Review: The Rising of a Shield Hero Season 1

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In various anime the theme of being transported into another world, under the sub-genre called isekai, is not especially knew, of course. One of my favorite ones was The Vision of Escaflowne from 1996. Modern isekai, for better or worse, have lately been following the formula of not merely transporting the main character or characters from their ordinary mundane lives and depositing them into a fantasy world. Most new isekai now transports the character to a fantasy RPG gaming world — with stat sheets and leveling up quests.

Most of these shows are trash in my opinion. One show I managed to catch last year, and I’ve mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo 2018, was a preview of The Rising of the Shield Hero. This particular show stands above the generic isekai that has lately flooded the industry. Based on a series of light novels by Aneko Yusagi, the anime had a bit of internet controversy which we will get to later but it turns a few fantasy cliches on its head while still following some standard tropes. There is also a series of manga that is adapting the light novels.

Naofumi Iwatani is an otaku college student. One day in the library, he stumbles upon a copy of a book called The Record of the Four Holy Weapons. Believing it is a standard light novel, he begins skimming through it. He sees a description of a world that summons four heroes from another world to battle great waves of evil. He smirks how cliched it is when the heroes are described as a Sword Hero, a Spear Hero, and a Bow Hero. When he gets to the section detailing the different heroes, the entry for the Shield Hero is blank. So of course, magic light happens and he gets yanked out of the mundane world and into another world.

Upon arrival, Naofumi meets the other summoned heroes who are apparently not only from alternate eras of Japan, but from alternate histories as well. For this first season, that fact hasn’t come into play. Each of the other heroes are armed with their perspective weapons. Naofumi is armed with, you guessed it, a shield. In most games, the shield person is a bit useless and has no offensive capabilities.

It seems that the summoned heroes have no choice but to help the kingdom defeat the monstrous hoards that threaten the kingdom in waves. Their only way of returning is by winning. Not only that, they are low level heroes with zero experience. Yes, in the corner of their vision is their stat sheet which tracks their levels and skills. It is determined that they must level up before the first wave arrives and must do so separately. They are each allowed to recruit a party to join them in their leveling up quests.

Unfortunately for Naofumi, no one chooses to join his party initially. Myne, daughter of the King does decide to join him though and they set out to into the world. He acquires some low-level armor and a bit of coin. And after what he feels is a successful day of adventuring and slaughtering orange balloons, he relaxes with a few pints and spends the night in a tavern.

The next morning, he is arrested and accused of a crime he did not commit, the attempted rape of Myne. While in the court of the king, and in front of the other heroes, it is apparent that not only are the charges false, but a set-up my Myne to discredit him.

Controversy One – Let me take a bit to address this as when this episode first aired, there was quite a bit of internet controversy over the idea a false rape charge. Rape is a very  serious real world horror. In this era of Me Too, something like this is sure to generate controversy. And as far as storytelling is concerned it gives  insight to the personality of Myne, who will go on to be one of the most disliked anime character in years. I don’t believe the creator or the producers were trying to make any sort of statement other than to portray Myne as an evil and devious person. If you can get by that, then the anime is worth watching.

No one believes in Naofumi’s innocence and yet, because of his status a the shield hero he can not be imprisoned, executed or even sent back to his world. Instead, he is ostracized as world spread about him about being some sort or monster.

Here is where the show becomes something special. By the second episode, Naofumi is despised and outcast. He is alone and has the entire world hating him for a crime he did not do. One of his few sympathizers is the weapons and armor shopkeeper, who ends up lending him some armor. Since no one is willing to join him, he resorts to acquiring a slave since he can not trust anyone (in this world, slavery is not outlawed, but still looked down on. They are also bound by a spell that ensures obedience.) But because he can not use offensive weapons, he trains his newly acquired slave, a demi-human named Raphtalia to be his sword to his shield.

Controversy Two – Being American, slavery and it’s legacy are hot issues to this day. However, outside of the United States and historically, slavery was treated differently. That is not to say that it was a positive thing to be a slave. In fact, the show even has the most dislikable characters despise slavery. For a much more in depth analysis of the subject, I recommend this well written and unique (it’s a Christian anime website — that’s unique!) and lengthy article at Beneath the Tangles.

As the season progresses, Naofumi’s character arc undergoes quite a change as he acquires more party members. His distrust of everyone around him makes him a perfect anti-hero and at first he does not care about his quests other than a means of leveling himself up and fulfilling his duty as the shield hero so that he can go back to his own world. As time goes on, mostly under the influence of Raphtalia, Naofumi not only begins to trust, but to become concerned for the common folk of the kingdom.

