Steven Universe: Steven the Sword Fighter   Rewatch 
January 14, 2015 12:27 AM - Season 1, Episode 16 - Subscribe

A terrible accident causes Pearl to disincorporate, leaving Steven lonely. Her sword training hologram doesn't make for a good replacement.

Written and storyboarded by Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu.
posted by JHarris (11 comments total)
This is a long one.
  • According to viewership figures from Nielsen Media Research, on initial broadcast this was actually the lowest-rated episode of the first season. That's a shame, as it's really a highlight, I think this is another five-star episode. This is probably my favorite episode to date.
  • I've made no secret of the fact that Pearl is my favorite Gem. She's the most motherly to Steven, yet she's also pretty kickass when she needs to be. Yet she's also the most insecure, and thus relateable. When I introduce people to Steven Universe, I usually do it like this: "It's about a normal boy and the three alien magical older sisters who raise him." But it's really Pearl who raises him the most. She's even got the best character design; her nose-beak and cartoony eyes gives her the touch of whimsy she was lacking in the pilot.
  • The sword fighting scenes are apparently an homage to Revolutionary Girl Utena, an anime I am not really familiar with. I'll leave it to others to document any callbacks to it.
  • It's a special episode all around, and that starts with the title card, the scene on the statue's hand high above the Gem Temple. It's raining at the start of the episode, and that rain is in the title card too -- although it could actually intended to resemble old film grain? Whatever it is, whoever does Steven's laundry has taken his shirts off the clothes line. (But the washer and dryer are still out there! Won't they get rusty?)
  • Aww, Lion asleep under the beach house! It's his only appearance in the episode. If you freeze frame on him after his yawn, he's wearing a particularly cute smile.
  • Steven Universe presents human stuff as just as entertaining as the magical Gem stuff, and the Lonely Blade movies, typical Japanese sword-fighting schlock, are great. Where did Steven get his love for them? Is Greg a foreign movie buff? Do the Gems watch them on their own?
  • The depiction of the movie is interesting too, the show actually adopts classic anime stylings for its designs. Nice touch, Crewniverse!
  • I have to admit, every time there's a sword fighting scene in a movie, cartoon or anime, I end up thinking the same thing Pearl says here. It rarely seems like they're making an effort to show what it's actually like.
  • The sword arena is a place we haven't been before. It's high enough to be in the clouds, so I suppose it's on top of a mountain somewhere. It's not raining, so presumably it's far enough away so as not to be in the storm going on at Beach City.
  • This is a good place to note Amethyst's cloud. Like the "Flying Nimbus" from Dragonball, it's a cloud that she can ride on, and frequently does from this point on in the episode. There's some comedy with it later on between her and Garnet, when she eats some of it. In Dragonball, the Nimbus could only be ridden by the pure of heart (at least in the US dub). Is this intended to imply something about Amethyst's character?
  • When Pearl activates the hologram trainer, she uses one of her swords to cut the beam connecting it to her gem. Is this a necessary step to its activation?
  • The sword demonstration is Pearl at her coolest: Holo-Pearl: "Do you wish to engage in combat?" Pearl: "Let this be the perfect battle!" Holo-Pearl: "You've already made a mistake in challenging ME!" Pearl: "Ha ha! We shall let our swords decide!" Amethyst: "NERD!"
  • The voice acting on Holo-Pearl is also great. I think it's the same actor, but her intonation is very different and imposing. Good work!
  • Here's a little animation geekery for you. I've noticed that Steven Universe is usually animated on "threes," that is, they make two drawings (or computer equivalents) for every three frames. The in-between frame shows is blurred between the frame before and after. But the sword battle is animated more frequently, on "twos," every other frame is a unique drawing, and sometimes even on "ones," each frame its own drawing. The animation is really slick here; sometimes when you look at an action sequence in detail, frame by frame, you can catch frames where characters deform oddly or look funny, which you overlook when watching at full speed because each frame's over in an instant. That's not the case here; every frame of the sword fight is good. It's some of the best animation the show's had so far.
  • Holo-Pearl: "Defense rank S! No openings detected!" This is a reference to video gaming, particularly Japanese gaming. "S" is a rank many games use as a level above "A." Sometimes this kind of rating is semi-secret, but these days nearly any Japanese game that rates the player using a letter system will have S be a rank above A -- and often will have ranks above S as well.
  • Steven's hyped up to learn about sword fighting, but has no patience for learning basics. Pearl tries to teach him like he wasn't really a little kid. I think this can be chalked up to Gems not understanding human children.
