The Chobo Epiphany

One of the challenges of analyzing the structure of a collaborative effort, such as a television series, is trying to figure out which artist came up with any given idea. You could always just ask the artist in question, if possible. But sometimes it's difficult for the artists to remember just who came up with what idea, or why. And of course, ideas can sometimes emerge in brainstorming sessions and take on a life of their own as each collaborator adds their own contribution to it. The idea becomes something bigger than any one artist. The result is that the analyst will encounter an idea in the finished product, but is unable to determine who exactly came up with it. It's even possible that the writer who crafted the scene may state unequivocably that there was no idea in the first place, claiming it exists solely in the mind of the viewer. That's important information to know, but the analysis doesn't necessarily have to end there. It's quite possible for the analyst's interpretation to still be accurate, even though the writer never actually intended it.

On "Xena, Warrior Princess," there exists a clearly documented example of how this can come about. Writer Steven Sears has often told the story of how he came up with a name for the fighting sticks Xena uses in "Hooves & Harlots." This episode was about a war instigated between the Centaurs ("Hooves") and the Amazons ("Harlots"). This anecdote of Steven's is probably exhibit A in any discussion of how the creative process worked on "Xena." It suggests that much of the show was due to serendipity, happy accidents that caused the many elements of "Xena" to just magically fall into place. I'm a bit skeptical myself of the notion that a mega-million dollar project depends on magic to operate from day to day, so I look for signs of a larger intent whenever I hear these kinds of stories. In this case, we don't have to look far to discover the machinery underneath the magic.

The story of how the name for the Amazon "chobo" sticks came to be goes like this:

"When Steve was writing HOOVES AND HARLOTS, there was a point in the script when Xena selects the weapons she and Queen Melosa will fight with. Steve had a small, hand-held pole weapon in mind, but he could not think of what the name was offhand. As he was writing, he looked out the window and saw a girl eating a "churro", a kind of rolled-up fast food. He put down "chobo" in the script with the intent of doing a "search and replace" on it later. He got busy and never got around to that. When he heard the word "chobo" as someone was listening to the dailies from HOOVES, he thought to himself, 'Oops'"01

This method of using placeholder names, like "chobo," is an interesting glimpse of a process which I will discuss further in a companion essay, "They Call The Wind Borias,", but for now, I'm more interested in what appears to be a moment of pure serendipity, but probably isn't. This is not to say I don't believe Steve's tale--I do--but I don't think the name "chobo" first entered the collaborative process as some nonsense variation of "churro." It's much more likely that it was already floating around the halls of Renaissance Pictures, and originally came from something much more significant, and more closely related to the show's themes as set out in the first season: that classic movie about mentors and students, "Red Beard."


There can be absolutely no doubt that the Akira Kurosawa film "Red Beard" was a key source of inspiration for "Xena, Warrior Princess." As far as I know, it has never been mentioned by the producers as a source, so how did I deduce that it was one? On a highly referential show like this, character names are often clues to the sources used. While researching the background for the series finale, "A Friend in Need," I paid close attention to its details. On such an important episode, it's likely that virtually everything has significance. The name "Akemi," for the potential student, and lover, who broke Xena's heart, either came from a historical/mythic source, religious source, or cinematic source; in other words, the three main ingredients of every "Xena" episode. I couldn't find anything related to history or myth, and the closest I found to religious were the kami that Akemi spoke of, spirits which inhabit all things. Perhaps Akemi herself was emblematic of such a spirit? Maybe, but it turned out that her name must certainly come from the cinema. Akemi Negishi, a Japanese actress, has starred in a number of Hong Kong films, a number of which were visually quoted on the show (and are also known as the source for Quentin Tarentino's "Kill Bill" series). Her most prestigious film was "Red Beard," and given that Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi were as fond of quoting from the classics as well as pulp entertainment, "Red Beard" was worth taking a look at (I had never seen it before). The story looked promising: an uncompromising doctor, fierce as a samurai, takes on an arrogant young apprentice at his health clinic, where he tends to the poor and exploited. Most of his patients are women who have suffered from a patriarchal society's abuse and neglect. His name is unpronounceable to most, so his students call him "Red Beard."

One young woman, played by Akemi Negishi, tells how she was molested by her mother's lover. She kneels before Red Beard as she speaks, which reminds us of Akemi, daughter of a literally demonic man, kneeling before Xena in supplication. She talks about how she neglected to build a family altar; Xena's crime in "A Friend in Need" is committed because she wished to bury Akemi's ashes in the family shrine, an act of desecration opposed by the townsfolk.


