Hey… You ever wonder why we’re here?
Well, I don’t because I happen to know that we’re here to talk about Rooster Teeth, the online production company that’s been putting out entertainment media for almost fifteen years now. It started off with some scripted shenanigans in Halo, utilizing a letterboxing effect and a fledgling technique called machinima, and has since expanded into a small media empire so successful that retail chains have been clamoring to carry their merchandise(which a few of them, like hot topic and select FYEs now do). There’s been a lot of outside influence on their storytelling and general writing styles, and as such, they’ve carried a lot of video game and pop culture references in their more popular titles, but what I find vastly more interesting is their penchant for anime references, which largely began with the hiring of the late Monty Oum. Today, we’re going to run through the ones that I’m personally aware of. Cuddle up next to your alien son, slather on some elbow grease, and quit monkeying about as we take a look at the anime references in Rooster Teeth!
While there are a lot of titles under their belt, we’re going to be sticking mostly to RWBY, since Red Vs. Blue is mostly full of video game references, and X-Ray and Vav is too awful for me to watch more than one episode. RWBY, on the other hand, is clearly designed to be as much like an anime as possible, so it makes sense that it would borrow heavily from the medium. It even has it’s own Chibi spin-off, which, to it’s credit, was funny about one tenth of the time.
Starting off with the concept and plot of the series, it really feels like a mix of Naruto and Soul Eater. The series features dozens of unique teenage characters cohabiting at a school that’s going to teach them how to grow up to be warriors, and like Soul Eater, it’s extremely vague on what the students are actually learning. The student/weapon dynamic is heavily emphasized, although in RWBY the weapons can’t turn into people, which is going to make Ruby vs. Maka into one hell of an unfair fight if it ever happens, and the students are basically learning how to use their individual skills to battle and destroy demonic creatures. This is all very similar to Soul Eater, but then the Naruto elements come in… The students are paired up in groups, they’re forced to complete a mission in a dangerous forest early on, and a major plot point revolves around a fighting tournament that gets sabotaged by foreign competitors, causing irreparable damage to the school, including the death of the principal/Hokage, and one character from the main group runs away afterwards, splitting up the team and breaking up a popular same-sex fan pairing(Sasuke/Naruto, Blake/Yang.)
So yeah, it’s Soul Eater meets Naruto, and that even extends to the main character, who’s based on Maka Albarn. She’s a spunky, socially awkward scythe-weilder, although their personalities are way different. Weiss isn’t visually based on any existing characters that I know of, although her personality type is reminiscent of the age old Tsundere archetype, and Blake is a catgirl, because whenever Americans try their hand at creating anime, there has to be a cat girl. Yang’s influence is a little more on the nose, as her ability to absorb damage and grow stronger from it is taken directly from Dragonball, and hell, even her theme song makes mention of her being a Super saiyan. Ruby’s dog Zwei, introduced in volume two, is such an obvious reference to Cowboy Bebop that in addition to being the same breed as the best dog in anime history, he even follows the same naming convention. Ein is German for 1, and Zwei is German for 2, a fact that’s clearly not lost on Rooster Teeth. I’m also reasonably sure Boarbatusks are based on Pokemon’s Donphan, and Yugioh and Samurai Champloo also get a couple of amusing nods.
A few of my favorite examples occur in volume 3. Right off the bat, Ruby visits the grave of her mother, which is situated at the edge of a cliff. While this isn’t an absurdly common occurrence in anime, there are plenty of examples of anime characters being buried at the edge of a cliff, with two quick examples being Battle Athletes Victory and Akame Ga Kill. Towards the end of the volume, there’s a pretty intricate reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion thrown into the mix. After Ruby fails to save her friend Pyrrha’s life, and happens upon the scene at the last possible minute, she goes presumably berserk, losing control of herself and blacking out, only to wake up in bed a few days later wondering what she did. The only way this particular scene could be any clearer about it’s origins is if she woke up saying “An unfamiliar ceiling…” But if you’re looking for an even bigger Evangelion reference, look no further than Red vs. blue, or more specifically, the Project Freelancer storyline, which ripped it off pretty much wholesale.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… It’s a story arc about spartan warriors fighting for a super secret organization that wants to steal artifacts and create artificial intelligence for them to weird. What could that have to do with Evas battling Angels? Well, just take a look at the who’s guy running the operation. Director Leonard Church is an older man with a cold heart who’s motivated by the possibility of being reunited with his deceased lover. He treats his subordinates like commodities, ranking them by ability and putting them through the risk of
emotional and mental torture by pairing them up with artificially created humanoid beings. He creates a soldier from his wife, whether it’s a literal clone or a robot controlled by an AI, and one of his soldiers is his own child, who joined to gain his approval, and is now competing with their own mother, who is just as clueless about what she is as their pseudo-child. Oh, and did I mention that Church is operating against orders from higher up, and has them constantly breathing down his neck about the ethics of his actions, as well as who’s benefit it’s serving?