  • And now we come to The Moment. This is a Rewatch, so I don't have to worry about spoilers here... Pearl is, effectively, killed for a while. For Gems this isn't permanent, it seems, so long as their gem is left intact, but Amethyst and Garnet are suitably dismayed. Freeze frame on Pearl's face as the sword goes in. That's not something you see in kids' cartoons often. Pearl's reactions to being run through are sadly endearing. Reaction #1: "Oh, whoopsie-daisy!" Reaction #2: she reassures Steven she's going to be okay. Then she vanishes, in mid-sentence. The scene is played up for tragedy, and the soundtrack cooperates. Have you noticed that Steven Universe has very effective sound design?
  • This is the last we see of Pearl's original series character design. When she regenerates, her costume is different, wearing a wide ribbon or sash about her waist like a Japanese obi. (There's a crossword puzzle answer for you.)
  • Pearl's disincorporation (my word) is our first hint that the Gem monsters the Crystal Gems fight, and the Crystal Gems themselves, are similar kinds of creature; her "poof" is the same kind as happens when a monster is defeated. Notice also: although Pearl does blush sometimes, she doesn't bleed.
  • Amethyst: "Don't worry bud! This kind of thing just happens sometimes. Usually to me." Garnet: "Always to you." A: "Hey, I'm scrappy! Whatdayawant?"
  • "So, how long will it take her to regenerate? Five minutes? Ten minutes?" TWO WEEKS LATER.
  • Steven's caring for Pearl's gem is heartwarming. It's not said if keeping it under a desk lamp helps Pearl regenerate or not, but Steven seems to believe in it.
  • Amethyst suggests that two weeks is longer than Gems usually take to regenerate.
  • Pearl's training Hologram persists while Pearl herself is gone. Can it remain indefinitely? It seems to have an independent existence. If Rose Quartz could create these kinds of things, could they have outlived her? Am I reading too much into this?
  • Steven's wearing his star shirt while watching Lonely Blade. He's wearing his jacket during the sword fighting demonstration. He's still wearing his jacket two weeks later, or he has it on again for some reason. Yep, I'm kind of obsessed with this show.
  • Part of the point to the episode is that Holo-Pearl is not a replacement for actual Pearl. But while it is a training machine, there is something uncanny about it too. The other Gems are creeped out by it, but don't seem sure why. It seems to have a small amount of free will. It follows Steven around a bit, asking to engage in combat. It resists all his efforts to do normal things, though. Fighting is too great a part of it.
  • VIDEO GAME SIGHTINGS: Steven still has his N64 out. His action figures resemble, to some degree, Pikachu, Cloud and Gitaroo Man.
  • Garnet's reaction as Amethyst floats away is funny and understated: "Hmm." It's a good moment.
  • How do you cut down a tree with a balloon sword? It's the tree from the first episode, a Japanese Cherry tree. Those blossom in the Spring, around April, and Mirror Gem (1-25) takes place at the beginning of Summer Vacation, so we can figure that maybe about two months pass between those times. The two weeks Pearl is out of action would comprise a good portion of that -- at least, if the writers considered this.
  • Steven seems to think that Holo-Pearl has some aspect of Pearl herself in it. Does she? Is it just a simualcrum, or does it contain a trace of the original? We can see that it doesn't care about Pearl's favorite things, at least, or about Steven in the end. Something that occured to me to wonder about--is Holo-Pearl's "personality" indicative of some unknown aspect of its creator?
  • In Joking Victim, it's implied that Steven doesn't know what a VHS tape is. But Lonely Blade V, which he holds in his own hands, is a videotape!
  • "Challenger defeated! Continue?" I get it, like an arcade machine, heh.
  • The implication of the climatic "fight" between Steven and Holo-Pearl is that, while he doesn't use a sword, his reactions and improvised weapons are good enough to defeat it anyway. At least it's easy enough to destroy once you wedge a broom through its middle. The first things Steven throws at it, by the way, are the action figures from earlier. The one that "defeats" it (in basic mode) is the Cloud figure it stabbed earlier.
  • The animation is careful to show that the sword is not part of the hologram. Pearl throws it its initial weapon. When it's following Steven around, it's wielding either an umbrella or a balloon. The sword falls to the ground when Steven mops it to bits. So the question is... if the sword isn't part of it, why doesn't Steven just not give it the sword back after the balloon, and nullify its danger? Oh, wait, its because the balloon's sharp enough to cut down trees.
  • "You know, I might miss Pearl a whole lot, but sometimes you just have to accept things they way they are, before you... NEVER MIND PEARL'S BACK!" Does Steven ever learn a single lesson?
  • When Pearl reincorporates, watch: she forms a generic humanoid form (with her gem on its forehead) first. Then it becomes more differentiated, forming her new body's distinguishing characteristics. Compare this to what happens to the Centipeedle's Gem in Monster Buddies when it incorporates. It forms a humanoid form first, but it then changes to that of a monster.
  • Steven's so happy to see Pearl again. P: (reacting to a hug) "Hey! Miss me much?"
  • Status quo is finally regained. Steven's banging a pot shouting "Pearl's back!" in a very Finn-like manner, and Pearl's griping at Amethyst again. (A: "I got hit by a airplane!") The end.

