RWBY: Fairy Tales, Databasing, and Western Anime

RWBY is a strange show – an anime that is yet not an anime in almost every sense of the term. Being one of the only anime since Avatar: The Last Airbender [ATLA] (and Legend of Korra [LoK]) that can truly be said to be entirely developed in the West, it seems to straddle a gray zone much more than the latter two ever did both. Since a good chunk of the episodes have now been released online, Rebecca and I thought we’d put some of our thoughts out there and weigh in on what’s been showcased so far.

RB: Let’s start with a synopsis, which is probably going to suck because I’ve never been able to write synopses.

RWBY takes place in a world called Vale where humans were about to lose the fight against powerful monsters until a magical substance called dust appeared (sounds vaguely Golden Compass…). Flash forward to the present where humans are endowed with superhero-esque abilities, including the power to wield impressive weaponry. The protagonist, Ruby Rose, is hanging out in a bookshop, which also happens to sell dust, when a bunch of men break in and steal a large portion of the dust supply. Ruby takes out her impressive scythe and attempts to thwart the robbery. She chases him down and runs into a woman whose powers define her as a huntress. Together, Ruby and the mysterious woman try and take down the lead criminal, but they fail and he manages to escape. However, after seeing Ruby’s ability with a weapon, the woman brings her to meet her boss who is the headmaster of the prestigious Beacon Academy. Ruby is given unprecedented early entrance. The first few episodes focus on Ruby’s transition into the academy and her recognition of all the work it will take for her to become a huntress.

One of the first things I noticed about RWBY was the animation style. I’m probably going to get a lot of hate for this, but it really reminded me of AdventureQuest (good times in middle school). The show is animated using software called Poser, which creates 3-D animated images mostly in human and animal form. Essentially what this means is that if you are expecting the artistic value of a good anime you will be sorely disappointed. The art style is extremely minimalist—most of the people in the backdrop of scenes don’t even have faces. It didn’t bother me too much, but I definitely noticed it. This may be bothersome to those who are snobbish about artistry in anime so if that’s the case, you have been forewarned. However, while the artwork isn’t congruent, there are definitely standard anime tropes peppered throughout. Definitely a “magical girl” shoujo vibe going on. It’s like anime meets the Winx Club.

RWBY-Header

Here they look much more like anime characters.

So then what do I think about the show? I think it’s cute and the soundtrack is amazing. My biggest gripe is that Ruby is a bit annoying, but I think this partially has to do with the specific voice actress chosen to play her. Her voice makes her sound like she’s simpering most of the time. Also, Ruby and the other characters fall neatly into many of the stereotypical anime molds. There are definitely personality aspects of Ruby that mirror a shoujo heroine. For example, she’s clumsy and a bit too eager to please everyone in a way that makes her seem silly. From the moment she arrives at Beacon, Ruby manages to cross another classmate by knocking over her bags. She proceeds to apologize and almost begs the girl for forgiveness and friendship—something I could definitely see happening in a shoujo.

Ruby_and_Weiss

In terms of other elements, there are the blatantly obvious references thrown in there, e.g. Professor Ozpin and Glynda Goodwitch (from Oz), and Jaune Arc (based on Jeanne d’Arc). The main characters Ruby, Weiss, Yang, and Blake are all vaguely based off fairytale characters. According to Wikipedia and the official wiki, Ruby is based off Little Red Riding Hood, but I’m more inclined to think that since she’s a foil for Weiss Schnee (literally White Snow [Snow White] in German) that would make her more like Rose Red. I know that “Snow White and Rose Red” is a much more obscure fairytale (I won’t write out the whole story, but here’s a link to the fairytale for anyone who’s interested), but her name is Ruby Rose so I thought that made more sense.  Then there’s Blake Belladonna (black + a form of deadly nightshade = not technically a fairytale character, but close enough) and Yang (Yellow = Goldilocks).

