Back in 2012, Rooster Teeth unveiled the Red Trailer, giving the world their first ever look at a new anime-styled web series called
RWBY. The show’s unique 3D style, diverse characters, and outstanding soundtrack helped it rise from humble beginnings (remember the “shadow people” caused by Volume 1’s low budget?) to become an international success, and it never stopped changing and growing along the way.
That’s never been more true than in recent years, as the tragic death of
RWBY creator Monty Oum during Volume 3’s production has forced the remaining writing and animating staff to carry out Oum’s vision without his guiding hand. Soon after this, the team switched over to Maya for animation, giving it a whole new look to go with the new feel. Understandably, the show has experienced highs and lows during this transition, but those Monty left behind have stayed true to his life’s mantra: Keep moving forward. With the debut of RWBY Volume 6 just days away, it’s time to look back on how the show has fared with the changes brought by recent volumes, and how it can continue to grow and improve heading into the future.
Naturally, this exploration series will be filled with references to key moments in the story, so if you want to avoid spoilers, avoid this article. For everyone else, let’s dig in!
Keep Battles Focused and Fluid
Let’s get something out of the way up front: There’s no replacing Monty Oum. His unique style is something that can’t be perfectly replicated by anyone, and we shouldn’t expect that. What we
should expect from the current animation team (and the people directing them) is engrossing, captivating battles that make use of the show’s many diverse characters, semblances, and weapons. This is an area where, at times, Volumes 4 and 5 fell short. Volume 4 received a fair amount of criticism for both the quantity and quality of its fight scenes. While Volume 5 increased the number of fights substantially, many fans (myself included) still found much of the action to be a little underwhelming.
This is largely due to the pacing and flow of battles, and it’s an area where the show has been shooting itself in the foot lately. When characters stop fighting mid-battle and stand around and talk, it’s disruptive to the action and often makes little sense in context. A prominent example of this is when Team RNJR battles Tyrian in Volume 4. The villain attacks our heroes (one at a time, for some reason) for about twenty seconds. Then he leaps onto Nora’s hammer and backflips off of it so hard that he slams into a building on the fifth story and breaks through the wall. He then jumps down and talks for a full minute.
The whole scenario is just… bizarre. If Nora had used her hammer to fling him or smack him into the wall, it might make a little more sense. Instead, he voluntarily backflips five stories into the air and through a wall for no reason, and then immediately jumps back to the ground. It was just an excuse to put some space between him and the heroes so that a dialogue sequence could ensue, but it completely disrupts the fight’s pacing. And it doesn’t stop there.
After a few more seconds of action there’s another break when Ruby shoots Nora with electricity (supercharging her, unbeknownst to Tyrian), and Tyrian stops fighting to laugh and comment on the irony. Nora smacks him with her hammer, but he blocks the blow… and the action stops again. Tyrian once again does a totally unnecessary backflip to land on top of a building and then there’s another 30 seconds of dialogue. If you’re keeping track at home, this fight has been about equal parts fighting and standing around and talking thus far with a constant shift back and forth between the two for no real reason.
This problem is fairly persistent in the past two volumes. In both the opening and final episodes of Volume 4, Team RNJR is given
generous amounts of time to stand around and talk by the Geist and Nuckelavee Grimm. The former is at least knocked down by Ren (and takes its sweet, sweet time getting back up) before the huddle, but the latter just stands by and lets it happen for no good reason. Then in Volume 5, our heroes are on the “Why in the world are you just standing there?!” side of the equation during the attack on Blake’s house. Early in the fight, Blake uses her semblance to freeze two members of the White Fang to the ground, completely immobilizing them. One swift knock to the head, and these two would be out cold, no problem. Instead, Blake, Sun, and Ghira literally stand around and talk about taking them out for a full 30 seconds. While this is happening, the two villains are clearly and obviously using their weapons to melt the ice, and our heroes just stand there and let it happen.
Once again, it’s both disruptive to the flow of the battle and also nonsensical. Soon after this, the credits roll, leaving fans to wait another week for the fight’s resolution… but they wouldn’t get it then either. The White Fang’s invasion of the Belladona household is split up into four total chunks that were spread out across three episodes. It makes the whole experience feel disjointed.
Compare those examples to two of my favorite fights in the past two seasons (and in the show altogether) and you’ll notice a big difference. In both the Qrow vs Tyrian fight (Volume 4) and the Cinder vs Raven fight (Volume 5), a few choice words are exchanged before and after the battle, and the action is largely uninterrupted in between. The skirmish between Yang and the bandits (Volume 5) is similarly smooth and uninterrupted, even if it is on the short side. As a result, all of these fights are significantly more engrossing than the start-and-stop action of the other battles.
