“Red like roses fills my dreams and brings me to the place you rest
White is cold and always yearning, burdened by a royal test
Black the beast descends from shadows
Yellow beauty burns gold…”
Like every other twenty-something-year-old guy with a podcast, I used to live and breathe shōnen anime when I was a tweenager. I spent all of my Saturday nights watching everything that Toonami and [adult swim] had to offer, from Dragon Ball Z, to Yu-Gi-Oh!, to Bleach, to Death Note, to Fullmetal Alchemist, to Code Geass. At this very moment, as I sit in my childhood bedroom writing this review, I can see forty nine volumes of the Naruto manga aligned neatly on my bookshelf…and, in the desk drawer right below them, are printed copies of the two 150 page Naruto fan fictions that I’ve written. As much as I loathe to admit it, it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to call me a shōnen otaku at that age (if you don’t know what that means, good for you).
But shōnen may be one of the only things that I can honestly say I’ve grown out of. When I was fourteen, shōnen was awesome, and that’s all it ever had to be. But looking back on it now with a more mature taste for storytelling, I can see just how little substance the typical shōnen story actually has. Most shōnen stories tend to focus on the wrong kinds of things. They expend all of their energy making their meticulously constructed worlds look cool rather than giving their audience something substantive to take away. The experiences of the typical shōnen character are often so abstracted from reality that it is nearly impossible for the audience to relate to them, and we’re often left alone in a big strange world with no real reason to care about it. To be quite frank, most shōnen is just straight up…bad.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become somewhat jaded towards the genre in recent years. When I look at it now with my current sensibilities, I find it difficult not to cringe. It serves as a frank and embarrassing reminder of how much of a loser I was for being so utterly obsessed with it as an adolescent.
So you’ll understand my hesitation when a friend of mine recommended that I watch RWBY, a series that is for intents and purposes, a shōnen anime.
RWBY (pronounced “ruby”) is an animated web series created by the late animator Monty Oum in conjunction with Rooster Teeth (the same people who make the Red vs. Blue machinima series). RWBY is set in the fictional world of Remnant, where mankind is locked in a constant struggle against monsters known as the Creatures of Grimm. To combat these monsters, warriors known as Huntsmen and Huntresses utilize a substance called Dust to fuel their weapons and use fantastic abilities that are functionally indistinguishable from magic. The series focuses on the members of Team RWBY (also pronounced “ruby”), a group of four girls who attend a school for Huntsmen and Huntresses in training known as Beacon Academy. Despite being only students, the girls quickly find themselves caught up in a seething conflict between the world government and a rising criminal organization with mysterious motives.
Right off the bat, RWBY sets itself up to be a typical combat-oriented shōnen series, but just in case you need more convincing, here is a short list of shōnen cliches that it introduces in its first two and a half seasons: a constructed world where everything is more or less about fighting, a protagonist who wants to be the very best like no one ever was, a Hogwarts-style “X School for Y”, a team of vastly different people who initially hate each other but become best friends way too quickly, unabashed racism between humans and a fictional human-like race, child soldiers becoming involved in conflicts that would realistically be way over their heads, and…you guessed it…a story arc involving a tournament.
Not only does RWBY shamelessly lean on cliches, but it also falls into every storytelling pitfall that you would expect from a shōnen series. Like many other shōnen series, RWBY spends an undue amount of time focusing on big, conceptual ideas that are difficult (if not impossible) to connect with emotionally, such as in-universe history, in-universe mythology, and the broad motivations of large organizations such as the Atlesian Military and the White Fang. Even when it does focus in on its individual characters, it still doesn’t give its audience much to latch onto. After watching the entire series up until this point (roughly two and half seasons as of writing this article), I still don’t feel like I can connect with any of the main characters in any meaningful way. With only a few slight deviations, each character seems to exhibit only one main personality trait (Ruby is socially awkward, Weiss is snobby, Yang is fun-loving, etc), and the few times we do get a more personal look into a character’s history, it’s done through sloppy, artificial soliloquies in which the character just flat out explains what his or her motivations are. At this point in the series, it’s much easier to identify each character by his or her weapon, which is a trapping that I’ve seen far too shōnen series fall into.
However, in spite of myself, and in spite of everything that I’ve said in this article so far, I actually find myself enjoying RWBY…a lot. I think it was around the time that I was watching Yang and Weiss fight in a tournament match against a trumpet-playing dude with a fedora and a rainbow-colored cat girl on roller skates who fights with ice-powered glow sticks/nunchakus that my inner fourteen-year-old finally got the better of me, and I just had throw my hands up and admit to myself that this shit is fucking awesome.
To criticize RWBY for being “too shōnen” would not only be missing the point, it would be contrary to it. RWBY is acutely aware of its shōnen heritage, and it’s not ashamed of itself. It doesn’t try to re-write, deconstruct, or even parody the cliches of the shōnen genre, but instead plays them so earnestly and affectionately straight, that it’s hard not to appreciate it. RWBY is clearly made by a group of people who never lost their love for the genre, and the sincerity with which it wears its heart on its sleeve is enough to make even someone as jaded as myself genuinely excited.
