Rising of the Shield Hero: From Subverting to Embracing Troupes.
by Christopher W Gamsby
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The illustrations are from The Rising of the Shield Hero Light Novel by Aneko Yusagi, Illustrated by Minami Seira. I (Christoper W. Gamsby) colored in the pictures.
Major Spoilers for Book 1 to 16!
Great Start - Started off looking like a typical harem, but Myne turned out to be a sociopathic liar in league with religious fundamentals.
The Rising of the Shield Hero had a great start. When Naofumi first appears and none of the warriors wants to be in his party, a single warrior volunteers and offers to help the crestfallen hero. She's beautiful, kind, and seems to like Naofumi at least a little bit. A pretty inoffensive start as far as anime goes (I watched the show before reading the light novels), but nothing special either. That made me lose a little interest, since I generally am not a big fan of a harem in anime/manga. Not that I have a personal problem with it per se, but it usually makes the characters kind of boring if the episodes/chapters focus too much on infighting for the guy.
I still wasn't sure if this was going to be centered around a core couple like Lucy/Natsu from Fairy Tail or a typical style of harem like Negima has in Negima! Magister Negi Magi. There could be other aspects of the show I might like, such as the world-building (e.g., That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime). It could have a subversive nature to the show (e.g., Overlord). I only knew the show had some kind of controversial beginning, even though that is pretty much everything these days. So, I figured I might as well see how it goes.
It was pretty bog-standard until the infamous plot twist where Malty falsely accuses Naofumi of rape. Hold on a second, there is a knock on my door. I've just been informed that I need to call her Bitch or risk going to jail. So, I will do that from now on. Turns out, Bitch isn't some love-struck starry-eyed maiden. She is a sociopath who was willing to frame the shield hero to appease religious zealots in the hopes of regaining her status as the first in line for the throne.
Needless to say, that one act set the stage for the first arc of the light novels and sent Naofumi spiraling into depression and rage.
Touching relationship with Raphtalia - Desperate, poor, and lonely, the shield hero was approached by a slave trader. He purchased the best slave he could afford, which was a sickly demi-human girl named Raphtalia. She starts off looking like a small child, and Naofumi takes her in to teach her to fight. Naofumi starts to show her compassion, and they begin to understand each other over time.
Raphtalia wants to fight the waves alongside the shield hero so that there won't be other orphans like her. In the world of the Shield Hero, demi-humans grow as they level up until they look like adults and then continue to age normally. So, Raphtalia quickly begins to look like a grown woman, even though they only spent a few weeks (days?) together. (I'm thinking of writing about how the narrative time is much much shorter than how long it feels like has passed. Let me know in replies on twitter/Facebook if that is something you'd like to see!). In retrospect, except for Fohl, this doesn't seem to happen to any of the girls at the village. Keel, Wyndia, and Atla all come to mind as looking pretty much the same despite having what should be really high levels.
Back on Track! Naofumi and Raphtalia's relationship grows until Bitch tries to sabotage it at a celebration dinner after stopping one of the waves. After losing in a duel to the spear hero because of Bitch's interference, Raphtalia's slave crest is stripped away. Mal... erm... Bitch and Trash assume she will run away and leave. Naofumi does as well, and his hatred for the world swells. The crushing loneliness of scraping by alone in the woods seeps into his being. The shield of wrath unlocks, and his hatred consumes him further.
At his lowest, with no one at his side and the whole country's disdain looming over him, Raphtalia comes back. I found this moment to be one of the most affecting in the entire series and possibly the most moving scene I've read/watched in any anime/manga/novel. Again this scene is masterfully done and was only possible due to the time it took to show they meant more to each other than one-sided love.
It would take several more books for Raphtalia to realize that she was falling in love, and fifteen books for Naofumi come to terms with his feelings.
Toeing the line- Things start to get a little iffy.
Filo starts as daughter figure, allude to romance- Filo is a Chocobo-like monster known as a filolial. At first, Filo looks like a normal bird monster, then becomes a big bird monster, and then looks like a little girl. At the start of the relationship, it is very father/daughter. It was adorable to see and added an interesting dynamic. It was a little like Filo was the proxy daughter in Naofumi/Raphtalia's budding relationship. At least that is how I saw it in my headcanon, and would like to have seen that relationship explored. It really wasn't to be, and Filo's relationship changed into something more of a naive competition for Naofumi's affection.
I call it naive because it is played off that she doesn't seem to understand exactly what it means to be Naofumi's mate. Instead, she just wants to compete for his affection anyway. Eventually, Filo is pushed off into the margins of the story to make room for other characters like Sadeena, Shildena, and Atla. She hardly has much impact on the story outside of combat between books eleven and sixteen. Even the potential child role is taken over for a little while by Raph-chan. Even that was taken in a different direction too.
Melty starts as a stranger - Melty is Bitch's sister, but pretty much the complete opposite. She's introduced as a McGuffin that needed to be moved from place to place. Bitch targets Melty to get back in line for the throne and gain favor with the church by framing the shield hero. Since this isn't a recap of the light novels, I'll just say stuff happens, and all is well again. At the end of the arc, the queen asks Naofumi to marry Melty, and he curtly refuses.
It was out of left field, and I don't think it happened in the Anime, so I wasn't expecting it. An arranged marriage felt pretty natural in the story since a queen would likely offer a political marriage to the Shield Hero. That wasn't going to be the last time the author tried putting in stuff like that. Some were kind of clever like how nobles were trying to sneak their daughters into the slave markets to get Naofumi to buy them. Some were pretty fan-servicey like when an entire room full of naked demi-human women try to seduce Naofumi.
