RWBY is an anime-inspired science fantasy action-adventure series, using computer animation, which has run for eight seasons, known as “volumes”. Originally created by animator and writer Monty Oum, in 2013, and continued after his death in 2015, RWBY is the flagship series of Rooster Teeth, a digital media company and subdivision of Warner Bros. Discovery. As a warning, this review will discuss death, suicide, blood, torture, animal death, physical (and emotional) abuse, and other related themes.
Reprinted from Pop Culture Maniacs and Wayback Machine. This was the thirty-first article I wrote for Pop Culture Maniacs. This post was originally published on April 26, 2023.
This young adult animated series primarily centers on the four primary protagonists: Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long, with the series name deriving from their forenames. Set in a fictional world named Remnant, these characters, and others, train to become warriors (huntresses or huntsmen), so they can save the world from monsters known as Grimm, which are driven by fear and dedicated to destroying humanity.
Apart from the aforementioned protagonists, others, such as Ozma/Ozpin/Oscar Pine, Lie Ren, Nora Valkyrie, Qrow Branwen, Robyn Hill, and Jaune Arc, help them fight against evil forces. Uniquely, the series has theme songs, primarily by Casey Lee Williams, at the beginning of each volume, which foreshadows what will happen, making the show unique in its own way.
The show’s ninth volume is unlike the previous volumes, which had a classic conflict between good vs. evil, intricate story telling, horror elements, and character development. That is because the protagonists are stranded in a magical land known as the Ever After. Even so, they retain a semblance which allows them to have superpowers-of-sorts, so they can either manipulate objects, disorient people, use super strength, or have other abilities.
Morally grey characters are inherent to RWBY, including the Ace Ops or General James Ironwood. In contrast, Cinder Fall breaks from the strict dictates of her leader, Salem. The latter, and her enforcers, are determined to do anything to achieve their goals, even engaging in human experimentation. This interlinks with the blood, gore, and death of some characters.
The series’ large focus on sci-fi and magic elements goes beyond characters like Penny Polendina (voiced by Taylor “Pelto” McNee), a cyborg girl, and scrolls which record and receive messages. Arguably, in this volume, the series has received a “directional reset” and ended on a strong note, even setting up a possible volume 10.
One of the most controversial parts of RWBY, up to the current volume, has been its LGBTQ representation. There have been lesbian couples, like Saphron and Terra-Arc, and lesbian characters who have crushes on the protagonists, as is the case for Ilia Amitola (voiced by Cherami Leigh). This was strengthened by the role of May Marigold, the first trans character in the series, in Volume 8. She was voiced by trans female voice actress, Kdin Jenzen. She did not appear in Volume 9 and Jenzen has been critical of the company’s practices. This volume is the last one that Jenzen will be working on, as she was reportedly laid off from the company.
Some fans have held out hope that the Bumbleby ship (Blake and Yang) would become canon, especially after Arryn Zech, Blake’s voice actress, confirmed her character as bisexual in May 2020. This came to pass in this volume and there have been hints of other possible romantic ships, which I’ll discuss later in this review.
One of the strengths of this series is its visuals, which have improved dramatically from the first volume, and its voice actors. Furthermore, although the fandom of this series can be toxic, the show’s fans have come up with colorful ship names. This includes femslash ones, such as Baked Alaska (Yang and Neopolitan), Blood Mint (Ruby and Emerald Sustrai), Freezerburn (Yang and Weiss), Ladybug (Ruby and Blake), and White Rose (Ruby and Weiss), even though some of these are problematic.
The surreal nature of RWBY‘s ninth volume makes it fundamentally different from the canon-adjacent anime series, RWBY: Ice Queendom. The latter focused on Weiss Schnee, especially on how she needs to “unlearn her white supremacist thinking” and become a better person. There was a non-binary character named Shion Zaiden (voiced by Hiroki Nanami, and Jenzen in English). It was confirmed in an interview with the show’s staff and producers. Unfortunately, similar characters have yet to appear in RWBY, even though both series share fight scenes, strong visuals, and soundtrack.