It’s also not
just dialogue that can be disruptive to the flow of battle. Sometimes the action disrupts itself. This is most apparent in the lengthy battle at the end of Volume 5. Over a dozen heroes and villains are gathered in one room for a fight that will span four episodes. What could go wrong? The answer is plenty. Don’t get me wrong, those episodes contain some fantastic moments. Jaune’s emotional outburst and eventual unlocking of his semblance is wonderful, and seeing Oscar/Ozpin in action is a real treat. Unfortunately, attempting to focus on that many fighters at once leads to many of them being poorly utilized.
Mercury has what may be my favorite fighting style in the show, and with Yang in the room the setup was perfect for a rematch of their Volume 3 fight. The two do spar, but as the camera constantly shifts around the room from fight to fight they’re rarely the focus. You never get to see the two actively engaged in combat for more than a few seconds at a time, and as a result, their rematch amounts to little more than few punches and kicks squeezed in between other people’s fights. We also see Qrow and Raven lock blades (after previously being told by Leo that they’re an even match), but the entire clash is just 23 seconds long… 19 of which is them talking to each other. Then the two jump off screen, never again to be seen locked in combat.
Ruby is similarly given little time in the spotlight, just quick cuts here and there. At one point she steps in to defend her sister and declares “I’m angry.” Alright! The two sisters charge at Mercury and Emerald, setting things up for a potentially awesome battle. And then the scene cuts away. When we finally return to the action (an episode later), Ruby gets her one big moment in the fight: Mercury disarms her, so she headbutts him. This is meant to reflect Ruby’s growth in “hand to hand combat,” as Ozpin previously chided her about her lack of skills in that department and headbutted her in a sparring match. It’s an underwhelming contribution to the battle from the show’s flagship character, to say the least. Her lack of usage in battle is only made worse by the fact that we never once see her use her semblance in Volume 5. Volume 4 did an excellent job of showing her growth in using it, as she’s learned to manipulate it to the point where she can practically fly. Then in Volume 5 it’s completely forgotten.
Making meaningful use of so many characters at once is a huge challenge, but one way Volume 6 can improve on that shortcoming is by making better use of team-ups and team attacks. At one point in the big Volume 5 brawl, they even give fans false hope of this. When Blake joins the fray, Ruby shouts out “Checkmate,” a code name for Weiss/Blake team-up attacks. Unfortunately, you guessed it, the camera cuts away and we don’t actually see it happening.
In terms of time spent on fights, Volume 5 is a vast improvement over the previous volume, but much of the action was underwhelming. Hopefully Volume 6 marks a return to more fluid battles that keep fans immersed in the action.
Don’t Waste Any Dialogue
One of the biggest problems that plagued Volume 4 (and much of Volume 5) was the matter of pacing. Volume 3’s catastrophic ending led to the four titular characters being separated, and the opening episode of Volume 4 introduced multiple new villains. As a result, the show found itself switching between five different storylines. When most episodes are only around 15 minutes long, this makes it damn near impossible to give any one of the stories the amount attention and screen time it deserves. Thankfully, Team RWBY and their closest allies have all been reunited, so the story can stay much more focused going forward, but there are still other issues to address.
A common complaint Volume 5 received is just how much time was spent on dialogue, and just how little was actually said. Personally, I don’t mind talk-heavy episodes, but the shorter episodes make it crucial that
RWBY makes the most of those moments, whether that’s pushing the overall story forward, breaking the tension with lighthearted humor, or developing the characters through touching, emotional scenes. Volume 5 had 14 episodes to work with instead of the usual 12, so fans were hoping for a deeper dive into the characters and lore of the series, but much of that extra time was instead spent on unnecessary recap.
The most egregious example of this is Raven’s chat with Weiss and Yang at the bandit camp. Yang demands that Raven use her semblance to transport her to Ruby, and Raven accepts on the condition that Yang first listen to what she has to say about Ozpin. How tantalizing! Ozpin himself admits to having made “more mistakes than any man, woman, or child” in history, and we’ve seen how willing he is to manipulate and use people, even children, without fully informing them of what’s at stake. This man has some skeletons in his closet. We also know that Raven was once extremely close to him, and ended up rejecting his ways and striking out on her own. If anyone has dirt on Oz (and reason to spill the beans), it’s Raven. This scene comes shortly after Ozpin reveals a small portion of his backstory to team RNJR, so Raven giving a darker, alternate version of events would be the perfect follow-up. Perhaps we could learn what exactly happened to Summer Rose?