Another story from the film centers on an orphan raised in a brothel, who trusts no one and is incapable of accepting any kindness. The arrogant student of Red Beard learns to find a way to communicate with this almost unreachable child, filled with hostility toward everyone. He discovers the way past her defenses is to put aside his own arrogance; she teaches him patience and compassion, and it becomes clear why Red Beard's humble clinic is an ideal place for a physician to begin his career. By the end of the film, the student insists on devoting his career working for Red Beard, and the doctor hesitates, then gruffly accepts him as a colleague, in a scene that reminds us a good deal of the beginnings of Xena's friendship with Gabrielle, who also wants to devote her life to following the Warrior Princess.

This story of the girl raised in the brothel who tosses back her bowl of soup becomes the third season episode "Forgiven." It's a story template that appears a great deal on both "Xena" and "Hercules." In the first season of "Hercules," it's used in the story of a flight to the city of Calydon, protected by Apollo, in "The Road to Calydon," reconfigured for the orphans Jana and Ixion, whose story involved the thirst motif. In fact, it goes all the way back to the fourth of the introductory Hercules tv movies, "Hercules and the Underworld." We also see a scary-looking group of primordial creatures resembling the Horde in "The Price" (which also features the thirst pattern)--these creatures pursue the refugees for the chalice they stole, which is a counterpart to the stolen Urn of Apollo. We'll see it later on "Hercules" in "Render Unto Caesar," about the conversion of Morrigan from evil to good, testing Hercules' patience; there, the chalice belongs to Kernunnos. Parts of this part of the story are used throughout both shows. But the borrowings go even farther than that...

After the orphan girl learns to trust others again, and comes out of her shell, she encounters a boy who would rather be a thief than beg. She befriends him, and at one point, he says:


This scene shows us the roots for the first season episode, "Hooves & Harlots." The girl who grew up in a brothel ("harlot"), finds common ground with the boy who wants to be a horse ("hooves"). Rob Tapert has said that he has a fondness for stories with Amazons and Centaurs, and we can see one of the templates for it here. Going back to "The Road to Calydon," the orphan boy is called Ixion, a Centaur name. The very last episode dealing with Centaurs, in season six of "Xena," "The Last of the Centaurs," has Belach trying to hunt them down for "stealing" his daughter, who's fallen in love with one.

This brings us to my original point about how names on "Xena" and "Hercules" can have significance even when an episode's teleplay writer doesn't intend it. The boy's name? Chobo.


Continuing the orphan's story on "Red Beard," the thief's family turns out to be as stubbornly proud as the boy: they all drink poison rather than live with the shame of his being a thief. He threw up his poison, however, and has a chance at survival. As the doctors tend him, the others decide to use an old folk remedy, shouting his name down a well, which was believed to reach all the way to the underworld. In this scene, we hear Chobo's name repeatedly, shouted by numerous voices. This idea of the underworld being accessed through a well or hole is seen throughout both shows, and begins with the fourth Action Pack movie, "Hercules and the Underworld."

As I mentioned before, the title character is so named because his real name is unpronounceable. To American ears, the other names are not easily retained, either, since they are not familiar to English speakers. The only name that's catchy to an American audience is Chobo; it's fair to say it's the one name in the film they'd recall after a single viewing (except for "Red Beard," and even then, that's the translated name: in the dialogue, we hear only its Japanese equivalent). The name Chobo is visually (through subtitles) and aurally (through shouted dialogue) impressed on the mind of the viewer. The character plays a role in the biggest story of a film about a series of anecedotal stories, and his is the one that has the audience on the edge of their seats.

I gave several examples of how "Red Beard" likely influenced "Xena" and "Hercules," but it's just the tip of the iceberg. The film is a virtual catalogue of imagery and motifs for these shows, which I will explain in greater detail in a separate essay. The important thing to keep in mind right now is that "Red Beard" influenced not only the entire show, but the first season in particular: Gabrielle joining up with Xena in "Sins of the Past" is very likely modeled after "Red Beard's" ending, and "Is There a Doctor in the House" is probably the episode that most closely resembles the film: there's even a scene shared by both, in which the mentor (Xena and "Red Beard") use their military training to beat up thugs keeping them from their rounds. In order to ensure the writers had a consistent understanding of the themes and general tone of the central relationships on "Xena," Rob Tapert would've had them watch "Red Beard," just as they would have watched other key reference films, such as "The Bride With White Hair." It's possible the cast may have seen it, too: Hudson Leick (who starred in the first season episode, "Callisto"), cites it as one of her favorite films.