posted by JHarris at 12:49 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

When Pearl activates the hologram trainer, she uses one of her swords to cut the beam connecting it to her gem. Is this a necessary step to its activation?

Pearl's training Hologram persists while Pearl herself is gone. Can it remain indefinitely? It seems to have an independent existence.

I think her severing the beam is, in show-don't-tell style, demonstrating that the hologram trainer is now operating independently of Pearl, which I suppose would be necessary to be of any use to Pearl for training. It seems like quite a few gems have the capacity to create living things, (Pearl, Rose/Steven, Peridot, the Centibeetle among others) perhaps this contributes to their general lack of respect for life they sometimes exhibit (namely, against Lapis).
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:40 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the figures Steven has bears a suspicious resemblance to the protagonist of Ian Jones-Quartey's old Final Fantasy parody webcomic "RPG World". (Now gone from the internet apparently.)

I still wonder what would happen if Steven were to be separated from the Rose Quartz gem, and to what extent his powers could keep his human body alive were he to get skewered the way Pearl was (unlikely, given the series tone, as that may be). That's really how even the non-backstory/plot heavy episodes of this series keep building it. Everything we see a Crystal Gem do in this series adds to the huge question mark about what Steven actually is capable of given that he's the first half-human half-gem (and possibly the first half-gem half-anything) in the universe.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:44 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the other Gems, the gemstone is actually more them than their physical forms are; the body seems to be a projection of the gem. We don't know how much of that is true with Steven. The fact that he needs to eat, sleep and breathe air complicates this; what would happen to those necessities if he dispersed his physical form?