We’ll see what happens as it progresses. I’m hoping that it takes a turn for the dark (Madoka Magica style), but I get the feeling that it probably won’t. At this point it seems fairly clichéd and predictable, with the whole “four girls with magical powers banding together to save the world” kind of thing. The weapons are undeniably cool, but the magic system has been done to death (it boils down to basic elemental magic). I know I said this earlier in the post, but RWBY really does seem like a gothic, slightly more mature version of Winx Club.

rwby___ruby_rose_by_ssgt_lulz-d5q0r3l

Check out that scythe! I hate to say it, but it’s way cooler than the ones on Soul Eater…

Will I keep watching? Yes, I will. I want to give RWBY the benefit of the doubt and see where it goes—I sort of already know, but maybe it’ll surprise me. I would recommend watching an episode or two of this show just to see if it catches your fancy since it is the closest American equivalent to anime that I’ve seen. The episodes are super short, clocking in at 5-10 minutes, so it isn’t a huge time investment if you want to check it out. Anyway, those are my preliminary thoughts. I know Josh has some things to say as well so you can check those out below.

JS: Rebecca’s sort of talked about some of the background of the show and where it draws some of its inspiration, so I’ll talk about a little bit more about how I feel about the show and what it’s done, coupled with some academic digressions.

Note: I’m going to be making a lot of Disney Channel/Nickelodeon, as well as (J)RPG references, to give ample descriptions of where my opinions coming from.

First, while Rebecca isn’t really impressed with the fairy-tale/mythology-esque inspired characters and setting, I find it to be quite cool. I had no idea these sources influenced RWBY to such a large degree until she looked into it, and the extent to which the show pays homage to this furthers raises the level of respect I have for the show’s attempt to thoroughly ground itself. I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was – in the West, we seem to be enamored with this type of thing. Just looking at the recent Hollywood remakes (e.g. Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) as well as TV shows (e.g. Grimm) is enough to show that Western culture still loves its fairytales, with copious amounts of influence from the Brothers Grimm canon. A lot of anime really draws on these type of fairy-tale/legendary/fantastic elements (e.g. Uchoten KazokuTsuritama, The Tatami Galaxy); however, they take them from Japanese (and more generally East Asian) history/culture rather than the Western canon. But this crossover, applying these influences to something “anime” as RWBY has done, hasn’t really happened before as far as I know. ATLA drew a lot of it’s influence from the Orient, and LoK does the same except with extra steampunk influences. RWBY is the first show I’ve seen to actually take Western elements and integrate them into the show, rather than drawing predominantly on Eastern ones. And, as Ruby’s older sister Yang shows, it doesn’t just draw upon the Western canon – it also includes East Asian influences. Furthermore, even with a Chinese-influenced name, Yang is a blond Caucasian with apparently no real Asian traits or mannerisms – a true mixing of Eastern and Western elements.

LoK

This image from LoK is a good example of how heavily the show draws upon East Asian influences.

Speaking of elements, RWBY also is fascinating because it utilizes them extremely well. Mistfortunedogged and I have already talked about databasing in shows and how anime does this sort of thing really well. To summarize quickly: anime draws upon a lot of pre-existing tropes and elements and mixes them freely to create final works, to the extent that they tend to dominate over the characters, who themselves dominate over the worlds that they tend to inhabit. Doing this also can have powerful feedback effects encouraging fan participation and the like, and means anime should be viewed/analyzed under a different framework than the classic “literary” one.

Why do I bring this up? Because, under this criteria, RWBY is in fact the most successful Western anime ever made.

So what do I mean by this? Well, to put it simply, RWBY is the closest thing I’ve seen to a “true” Western anime: it draws these database elements – these tropes – from things associated with Western culture much more “deeply” than other shows have done in the past. And if you say that what makes an anime, well, “anime”, then RWBY seems (at first glance) to fit the bill better than anything I’ve seen so far.

So how does it exactly do this? First, it takes the rich culture of tropes from tween/teen drama shows that have developed over the past few decades, ranging from cartoons like Winx Club (as Rebecca mentioned above), Kim Possible, and Totally Spies (and maybe even extending as far as something like Danny Phantom) to tween/teen shows like Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montanna, and iCarly.

Kim Possible

Kim Possible’s character bears some similarities to Ruby, as Ron Stoppable’s does to Jaune.

It also pulls in influences from dramas/romcoms in the same age range like Mean GirlsShe’s the Man, and High School Musical.

Mean Girls

Mean Girls also stars 4 female leads, similar to RWBY. This probably is just a coincidence though, like the obsession anime has with 5 main characters.

