Few anime this year inspired more discourse, discussion, and controversy than the Winter season’s The Rising of the Shield Hero. We here at AniTAY have spent months debating and arguing over its merits, weaknesses, successes, and shortcomings. Dark Aether, Doctorkev, Requiem, and Stinolez join me, TheMamaLuigi, today to offer our thoughts and takeaways from Shield Hero. Enjoy, and let us know what you thought about this divisive show in the comments!
Note: Many of The Rising of the Shield Hero’s crucial plot points are discussed or mentioned in our reviews. If you are curious about this show, we advise you to tread lightly for fear of spoilers, or watch the show and then read on!
As one of the few who jumped in on The Rising of the Shield Hero much later in the spring season, I walked in knowing very little about the series aside from its controversial elements and that it had attracted quite the following since its debut. Keeping an open (but skeptical) mind, I watched a few episodes and found an engaging narrative that kept me tuning in daily until I caught up with the simuldub nearing the season finale.
In the nearly hour-long pilot, we are introduced to Naofumi Iwatani, your average otaku college student who is summoned into another world by opening a strange book at his library. He is made one of the four legendary heroes and quickly robbed of his valuables and falsely accused of rape by his only party member. Though Naofumi’s transition from everyman to ruthless antihero is abrupt, his character arc drives much of the first cour and serves as an examination of the isekai concept as a whole, challenging some of the genre’s power fantasies. Overtime, Naofumi begins to clean up the other heroes’ messes that highlights their disconnect from what they perceive to be a virtual world with no consequences, unaware that their moments of glory create new problems such as introducing a plague from a defeated dragon corpse or overthrowing a king which led to another corrupt government taking its place.
But for every major point or compelling story element, Shield Hero has an unfortunate habit of adding just one more detail that at times feels at odds with its central themes or completely undermine its message — and that’s before we get into the false rape charge and slavery elements. Naofumi’s relationship with Raphtalia, for example, forms a lot of the series’ best and worst aspects. In one of the show’s most emotional moments, she is the first to see through his facade and gradually helps him restore his faith in others. But just as she gains her freedom, she voluntarily gets her slave crest reapplied as a sign of devotion to him. For all the good will Shield Hero builds up, it’s these extraneous elements that prevent it from completely escaping the male power fantasy trope the genre has been building up in recent years.
TL;DR: With the isekai genre making up much of the seasonal anime shows this year, The Rising of the Shield Hero is the premiere standout for several reasons that go beyond its controversies despite the unfortunate baggage from this fantasy subgenre that it reinforces.
Could Shield Hero be the most controversial anime of 2019 so far? Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The double-length first episode establishes the rules of the world into which protagonist Naofumi is summoned. Within minutes he is falsely accused of rape, the most terrible crime in this apparently matriarchal society.
Some viewers recoil in horror at the premise - we are in the midst of the “Me Too” movement that aims to (rightfully) stick up for victims of sexual abuse and ensure victims’ voices are heard. The uncomfortable truth is that not all those who claim to be victims truly are. False rape claims ruin men’s lives, even after proven innocence. The stench of falsely alleged wrongdoing pollutes their lives with mental illness, lost job opportunities, relationship breakdowns, or suicide. We do true victims no favours by denying the existence of liars and emotional predators.
Isekai anime is a clumsy tool for excavating this emotional and legal minefield. The simple dualistic morality in Shield Hero is not nuanced enough to serve the topic justice. Naofumi becomes a grumpy bastard because everyone else is a dick. If his accuser hadn’t been such a pantomime villain, this show could have been more than a simplistic revenge fantasy where eventually the wronged saviour figure proved he was right all along.
Frustratingly, the other heroes don’t seem to learn from their experiences. By the series’ end they were all so stupid that I could not take their characters seriously. Naofumi’s story is spoiled by poor antagonists.
The other controversy is Shield Hero’s clumsy use of slavery as a plot device. I doubt the author seriously advocates the use of slaves, but muddled writing obscures their intentions. Both of Naofumi’s main party members - Raphtalia and Filo - are bought from a slave dealer. The story indicates that Naofumi has no other option. When given the chance for freedom, Raphtalia chooses to have her slave crest reapplied - she still wishes to be Naofumi’s property. Plot contrivances be damned, this concept is pure shit. As far as I’m aware, both she and Filo are still slaves at the end of the series. Naofumi overall treats them well, but I am deeply troubled by the way this world’s aspect is handled. The slave merchant commending Naofumi on being his “best customer” is creepy as hell.
Other than these two (huge) narrative misfires, the show is pretty fun. The plot moves quickly, even when driven by video-game-esque contrivances. The character designs are attractive and the action scenes are exciting. Witnessing the comeuppance of Naofumi’s foes evokes a satisfying schadenfreude. Unfortunately, I can see this degenerating into generic isekai power fantasy now that the false accusation storyline has ended. I hope they avoid this pitfall in the surely inevitable season 2.
TL;DR: Fun and exciting isekai show with a deeply problematic, poorly-executed plot and awkward writing.
Hey, did you hear there is slavery in this show?? I know, right?? *clutches pearls*
Shield Hero has generated a lot more discussion and controversy than it frankly deserves; at the end of the day, it’s just a slightly above-average isekai power fantasy that trips over some problematic elements.
The show has definitive strengths: its very well animated with excellent character design, and it has great action scenes, at least when characters stop dumping exposition during them. Naofumi’s transition from wide eyed innocent to jaded, perpetually grumpy happens way too fast but can be excused in the interest of moving the story along.