I rolled my eyes a little at how every single female character was introduced as some variation of 'the prettiest woman I've ever seen.' This was said with a wink and nod once, so it might be some kind of in-joke. That leads me to the probably most cringe-worthy thing I've ever read. While mourning, Naofumi tries to sleep with the different members of his harem, and it is just awful. He gets turned down as they don't want him like that, but it took what could have been an interesting/complex emotional time and just made it super awkward.
Going full bore Harem
Sadeena - Atla - Shildina -
The introduction of Sadeena represents The Rising of the Shield Hero, going full bore into becoming a harem. She's first introduced to readers as she is watching tournament fights with Naofumi and explaining the different types of tournaments. As you can tell from the first picture of her in the light novels (see above), she is pretty sexualized. I like fan service if done well, and just because a character is fan service doesn't mean they can't be deep and fascinating as well. Lucy in Fairy Tail , for example, plays a large part in the fan service in that show/manga, but she is also the reader's POV character and the emotional heart of everything that happens. You can have both.
Around the second or third time Naofumi and Sadeena meet, she gives him a kiss and says that she hopes he lives through the tournament. At that point, I just kind of went 'Oh, no.' Later on, you find out that she wants to marry the person who can out-drink her. She tried to poison him with Rucolo (sp?) fruit, which is pure alcohol, and fell in love when he didn't die. After starting as an enemy and then joining forces with the shield hero, her character is mostly defined by teasing/trying to seduce Naofumi.
Everything that could make her interesting: the failure to save Raphtalia's parents, guilt at finding out she had a sister she didn't save, her desire to protect Raphtalia, teaching magic, or wanting to weed out the corruption of her homeland, all become side notes written around the main focus which is her lust for Naofumi.
Shildina is a relatively minor character compared to Sadeena, but Shildina becomes the same as Sadeena but worse. That's especially ironic since most of what makes her interesting is trying to get out of Sadeena's shadow. She was raised to fulfill the shrine maiden role that Sadeena abandoned, but she turned out to be weaker. Naofumi was kind and played some card games with her once, and she fell madly in love. An even flimsier excuse than Sadeena. After that, she gives him a vital McGuffin, despite not even knowing who he was.
Like Sadeena, most of what you find out about her is just written in the side notes, as most of her interactions within the story center around wanting Naofumi. So far (only the first 16 books are out in English at the time of writing this), the harem aspects culminate in the introduction of Atla.
Atla was a colossal waste - Poor, sweet, little Atla. She was so sick from birth that she could little more than eat. She recovered after Naofumi gave her a special potion that healed all of her wounds, and she, you guessed it, fell instantly and madly in love with him. I could write an entirely new blog post about why Atla's death wasn't nearly as impactful as it could have been (let me know on social media if you would be interested in that!). It is strange to say that I felt much more at the death of Raphtalia's friend (who was such a minor character I can't even remember her name) than a character who was the center of attention for four whole books.As far as the harem aspects go, she just ended up not being that interesting of a character. There was a lot of potential, but it ended up being entirely wasted. Her role was centered around being a Mary Sue at fighting and being entirely infatuated with Naofumi. We are told that she has had a life of suffering and pain, but we only see her sick for a few pages before she is completely cured. We watch her fawn over Naofumi to the extent that she is fighting her brother and being sedated, but we are *told* it is she wants to be useful to him. She is the opposite of Raphtalia, who we saw suffer before being healed and who was terrible at fighting.
The second aspect is that she is redundant to the story. Raphtalia, Sadeena, and Shildena are already openly in love with Naofumi. There are even a lot of ambiguous characters like I discussed above with Filo and Melty. Since Atla is so one dimensional, you don't feel a significant loss with her death. Several others can already fill her niche in the narrative. You aren't mourning some great love that can now never be, because Sadeena is there to be the over-bearing love interest. Raphtalia is the one true love, so she isn't lost because of that.
If Atla was the first character to openly show love toward Naofumi, she could have been more serious competition for Raphtalia. That competition could have lead to pushing forward Raphtalia and Naofumi's relationship and break the stagnancy that built up over the last ten books or so. However, since there was a constant stream of woman falling over in love with Naofumi, just having another hanger-on didn't really change the stakes very much.
The last aspect is that dealing with Atla became a huge time suck in those four books that could have been filled with something more interesting. If Atla was given a more complex characterization, the time spent fighting with Fohl or sneaking into Naofumi's bed chambers could have been used elsewhere. Maybe the medicine could have stopped the symptoms, but didn't cure the disease. Then the narrative time would need to be spent finding a cure. With the example I gave above, Naofumi and Atla could have met to craft something to remedy the disease (like a potion) or manage it better (like a magic bracelet).
Atla and Fohl could have had a relationship where they fought about her fighting and making herself worse vs. her wish to be useful to people. Disagreements where people both want what's best, but disagree on why it is best is way more interesting than just having a girl stalker vs. her brother. It is not unreasonable he wants her to stop doing that, but absurd to think her forcing her one-sided affections is OK.
Good Bye - Anyway, I hope that my long ramblings didn't give the reader the impression that I don't like The Rising of the Shield Hero. I actually think it is pretty great. I just also feel that the harem aspect is really a fly in the ointment and made it not as amazing as it could be. If you liked these musings, please give me a follow on social media or give my web novel a shot! Thank you for reading!