Many of these shows tend to draw from the same database of elements, many of which we find in RWBY: an insecure and awkward female protagonist (Ruby/Red), the haughty rival (Weiss/White), the eccentric bookworm (Blake/Black), and the caring, popular older sister (Yang/Yellow). Even Jaune is essentially a trope, as the awkward but endearing male character that frequently appears as a love interest (I mean, just look at Ron Stoppable). While they might not appear exactly as I detail above, they definitely do appear in bits and pieces, mixed and reused the same way anime mixes and reuses these database elements. Notably, the culture for these shows exhibit noticeable similarities to anime fan culture, with active forums and wikis (at the time of they aired) as well as things like fanart and fanfiction. Fan comics also bear striking resemblance to doujinshi. Just do a quick Google search of any of the shows mentioned above (most notably the cartoons) to see what I mean. I don’t find these similarities to be a mere coincidence, given the possible similarities in underlying structure; however, I do want to note that the American t(w)een fan culture has yet to morph into the intensity that anime fandom exhibits (although it seems to be moving in that direction, if the forums/websites I used to visit are any indication).

Danny Phantom

This fan comic of Danny Phantom has a lot in common with doujinshi.

Second, it’s draws heavily from video game subculture, namely that which is associated with RPGs (and JRPGs in particular). The entire “huntress” thing seems to remind me of Bayonetta for some odd reason (maybe because Glynda Goodwitch seems to somewhat resemble Bayonetta/Jeanne). The “magical training academy” is huge in both Western and Japanese RPGs, although the way they go about it reminds me more of Little Witch Academia and things like it that manifest more prominently in JRPGs. The “steampunk”-esque setting has a distinctive JRPG setup to it (this is so ridiculously common I don’t even need to give examples), even while including Western style tropes like Roman Torchwick’s character (the guy Ruby fights in episode 1). Character designs seem to be heavily influenced by JRPGs, although the apparel has a distinctively Western feel to them. The overall feel of the setting and the way the events unfold remind me a lot of the cutscenes that often appear in JRPGs.

I’m not the only one who feels this way either – in a recent e-mail exchange with misfortunedogged (MFD), we both agreed that we felt like we were watching a bunch of game cutscenes rather than an actual show.

MFD: I just found out about RWBY (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RWBY), a weird video-gamey, cel-shaded-ish Western anime OVA-ish thing… I thought “lemme just treat it as a video game,” except that kind of doesn’t work. Not yet. Working on alternative enjoyment methods.

JS: I just started watching RWBY…I see what you mean by video game. I keep thinking “why isn’t this an RPG” the whole time!
MFD: As in RPG cutscenes? Until I get some sense of a satisfying answer or payoff, I’m going to keep thinking this too…

Furthermore, the entire premise smacks of a game where you play a protagonist that needs to defend the world against the forces of evil (and how many times has that been done?). Plus the events that have transpired so far continually call to mind games like Final Fantasy and Dark Cloud, even seemingly progressing in typical RPG fashion. In other words: I get a lot of (J)RPG vibes from the show.

The steampunk influnces of FF seem apparent in the design of the airship we see  early on in the series.

The steampunk influences of Final Fantasy seem apparent in the use of the blimp/airship we see early on in the series.

Given all of this, I can say that RWBY is really a Fraken-anime at the moment – drawing elements from fairytales, video games, and American cartoons/t(w)een shows. And that’s perfectly fine. Unlike anime, which has had decades to build up a database of tropes, themselves derived from a booming and well-established manga culture, RWBY is mostly starting from scratch as it attempts to define a new genre in the West (or at least a niche in pre-existing ones). It needs to start somewhere. And what better place to begin than essentially drawing from the vast databases from related media that already exists? I can’t really fault it for that.

Now, RWBY is by no means the only show to do this – every Western show that ends up trying to emulate an anime at some level incorporates some Western elements into it. ATLA did this through some of the character personalities, as does non-animated media like Kill Bill and Pacific RimBut the big difference here I think is that these works are using anime as just another element, paying homage to the culture that they were inspired by and in some sense trying to capture. RWBY, however, is not trying to capture the feeling of anime – it instead tries to capture the essence of what anime fundamentally is without attempting to import all the elements that implicitly make those connections for us. That’s what separates a show like RWBY from a show like LoK. 

And that makes all the difference.

The majority of the databasing in Pacific Rim is taken directly from mecha anime, rather than incorporated from pre-existing Western databases.

The majority of the databasing in Pacific Rim is taken directly from mecha anime, rather than incorporated from pre-existing Western databases.