RWBY is somewhat complicated by issues that Rooster Teeth has dealt with over the years. For one, actor Vic Mignogna, who voiced Qrow Branwen until Volume 6, was removed after accusations of sexual harassment. Ryan Haywood and Adam Kovic were either involved in scandals which related to their leaked nude photographs or grooming underage fans, in the case of Haywood. Furthermore, anonymous reviews focused on a negative crunch culture at Rooster Teeth, especially at their animation division, leading to the resignation of Gray Haddock (creator of gen:LOCK), head of this division, as a result.
Former hosts of Rooster Teeth programs stated that they received racist and sexist abuse from the audience. Jenzen argued that an upper manager engaged in transphobic and homophobic abuse. This was followed by other employees posting similar stories. In response, the company released statements arguing they were taking steps to improve the work culture, review pay parity, and even replace the entire Human Resources department, while reducing the number of shows being produced. These issues were compounded by the arrest of then-vice president of Rooster Teeth, Michael Quinn, for assaulting his wife, in November 2019.
In terms of RWBY itself, fans previously claimed that the show queerbaited after the death of a character in the show’s seventh season, believing that Qrow Brawnen and Clover Ebi were canon. In reality, the series never directly showed them together. The argument that Clover’s death is queerbaiting, is like saying Wednesday did the same by not making the friendship between Wednesday Addams and Enid Sinclair a romantic one, despite the false insistence of fans that it was canon. As such, it is no surprise that some see RWBY as a lost cause and not worth supporting.
From my perspective, I think that regardless of these issues, and the fact that Rooster Teeth seems to be a toxic work environment, RWBY still has value. This is because of the hard work of the animators and writers, known as CRWBY. In fact, I would argue that the latest volume is the strongest in the series up to this point and it has some of the best animation. Although some may balk at the show’s style, or even claim that the protagonist’s clothing constitutes fan service for the audience, the reality is that the show’s style makes it stand out, apart from any other action-adventure science fantasy.
Unlike previous volumes, the ninth volume premiered on Crunchyroll on February 18, as part of “a one-year exclusive release with Crunchyroll”, and it will then release on the Rooster Teeth website in 2024. This is a big deal because the series is primary show for Rooster Teeth and its streaming platform of the same name. So, it may portend the end or reduction of the platform.
Whether the worst for Rooster Teeth comes to a head, I’m not sure. It seems very likely that the show will receive a tenth volume, which may be the final season. I would be very surprised if RWBY is not renewed, as it has generated a lot of buzz, has generally strong ratings on Crunchyroll, and, undoubtedly, has thousands of people watching each episode.
The ninth volume of RWBY is captivating. Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang try and find themselves, and anything they have lost. There are new characters like a talking mouse named Little (voiced by Luci Christian), the Curious Cat (voiced by Robbie Daymond), which fulfills a specific role in a land which has many characteristics of Alice in Wonderland, and enemies such as the jabberwalkers (voiced by Richard Norman). Little later becomes Ruby’s emotional support animal of sorts.
I was further drawn into this volume by the story of Alyx, her brother Lewis, the Rusted Knight, and the Curious Cat. This was weaved together artfully, with the audience knowing as much as the characters about the real story as the series went forward. This included the revelation that Juane became the Rusted Knight and was reportedly betrayed by Alyx (voiced by Shara Kirby). He became trapped in the Ever After for over 40 years, causing him to become a “mature” older man, who has a steed named Juniper.
The volume interrogates Juane’s hero complex. It breaks down when the town of the Paper Pleasers is flooded (possibly mirroring what happened to Mantle in Volume 8) and he can save none of them. He admits as much in the seventh episode, saying he “not ok” or “right”. In some ways I see a parallel between Juane (voiced by Miles Luna) and General Ironwood (voiced by Jason Rose). Juane seems to be just as tired and angry at people, thinking he is “saving” people by making “hard choices”. Ironwood is different as be became an unhinged military dictator who turned against the protagonists.
