybe the dark elements didn’t feel dark and threatening enough.  Whatever the case, while I was thrilled by RWBY and on board for for future seasons to come, I still didn’t consider it top tier material.  And that would change by the end of Volume 3.

I’ve no doubt that most people consider Volume 3 better than Volume 4 and I can’t really fault them for that.  It has by far the biggest moments in the series, the most involved narrative and probably the most action of any Volume.  Volume 3 opens on an inter-school battle tournament which Volume 2 had started to set in motion, Sun and the bad guys all arrive in Beacon as or posing as students in other schools.  When it first came out I remember people complaining that the fight direction took a big hit thanks to Mounty Oum’s death, but personally I thought the battles were great.  New and crazy weapons got introduced, like the bladed hoverboard from the first fight.  We saw new Semblances and a few cool new characters like the black guy who fights with sonic blasts from his trumpet and can use Naruto’s Shadow Clone justu.   All good stuff across the board.  It was also the first time since the concept of aura was introduced in Volume 1 that we spent some time digging into the lore and hidden powers of RWBY-verse, specifically the Maidens.  The Maidens represent a game changer, a shift from goofy weapons used to kill Grimm to super-weapons capable of  throwing the entire world out of balance.  It was at this point that the darker or just more serious elements to RWBY, things which had been present all along but just lacked the weight and presence to feel particularly gripping and real, finally got some gravitas.

This is helped by the fact the villains play a much bigger role than before.  Even setting aside what they ultimately do, we spend more time with them as their careful plan finally gets set in motion so we can understand what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.  It makes them far more threatening because their plan is cunning and detailed, a shift from the mostly random acts of violence and theft from earlier Volumes.  And what’s more it totally works.  Even though security’s been beefed up and Qrow warns Ozpin that the city’s been infiltrated, and they try to get Pyrrha, who by the way gets a lot more development as of this Volume, to inherit the power of the dying Fall Maiden, the bad guys win.  By Volume 3’s end Beacon is a wreck, a huge Grimm dragon has appeared, Ozpin has disappeared and is presumed dead, Penny has been torn to pieces, Yang loses an arm fighting Blake’s former mentor Adam Taurus and Blake runs away from team RWBY, Weiss is sent home, and Pyrrha, debatably the strongest of the main teens is dead.

It’s all a big shock but Pyrrha’s death is especially hard hitting because a, who expected one of the main 8 teens to die at all, most shows don’t do that, and b, she’d gotten a lot better as a character over the course of Volumes 2 and 3, her relationship with Jean had deepened and she even made out with him before she dies in battle against Cinder, who thus far was presented as the leader of bad guys, and who obtains the Fall Maiden’s power, and c, because she was debatably the hottest girl and I was totally invested in her character arc and was extra sad to see her go.  Pyrrha’s death more than anything else convinced me RWBY was just as good as anything else I loved, that it deserved to be considered on par with my other top tier shows.  That Yang loses her arm and some of the bad guys die in the battle too, only add to a show which mostly felt a bit too light before because despite all the battles no one ever died or appeared to die, not even the random mooks.  But Volume 3 ends in ruin, for all sides really as the good guys deal with the loss of a city and some important people or limbs, while the bad guys deal with the fact Ruby put a giant fucking monkey wrench in their plans.

More so than the previous Volumes, Volume 3 confirms that Ruby is a prodigy.  She figures out part of the villains’ plot and how it’s being done before anyone else, even if she fails to stop it.  She fights Torchwood, a major villain and his assistant Neopolitan, who beat the piss out of Yang in Volume 2, well enough that though she doesn’t land the killing blow she gets them killed because they were forced to come out and try to deal with her.  And she awakens new eye-powers which fuck up the Grimm dragon and Cinder so badly that the battle which should have spelled Beacon’s end becomes a stalemate.  I mean the good guys still end up worse but Ruby goes a long to making an overwhelming defeat into a minor one by herself.  She even joins up with Team JUNPR, Pyrrha’s former team to continue hunting down Cinder, while the rest of her teammates all take a break.  She’s unquestionably the MVP of her generation, especially now that her main competition, Pyrrha is dead.

Volume 3 also reveals a new and greater antagonist waiting in the wings, a Grimm lady whom we later learn is called Salem, and who has been pulling the strings behind Cinder all along.  And as we listen to her grim (ha ha) and cryptic message, we fade out and get ready to pick up the pieces in Volume 4.