Unfortunately, most of what Raven reveals is information that the audience has already known for a long time. Raven explains that she and Qrow were born bandits, that the Grimm have a leader named Salem who wants to destroy the world, and that magic exists. After this, there’s an unnecessarily dramatic sequence in which Raven transforms into an actual raven… something the audience has known she could do for years. The true purpose of this whole scene must then be about how the girls (and especially Yang) react. Strangely, of all the information revealed, Yang specifically gets hung up on the fact that Ozpin gave Qrow and Raven the ability to transform into birds. When she later confronts Ozpin, she doesn’t ask for a full explanation of who Salem is, her history with Ozpin, or the extent of the dangers they face. She’s still hung up on the bird thing, and apparently furious about it. Yang’s conversations with Raven and Ozpin are spread out across two episodes, and they both just feel like wasted moments filled with odd reactions.
On a more positive note, I feel compelled to point out that Weiss
does have a meaningful moment during the Raven encounter. While she has little reaction to Raven’s words, I was touched by her genuine concern and understanding when she asks if Yang is okay, and follows up by letting her know “It’s okay if you’re not okay.” It marks a dramatic growth in her character over the years. Compare it to her treatment of Blake in Volume 2 where she sensed her teammate was upset and responded by jumping up on a chair and loudly demanding that she open up and talk. The show capitalizes on this development later in Volume 5 when Weiss again has a heart to heart with Yang, helping her see that each person carries their own unique brand of pain and loneliness with them.
Not wanting to ask Oz the important questions must run in the family, because Ruby similarly misses a major opportunity to do so. One of the show’s biggest mysteries is the true nature of Ruby’s silver eyes and the magical powers associated with them. They’re brought up right from the start in episode one, and five years later we still only have vague hints about their power from Qrow. Yet when Ruby approaches Oz to question him in Volume 5, she doesn’t even think to ask about them, even though Oz is perhaps the one person who could answer her. This is all in spite of the fact that Oscar (who is interlocked with Ozpin’s soul) even mentions her eyes the first time they meet.
All of these issues were amplified by the fact that Volume 5 had a lengthy span with no battles or major action sequences. When multiple episodes in a row focus almost exclusively on dialogue and character interactions, those moments need to count.
Flesh Out The Villains
As I previously touched on,
RWBY is taking its sweet time shedding any light on the thousands-of-years-long war between Oz and Salem, which is the central conflict of the entire show. The writers and animators have done a brilliant job of bringing Salem’s personality to light. She comes across as highly intelligent, cautious and calculated, and intensely intimidating, but her origins, power, and ultimate goal remain almost entirely shrouded in mystery. Understandably, some secrets can’t be revealed right away or the show will lose some its suspense, so I can’t fault the show too much for keeping the main villain somewhat of an enigma. However, the lack of a developed backstory is not an issue that’s exclusive to Salem.
The majority of
RWBY‘s antagonists are just like Salem: Well-established personalities with little to no established backstory. Roman Torchwick was a delightful character that came and went without a hint of his history beyond the fact that he’s into organized crime. Neo, his loyal sidekick, remains a total mystery. We know that Mercury killed his own father, an assassin and alcoholic, but what does he gain by aligning with the enemies of mankind and putting his life on the line for Cinder? A brief flashback scene reveals that Emerald was a starving thief living on the streets when Cinder found her, but was her decision to join the forces of evil really as simple as wanting food and a roof over her head? A single line from Raven calling him a “disgraced scientist” from Atlas is all we know about Dr. Watts after two volumes, and we know even less about Tyrian, who was introduced at the same time.
Then there’s Hazel. He was first introduced in Volume 4 and described by Oz as “Someone from my past. Someone who should not be taken lightly.” Well now, isn’t that interesting? What dark secrets can we learn from their history? The answer turned out to be profoundly underwhelming, and poorly delivered. During the lengthy battle at the end of Volume 5, we finally learn that Hazel had a sister who enrolled at one of the academies and died on a training mission. This is explained so quickly and quietly (by Ozpin’s soul, to Oscar, its host) and in the middle of the battle that it’s easy to miss. It simply has no impact, and feels out of place mid-fight.