Even more than any previous volume, this 10-episode volume of RWBY has a specific focus on Ruby. She begins a downward spiral, although her sister, Yang, repeatedly tries to ask her what is wrong, often to no avail. Understandably, she is further shaken when her friends are shrunk to miniature size. She begins to have so much self-doubt that she isn’t sure is a huntress/hero anymore.
This volume shows the extreme pressure Ruby is under as team leader, as she puts the needs of others ahead of her own. This is shown directly when she can’t even use her weapon, Crescent Rose, in the show’s seventh episode, after having flashbacks to traumatic events from the previous volumes. This is almost akin to the Steven Universe Future episode where Steven Universe tells his friend’s mother about all the childhood trauma he has experienced over his life time.
Getting back to RWBY, at the end of episode seven, Ruby has a breakdown, asking why she has to be the leader. She criticizes everyone else for not devoting time to solve her problems, for helping Juane’s “make-believe” friends, and seeming to disregard what she is going through. I thought it was interesting that none her teammates push her over the edge, but Juane, who has experienced as much trauma as her, ends up blaming her for everything that went wrong.
Although Juane has a valid point, it is wrong of him to put the blame on her entirely. In addition, Ruby’s plan in Volume 8, to use the staff of creation to create paths to evacuate citizens from Mantle to Vacuo, clearly opened them up to a lot of danger. But, its failure wasn’t entirely her fault. If Cinder hadn’t asked about Ruby’s plan, thanks to magic lamp, it might have been successful. Even so, they seemed to ignore the advice from the genie, in the staff of creation, who told them to “not fall”.
This reality mattered little to Ruby, who felt overwhelmed by everything, and fled, shocking the rest of her team. Having Ruby snap at her team in the ways she did was inevitable based on what has happened through the previous seasons. In fact, she was already under a lot of stress by the end of Volume 8 and almost lost her life multiple times over.
In watching this volume, I am reminded of the mental health struggles of Steven in Steven Universe Future and Steven Universe, and Julian Chase in the ever-problematic gen:LOCK. However, it is different for Ruby. In the eighth episode, she pushes away Little and faces Neopolitan, a mute villain-of-sorts in a mansion, with Neo bringing back ghosts of Ruby’s past to torture her. Through Roman Torchwick, Neo “says” that she will enjoy seeing Ruby break down.
At the end of the same episode, drinks a cup of tea, poured by Neo, with a leaf from the ever-powerful tree. She appears to end her own life, staring into the eyes of her sister, Yang, and feels that the world would be better without her. As this happens, her teammates remain in shock over what she did.
This serious tone of RWBY is only part of the show’s mature, and distressing themes. It is coupled with death, loss, destruction, and horrific creatures such as the Grimm, which are attracted to those who are afraid or scared. Although such beings don’t appear in this volume, the above scene is followed by the Curious Cat possessing Neo for his own ends. The devious cat sees Neo as an “empty host”, and the cat-as-Neo is a being which Weiss, Blake, Yang, and Jaune fight in the last two episodes of this volume.
How RWBY depicts suicide is fundamentally different from how it is depicted in the continually controversial gen:LOCK. The latter featured all of the characters killing themselves, then each becoming the equivalent of a swarm of locusts to defeat the enemy. In the case of Ruby, there are questions as to whether she ended her own life, or she only engaged a suicide attempt.
The final nail of Ruby’s descent into a dark place, Neo, is more than a villain. She is not completely heartless, even though she terrorized Ruby into the drinking the tea and killed Little with a twist of her heeled shoe. By the end of the volume, it is clear that she may have some form of redemption or will become an ally-of-sorts to the show’s heroes. Ruby even says that Neo will find herself, one way or another, as she falls back into the Ever After.
In terms of the tonal shifts in this volume of RWBY, they were not as well-executed as they could have been. At the same time, it should be remembered that a lot has happened in a short period of time, leaving Weiss, Blake, and Yang, especially after Ruby “ascends”, without much time to process to process everything. Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to say that Ruby’s teammates don’t care about her, as they clearly do, in more ways than one.