What Volume 4 and previously Arslan Senki season 2 have convinced me of is that good transition seasons are literal godsends to any given series and are in their own way more valuable to me than major dramatic arcs.  And make no mistake Volume 4 is a transition series.  It’s by far the slowest and most character focused of all the Volumes and it’s ending sets the stage for the next major arc.  But I think I like Volume 4 the most.  The CG sees huge improvements, I’d argue it’s the best purely CG show ever made or at least that I’ve ever seen.  But setting aside the visuals, if Volume 3 was where the big wow moments were then Volume 4 is where shit gets heavy.  Everyone is grappling with the loss of Pyrrha, most notably Jean, who has taken all that’s left of her, her weapon and armor, and combines them with his old gear, but Yang, Blake and Weiss all have confront themselves and their problems while they mostly sit at home.  If I had to encapsulate this Volume’s appeal in one scene though, I’d pick the scene where Jean is up after everyone is asleep, I mean Ruby gets up because she hears him but whatever, practicing sword drills prescribed to him by Pyrrha via instructional videos, where she says “I want you to know that I’m just happy to be a part of your life, I’ll always be here for you Jean.” at the end of video, while he pauses to hear her say that line before putting the video on repeat and continuing with sword drills, was quite possibly the most emotional thing I’ve ever seen.  I fucking tearing up right now as I’m writing about it.  It hits that hard, and importantly it feels so real because real people do this kind of shit, staring at pictures or reading messages from lost loved ones well after the funeral.  This is probably my favorite scene in RWBY and I doubt that will change.

Moving on, Volume 4 spends a lot of time with Blake, Weiss and Yang as they all deal with their issues before finding their resolve and choosing to continue the fight.  We find out that Blake was the daughter of the head of the White Fang back when it was peaceful and now the governor the Faunus homeland of Menagerie.  We get a lot of whining from Blake about how she wants people, her parents and friends who get hurt fighting the White Fang, to stay away from her so they don’t get hurt.  But ultimately what is shown is that she wants them to lash out at her, she wants to be punished for what she sees as her sins in involving these people in her struggles, and nobody does.  What Sun and her father force her to realize is that they love her and therefore chose this fight themselves or forgive her past transgressions respectively, that it’s not all her fault and that running away is the worst option to take because that hurts those close to her more than the physical wounds or family arguments.  Weiss’s family attempts to  lock her up in the house and after realizing that she hates abiding by Atlas’ high society and social rules when there are greater dangers afoot runs from home.  Yang deals with traumatic flashbacks to Adam cutting her arm off, gets a mechanical arm, spars with her dad and ultimately regains her confidence and fire so she can get back in the fight.  Most notable about Yang’s story is that the new arm comes to her right away but because of the trauma and lost confidence she doesn’t start using it immediately because she’s not sure she wants back into the fight.  It’s a nice touch and it gives her time to talk to adults and work through her problems.

However the real stars of character development in Volume 4 are Ren and Nora.  Nora has always been a fun character since Volume 1 and Ren had no discernible personality whatsoever and was mainly known for being skilled, ironic considering how little this was actually shown after the exam in Volume 1.  In Volume 4 we finally get his backstory as a former rich kid whose life imploded when a powerful Grimm killed his parents and wrecked his hometown, an event which only he and the street urchin he met that day, Nora, survive.  This explains why the two have always been inseparable but more importantly it finally gives Ren in particular a reason for his subdued personality and moments of fiery anger when he meets the monster in the Volume 4 finale.  I’ll cover the monster and that fight in a second but I want to talk about Volume 4 and that fight especially have the only scenes where Nora is actually serious.  She’s such a happy-go-lucky type and her power allows her to live that way, so seeing her be entirely earnest and serious and ultimately give Ren the focus he needs to survive and win the final battle of Volume 4 was pretty awesome to watch and spoke volumes about her strength and depth of character.

Moving away from character stuff Volume 4 introduces us to some of the most powerful and bizarre things in the RWBY-verse.  Ozpin’s body is dead but his soul now has merged with a kid called Oscar and talks to that kid in his head all the time, a well as shares memories and stuff.  We also get a proper introduction to Salem and her other followers, and we see how badly Ruby hurt Cinder in Volume 3, as Cinder had some serious scars, an eyepatch and can barely talk.  The action is a much smaller part of Volume 4 but it’s on the whole very good.  Most of the Grimm introduced in Volume 4 are big, special Grimm that can take a beating like the Geist and Sea Dragon.  Tyrian, a scorpion Faunus and one of Salem’s followers almost kills Qrow in a battle where he basically steamrolls team RNJR before Qrow steps in, and then promptly gets his tail cut off by Ruby because she’s awesome.  The real crown jewel is the Nuckelavee though.

