If you’re not familiar with the term Rooster Teeth, well, congratulations on not being as tragically online as I have been for the past twenty years. First rising to prominence through the machinima web series Red Vs Blue, a 2003 comedy series told through the medium of the limited waggly animations of Halo characters in a multiplayer map, Rooster Teeth followed up on that success with a lot of minor projects, including animation work for a bunch of other people. They then went on to create the fanfic oroborous that is RWBY, a show I tried and wasn’t fantastically impressed with, but also seemed largely harmless. At the time I watched it, I said:
here is a show where you, girl born in 1995, get to be a main character superhero with a sick ass scythe gun.
Knowing this, I had no strong positive opinion on Rooster Teeth as a company. They were a sliver of 2003 humour that, yes, is undeniably part of my personal lexicon — which tastes like red bull. Which is disgusting — but I didn’t imagine that they were particularly important creators.
A friend mentioned hey, you should check out Gen:Lock. I think you’d like it.
And, because I was a little dubious about that, I didn’t check it out for two years. And it turns out that that friend knows me way, way better than I’m used to being known, ‘cos this year, on a lark, I watched Gen: Lock and then I became mildly insufferable as I tried to find an awake friend who had also watched it so I could talk to them about it.
This is gunna feature some broad ‘spoilers’ but nothing I feel is a big deal. This isn’t really a series about The Mystery, this is a series about the moment.
Alright, bam, holy crap, have you seen Gen:Lock? It’s a kind of machinima style cartoon, about a sort of utopia-vs-dystopia world, where a fascist autocratic dictatorship with meat-eating hate smoke known as the Union is trying to conquer what remains of Everyone Who Isn’t Part Of The Union in a society known as the Polity. This is done through the development of super sweet mecha piloted by a tiny number of potential pilots capable of undergoing a process called ‘gen:lock.’
Oh, and by the way, it’s a One Must Fall story! Like, the whole principle behind the mecha — Holons, in the world — is that pilots are uploading their consciousness into the giant robot so they can have superior control and reaction time for big, ridiculous mecha monsters. That gives you a reason for why you have this tiny misfit crew of younger (and therefore less calcified, less static) characters with odd personalities, because hey, it’s not that only a chosen few can do this, it’s not destiny, it’s that in the randomness of human DNA, there are N people who can do this, and of those, Y are too old, and Z are too young and X aren’t available for us to train? And I really like that, I like how the conceit creates a limited space but not the way they normally do those things?
Plus the idea that you’re uploading your mind out of your body and that can fuck you up creates a new tension that becomes part of the combat and action scenes. If the Holons are on the battlefield, they smash things apart because they outclass almost everything. But they have to arrange themselves against armies and like, battleships and really big things that can handle lots of problems, and then the question becomes how much time they can last on the battlefield.
Also, the Holons are all linked into a ‘network’ of communication so those characters can talk on the battlefield despite, being as they’re so hecking big. And that carries over in other spaces as well so these characters can hook their minds together and learn about one another through the process of fighting in battle. And that means you get cool things like seeing things in the inner life of characters (which gives room to start conversations about things like gender and childhood that you wouldn’t necessarily normally do).
Oh and you know how they represent pushing your limits? It’s depicted as the characters dancing in the mental space between one another; cutting between the rhythm of combat and the rhythm of the dance, showing people working in synchrony through the medium of music and dance, something that I first saw in Evangelion and like, there are worse things to do than wear that influence on your sleeve.
Oh and the characters.
The voice acting crew for this series is stacked. It starts with Michael B Jordan, in 2019, who plays Julian Chase. Chase is the central protagonist whose story you follow, a pilot flyboy who spends his life dedicated to an expression of freedom that then has to be at odds with one of the most brutal forms of helplessness you can imagine. And like, yeah, the dude is really good at this, it’s an emotionally varied role, it requires him to have some rhythm and enthusiasm and he does such a great job at it. Chase is great, and fine, and there are questions about legitimacy and identity at the heart of his story and how he chooses to think of himself. That’s rad.
But like, who else is here? You have David Tennant, somehow overwhelming my utter distaste for his work as a Kooky Scientist. You may recognise Golshifteh Farahani, who is an actually exiled Iranian actress, playing Yasamin ‘Yaz’ Madrani, a badass hardknuckle Holon pilot who’s got this mix of outsider and stubborn rules-follower. There’s also Dakota Fanning, and yes, the stereotypical cloud of Rooster Teeth folks like Chad James (a name I’m reasonably sure is fake).
But then in the cast, you have Monica Rial, playing an older woman. You recognise her name? She’s the dub voice of Bulma from DBZ, Maya from Evangelion, Hyatt from Excel Saga, Reimi from Bamboo Blade, Sakura Kinomoto in Cardcaptor Sakura, and… a lot of other voices like that, squeaky high-pitched girly voices. In this? She’s playing an Colonel Raquel Marin, an older serious general type who’s basically trying to give this brigade of weirdos some boundaries. She’s an actress who I’m normally used to sounding like a pony on helium, showing range I don’t normally get to see. That’s great.