As such, I find it shockingly easy to forgive RWBY for its narratives flaws. It’s steadfast adherence to the the shōnen style of storytelling is ultimately more endearing than damaging, and I feel as though it would lose a lot of its appeal if it tried to subvert the tradition in any significant way. I’m even willing to forgive the show for blatantly indulging itself in tropes commonly reserved for fandoms/fanfiction/OCs. Normally, things like impossibly cool weapons, girls with cat ears, hair that is somehow naturally both black and red (you know, the two coolest colors), and characters with frankly dumb names like Mercury Black, Cinder Fall, and Crow but spelled like “Qrow,” would make me roll my eyes. However, given the context of the show and the culture surrounding it, these things make perfect sense, and actually add another layer of charm to the series.
Even the show’s opening sequences (with music by Jeff Williams and Casey Lee Williams) have the undeniable Evanescence-esque quality of a fanmade AMV.
But RWBY doesn’t just embrace its genre’s shortcomings, it also plays brilliantly to its strengths. For one, If we accept that shōnen will always intrinsically value style over substance, than I think you’ll struggle to find a series more stylish than RWBY. The production design of the entire series is unbelievable; environments and character designs are all gorgeous and appropriately over-the-top. In particular the show makes brilliant use color, often contrasting vibrant primary colors like red and yellow against muted black and white tones (a cookie to anybody who saw what I just did there).
And it must be said that RWBY features some of the greatest fight sequences of all time. Monty Oum was one of the greatest, if not the greatest combat choreographer I’ve ever seen, and his talents shine brighter than ever in his first (and tragically, last) original series. Every fight scene is intricate, fast-paced, and shot at the perfect distance for viewing the action. Not only that, but the animators are constantly thinking of creative ways to push series’ fictional weapons to their absolute limits, making every fight scene feel fresh, even when it’s being fought by a character we’ve seen in battle many times before.
The the fight scenes are also all-inclusive in a way that I rarely see. When multiple characters participate in a fight, they are all given plenty to do, and no one ever fades completely into the background. Everyone gets a piece of the action, and even the most insignificant characters are given their time in the limelight.
For better or for worse, RWBY embraces the aspects of the shōnen genre wholeheartedly. If you aren’t a shōnen fan, and you’ve never been a shōnen fan, RWBY will probably do little to change your opinion. In fact, it will probably reinforce every negative idea you’ve ever had about the genre and its fans. But even if there’s just a tiny bit of you that takes pleasure in watching androgynous teenagers with goofy hair beat the shit out of each other, than I think you’ll find something to like about RWBY. For me, the series tickles everything that fourteen-year-old, fanfiction-writing, Hot Topic-shopping, Naruto-set-to-Linkin Park-AMV-watching me used to love about anime, and it reminds me that it’s okay to be that kid again every once in a while.
That, and it has a corgi in it. How can I dislike anything that has a corgi in it?
Little Things I Didn’t Get To:
(there are a lot of them this time)
= Some of you might be confused as to why RWBY is showing up on Anime Attempts, as there is some debate as to whether or not it actually counts as anime. By the strictest definition of the word, being “any animation originating from Japan,” it does not. However, if we apply the more colloquial, adjective form of the word “anime” used to describe any media that makes use of the common tropes associated with Japanese animation, then RWBY might be the most “anime” thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It also airs regularly on Crunchyroll, so you know, there’s that.
= Incidentally, RWBY is also available on Netflix, which is probably the best way to go about watching the series. Every episode in each of the first two volumes are mashed together into two, gigantic two-and-half-hour-long videos, which sounds weird, but is actually great if you plan on watching everything at once anyway. Viewing the series episode by episode, it can be a bit grating to have to listen to the opening and ending themes every seven to twelve minutes.
= You might have noticed that I’ve been referring to the series creator, Monty Oum, in the past tense throughout this article. Sadly, Monty died of a serious allergic reaction back in February of 2015, right around the time that volume 2 was being released. Although he purportedly left enough notes behind to get the rest of the team through at least volume 5, his absence is noticeable, especially in the fight sequences at the beginning of volume 3. Monty was an enormous talent, and his passing is nothing short of tragic. If nothing else, I think RWBY is a great work to remember him by.
= As of posting this article, RWBY is nine episodes into its third season. While everything is “so far, so good” right now, one of the major problems that I often see in shōnen series is that they run way to long, and get increasingly dumber as they do. Only time will tell if this happens to RWBY.
+ If you’re still hesitant about the series, you might want to check out the four trailers that led up to the show’s release. They show off a lot of what the series has to offer, and serve as a great introduction to the four main characters. Maybe we’ll talk about them on Trailercast someday!
+ Even though the show isn’t a parody of shōnen, it doesn’t shy away from making the occasional self referential joke, such as this gem.
+ Something has to be said for the gender representation in this show. It’s refreshing to see a combat-oriented shōnen series so thoroughly annihilate the Bechdel Test.
– The cel-shaded/motion capture animation can get a bit jittery at times. Luckily, this improves greatly as the series goes on.
– The voice acting and line writing are serviceable for what the show is, but they’re nothing to write home about.