Author: Richard Durrance
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Rising of the Shield Hero Retrospective
Rolling triumphantly on from two victories in the Crunchyroll Anime Awards for 2020 (sigh at the pun if you please – though all sighs, and puns, are welcome), we present for your edification and delectation, The Rising of the Shield Hero. I’ll later share thoughts on those two victories (and include at least a couple of possibly shameful admissions...) But for now, lets dive in!
Building a world
Based on a series of web and then light novels, The Rising of the Shield Hero in anime form begins not too unconventionally:
A young guy, a bit of a shut in, is at a loose end and nips over to the library. He picks up a book that mentions something about four heroes, and flicking through the pages, he notices that the page on the Shield Hero is blank. In a snap, he is transported into a fantasy world, specifically the country of Melromarc.
He just happens to be magically transformed into one of the Four Cardinal Heroes.
(Who da thunk it? Though it’s yet to happen to me. Oh well, maybe tomorrow. Better than a day in the office… or is it?)
So far, so much like a show I probably put reasonably low on my "to watch" list. Then it starts to get good. (Spoiler, I enjoyed The Rising of the Shield Hero and have watched it twice.) We’re treated to 25 episodes, the first of which is a bumper 45 minutes rather than an obvious two-parter. As you watch this initial episode it makes a lot of sense that they go for a longer intro as The Rising of the Shield Hero uses this episode to really set out its stall.
At first there’s clearly something going on because our protagonist, 20 year old Naofumi Iwatani –our titular Shield Hero – does not receive the same warm welcome as his fellow Spear, Sword and Bow Heroes. But nevertheless there are the cute girls who like to squeeze your arm and press their jiggling breasts that bit too close, causing the odd racing hormone. Our heroes – Naofumi aside - are haughty and knowledgeable about the world, which works to well-recognised RPG mechanics, and so we think that we’re about to be in for another backdrop to derring-do and exciting adventure. Battles ahoy!
Then The Rising of the Shield Hero wrong foots you, often focusing more on character than combat, and Naofumi suddenly finds himself marginalised, victimised, disbelieved and treated with disdain, an accursed outsider, accused of a crime he claims not to have committed. Not that anyone gives him much of a chance to defend himself.
The tone is suddenly not so light, positively dark in fact – though without being oppressive. If this were a film noir, Naofumi would be the patsy. The man put on the spot.
More to the point how can he move forward? The Four Cardinal Heroes have been called to fight hordes of enemies (called Waves) that threaten the very fabric, the very existence of Melromarc itself, but he only has a shield. He cannot fight (though I did ask myself: where is everyone’s favourite shield-bash skill? Shocker!) and though his fellow heroes gain parties of followers he has no one. He has no way to level up, to learn skills he’ll need to fight the Waves. So called into the shadows (literally) he starts to follow a potentially angry, lost and shadowy path.
Lost in frustration, angry at a world that accuses him but gives him no chances, Naofumi’s only party member is a demi-human slave, Raphtalia, bought and bonded to him. The girl is diseased, weak and as lost as himself.
The half-human, half-raccoon follows Naofumi in a haze: obedient and terrified but with a certain childlike wonder, opening up the opportunity for one to break past the others defences and heal. Naofumi and Raphtalia they are very much opposite sides of the same coin, they are both shunned and have no reason to love Melromarc or its people. Neither is considered to have value and both are and have been ill-used. Some might take issue that Naofumi buys a slave, but in the world that is Melromarc slavery is accepted and the way in which, even without thinking too deeply on it, Naofumi treats Raphtalia shows that he sees her as every bit as much of a person as himself: so he feeds her, heals her, and does so with none of the prejudices rife inf Melromarc. True, Naofumi initially treats her as a burden, but that is more indicative of his own wailing hurt and anger – just as Raphtalia latches onto his understated humanity. Yet Naofumi’s frustration is not like a lot of anime males who either wallow in their inability to do anything or else go over the top in their self-importance.
