Friday, 19 September 2014

Things I want to like - RWBY, Pt. 2

The Magical School

From the moment Ruby rocks up at Beacon Academy it is clear that we are dealing with a magical school drama. The narrative job is this setting is to create both a magical and mysterious world routed soundly in a relateable coming-of-age story. We get an idealised high school experience to live out like a childhood we never had, and a magical world to explore.

The eponymous example, of course, is Harry Potter, and one of the weirder things that I took away from RWBY is just how many things that JK Rowling did well. Let me break it down for you:
  • Visually, both Beacon Academy and the surrounding area are bland. Compare to Hogwarts:

  • In connection, with the last point Beacon Academy more generally lacks character in other ways. Whilst Hogwarts makes it clear what the structure of the school is, Beacon Academy is way fuzzier.
    • Hogwarts has a house system and each class is dedicated to different parts of wizarding as a practise or the wizarding society. There are older years and lots of different pupils and a sense of scale. It feels like it has proper structure. It's a place where people could function like normal human beings, but it's also steeped in all the things that make it a fantastical and mysterious place to us.
    • Beacon Academy suffers somewhat for the lack of structure of the world around them - as discussed earlier, the world outside of Beacon lacks definition and the relationship it has with Dust and Hunters are is very ambiguous. The internal culture of Beacon is similarly lacking. 
  • School, surely, equals coming of age drama. This further reinforces what was said in part one.


If there’s one crime of narrative that really needlessly makes a story or character boring, it’s poorly chosen en-media-res. For many of the most important character points in RWBY, we only learn about character flaws or conflicts when their particular storylines are ready to be resolved.

It’s based on the idea that you can pull the rug from under the audience’s feet, the idea that a revelation can force you to re-evaluate a character that you had already made an opinion about. This is done with a little more consideration, as will be discussed in the next section, with Jaune, but it’s also used in the final storyline with both Blake and Weiss.

The problem is most specifically demonstrated with Blake – before the “revelation” – was that she was ostensensibly a one note character. She was withdrawn and quiet. That was more or less all we had seen of her so far, a minor conflict with the very loud and outgoing Yang aside. When the series finale rolls around, it is revealed that Blake has links to the evil terrorist group – she is, in fact, the same species that the terrorist group is standing up for.

(Whether or not this was a twist is unclear – it’s played off like one, but at the same time it is something that I had already assumed was the case. Were we meant to know to begin with? It’s unclear.)

Blake’s quietness is more interesting in the context of a tragic backstory – and as such it weakens her character for us not to know this from the start. She has no conflict, she’s not going anywhere characterisation-wise: if the twist itself really has no impact as a twist (it only really has impact if it somehow contradicts our impression pre-twist) all that has been achieved is that the story has been hidden from us really.

Character conflict solved offscreen

In the finale, the major conflict between Weiss and Blake is resolved because Weiss thought about it whilst not on-screen. Not really sure I need to say anything else about that really.

Jaune: the Actual Protagonist

Jaune is the main male presence in the series, and a counterpoint to Ruby. What makes him such a destabilising presence for the series at large is the fact that he matches the bildungsroman structure so well. He's the only character with flaws, and he's surrounded by women like he's in a harem anime. He's appointed a leader without heroic qualities, yet that actually becomes the one decent point of character conflict in series one.

The crux of his development comes later on in the series, when it is revealed that Jaune failed his test to get into the school. He really isn't there on merit, but rather he has to earn his merit through team work and effort. This is a character arc, and this is good characterisation. What's more, Jaune's secret is revealed to a bully who then forces him to act in a manner that forces him to work against his friends.

In the end Jaune overcomes those difficulties and ends up rising above what the bully did to him - his development comes a bit early, maybe, but it is far more than any of the other characters get. And, to be honest, it feels weird that we're talking about a show advertised to be about women kicking ass, yet it is the one major male character who really ends up feeling like the real character.

Format Limitations

The short length of each episode does to a certain extent hamstring the narrative - on this point I have to sympathise with the writers - so they have to communicate characterisation, conflict and resolution in as economical a way as possible. The writers themselves seem to recognise and structure their episodes accordingly - necessary, but ultimately maybe suggests that the episodic and multi-char focus really isn't suitable for what the series is trying to achieve. Starting with a smaller cast (maybe of four?) and making one series a continuous story line might have made more sense.

Pedantry Really

Why do they pronounce Weiss, a German name, with a soft ‘w’? It should be more akin to ‘v’. This just doesn’t stop bothering me. 

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