Shield Hero is the Perfect Isekai

It’s been a minute since I’ve talked about The Rising of the Shield Hero, and that’s a shame. It’s one of my favorite isekai from the last few years, and considering how big the genre is, that’s no mean feat. It’s not as challenging or deep as something like Re: Zero, but Shield Hero isn’t trying to deconstruct the tropes of its genre, it is content to execute them well.

If you’re a longtime reader, you may recall an essay where I described the state of shonen battle manga; it’s not about reinventing the wheel, so much as it’s about fixing the small problems that made the old wheel just a bit slower. Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen don’t want to change what it means to be a battle manga, but they know what worked for staples like Naruto and Bleach and built on those foundations by correcting some fundamental errors in them.

Shield Hero largely succeeds by replicating the feat on the isekai side of anime, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Despite series like Cautious Hero, Konosuba, and many, many riffs on the same isekai parody, there’s been precious little advancement in the genre. Sword Art Online pretty much codified the isekai formula for anime in 2012, and while that formula is far from perfect, the genre has been content to churn out two or three shows per season of another bland protagonist picking up a harem in another world with the same circular town.

Shield Hero, by contrast, has made minor tweaks to the formula, and set itself apart by presenting the same song to a new tune. That might sound like I’m giving the series and its writer Aneko Yusagi too little credit, but the truth is that those tweaks were all that was needed to make Shield Hero into the perfect isekai.

Naofumi Iwatani is almost too perfect to be the bog-standard isekai protagonist. He’s a good-looking college student with an otaku streak, but heavens no, he’s not one of those neets. I’m going to square with you; the first episode is bad. So bad, in fact, that it took me three tries to get through it. The writing makes it abundantly clear that Naofumi is an otaku, but he’s not a pathetic loser, which gives the distinct impression that this audience insert is also on a high horse about the type of people who’d like to insert themselves into an isekai story. Once he’s actually transported, though, things pick up.

Naofumi and three other boys are summoned to another world as the legendary heroes who will defend the land from ravaging waves of monsters that appear like it’s some kind of video game. Turns out, it is. Each hero, of the Sword, Spear, Bow, and Shield varieties, have been summoned from an alternate earth, and this world resembles their preferred MMO. That’s pretty much the same plot hook as fifteen other isekai, but the differences start to become more apparent.

Naofumi doesn’t get a snazzy weapon like the rest of the heroes, as the Shield Hero is derided for their lack of combat utility and poor stats. That wouldn’t be a problem; parties need a tank just as much as they need a DPS and a ranged fighter, right? Well, the heroes can’t train together without actively hampering their growth, so Naofumi’s left as a glorified slime hunter beating the low-level creatures with a blunt object. The adventurers joining the other heroes and leaving Naofumi high and dry gives me big ‘last kid picked for dodgeball’ vibes.

Luckily for Naofumi, a beautiful adventurer named Myne takes pity on him and joins his party. He’s convinced his luck is about to change when she robs him, reveals that she’s the daughter of the king who dismissed him earlier, and accuses him of some extremely advertiser unfriendly acts that we’re just going to leave at that. His status as the Shield Hero kind of protects him from being immediately executed, but he’s left on his own in a world that despises him.

For a minute there, Naofumi embraces his role as the villain. He claws his way up from the bottom, grinding by letting angry slimes chew on him, and resorting to purchasing a demihuman slave, Raphtalia, to serve as the sword to his shield. Even so, he’s not quite cut out for it, as Raphtalia quickly cracks his bitter cynical shell, and while he’s generally an edgy protagonist, he adopts a bird-girl named Filo and mellows out as a single father.

Understandably, that’s a little odd if you haven’t seen the show, so let’s break down how Shield Hero just turned to Good Dad Simulator.

The harem is almost synonymous with isekai at this point, and that’s not a positive (usually). While there’s always an audience for shows like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord and In Another World with My Smartphone, they’re usually less than peak fiction. Even isekai anime with concrete romantic leads like Kirito and Asuna in SAO can’t hold back from throwing in four or five disposable waifus in our protagonist’s orbit. They’re never going to wind up with him, but they’re just going to hang out, constantly salivate over him, and cross their fingers that his girlfriend gets hit by a truck. Naofumi starts acquiring girls in his vicinity, but not quite as love interests.