The volume was effective in connecting the previous volumes to this one, with an emphasis on the themes of self-acceptance and self-love. Ruby exemplifies this directly. She isn’t sure what choice she wants to make, even as those outside the tree, like Yang, Weiss, and Blake, accept whatever path Ruby wants to go down. At one point, Ruby thinks she might be doing more harm than good, looks at all of the possibilities in front of her, and grabs her mom’s weapon. In the end, she embraces herself. This isn’t as much change as some had been expecting, but it is a powerful message that you are enough, without a need to remake yourself.
The ever-present tree in this volume is shown to be a place of rebirth and rejuvenation, which does not simply resurrect and kill someone. Instead, ascension isn’t death, but it is change, and that is the role of the tree. This is connected with the theme of this volume that you should not condemn yourself for mistakes you make, but accept them and learn from them. In fact, when the Curious Cat, which is vulnerable after the tree’s leaves released him from Neo’s body, argues that humans are weak, confused, incomplete, and break everything they touch, Weiss, Yang, and Blake disagree, saying Ruby is none of those things.
The volume nine finale of RWBY was one of the best episodes, giving background, but tying up loose ends, even talking about how the Ever After was created. It brought together the aforementioned themes and it ends with the characters walking through the portal to a place they are needed most: Vacuo. It was a fitting end to the series, if this is the last episode ever produced.
There is more about of RWBY’s ninth volume, especially when it comes to LGBTQ representation, which put it on the map when it comes to all the representation in series this year. Episode 6, entitled “Confessions Within Cumulonimbus Clouds”, was written by Eddy Rivas, and directed by Kerry Shawcross and Yssa Badiola. The latter was known for her short-lived series, Recorded by Arizal.
This episode built upon previous interactions between Yang and Blake, with flirting or blushing at one another in this volume, and in previous volumes. Everyone is trapped in a Punderstorm, a literal and metaphorical crossroads, with individuals only able to get out if they either solve the problems or wait until the storm passes.
In one of the best-constructed and well-done queer romantic scenes I’ve seen in an animated series, Blake and Yang admit their feelings for each other, as the music swells, then kiss. Significantly, the characters almost express the feelings of the fandom, with Weiss and Ruby surprised to see them linking lips, while Juane says that it “feels like I’ve been waiting forever for that”. It is something which many fans of the Bumbleby ship had been waiting for.
While the scene was hinted in the volume 9 poster, it was no substitute for the scene, which excited fans over the canonization of Bumbleby, including on the show’s subreddit. Even the Bumbleby’s subreddit was exploding with new content. It could be said that the episode set a high standard for women-love-women romance.
It is only rivaled by the developing yuri story within the recently ended yuri isekai The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady, or the queer romance encapsulated within She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Dead End: Paranormal Park, Arcane, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Helluva Boss, Craig of the Creek, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and Steven Universe to name a few recent series with prominent representation.
The episode itself generated discussion from the show’s roundtable and even on All Good and No Worries, a Rooster Teeth show hosted by Barbara Dunkleman (voice of Yang), in an episode in which she talked with Arryn Zech (voice of Blake). In previous years, Zech and Dunkleman often hinted at this ship, stating their support for the ship, as did actor Kara Eberle (who voices Weiss).
The life of Zech somewhat mirrored her character, as she accused her ex-boyfriend, prominent actor Bob Morley, of verbal and emotional abuse, and said that Morley was furious when he learned that she was bisexual. Blake had been with an abusive ex-boyfriend of her own named Adam Taurus, who wields a chokutō and a gun, and attempts to take over the White Fang, peaceful organization originally aimed at improving conditions for the Faunus, a group of people with animal traits.
In the penultimate season six episode, “Seeing Red”, Blake and Yang kill Adam together, and touch their foreheads, which some see as a sign of romantic affection. Blake is also a bisexual character, like Zech is real life. In addition, during the discussion with Zech, Dunkleman admitted she is “not fully straight”, but is “for the most part…fairly straight”, while Zech talked about the struggles of dating as a bisexual woman.