This means that Steve Sears must have watched it, too; in which case, this is where he got the name for his Amazon "chobo" sticks. Does that mean I think his "churro" anecdote is not true? No, but it's a good illustration of what I'll call "one-way collaboration." It would be hard to imagine that a third-in-command producer like Sears would not have been shown "Red Beard" in preparation for his role overseeing character development. However, I don't think that he studied the film closely, and mined its details, as both Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart certainly did. That's how they work, but from what I've seen, having taken a class with Steve and hearing him describe his own process, he tends not to do that. He works more intuitively, focusing more on character dynamics, and usually avoids references; he prefers to "xenatize" his character names by taking them from the world around him, rather than from the myths, or other movies or television. My guess is that he saw the film very early on, before any episodes were assigned, and by the time "Hooves & Harlots" was being written, he no longer recalled the name. When he saw the churro, that conjured up the closest "intuitively-correct" counterpart in his memory banks: Chobo.

We can imagine Tapert and Stewart's reaction when they saw this name in the scripts. There was no way they'd want Steve to replace it, and in fact, it's possible they may even have thought he put it there intentionally, since Rob was already using the film as a basis for "Hooves & Harlots'" story. This is "one-way collaboration" at work: a creative environment is established by the show's creator, inspiring one of the writers to choose a name that feels appropriate for some reason unclear to him, then the creator makes an editorial decision to accept the name instead of rejecting it, because it fits the environment he created. This is a problem when we rely exclusively on the writers themselves to explain where these ideas come from: if everything I've said is true about how chobo stickes came about, you could ask Rob Tapert where the name came from, and he may tell you Steve thought it up; ask Steve, and he might tell you it just popped into his head. Is that really an accurate account of how it happened? Only up to a point.

There's another good example of this on "Xena," also related to "Hooves & Harlots." When I asked Steve about the Amazon character, Ephiny, I had already observed that her character's name came from the literary and religious term, "epiphany." Steve has said this himself in the past, and to me, this was significant: it indicated to me that her character represented a pattern on the show. Her presence often signified that a revelation, an "epiphany," was about to occur. Now, I didn't know, and at the time, didn't care whether Steve had intended this to be a series-long pattern; all I knew is that it did become so through repetition. Steve was eager to correct me when I seemed to suggest his name "Ephiny" was intentionally part of a larger design. Here's how he responded:

"Yes, it is supposed to mean something. First and foremost, it's so that I didn't have Xena and Gabrielle referring to her as "that bitch" or "Yo! Stupid!". I had to give her a name. As I have said before, names are hard for me because I want the feeling of the name to mean something. So I had to think about it for a while and just by thinking of the character, I realized that the change in the attitudes of the Amazons (as a result of Xena and Gabrielle's interaction) was going to be reflected in this person. She would be the one with the "Epiphany". The name seemed obvious. But that was it. I've already stated that was the source. But there wasn't anything else to it; it wasn't a crucial piece of the larger, grander puzzle. In other cases, the names have been convenience. Solari; the sun (I was looking out my window when I thought of that). It matched the character. Talmadeus: from Amadeus. Why? Has nothing to do with Mozart except that I was listening to music when I thought of it."

At this time, I was still not clear on the process of how the different writers functioned in the overall scheme of things on "Xena," so I pressed him on this point by suggesting that while he himself (or anybody else) did not have future plans for Ephiny, the fact that her character stuck to the pattern on important occasions makes it, by definition, a pattern. It sounded to me like he was dismissive of the idea that there was an "Ephiny" pattern at all on the show--his statement above, "there wasn't anything else to it; it wasn't a crucial piece of the larger, grander puzzle." is what I based this on. In fairness to Steve, I realize now he was merely trying to clarify his own role in the process, and the point I was making about larger patterns falling into place was not clear to him--he seemed to think I was accusing him of hiding some secret plan, but in fact, I was jumping back and forth between several points about the show's process, trying to broaden the discussion to include the other producers (which seemed to go against his wishes, in retrospect), and wasn't expressing myself very clearly. The result is that we both ended up increasingly frustrated with each other. His response:

"No, this is where you don't understand the process. The character EPHINY played a much larger part of the series because of her CHARACTER, not because of her name. If she had been called Mericius she would have stilled [sic] played that important role. Why? Because it was in her character. For me, as I was trying to name her, I was again looking for a name that sounded like it "fit" the character. When relating her traits, I came up with nothing that fit. When listing her flaws, I came up with nothing. When going through her personal growth... I found something. You, again, are trying to link something to some grand design of forethought. It isn't there. Only by looking backwards are you able to make those connections. They didn't exist when I named her. Ephiny, in fact, was a one time character; there was no discussion at the time of bringing her back. When we did, it was because her character worked for the plot. And in every case, when we brought her back, no one discussed the relevance of her name. In fact, I don't think anyone else on the XenaStaff even knew where I got the name."