Hazel goes on to ask Ozpin “How many more children must die for you?” He projects righteous indignation at Ozpin’s use of children in his plans… yet he has no problem serving Salem, who also uses children and wipes out innocent people out by the hundreds, regardless of age. In truth, his hatred of Ozpin has nothing to do with the bigger picture. It’s a personal grudge due to the death of his sister. But because the audience has never seen his sister (and didn’t even know she existed at all until the scene where her death was mentioned) there’s really nothing to latch onto to make Hazel seem sympathetic or even particularly interesting.
The biggest shortcoming of all has to be the lack of backstory for Cinder Fall. Although Salem appears to be the show’s primary antagonist, Cinder has served as the main on-screen threat ever since Volume 2. She’s cunning, confident, manipulative, strategic, and abundantly cruel. And after five volumes, we still have no real clue why. All we’ve really been told of her motivation is that she desires power. What drove her to such a lust for power that she’d be willing to make a deal with the devil? What is her ultimate goal? And how did she come to know of Salem?
Fortunately, Volume 6 should be the perfect opportunity to explore some of these questions. I don’t believe that her fight with Raven truly resulted in her ultimate demise, and promotional art for Volume 6 seems to indicate that she’s returning. Salem’s decision-making and Tyrian’s general insanity seemed to give Cinder cause for concern over the past two volumes, and a near-death experience seems like the perfect opportunity for Cinder to do some soul-searching about where she came from and where she hopes to go from here. Let’s hope we get to see all of that play out.
One last opportunity
RWBY has for significant villain development in Volume 6 comes with the show’s journey to the Kingdom of Atlas. Therein lies a character who is ripe to become the most well-developed antagonist in the show. The only problem is that he’s currently one of the good guys. Ever since his introduction in Volume 2, James Ironwood has been one of the more complicated and intriguing pieces of the RWBY puzzle, and he’s now perfectly positioned for a heel turn.
Now, I’m not suggesting that he could suddenly join the dark side. That would be absurd. But Ironwood’s personality and the circumstances of the past few volumes could propel him to take the kind of actions that would make him a hero in his own mind, but an antagonist to the main cast. He craves order and security above all else, trusts no one but himself, and wields an incredible amount of power. He’s arrogant enough to run both the schools and military for the world’s most technologically advanced kingdom, he had no qualms about bringing an army to Vale against Ozpin’s wishes, and he boasts about holding two seats on the Atlas council. Politically speaking, he may very well be the most powerful man in the world, and he has an overwhelming sense of duty to live up to that position.
In previous volumes Ironwood had Oz and Glynda to balance him out and keep him from being overly aggressive, but since the fall of Beacon he has been isolated from the Inner Circle. As Salem’s schemes plunge the world deeper into darkness in chaos, Ironwood’s natural response is to seize control. Since Volume 3 he has shut off dust trade with other kingdoms (potentially crippling their defenses, playing right into Salem’s hands) and closed off the borders of Atlas, letting no one in or out without the council’s permission. The last time we saw him, he was slamming his fists angrily on Jacques Schnee’s desk and shouting, all while hinting to Jacques that he may soon supersede the council altogether and seize absolute control of Atlas. He’s teetering on the brink of tyrannical dictatorship, and one good push is all he needs to go over the edge.
As we know from Volume 3, Ironwood’s Atlesian scientists have been conducting research on aura, the very essence of human souls, in secret. They’ve created Penny, an artificial being capable of generating an aura, and they’ve even created a device that can rip the soul out of one person and forcefully implant it in another. What else is Atlas hiding? As the days grow darker, how far will desperation push Ironwood to take this sort of experimentation? And if anyone should try to stand in his way, how will he respond? What happens when Oscar/Ozpin disapproves of his methods? And where will Winter’s allegiances lie if Ironwood and Weiss end up on opposite sides of a conflict?
From Salem all the way down to Emerald,
RWBY has plenty of great villainous personalities to work with, and it’s time to flesh them out into full characters, complete with some history and motivation. Toss in some moral ambiguity with a character like Ironwood, and you’ve got the right ingredients for some extremely compelling and meaningful showdowns.
A Note From the Editor-in-Chief
Hey, everyone! I just want to take a moment to explain what’s happening here. Gamnesia is a website dedicated to news about video games and the culture that surrounds them, and that’s not changing. Gamnesia will always be about the games. However, when we post articles or memes (on social media) about anime-related games, we’ve always gotten an extremely positive reaction from our viewers. There are a few of us here at Gamnesia who are big fans of anime, so from time to time we’ll be trying out articles like this. If you guys like what you see, we’ll keep ’em coming!