Maisie Williams plays Cammie MacCloud, a foul-mouthed Scottish bunnygirl hacker who I swear to christ could be so intolerable but I love her to bits. There’s this bit in the … second? Third? Episode? Where she makes a serious line that’s a setup for a joke, and the joke then gets a response, and the response gets a response and I’m left cackling. Just really endearing stuff. Then you see through the story, how she handles things like having control of herself and independence (and very much not having control of herself and independence). The character shows a lot of range and the actress pulls it of excellently. Plus, I dunno, I may just be a huge fan of Maisie Williams’ work in animation in general.
Asia Kate Dillon is here; remember them? I talked about them in my piece on John Wick: Para Bellum. They’re here playing Valentina Romanyszyn, or Val, depending on where she is. She (or he) is a gender-fluid pilot of what I can only describe as a mecha ninja? It’s so freaking cool and the character is – well, the character is really true to a number of my friends who are gender fluid and have that same relationship to expression as conception, and playful performance of same.
Then there’s Kazu.
Okay, so look, Kazu is a great character, in this sort of bluff ‘what the fuck?’ kind of way. He’s seemingly the oldest of the group; he’s disinclined to put up with nonsense, and is willing to walk away from things he thinks are failing. But when he’s fighting, he’s aggressively melee focused, wanting results immediately; it’s a problem he has, where as he doesn’t fly, he’s commonly fighting by wading through enemies, and that’s cool. Also, in this group, he’s the one most likely to be resistant to things like being nice and emotional, but he’s also shown doing things like preparing food (for himself) and opening up (by sharing it). I really like the kind of character Kazu is – a failure with a monster waiting inside to be found. And when he trusts his friends, he becomes something amazing.
He looks good, too? In a way I’m not used to masc men looking in cartoons? I wouldn’t say he’s my type (I’m really not into facial hair), but it’s pretty clear that someone who actually likes dudes got involved in making sure he looked hot. They had to make a special model for Kazu’s character to make sure that they modelled him with an appropriately amazing ass.
And now, as far as the voice talent goes… uh. Here’s the thing: Kazu speaks Japanese. Just Japanese. In universe, people are translating what he says, and there are some problems with that (of course), but that means they need an actor who speaks Japanese fluently.
And they got Kôichi Yamadera.
They got the man, Kôichi Yamadera.
Oh okay, so you’re not a massive dork. Okay, okay okay. He’s a dub actor, for one; when a movie features Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, or Gary Oldman, the man who says those lines in Japanese – complete with learning the affect and position from those actors wherever he can – is Yamadera. So this guy is Leading Man Voice in a lot of dubbed western movies.
Yamadera is also an anime seiyuu, though. He’s been in the business for a long time, and his career stretches a long way. Who’s he been?
Ryouga Hibiki from Ranma 1/2.
Togusa from Ghost in the Shell.
Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop.
Inspector Zenigata from Lupin III.
Professor Layton from those games.
Ryoji Kaji from Evangelion.
He’s Donkey Kong for fuck’s sake.
This dude is a freaking institution.
Kazu is a great character, but finding out his voice actor put me on my ass. Which, I will note, is not an exquisitely modelled one.
But! I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find something I love that also made me sad. See, turns out that my impression of Rooster Teeth as a bunch of Extremely 2003 Online Nerdboys was pretty correct. At least, I hope that’s the nature of things, with a bunch of dudes who didn’t work in professional environments stumbling into accidentally running an animation studio having a ‘oopsy doopsy, guess we made an awful working environment fucky wucky that doesn’t respect workers‘ problem.
You know, one of the classic millenial blunders.
Don’t you hate it when your internet-fueled popular success derived from the positive opinions of a large audience making creative projects leads to you being in charge of a whole business that hires people and makes big cool projects, only for you to treat every one of your employees like they should be able to produce at the rate you did when you were working for free in your free time and were twenty years old?
It sucks! It sucks because this is a recurrent problem in our spaces: People who we form a fondness for because of stuff they made, who it turns out, make bad bosses, possibly because the nature of big business and monetising things you love has some fraught problems that represent a destructive system that’s meant to make you do bad things in the name of becoming a good component of it.
I like Gen:Lock but I don’t like that it’s being made by hurting workers and that partially makes me feel okay about making damn sure I wait before I watch it.
In the end, I don’t think I’m going to solve capitalism by choosing to not watch a show immediately upon release. I don’t think I’m helping per se by making sure you’re aware that hey, Rooster Teeth kind of suck ass? But I do think that it’s important to remember that things we enjoy are made by people.
I really like this show. I really like the things this story wants to be about. This isn’t a story that’s uncertain about its central themes – the way it uses them and reuses them, the way it – as well-intentioned as I could possibly be in saying this – clubs you with them is really refreshing. I’m used to stories that hammer on the question of who you choose to be dropping the ball and making some kind of great failure at the end, because I dunno, writers seem unable to say ‘yes, choices matter’ sometimes.
I like a story about choosing who you are, and what that means, in opposition to a force that demands conformity. I like showing Cammie grappling with trauma and possible solutions to it. I love the way these characters banter and have fun with one another and even the ways they fight one another. I like how they integrate a conversation about Val/entina and gender. I like how Kazu goes back and forth on manga as he rolls through this series trying to cause as much damage as possible. I love the way a bright, colourful force of hopeful warriors oppose a conformist force of absolute authority. This series has in the last episode of the first season, a Star Control 2 reference for fuck’s sake!
I hope that the people who make the decisions about how it gets made take it to heart.