My own clumsy questioning notwithstanding, I was able to get a good sense of how he went about picking names--and as I stated above, you can learn a lot about a writer's style based on their naming methodology. I don't think Rob Tapert or RJ Stewart would've used this method of listing traits in order to find a name that embodies the character. "Otere" does not embody a character, it's a label that comes from another character, and that labelling has significance for the character's nature. Same with "Akemi." In "American Gothic," we have Sheriff Buck and Caleb Temple, both of whom have last names that refer to Masonic symbolism, and that point is made explicitly in the show's dialogue. One naming method is not superior to another, but understanding the method helps us understand the story's inner workings.

One more quote: I replied to his post with the following: "You may not have intended the larger pattern, but that's not the same thing as saying nobody intended it." Again, I might have been more clear: I was suggesting that the name he created was used by others as the first step in a pattern throughout the show (yet another muddled point by your humble essayist). His response:

"Repeated: nobody on XenaStaff intended it. The name wasn't created by committee, so if I didn't intend it, who else did? And, again, the character (like so many others) was intended to service that particular script, not to launch a series of episodes around that character. For all we knew, when Xena and Gabrielle walked away from the Amazon camp, that was the last time we would ever see Ephiny or the Amazons. Or not. But we didn't think about it at the time."

I won't question his viewpoint on how her character was handled, but we know from Rob Tapert that this wasn't the case, in a quote I'll discuss below. I think both quotes are probably accurate: In the process of "one-way collaboration," ideas are indeed created by committee...over a period of time. The question of intent arises when ideas that are initially presented by one writer are then picked up by others and used over and over. Steve says above "Only by looking backwards are you able to make those connections. They didn't exist when I named her." Precisely: and this is likely how the writers worked as well. I maintain that they looked back and made connections to the present, in the case of Ephiny, even though she was originally intended to only be in one episode (according to Steve's limited point of view, though in fact, that wasn't the case, as we'll see). That allows us to speak of an "Ephiny pattern." The question now is, how did the pattern work?

Going back to the "Red Beard" example: there we have a clear example of intent. The intent by Rob Tapert (at least) is to use the film as a tonal and story template for the show, particularly in the first season. It's just as clear Steve was not aware that it would be used to the extent it was--or maybe he was aware, but used his own intuitive approach while always mindful to make choices that fit with the established tone. When writing the teleplay for "Hooves & Harlots," Steve names the Amazon character Ephiny, derived from "epiphany." Let's look at the Miriam-Webster definition of "epiphany:"

1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; a revealing scene or moment

Ephiny represents "the change in the attitudes of the Amazons (as a result of Xena and Gabrielle's interaction)" according to Sears. He also stated to me: " The character EPHINY played a much larger part of the series because of her CHARACTER, not because of her name. If she had been called Mericius she would have stilled played that important role. Why? Because it was in her character." If I understand Steve's point here, I think it's at least partly incorrect. He's thinking strictly in terms of character, but Tapert and Stewart are also thinking in terms of templates and story elements. When the season one finale, "Is There a Doctor in the House," was being assembled, I'm sure it was already linked in Tapert's mind to "Hooves & Harlots" by a common source ("Red Beard"). Now, such a link doesn't force anyone to do anything, but when brainstorming ideas, it's natural that Ephiny's character comes up. There's no other internal reason for her to appear in this episode. The story could've been just as effective with a man and woman who were citizens of the two warring nations depicted in the episode: in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's how it was in the original story. The "Red Beard" association would prompt the suggestion that maybe they should bring in Ephiny and her Centaur lover, instead; it would allow them to explore the character further, and help tie the show together with another recurring figure.