At heart there is something grounded in Naofumi, something we begin to see as he and Raphtalia work as a unit; she is his sword and he protects her. Slowly they begin to level – RPG mechanics remember – but it’s slow and they discover their own skills and their own selves as they go. The Rising of the Shield Hero gives time to allow both Naofumi and Raphtalia to develop as characters, who have believable emotions and motivations. They are not just a collection of so many heroic tropes enabling the next epic battle sequence to commence and this really works in the series' favour because it allows us to keep a relatively serious tone – though it does lighten up at times. Yes, we get some reasonably epic battle sequences but in reality the episodes focusing on characters are often the most compelling.
One of the best things that The Rising of the Shield Hero does is breaks down a lot of hero RPG tropes. So whereas our bow, sword and spear hero may bugger off and do things they would in computer games, Naofumi noticeably does not. As we follow Naofumi and Raphtalia we witness a real world populated by real people; people who exist as people, who are endangered and terrified by the waves of catastrophe, and most importantly impacted by of the actions of others who blindly follow the path of ‘heroism;. Because they are outcasts, Naofumi and Raphtalia (joined later by Filo) find themselves travelling the world and witnessing first-hand the ravages of what happens when you treat a living, breathing world like a game: people get hurt, get killed.
Melromarc and the people within it exist to Naofumi, and you can see how he begins to care about them and aid and protect them (again, he’s the shield hero) though, in keeping with the overall tone the series keeps a reasonably sharp edge. Naofumi, as he travels, becomes something of a trader, and he develops a trader’s keenness: he wants like for like, he’s no-one’s fools, though his innate humanity shines though. This reality works for me because as a trader Naofumi has to exist at the peril of profit and loss, he cannot just give away hard earned skills and wares. There’s a touch of Spice and Wolf going on – especially with Raphtalia beside him, in some of these episodes, that’s no bad thing.
A constantly changing tempo
The first several episodes can be extremely tense, though the series if not unwilling to change pace and tone, interspersed as it is with moments of light-heartedness and harem tropes. When Naofumi and Raphtalia are joined by Filo (basically a big bird who also turns into a young girl with wings) and then another, Melty (without being a big bird), there are more than a few obvious haremisms, including Raphtalia’s obvious humbug at Filo’s childish attachment to Naofumi, and Naofumi’s lack of recognition that Raphtalia clearly fancies him. But these items are well handled and I found the light-heartedness necessary within the context of the story and the overall tone. If the initial despair had been allowed to run unchecked, it would have been extremely off-putting. The creeping ligthter moments bring a much needed cool breeze to some intensely heated circumstances.
Not everything balances so well however; the reasons behind the Shield Hero's treatment are not adequately explained. There’s clearly something deep rooted at the heart of it, but they are not explored. Maybe the second and third series will provide greater illumination (if they follow the books then they certainly will - Ed) and it’s just a pacing thing but it felt a bit artificial at times. You can also argue that the remaining three cardinal heroes are a bit one-dimensional. The spear hero is a womaniser, who adores anything with breasts, even young Filo and will believe anything a pair of jiggling breasts… sorry women… will tell him. He’s a total numpty. The bow and spear hero are a little less dim, and I lump them together as they seem to function often as a unit, but even then they often act as an obstruction to resolving any given situation which Naofumi must work around. Their view of Naofumi doesn’t always make sense to me either - they realise early on Naofumi’s been set-up, but also continue to see him as a villain.
The other heroes do serve a tertiary function - while they adhere to their sterotypical saviour archetypes and question nothing, Naofumi's situation makes him uniquely qualified to question everything around him, including his skill-set. This gives him an insight the others lack, and further grounds him as the most capable Hero in the group.
What works, too, is how while the series itself is not set in a computer game, the world recognises and accepts the mechanics, such as levelling and developing skills, as part of its natural order. It works as part of Melromarc's identity when it could be jarring, also giving our protagonist a set of rules he should be familiar with already. It’s not an elephant in the room but everyone sees it all as part of the everyday.