It is clear that the romantic relationship between Blake and Yang was always planned, despite brutal shipping wars claiming otherwise. The canon nature of Bumbleby flies against those claiming the show’s crew was queerbaiting. In fact, some made similar claims about the slow build-up of the romance between Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, whose relationship, known as Bubbline by fans, was canonized in the series finale “Come Along with Me”. It is not known if the CRWBY would ever an hour-long episode about Bumbleby, akin to the Adventure Time: Distant Lands episode “Obsidian”, which almost exclusively focused on Bubbline, but would be great if that occurred.
The episode six scene was reinforced in other episodes: Blake and Yang fight together in tag team style, Yang protects Blake at one point, or Ruby sarcastically says she is “happy” for Blake and Yang getting their “feelings sorted out” when she has her breakdown at the end of episode seven. More powerfully, in the final episode, Blake and Yang walk through the portal door back to Vacuo holding hands just like Korra and Asami Sato in the Legend of Korra series finale.
Blake and Yang are not alone. There are various indications what Weiss may have a crush on Juane, in a ship known as Whiteknight, with Weiss laughing when Juane is surprised by his own voice in the final episode. In addition, some fans saw hints of romantic themes between Weiss and Rose, known as White Rose. Others claimed there was confirmation that Nuts and Dolts, the ship name of Penny Poledina and Ruby, is canon. As the Blacksmith/Tree (voiced by Kimlinh Tran) says in the final episode, real balance comes from love and patience to see things through. That is the case for any of these ships.
As it turns out, not only is Zech openly bisexual, as noted earlier, as mentioned at various conventions over the years, but so is Lindsay Jones, who voices Ruby, as she stated in July 2018. Additionally, Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent, identifies as non-binary, asexual, and as a demigirl. Otherwise, it was a bit funny to witness those on social media shipping Summer Rose (mother of Ruby) and Raven Brawnwen (mother of Yang), known as Rosebird, after a scene of them together in the final episode. Some even believed that both characters were in a romantic relationship at some point.
All in all, the story of RWBY Volume 9 could have been significantly improved if the volume had at least four more episodes, the length of Volume 8. Even so, the average run-time of the episodes was only slightly less than those in the previous volume. Possibly due to budgeting, many of the episodes seemed relatively short. Even worse, they have no subtitles because Crunchyroll incorrectly described them as “dubbed”. Hopefully the latter is fixed soon and subtitles are added. On the other hand, the show’s music remained strong thanks to the talents of vocalist and songwriter Casey Lee Williams, and others such as Martin Gonzalez.
Williams’ music, and that of others, meshes well with the show’s emphasis on horror. This includes terrifying creatures, actions of Neo, or the antics of the Curious Cat, when he turns on them, takes over Neo for its own ends, and is murdered in the final episode.
There are many possible avenues for RWBY Volume 10, which seems somewhat confirmed. If the volume does come to pass, there will be the return of those who never used the pathways to Vacuo, or fell into the Ever After. This includes Winter, Ren, Oscar, Salem, Cinder, Qrow, Robin, and some of the Ace Ops. As such, there will undoubtedly be reunions between the characters the volume, which may be the final volume of RWBY as a whole.
Although RWBY is not perfect, and could be improved, including with the addition of more Black and Brown characters, it stands out as a strong series for young adults. It comes at a time that many series, especially those produced and aired on Disney channels, are produced to entertain children. Hopefully, other mature animations such as Arcane, Invincible, Helluva Boss, and Hazbin Hotel, to name four prominent series, fill the void left after the end of RWBY‘s ninth volume.
The series will not be in a hiatus as Justice League x RWBY: Super Heroes and Huntsmen, Part 1 will be available on various platforms after April 25th. It will be followed by a second part this summer. I look forward to watching both films and highly recommend RWBY for the reasons mentioned in this review.
The ninth volume of RWBY is streaming on Crunchyroll, while previous seasons are on Rooster Teeth and Crunchyroll, and are available for purchase or rent on YouTube Movies.
© 2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.