It may be a total coincidence, but with her name meaning Epiphany, it can also recall the Christian epiphany of the birth of Christ. Remember that religious connections through different cultures is one of the show's dominant motifs, and the viewer had already experienced that in first season's "Altared States," an episode based on the Bible. And, of course, "American Gothic" used Christianity the way "Xena" used Greek myth, and those elements were imported into "Xena." Steve mentioned in one of the quotes above that as far as he knew, no one else was aware that Ephiny's name was derived from Epiphany. Again, that's his opinion, but I think he's wrong: given that Rob Tapert seems to have relied heavily on the works of Mircea Eliade in developing his religious motifs, he would have been quite aware of it, if no one else was. According to Eliade, the religious epiphany is the single most common, and basic, of all religious ideas. It's present in every single world religion, and if Steve hadn't suggested Ephiny, Rob Tapert probably would've come up with something similar. Just as he probably did when he saw "chobo sticks" in the "Hooves & Harlots" script, he would've smiled when he saw "Ephiny" in love with a centaur. A story pattern would've immediately suggested itself right then and there. I'm not suggesting he sat down and wrote the beat sheet for "Last of the Centaurs" that night, but the idea of keeping Ephiny around was probably an attractive one--and yes, the appeal of the character as written, and the actress who played her, are important factors as well. Recently, Mr. Tapert stated for an online message board the following:

"Early on in the series of XENA, there were discussions about adding another woman character so that they would be a trio. Ephiny in Hooves and Harlots was to be the new addition. However, by the time that episode aired, we all had so fallen for Renee's portrayal of Gabrielle that we didn't want to diminish her or, heaven forbid, put her in a position to kill her off."02

This seems to contradict what Steve said about there being no plans for Ephiny ("...there was no discussion at the time of bringing her back."). This raises a question: did Steve name the character that Rob created, and did Rob have big plans for her before or after the name Ephiny came up? Let's make the most limited assumption possible: that Rob wanted this character to replace Gabrielle, based on his use of "Red Beard," and Steve named the character Ephiny for his own unrelated reasons; even in that case, we'll see that Ephiny's name is related to how she's portrayed.


In "Is There a Doctor in the House," Ephiny is pregnant by her centaur lover, and gives birth to a child amidst the wounded soldiers of both armies, all tended by Xena and Gabrielle. The birth of her child is attended by three, just as the epiphany of Christ.


After "Is There a Doctor in the House," Ephiny appears in "The Quest," above, in which Xena returns from the underworld. The scene of her rebirth is attended like Ephiny's epiphanous birth in "Is There a Doctor in the House." Xena's attendants are three: Gabrielle, Autolycus and Ephiny. She makes obligatory appearances in "A Necessary Evil," "Prodigal Sister" on "Hercules," but on the Rift's culminating episode, "Maternal Instincts," she sings the funeral dirge for the murdered children of Xena and Gabrielle. This episode leads into "The Bitter Suite," in which Ephiny watches over Gabrielle's three days in the "belly of the whale," the hut of purification in the Amazon camp. That entire episode is an epiphany. Afterwards, Ephiny substitutes for another character in "Sky High," then returns in "Endgame," the culminating episode of season three's "Rosemary's Baby" arc, where she's the object of her own funeral pyre. She doesn't return until "Last of the Centaurs," as a ghost, which makes her by definition an epiphany.

There is an awareness of epiphanies throughout the show, as we might expect in a series that uses world religions as its inspiration. In season five's "Eternal Bonds," Xena's own child, Eve, is attended by three:


There's a twist to this epiphany, though: these three wise men are only pretending to pay homage; they've been sent by the Greek gods to kill the child prophesied to mark their doom. Later in this episode, we'll see the image of epiphany repeated, only instead of three wise men, it's the three armies they represent, marching on Xena and her child as they huddle in a tree:


As the armies converge, Ares offers Xena a chance for another epiphany: the god of war wishes to father another child with her, and in exchange he'll protect her from the armies of his fellow Olympians.


The final epiphany is the appearance of Ephiny herself to her son and grandson. Just as she was named to symbolize the change in attitude of the Amazons, so this episode marks the change in attitude of Borias's son, Belach, towards the Centaurs. The scene above shows another epiphany birth scene: the mother and child are attended by three: Xena, Gabrielle and Ephiny.

As we can see, Ephiny is more than just a symbol with the world "Epiphany" stamped on her forehead. But she is present at these moments, in a manner consistent with her creation. Steve Sears suggested this is merely due to her character, and not the symbolism of her name. I respectfully disagree: being present at "epiphanies" is not a character trait, just like being crucified four times in different countries is not a character trait for Xena: something more is going on that is iconic in nature, and given Rob Tapert's interest in portraying religious symbols, we can go ahead and acknowledge both the character and the symbolic nature of Ephiny.


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