Taking it all in
If not already obvious, I enjoyed The Rising of the Shield Hero a great deal and consider it an excellent series more than worth your time. It works for me because you don’t have to enjoy Isekai to like it. In many ways it reminds me of Stephan Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, in how it slams a normal person into a fantasy world and he sometimes does terrible things (though Naofumi is not guilty of some of Covenant’s acts) but learns to trust and treasure the world within which he finds himself, more so perhaps than his real world.
There’s also a lot going on under the surface that you can take away with you, should you wish, from discrimination and racism (how demi-humans are treated) to how power is used with little or no responsibility; you can contemplate the overtones of unthinking religious bigotry and how it can lead to destruction and suffering or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And as to series one, it ends nicely - in many ways it ends like The Matrix. A bigger story is ongoing but you don’t necessarily need to tell it. So even if series two and three had not been commissioned then it functions entirely as a whole and that can be quite rare. I look forward to more.
Darkness and light; despair and humour; a rewarding Isekai that undermines some expectations, meets others and gives the our characters room to breathe.
And as for those awards...
Firstly for the two (equally promised) shameful admittances: I’m terrible at watching new shows when they happen as I tend to blitz things later, and I avoid English dubs like the plague. Shameful admittances complete but relevant nevertheless, let me give my thoughts on the awards themselves.
Is Raphtalia’s character absolutely the best female role I’ve seen from an anime screened in 2019? I've not seen all the shows competing for this title, but I did watch The Promised Neverland, and Raphtalia stands up against some strong competition there.
In my opinion, she deserves to win regardless of competition based on how her character is served within the series. She literally levels up from child to adult during the series and yes, there’s an element of textbox arc to her (but there’s nothing new under the sun); but at a personal, visceral level, her character is properly explored, fleshed out and given plenty of screen time to work through her personal story. We can clearly see where she’s been and understand her motivations, and enjoy the progression she experiences throughout the show.
This shows the strength of having a 25 episode series - they really have time to explore characters in-depth. Raphtalia even shines when compared to other female characters in the same show – and the male ones for that matter, including Naofumi! Some of the ancillary characters you could remove and you’d not blink nor miss them, but not Raphtalia. Her relationship with Naofumi is pivotal to his own growth, and without her there's simply no show. I especially liked the later episodes dealing with her childhood and aspects of slavery.
On that note, its interesting how some took issue with Shield Hero supposedly promoting slavery apologism. It makes you wonder if these detractors even saw these latter episodes, as nothing in them is apologist in any sense. It’s actually a testament to Shield Hero that it was willing to explore more complex and disturbing scenarios in other worlds - why should it confirm to our standards when our own world doesn’t have a consistent moral right or wrong? Ultimately Raphtalia's award feels very much earned.
Award #2, best English voice artist. Not much I can say here as I watched it subbed. It’s a personal thing and nothing against English VAs, it’s just how I’m wired (I even watch Spaghetti Westerns and Gialli in Italian and those are dubbed regardless of native language – it’s my own special neurosis).
And so, in conclusion...
I’m glad to see Shield Hero recognised, because it deserves the attention. It pushes a few boundaries and follows some standard arcs, but compare it to the likes of Sword Art Online and I’d take Shield Hero any day of the week. I like series that take existing concepts and play with them - only Grimgar seems to have the same approach to exploring Isekaiand turning it on its head. I also like a mixture of darkness and light – maybe why I love Madoka so much even though Magical Girls are not a genre I pay much attention to.
There are other aspects of the show that I've appreciated in rewatching and writing about it - smaller elements of the story that provide subtle character development and world building which illustrates the strength of the show as there’s so much to both enjoy and appreciate. So much about the show makes Melromarc a genuine, living and breathing world. With two more series on the way, dive in now and prepare yourself for what's to come. Yet more riches and awards may await Naofumi and company in the coming years!