It’s isekai done right.
Those that keep up with the seasonal anime scene have no doubt heard of the “isekai” genre, whether they know it by name or not. Isekai, roughly translating to “other world” shows, typically go like this: a young, male, otaku protagonist mysteriously gets transported into a fantasy world auspiciously similar to his favorite video game or some such thing. Once there, our protagonist finds that his knowledge and abilities of the modern world make him well-equipped to become the hero of this fantasy world. Oh, and of course, he’s usually surrounded by a host of beautiful women who are just oh so happy to compete for his affection. Naturally.
I’m sure you can already realize that a vast majority of these shows are simplistic fantasies that exist as vessels for wish fulfillment. As such, they’re typically boring, generic, and lack creative integrity. They’re power fantasies, plain and simple, and as such, don’t have much going for them in the story department, since their purpose isn’t to present an interesting story, but to make the viewer live vicariously through the protagonist.
Enter “The Rising of the Shield Hero”, an anime that exists as a “response” of sorts to the isekai genre. It takes the expectations of this kind of show and flips it entirely on its head. Meet Naofumi Iwatani, a typical isekai protagonist who comes across a magical book that describes the legend of four cardinal heroes, each given a specific weapon to save a medieval world from catastrophe. Once Naofumi reads the book, he’s summoned into said medieval world as one of these heroes: the shield hero.
Initially, Naofumi is excited at the prospect of being this hero, but finds that things aren’t as ideal as they seem. Turns out, the shield hero is considered the weakest of the four, and looked down upon by both the other three heroes and the general populace. While the other three get powerful, heroic weapons, Naofumi is stuck with a shrinky-dink shield that can’t hurt anyone. Furthermore, once he’s sent on his heroic quest to train before the “waves” of monsters that are set to destroy the kingdom arrive, he is betrayed his only party member, who cons him into getting convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, leaving him summarily in exile.
Weak, outcast and destitute, Naofumi’s starry-eyed dreams quickly turn to desperate cynicism, as he finds himself trapped in a world that is less of a fantasy and more of a prison. This leaves him with nothing but his wits and determination to become stronger so he can defeat the evil of this world and find his way back home. Starting from nothing, he’s able to work out ways of defeating monsters, one experience point at a time, and buys a slave, a demi-human (Raccoon girl) named Raphtalia, who becomes his close friend and ally, since she is able to wield a sword and he is not.
The world of Shield Hero is unjust and unkind, much like our own, which gives it a pertinence that no other isekai can touch. And since Naofumi is faced with basically the entire world against him, the audience can empathize with him a more meaningful way. Stories are based on empathy and conflict, with legitimate challenges for human characters being the most fundamental aspect of any good story. This is why most isekais are like the equivalent of cotton candy: fluffy, sweet, but entirely insubstantial. Shield Hero goes completely in the other direction, and the show is all the better for it.
Things aren’t perfect here, though. The show is most lacking in its art direction and voice acting. The vocal performances of the English voice actors are still somewhat stinted, and the animation, while functional, is nothing to write home about. The artwork still falls into the category of “Generic medieval fantasy”, and there are some moments of bad cgi that can put a damper on otherwise fine scenes.
This show is an enjoyable, self-aware, take on the genre, incorporating elements of video games as being an actual part of the world, which gives a feeling of progression to Naofumi’s struggle. Even though it is a fantasy world, it has a commitment to realism which puts it head and shoulders above what usually comes from this genre. It’s only six episodes in, which means it has plenty of time to grow or let me down, but from what I’ve seen, I’m excited to see how it turns out. It’s good to see something worthwhile finally come out of the isekai genre.