This plot synopsis is so close to Evangelion that I’m honestly starting to get a bit of a stalker vibe from it, and I’m sorry, this isn’t just a reference anymore. References are meant to be noticed and appreciated. This Evangelion connection, along with the Soul Eater/Naruto plot of RWBY, the cliff thing and the Evangelion ending of volume 3, aren’t references. They’re rip-offs. They’re ideas that were straight up stolen from other works and put to use by Rooster Teeth. But is that a bad thing? It’s hard not to think about once you’ve started noticing it, but still, you could argue that most of these thefts made the product better, so do the ends justify the means?
Oscar Wilde once said that Talent Borrows and Genius Steals, but that doesn’t always feel like the case. There are plenty of anime titles that stole ideas from other anime, and wound up feeling all the worse for it. Take Sword Art Online, for example. I alluded to this in my review of the series, but for a refresher, Kirito is a lone, wandering mercenary who’s earned the name The black Swordsman for being generally superior to everyone he fights, and he fights alone because of a traumatic experience from his past. He loses a fight against a faction leader and winds up joining that faction, has to win the second fight to earn his freedom, and oh yeah, that leader turns out to be a massive villain. At different points, he falls in love with a female rival, obtains a fairy companion, and is pinned down in great pain while he’s forced to watch his love interest get sexually assaulted in front of him. The timeline’s a bit skewed, but he’s basically a scrawny version of Guts from Berserk, which brings about an inevitable and not too kind comparison between the two shows.
A lot of Harem anime not only recycle character archetypes, but sometimes steal entire characters wholesale from other anime. Taking the bafflingly popular Haganai for example, the main character is a nice guy with a mean face that’s garnered him a bad reputation(Toradora), and he unintentionally inspires a socially awkward girl he forgot he knew in the past to start her own club to meet weird people(Haruhi Suzumiya) which is joined by a scientist who’s lost all sexual inhibitions(Tenchi), a popular blonde girl who’s perfection is a hard-earned front for her true personality(Kare Kano), an offensive transgender stereotype(Don’t get me started), a loli little sister who cosplays(can they be more transparent?) and an even younger loli who dresses like a nun(How’s it going, Index?), and the whole thing just reeks of laziness. That’s still better than Maken-Ki, which stole two characters from Lover Hina just to reverse their ages and give them weird powers.
Guilty Crown… Oh boy, have I been waiting to talk about this turkey… Is very much an imagining of what would happen if CC had given a Geass power to Shinji Ikari instead of Lelouche, and yeah, it’s basically a marriage of Code Geass and Evangelion, with just a sprinkling of Eureka Seven on a few of it’s elements/characters, most notably it’s cringey love triangle sub-plot. I won’t go into just how much of it’s premise is ripped directly from Geass… Check out Glass Reflection’s review of the series for the main break down… But I was floored by how many events from the story seemed like they were taken from Evangelion for no reason other than to advance the plot. Spineless main character gets pushed around as a member of a rebellious organization? Check. Comes home one day to find a female member has abruptly moved in with him? Check. Even Gendo and Fuyuki’s backstory gets ripped off at one point, and the phenomenon of people getting turned into orange goo in the End of Eva movie is replaced by rock candy here! It’s like a middle schooler tried to combine these titles, but had no idea how to fit them together!
Now, having said all that, you might think I consider stealing from anime to be a cardinal sin, but on the contrary, there have been some great examples of shows putting their thefts to good use. Just over a year ago, I praised the 2013 iteration of Rozen Maiden for stealing ideas from Chobits, adding a new level of depth and maturity to what was previously a silly fantasy show about dolls fighting each other. Yuki Yuna is a Hero stole a bunch of ideas and plot points from Madoka Magika, and while the series as a whole was dumber than a box of dildos, it still wound up being incredibly likeable and fun to watch, with characters I actually cared about. I talked about how much Panty and Stocking stole from Excel Saga in my review a few years ago, and while it’s not one of my favorite anime, I do have to give it credit for how unique, and hell, even artistic it was. Bleach stole a lot from Yuyu Hakusho, even more than most shonen action series already do, and for the first few seasons, I actually wound up liking it better than Yuyu.