Of course the show’s biggest strength and emotional core is the relationship between Naofumi and Raphtalia. It’s well-developed and the main reason we care about what happens, although his relationships with Melty (which is just one of the dumbest names in anime, btw) and Filo are also pretty well-handled and help elevate the story from standard isekai fair to a tale about finding meaning through connections with other people. Naofumi and Raphtalia saving each other is the strongest thing to recommend the series.
Shield Hero does, sadly, have glaring weaknesses. The worldbuilding withholds too much information for too long, there’s too much talking during action scenes, and too many of the secondary characters - especially the other 3 Heroes- are underdeveloped. And, of course, there are the problematic issues with slavery and the attitude towards female characters. Slavery in a fantasy setting isn’t unacceptable in and of itself and can be used well narratively - it’s not handled well here. Malty is either a symbol of the original author’s misogyny or just a not particularly well-written villain, depending on your viewpoint; either way, Naofumi’s revenge on her is juvenile, pedantic, and should’ve been reworked significantly for the adaptation.
TL;DR: The bottom line is this, really… If you’re tired of isekai or are particularly sensitive to the issues the show fails to handle well, then you’re not going to get much here. But if isekai stories are a genre you favor, there’s a lot to like in Shield Hero. Your Mileage May Vary, as they say.
Despite the isekai genre becoming oversaturated in the past few years, The Rising of the Shield Hero was still one of the most anticipated shows of the winter 2019 season. From the get-go, we are reminded that slavery, rape, and public shaming are the new topics in anime as it follows the path set up by shows like Goblin Slayer or Sword Art Online: Alicization in previous seasons. Long gone (or hidden in the waters of mediocrity) are shows where characters transported into another world are overpowered and can do whatever they want.
In Shield Hero, we have Naofumi Iwatani, a 20-year-old university student who is transported into a fantasy world to be one of four Cardinal Heroes, just to draw the short straw and serve as the Shield Hero (who would guess by the title, right?) and is instantly hated by almost everybody. From the beginning, he’s overshadowed by other heroes and ignored by the king. If not this, then the red flags should be high when adventurers choose which hero’s party to join, just to leave Naofumi hanging there. From that point on, the shows goes downhill. Beautiful adventurer Myne leaves Spear Hero party just to join Naofumi, helps him throughout the first day, just to accuse him of raping her the day after. When we think he hits rock bottom, he wanders to the slave owner’s tent to buy himself the first proper party member. You’d be dead wrong if you thought they’d done enough harm to him.
This show simply excels at putting Naofumi down and treating him like dog shit. Most of the accusations and schemes are so complex that even a five-year-old kid would tell you that this is utter bullshit, but somehow everybody is taking the bait, even Motoyasu who supposedly is the oldest hero. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories full of trickery and intrigue, but it needs to be smart and believable, while with this show I feel like I’m watching a bunch of kids on the playground argue who’s mud pie it is — and that’s infuriating. Despite the many flaws Shield Hero has, it shines when introducing new, interesting characters you usually either love or hate (or both), only to do nothing with them. It’s like watching a static image of a person where character development is almost non-existent.
The same goes with the plot. Expecting cohesive story-telling from this show is going beyond daydreaming and the only unexpected plot twist is dropped like a bomb shell at the end of the season, leaving you wondering if there will be second season explaining it and if you are brave enough to continue watching it.
TL;DR: Another spin on the isekai anime genre; full of half-assed trickery and intrigue with great characters and non-existent development.
As my fellow writers (and the broader anime community) have pointed out, Shield Hero is ripe with controversy. So, rather than talk about the show’s awful treatment of false rape accusations or its clumsy use of slavery as a plot device, I want to talk about the characters and the writing.
Naofumi Iwatani is an awful protagonist who had the potential to be a great one. An isekai where the main character is shunned by the larger world they find themselves in and left relatively powerless is a fairly novel take on and an interesting frame for examining the genre. What we get in Shield Hero is a main character who, yes, is shunned by the larger world and left relatively powerless, but without any of the empathetic qualities necessary to make him a hero one would want to root for. Instead, Naofumi is a revenge-driven, jaded jerk who “see I was right all along”s his way into the good graces of the matriarchal kingdom that cast him out. Now, Naofumi does grow and have occasional moments of heroism, but they are consistently and jarringly undercut by his insistence on exacting his own brand of incel-lite vengeance. The most egregious and tasteless of these occurs when King Melromarc and Malty are finally brought to justice for their crimes, and rather than exile them, strip them of their titles, or otherwise punish them as a well-written anti-hero would, Naofumi decrees that they be called “trash” and “bitch,” respectively. Nearly every major plot point of the show, many of which flirt with interesting ideas around redemption, corrupt monarchies, or what it means to be a hero, is undermined by similar moments.
Raphtalia, Filo, and Melty are the show’s saving graces. All three, taken in a bubble, are fairly well-realized and, most importantly for this show, actually engaging, with generally compelling character arcs. Raphtalia often veers too far into unconditional love for Naofumi that stems from her slave status, though, which often undercuts her development as a character on her own (notice a pattern here?). The rest of the supporting cast is decent, most being unmemorable or intentionally dislikeable. I will compliment the character designs across the board, Naofumi included, for being clean, character-appropriate, and distinct without being bombastic.
I wouldn’t say I regret watching Shield Hero, as I very rarely regret watching an anime, and I did occasionally enjoy the show. At the very least, the series reminds me of how a great premise can be spoiled through incompetent writing. It does make me wonder if there are any actually good isekai with a similar premise, though.
TL;DR: Controversy aside, The Rising of the Shield Hero’s occasional flirts with greatness are not enough to overcome its entirely unlikeable protagonist, unearned narrative crescendos, and poor, self-undermining writing.
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.