One wonders about that "Gem battlefield" we saw in Serious Steven. Was that Gem fighting Gem? But what does it mean to beings whose physical forms are fundamentally illusory to fight? A "deceased" Gem is out of action for a couple of weeks, I guess. Of course later on we find out that Gems are vulnerable if their gemstones get damaged. In a Gem vs Gem fight, do they aim to damage their opponent's gemstones? Or maybe they used some other kind of weapon? I'm reminded of all those corrupted Gems they've fought up until now; maybe they've victims of such a weapon, since a monster Gem would not make an effective combatant.
posted by JHarris at 9:54 PM on January 14, 2015

I think you're right that the monsters are remnants of a gem war. Them being corrupted by some kind of gem weapon is especially compelling. We've seen plenty of gem vs gem tactics, though, it's just a matter of defeating the gem's physical form and then containing the now helpless gem. This containment is something all the gems seem to be capable of.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:32 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if "bubbling"or containing the gems keeps them from regenerating the way Pearl does in this episode. Or, if they're somehow corrupted, it keeps them from regenerating in a corrupted form until the Crystal Gems can figure out a way to uncorrupt them.
posted by sleeping bear at 9:21 PM on January 18, 2015

That seems very likely, that bubbling prevents manifestation. We still don't know how time passes for disincorporated Gems. Lapis apparently was conscious in the mirror, but that seems to be a different kind of thing.
posted by JHarris at 10:00 PM on January 18, 2015

Storyboard for Steven the Sword Fighter.
- It specifically identifies the music in Lonely Blade as "heavy brass as in a Kurosawa film."
- The Japanese text is spelled out, Romanized.
- In the sword fight sequence, one note says "They lock swords like Lady Eboshi and San in 'Princess Mononoke'." And when Steven is crying over Pearl, the note says "big miyazaki tears."
posted by JHarris at 12:56 PM on January 25, 2015

Here's another fun fact: This video breaks down all the forms Pearl cycles through when she reforms, and attributes two to "promotional artwork" However one of them is very clearly her 80's form from Story for Steven, complete with shoulder-cape and legwarmers. I was hoping the other form was from their shark-punching painting but I get the feeling that the painting doesn't reflect what they actually looked like at the time, mainly because this is the only instance where Rose Quartz is depicted in anything other than her white dress. If we take the cycle of designs as in chronological order it puts the Pilot design before the 80s design, which is interesting. I wonder if the first depiction is how a normal (non-defective) Pearl is supposed to look?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2015

Here's a gifset that demonstrates the shout-outs to Utena in Pearl's fight -- as you can see, it's often shot for shot, and they use some of Utena's most iconic moves.

It's funny that the series uses Utena imagery to demonstrate "realistic" sword fighting, as a typical episode might involve a woman with a stylized rapier whose opponent wields a katana or scimitar, performing gravity-defying moves to the sounds of a heavy chorus singing about ammonites or ancient Greece. They're explicitly duels of souls, which is underlined by the fact that most of the series' swords are ceremonially conjured from within the combatants' bodies, just as Rose's sword is kept inside Lion.

The sword fights in Utena also have relevance to Pearl, I think, because most of the Utena characters represent places that the human psyche can get stuck (fanatical jealousy, obsessive love, nostalgia, egoism), while Utena represents the unformed, idealistic self who must contend with all these potential disasters. (This obviously isn't the only reading of the series, but there's a surprising amount of explicit support for it -- it's a show that thrives on explaining itself in a way that only invites further questions.) Pearl contends with so many of these issues herself that to show her fighting herself in an Utena-style battle is a thoughtful choice, however brief and lighthearted it is in the show. Well, as lighthearted as it can be, given how it ends.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:04 AM on July 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

First watch here and I'm just starting series 1B, but I can't be the only one whose first thought on seeing Pearl retreat/reduced to gem form for an extended period of time was that similar "giving up her physical form" might be what Rose Quartz has done. Presumably in even more dramatic circumstances.

I do love that we get to see how much Steven cares about Pearl here. He and Amethyst are so much the natural/go-to pairing that it's good to see his feelings about (one of) the others.
posted by comealongpole at 4:31 PM on August 22, 2016

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