And if you want another example of a series that stole it’s central plot from Evangelion, I’ll point you in the direction of one of the most popular and well known anime to come out since Naruto, Attack on Titan. In this title, giant humanoid creatures are appearing out of nowhere with little explanation, and with the apparent intent of ending humanity, which is already on the brink of extinction. We get pushed right to the edge, and are battling for survival, with our only hope for defense being a series of underaged warriors who’ve been specifically trained to deal with the threat. The main character watched his mother die before the current timeline, his father is connected to the threat in a confusing and mysterious way, and when he goes giant to battle said creatures, he does so while he’s located in the back of his own giant’s neck. Get it? The dummy plug? The neck is a weak spot? How have people not noticed this?! And there’s also Battle Athlete’s victory. In my review of Gunbuster, I talked about how BAV stole the concept of it’s first episode and expanded it into a full story arc, that realized the full potential and unreached depths of the themes that Gunbuster had been taking for granted.
So why are some anime rip-offs bad, but others good? What’s the difference between all of these titles? Well, for one thing, when it comes to the bad examples, the things that are stolen are a lot more blatant. Outside of the things he stole from Guts, Kirito doesn’t have much going for him aside from being a chick magnet. The scenes that Guilty Crown stole aren’t camouflaged at all, they were just copied and pasted with the names and details changed. The harem titles I mentioned, as well as most of the ones I didn’t mention, feel like what was stolen was just lazily taken so that they could fill in holes in the product without putting too much work into it. Actually, that’s what all the examples feel like… They didn’t do anything interesting or thoughtful to the ideas or themes they took, they just threw them in so they could avoid having to write out characters and scenarios for themselves. It’s like getting writers block, and just taking something that they didn’t think of out of desperation… Or just taking archetypes and characters that are popular and successful in order to leech off of the previous incarnations.
In the examples that I gave of positive rip-offs, the exact opposite is true. Panty and Stocking, Yuki Yuna, Bleach, Attack on Titan and Battle Athletes Victory weren’t blatant about what they took… Okay, maybe BAV gave away a few too many clues… But they didn’t do it for lazy purposes. They took the most basic of templates from the previous series, and used them as the foundations that they’d build upon and branch out from, forming their own identities and paths from there. As a matter of fact, the latter two actually kind of improved on the shows they stole from! It’s kind of like Family Guy; Yeah, they ripped off the Simpsons, but they took what they stole in such a different direction that you can hardly call them the same product. BTW, that’s pretty much the only good thing you can say about Family Guy these days. In any case, while Rozen Maiden Zuruckspulen didn’t steal an entire template like the others I mentioned, it did manage to use the ideas it took from Chobits respectfully, and with well defined purpose.
I know my main question was whether Rooster Teeth stole too much, but I don’t really think that’s the issue. It doesn’t matter how much you steal, or even WHAT you steal… What matters is what you do with it. Between the titles I mentioned earlier, what side of the coin does Rooster Teeth fall on? In my opinion, it falls into the second slot. Even in it’s worst season, RWBY’s use of Naruto and Soul Eater in it’s plot was one of it’s greatest aspects, especially since it managed to tie together a flowing narrative out of two very different shows. Ruby is nothing like Maka, Weiss’s tsundere beginning lead to some great development, Blake being a catgirl is a huge part of her personality and arc, and when you really look at Yang’s powers, they don’t really work in the same way Saiyan powers work. Putting a damper on things, however, is the dog, who could have been written out of the series entirely, and feels like he was only added in for the sake of being a reference, and to ‘casually’ remind the viewer that the writers do, in fact, watch and enjoy anime. Seriously, Zwei sucks.
The opening scene of volume 3, with Ruby visiting her mother’s cliff-grave, is quite possibly the best moment in the series. In addition to providing a nice, emotionally satisfying tribute to the recently departed Monty Oum, it gives Ruby a sense of vulnerability and relatability that she’d been sorely missing up until then, which makes her displays of courage and strength in the latter half of the volume feel so, so much more emotionally resonant. She feels more like a main character by the end of the volume, especially after she survives her little Evangelion climax moment, which just makes you want to learn more about her as a character. And yes, the Evangelion plot that Red vs. Blue stole was a HUGE improvement over Evangelion, and not just because Tex and Carolina are way more awesome than Rei and Shinji. It also elevated the series to brand new heights in terms of plot and enriching the lore at the same time.
So in conclusion, Oscar Wilde was right, but… Just not all the time. It’s entirely possible for an unoriginal anime to feel like a cheap imitation, but at the same time, it’s also possible for the anime in question to ultimately surpass the material that it’s ideas came from, or for it to just reimagine, subvert or deconstruct those ideas and breathe new life into them. Harkening back to Red vs. Blue, remember it’s opening joke? “You ever wonder why we’re here?” That was stolen from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life, and yet Red vs. Blue ironically gave it a meaning and life of it’s own. That’s because Rooster Teeth, for it’s many failings, has always been really good at this.
Well, for the most part.
Screw that dog.