Furthermore, if we’re going off of Froggykun’s idea that a show succeeds based on how much fan input it encourages (see link above), I’d say that RWBY has done a fantastic job so far, at least for me. Given the extreme brevity of each episode and the short length of the series, it has already made me want to contribute. In other words, ~ 30 minutes of screentime have already given me the wiki-reading, character-shipping, fanfiction-writing, and forum-discussing urges that I most often associate with anime. To me, that’s a monumental success.

Too true.

Too true.

Given all this gushing about the database and cool influences though, my feelings and opinions about the show are quite a bit more ambivalent. Sure I admire it for what it’s done, but my personal enjoyment of the show is another matter entirely, much the same way I can say X show was clever but uninteresting or that Y show is “totally stupid” but awesome. First off, while the databasing stuff is cool to talk about, there’s one big problem – I actively dislike a good portion of the database elements employed, namely the tropes that make up the majority of the characters’ personalities. Jaune seems pathetic and wimpy. Ruby is annoying. Weiss seems  – to put it bluntly – like a complete bitch. And the voices they’ve picked to go along with the characters fit them really well…which, although normally would be a strength, in this case means the problem is accentuated.

(Let me stop here to note that the actual voice acting for the characters is superb. MFD agrees, pinning it to the “different, genuinely American patterning to the voice rhythm, intonation, and prosody.” This is something that dubs rarely get right, since the voice actors seem to be influenced by the voice patterning of the Japanese seiyuu that are associated with the genre, which is completely different from the related qualities in English.)

The only other main problem I have is the one I mentioned before: the fact that I feel like I’m watching RPG cutscenes. I originally talked about the JRPG databasing element as a strength of the show, but it serves as a double-edged sword, since I simultaneously see it as one of it’s biggest weaknesses. The cutscene-esque nature of the show makes me feel like I should be able to pick up a controller once the 5 minute episode is over and simply continue the story. But, of course, I can’t. And since I can’t, I get frustrated. This frustration is both good and bad. One the one hand, it fuels participatory fan culture and the desire to expand upon the RWBY canon, since the episodes themselves are so brief and there is so much more I want to explore. On the other…it’s plain frustrating! This frustration isn’t a necessary condition needed to fuel participatory fan culture – one look at the stuff surrounding Free! is enough to prove that point. I don’t feel (and don’t hear about many others feeling) frustrated every episode, and yet there still is a large participatory fan culture there. In addition to this, the cutscene-y feel makes it harder to take the show on the terms it seems to want to present itself on, since there are a lot of feelings associated with RPG cutscenes (most notably that they are used as transitions, capstone events, or killing time) that I doubt RWBY is actively trying to invoke.

My final comment is kind of unrelated to everything discussed above, but was something I immediately noticed upon watching RWBY: the boobs don’t really bounce. And it slightly bothers me. Sadly enough, it’s true – turns out I’m so used to seeing the “Gainax bounce” in all the anime I watch that I instantly notice when it is absent. It was kind of funny to realize that I picked up on that right away. Just goes to show anime has powerful and far-reaching effects, both for good and for ill (but most often really neither).

The boob thing is most prominent with Yang, since her character design seems to almost be made for that type of thing. But oh well. *shrug*

The boob thing is most prominent with Yang, since her character design seems to almost be made for that type of thing. But oh well. *shrug*

RB: Of course Josh takes issue with the fact that the boobs don’t bounce *shaking my head*. However, I think we both can agree that while RWBY is a novelty in the American market, it seems to be struggling in the process of getting on its own two feet. At this point, my feelings are definitely mixed and it’ll be interesting to see if I continue it. The fairytale references aren’t copious, but it does add an extra layer of understanding if the show continues the way that it has been going. If you do plan to watch this show, I would recommend checking out a few of the original Grimm’s fairytales just for some background (and because they’re awesome :D). I look forward to hearing what the general consensus is once (if) the show gains more of a following.

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6 responses to “RWBY: Fairy Tales, Databasing, and Western Anime

  1. I haven’t watched RWBY yet, but the idea that a Western animation could apply the Japanese otaku database (and if not that, something that feels very similar) sounds really exciting to me. I feel like this statement was key to your entire analysis:

    RWBY, however, is not trying to capture the feeling of anime – it instead tries to capture the essence of what anime fundamentally is without attempting to import all the elements that implicitly make those connections for us.