I think it’s by the most terrifying Grimm we’ve ever seen.  Now I want to give RWBY bonus points on three fronts, one for even finding the fucking thing.  I’m a huge fan of mythology and even I’d only heard of the monster once before and didn’t remember the name.  The Nuckelavee is a demon from Orcadian mythology.  Never heard of Orcadian mythology?  Neither had I, it comes from Orkney which is on these tiny islands off the northern coast of Scotland in the ass end of nowhere.  It’s so obscure that I have a “Dictionary of Mythology” which has no mention of the Nuckelavee.  So that it exists in RWBY is impressive enough but I feel the team did an excellent job adapting the mythical monster, you can check the details for yourself if you’re interested, to the Grimm aesthetic.  Even more impressive though was how it moves, fights and sounds.  The Nuckelavee’s signature scream is terrifying, the contorted and ragged movements do a great job making it alien and scary and the extendable arms allow it to fight all of team RNJR at once while still containing elements of the mythical beast.

Moreover the buildup excellent.  We see Ren’s flashback where we hear it, see the destruction it causes but only see it’s hooves and one arm.  We see a battleground covered in blood and broken weapons with a distinct hoof-print in the ground, followed by trees swaying as it moves through the woods approaching Ruby, Jean and the injured Qrow.  Rena and Nora sprint to the others hoping to catch them before the Nuckelavee does and seconds after they meet up with Ruby and Jean we cut to the Nuckelavee at the edge of the town, we finally see it’s grotesque torso and hear the scream before the screen cuts to black.  Then the finale opens on 9 straight minutes of team RNJR fighting their hardest before finally bringing the Nuckelavee down.  And then we get to the end.  We see Yang and Weiss getting near Ruby, Qrow is taken to safety and survives and even meets Oscar, Blake and Sun have geared up to fight the White Fang and this all happens as Ruby writes a super emotional letter, which she also narrates in her head of course, before we end on the big twist, where it turns out where the academy master of Haven, where the characters have mostly ended up, is talking to one of Salem’s subordinates and looks set to betray the world to her.

What I’ve been trying to say here is that even though the narrative and action are slow in RWBY Volume 4, there’s so much going on that it’s just as if not even more engaging than Volume 3.  It adds so much to the characters and the antagonists while setting up the next major event, in addition to having its own awesome climactic battle, that it’s just as important as any major arc.  Storytelling involves a lot of peaks and valleys, the big moments and the transitions, and so many shows opt to have flat expository or lighthearted comedy episodes for their transitions, that I feel transitions that really get shit done and add a lot to the story in some way while still being a blast to watch despite the fact the narrative is slowed down are deserving of the highest praise.  If a transition is strong enough to make potentially better to me than a major dramatic arc, I think that’s impressive and it should be celebrated.  And that’s what I feel Volume 4 is, the best kind of transition.

Before I wrap up I want to talk about one more thing, our main girl Ruby.  Ruby is one of my favorite kinds of characters.  She’s a prodigy, but instead of being great at everything and having guys fall for her right and left like many anime geniuses (albeit most of them are a different gender so switch out girls for guys) she’s really only good at being a Huntress.  She’s awkward in social settings, she can’t move well in high heels, and she goofs around a lot but she doesn’t seem to have any path in life other than Huntress.  Blake, Yang, Weiss, even Jean and Pyrrha all feel like they could do all kinds of other jobs and be all kinds of other people.  Ruby is alone as someone who more or less embodies the idea of a what Huntress is and can’t be anyone else.  This is great conceptually to me and I feel that it’s strengthened by the fact she’s actually the youngest character in the show, I believe she’s 2 or 3 years behind everyone else but is moved up with them thanks to her talent, talent which makes her totally outshine her peers in battle as the series goes on.  The only one who even feels vaguely on her level is Pyrrha, a former Olympic athlete, who dies.  In addition to having the greatest battle skill, I pretty sure she’s also just the strongest as a person, seeing as how she shoulders a lot of weighty decisions herself and sees lots of trauma without running away in some fashion.  What I’m trying to say is I like Ruby.  A lot.  She’s fun to watch and she’s endearing and I’m a big fan.  And the same applies to RWBY.  That’s it, I’m done, thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it.

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