Don’t get me wrong, Raphtalia begins crushing on him pretty hard, but he plainly states that he sees her more as a daughter. That’s kind of a weird gray area because demihumans in Shield Hero grow according to their level, so while she’s basically an adult by that point, he sees a kid he rescued from a slaver. Honestly, Naofumi’s big dad energy is one of the show’s strongest points.

It marks his turn from a dark path he’s been on since the first episode, especially as his relationships with Raphtalia, Filo, and Melty deepens. The process is gradual, and while I wouldn’t call the writing behind “grouchy man finds a kid and learns to soften up” anything special, it’s pretty novel in a traditional isekai setting. Plus, these kids are all precious rays of sunshine and if anything happened to them, I would kill everyone in this room and then myself.

I’m not sure if the author’s idea of a power fantasy is adopting a lot of children, but it’s different enough from the rest of what I’ve seen to keep the series engaging. Most isekai keep their bland protagonists interesting by giving him multiple one-dimensional love interests who might make for one good character if you combined them all, but Naofumi is a strong enough character that he doesn’t need to have a bunch of love interests to artificially create tension.

And speaking of that power fantasy, Shield Hero doesn’t need to be one. Naofumi gets pretty overpowered once he realizes how extensive the shield’s abilities are and accepts his role as a support class, but his growth is well-earned and doesn’t feel like the author is trying to live vicariously through him. His powers make him a versatile hero, rather than simply straight up offensive, and that introduces a new element to the fights devoid of choreography typical to the genre.

This is sold through Naofumi’s use of the Rage Shield, which he relies on heavily throughout the series. He gains overwhelming strength, at the tradeoff of going berserk and allowing the shield to increasingly control him. He’s at risk of hurting the others around him every time he uses it, and that’s because he simply isn’t meant to be a traditional powerhouse.

Naofumi isn’t supposed to be the kind of overpowered protagonist who can do everything himself; there are three other heroes, even if they’re mostly incompetent. The series’ writing ties his inability to be the star of the show to the use of the Rage Shield, and struggling against that will only hurt him. I mean that literally; one of his finishing moves causes him to gush blood like a fountain.

So Naofumi has a lot more going on than the typical fantasy anime protagonist. He’s not just a grumpy character dropping his guard around his found family, but they’re also dismantling his desire to do everything by himself, and it is organically integrated into the story. Naofumi is literally forced to rely on others, and that translates into his strained relationship with the other heroes, particularly before he clears his name.

Simply put, the other heroes are idiots. They operate like Subaru does early on in Re: Zero; this is a fantasy video game world, so there are no consequences and it’s a chance to cut loose. This attitude results in the Spear Hero unleashing a famine, the Sword Hero slaying a dragon that comes back to life as a deadlier zombie dragon, and the Bow Hero inciting an ill-executed revolution.

Naofumi spends most of his time playing the janitor and cleaning up after the, but these trials force him to become a more competent hero and leader. When the waves of monsters come and he’s forced to collaborate with the other heroes, he’s able to take the lead. Don’t just hand your protagonist the role of a hero; make him earn it by weaving his episodic adventures into the overarching plot.

So no, The Rising of the Shield Hero doesn’t reinvent the genre as we know it, but it has oiled the squeaky wheels and given the viewer a much smoother ride. I’ll reiterate that the first episode is a bumpy ride, but it transforms into one of the easiest and most enjoyable viewing experiences I’ve had in the past couple years. I forget a lot that isekai is supposed to be fun, considering how much garbage gets churned out these days.

I hope it will branch out and broaden its range in the upcoming second season; it’s not quite the top of its genre at this point, but it has a lot more substance than many of its peers. Right now, I’d place it on the high end of good popcorn isekai, edging out the likes of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime and Overlord, but there’s simply too much here for it to not push on.

This will have to take the place of a proper review of Shield Hero’s second season, because if you haven’t seen the post yet, I’m attempting a new format. Instead of doing a handful of in-depth reviews, I’ll be tackling the newer shows in smaller doses. Unfortunately, sequels like Kaguya, Komi, and Shield Hero will have to ride on my strong recommendations in my previous posts.

So while you’re waiting for that seasonal round-up, whether to tell me you love or hate the idea, you can tell me in the comments below or over on my Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. I’ll be talking about the seasonal anime more there, so if you’re missing my usual wordiness, that’s the place to be. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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