    That’s really significant, isn’t it? Because otherwise, you’re left wondering why the database sounds any different from something like TV Tropes – isn’t it just like any other trope-y story that just picks and uses tropes without caring too much for how it would work in a story?

    The difference is that otaku anime – and, by extension for this argument, RWBY – is that the database imports the whole character model rather than breaking it up into smaller traits and characteristics. And I feel like the context is deliberately ignored so that it can actively enforce this feeling of consuming from a database, rather than simply ripping off other stories.

    I’ve learned a lot from this. Guess I should watch RWBY now.

    • I think your comment sums up pretty much everything I was hoping someone would get out of this post :). I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on RWBY when you get around to it!

  2. I’m glad you wrote this post—it’s fantastic! I feel the same way you do, Josh, but I wouldn’t have known what to write, if it were me.

    Kinda surprising that my wandering thought about subverting the folk/fairy tale might actually be something the project is working with.

    I’m inclined to agree with Froggy’s comment, because the undermining of hierarchy *is* largely the essence of postmodern reading (kinda of a spectrum of “undermining, emphasizing the opposite, ignoring, etc.). Even Modernists emphasize a “new” take on art vs. not art (“life,” maybe), or a new view of dichotomy. “Successful” vs. “unsuccessful” X. And so on. Standards. “New narratives.”

    Postmodern thinking is far more equidistant, communal, or maybe more likely “anarchic.” It doesn’t pretend articulated dichotomies and structures don’t have their social effect, but rather questions their bases, and argues that all of them can be so questioned. You can declare something to be or frame something as art (like a toilet), and that sense of distortion or unsettling (your layman would probably describe it as confusion) *is* the gateway to grappling with the “work.” John Cage’s use of artistic frame in his 4’33 is awesome in large part for that reason.

    In that postmodern sense, RWBY’s a crazy success (everything that unsettles you in some way, intended or not, counts)—and more so, because people even like it for the more traditional reasons. I sure as hell don’t: like I told you, I shuddered and needed *constant* breaks as I went through the first three eps. Neither am I particularly fond of trying to make myself “be” a postmodern enthusiast. But I think you’ve astutely cast some lines into the past and future, giving us a vague picture of what its fate might be. A lot might (I think, will) repudiate it down the line, in terms of traditional values, but it’ll be hard to forget, because it’ll be a source of (postmodern-level) defamiliarization, art-making, and discussion. Someone is likely to want to do it “better” or “right.” And there you’ll probably have it.

    Ostranenie functions at a very tiny level, although Shklovsky as a Russian formalist (sort-of Modernist) wanted to focus on the big level (since fiction was nowhere as broad as it is now, and he wanted to make clear, obvious arguments). A lot of dum-dums have said that ostranenie is outdated because POSTMODERNISM. It’s silly to cling to that idea, though: even now, there are plenty of these macro-level instances. Lain was this, and so was Texhnolyze. Shinbo. And now we’ve got this in the west, past A:TLA. Limitlessness, man. Seriously.

    • Maybe I should’ve emphasized more RWBY as a postmodern success rather than automatically going to the database – more grounding that way. But yes – couldn’t agree more. Ostranenie and postmodernism really to me seem to go hand in hand, with one merely being some renaming and contextually shifted perceptions of the other. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what both are essentially saying.

  3. I think that the show is AMAZING. The soundtrack, the plot, and the characters. I’ve heard lots of people complain about the “magic” in the show. The “magic” comes from Dust, that’s actually what Dust is. Energy. Without Dust, there cannot be the “magical” elements and “powers” in the show. Notice how Weiss’ rapier uses the most dust in the show? She’s the most involved with dust, so this influenced her weapon. I’ve also heard many people talk about how bad the animation is, and yes I even get frustrated sometimes about the lengths of the shows. First off, have you noticed how many people are actually working on RWBY? Not many, that’s for sure! For the amount of employees they have, the amount of time they have, and the other shows they have deadlines for, I think they have done a wonderful job.

    • Thanks for the comment SnowRosee! It’s good to get a fan’s perspective on the show. I’m currently a bit behind on the episodes, but I’ll try to catch up soon–shouldn’t be difficult considering how short they are. I’m not sure if I’m definitely as passionate about the show as you are, but it definitely has positive and refreshing qualities :).

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