Before long, it seems that Naofumi is left to clean up the mess left after the other heroes. When the bow hero slays a dragon, its rotting corpse begins to spread disease. He ends up ridding the town of the disease and killing the not-quite-dead dragon.

There is much to like about the series, especially the supporting characters. Well, some of the supporting characters are outright despicable. Even though it relies heavily on the tropes of the genre it is trying to subvert, it has enough original elements in it to rise above the average dropped into another world anime. Not everything is straight forward or as what initially as it seems as the later episodes in the season hint at a deeper complexity to the world than what has been seen so far.

Though we mostly follow the exploits of Naofumi, he crosses paths a few times with the other heroes. But being blinded by Naofumi’s reputation and the lies about him they are not automatically trusting of him, even if they do have the same goals. Although, Ren (sword hero)and Itsuki (bow hero)come across later as more open minded and interested in seeking the truth. Motoyasu (spear hero), however, pretty much stays a douche throughout the season.

This is not a grimdark fantasy like Berserk, however and for good or ill it does have it’s lighter moments, mostly involving Naofumi’s companions. But as the season progresses, he does lighten up a bit. And a par for the course, there is a healthy dosage of cute contenders for best girl. The animation is definitely top notch, with well done battle scenes and a unique magic system that does not seem to b confined to any one class. The music by Kevin Penkin is appropriately epic.

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The final episode of the first season ends on both a good closing point and a cliffhanger which is a foreshadow for things to come. At the time of this writing, there has been no announcement for a second season. So if a second season does not happen, even though there is no indication of that, the first season is definitely worth checking out. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

 

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Anime Retrospective: The Vision of Escaflowne

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The Vision of Escaflowne came out in 1996 and it stood out for several reasons. It was not the first mecha, or robot anime, that was retro or took place in a non-modern setting, but it did it incredibly well. It had Steampunk elements with its blend of giant robots battling it out and medieval settings and fantasy tropes. Normally this would have been a perfect scenario for a cliched male protagonist. The Vision of Escalowne turned that on its head by not only having a girl as the main character but also making it a robot fighting anime with romance. With music composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi, The Vision of Escaflowne would go on to become a classic in anime history.

The premise seem almost cliched now. Hitomi is a typical high school girl with no care other than running track and her school crush who she has of course not confessed to yet.  She is popular, studious, and relatively independent for a high school girl. She likes to tell fortunes with tarot cards for her friends and actually has a slight ability to see the future. But lately she has been plagued by visions of another world that is not her own. While out at the track, preparing to confess to her crush, when a dragon suddenly appears on the school grounds. Fighting it is Van, who it turns out is from a world called Gaea.

Once there, she becomes embroiled in a war raged by the empire of Zaibach against the many other nations of the world. The inhabitants of the world are a rich and diverse melting pot of races, and species. The different nations each have their own distinct history and culture.

And of course there are the fighting mechs called Melefs which are about four meters tall and Guymelefs which are about ten meters tall. These are basically specialized armor for elite fighters and look really damn good in action.  Check out the video clip below for a sample.

Van, who we are introduced in earlier is s prince about to inherit the kingdom of Fenalia, must deal with the aftermath of the destruction of his kingdom by Zaibach and learn to control the Guymeleth called Escaflowne which is powered by the heart of the dragon that he had slain with the hep of Hitomi. Escaflowne is not just any sort of mech – it is powered by the heart of a dragon afterall. It can transform into a flying mech-dragon. That alone is worth checking out.

But the storytelling is definitely a complex mix and stands above the generic idea of good guys vs, bad guys. Hitomi may start of as a typical high school girl and a little too damsel in distress in the beginning but her character growth through the series is believable. The romantic triangle that she is involved in may be a bit off-putting. Cuz we know it’s always meant to be Hitomi and Van.

The production and storytelling really do hold up considering the age of it. And yes, it is hand drawn animation with may seem jarring to some of you youngins but because it is done traditionally and still looks as good as modern anime, it shows the quality and the care that went into the making of it. This show is a classic in animation even in an age where it seems almost every other anime is about someone getting transported to another world, this stands above that because it does not rely on gaming tropes but good storytelling and characters to

The Vision of Escaflowne is available to stream subtitled on Crunchyroll and dubbed on Funimation Now. Note that these are remastered episodes of The Vision of Escaflowne and some episodes are extended. Funimation created a new dub for this release. I prefer physical media, however, and fortunately it is available as a series box set. The series set does have some of the non-extended episodes in the original Bandai dub available as an alternate track for those who prefer it. I do find the new dub serviceable but there are a few voices I prefer from the old dub.

Final Score 8.5/10