We’re more than halfway through The Rising of the Shield Hero, and two things have been consistent: the quality of Kevin Penkin’s incredible soundtrack for the show, and the outrage of many Western anime fans, bloggers and critics over the story’s ‘controversial’ elements. From the first episode alone, many denounced the series for its use of a false rape accusation to establish it’s central conflict, claiming this to be outright misogynistic or simply in poor taste in the wake of ‘#MeToo’ activism. But beyond that initial furor, another outcry has been consistently present on social media.
Before more than a single episode had been released, complaints were abounding that the story was ‘slavery apologism’, and that Crunchyroll would have to distract audiences from this fact as much as possible. ANN’s reviewers have called it ‘pro-slavery’ and rejoiced whether they see signs of it losing out on popularity to other titles. Jacob Chapman has been spinning false narratives about certain scenes and blocking anyone who disagrees or calls him out. But this noise is all tightly bound to the English-speaking, bloggosphere-adjacent part of the global anime fandom. Speaking for Shield Hero‘s publisher Kadokawa, and from his knowledge of Japanese fandom, business producer Junichiro Tamura explained in a reddit AMA earlier this year that there have not been any such controversies regarding the series in Japan.
Most of the arguments about Shield Hero ‘supporting’ slavery rest on a few points: the protagonist buys a slave, and rather than free her he develops a relationship with her whereby they are both happy for her to remain a slave. For the anime adaptation, this decision is one of the cornerstones of the entire plot: as scriptwriter Koyanagi Keigo has explained in an interview with Crunchyroll,
“the story had to revolve around Naofumi and Raphtalia. Two cours is too short to cover everything in the story, so we had to narrow our focus on something that the audience would care most about. And in the end, we thought that “something” had to be the story of these two”.
It can’t be ignored that Naofumi bought a slave because he came to not be willing to trust anyone in the world he had been summoned to. Angry at the establishment around him, and effectively ‘enslaved’ to a quest he didn’t sign up for, he thinks he can only find comfort and security if he has something absolutely beneath him, something he can force to fight for him so that he won’t die when the first ‘wave’ arrives. As a consequence of this character arc, plenty of critics have taken to calling the story ‘angry trash for incel shitheads’ and similar remarks: while Naofumi’s anger isn’t directed solely at women, his thought processes do strike a parallel with those of many disillusioned men around the world who, instead of trying to become the good they think they deserve from the world, stoop to becoming the evil they see in others.
But you’d have to stop watching after the first episode to think that the show puts slavery, or an ‘incel’ mindset, in any ultimately positive light.
It’s worth noting that isekai incorporate video game elements into their worldbuilding because their otherworldliness is designed to be read as distinctly virtual, removed from the real world in the same way someone’s decisions are when playing a video game. In any role-playing game, you can choose to have your hero follow your own personal moral compass, but you can also explore other kinds of ethics without real life consequence. Video games rely on the player having the maturity to distinguish interaction with the game from interaction with reality: we know, if we choose to play as a ‘ chaotic evil’ character, that we’re not telling ourselves we’re evil in real life. It’s an exercise in fantasy play.
Likewise, when appreciating an isekai story, we need to know that a protagonist’s decisions in a virtual world may occur because they see it as virtual. Stealing in a video game is only a crime in that video game. If something in a game is legal when it’s a crime to do in the real world, and it seems beneficial for the player’s progression, the only thing that would prevent them from trying it is the projection of their own personal morality into the character they’re playing. More often than not, this isn’t an issue for people who play video games. After all, it’s just a game.
When Naofumi doesn’t believe he can trust anyone in this new game-like world, he approaches his predicament like he’s playing an RPG. He has barely any money, and he needs to start leveling up fast, but he can’t fight on his own, and he’s unwilling to trust anyone to help him out, so he buys the help he needs. In an interview a few years ago, Aneko Yusagi, the author of Shield Hero, discusses their motivation for his decision:
“As for purchasing a slave, he was forced to do it because of his situation–he needed help from others in a time and place where no one would help him. In the modern world, were people are moved and controlled by money, company employees have a lot in common with slaves.
It is preferable to have morals, but we’ve made a world were the strictly ethical can no longer survive. There are a lot of people out there that simply don’t respond to ethics–in the face of people like that, what option is left besides emotionally insisting on your place and your views? My intention is to show that, in the face of enemies like that, we often have no choice but to launch a counterattack.”
The author sees the purchasing of a slave as unethical, and creative choices in the anime adaptation help emphasize this too. Nothing about the slave merchant’s shop glamorizes the industry that Naofumi takes advantage of: dim light gives us barely a glimpse of the number of captives he has in his cages, and when Naofumi first finds Raphtalia she’s a nearly lifeless husk. The merchant casually remarks that her previous owner tortured her, and that she’s diseased and has a ‘mental disorder’. Still acting in anger and bitter desperation, Naofumi doesn’t react to her poor treatment or condition: he purchases her, watches indifferently as she’s painfully branded with a slave crest, and starts setting her to work for him. He initially uses the slave brand to force her to fight against her will. After the shopkeeper watches him test her ability to fight, he remarks “I don’t know whether it’s our country to blame, or if the kid’s just been corrupted”. The show doesn’t dance around the darkness that permeates Naofumi’s decision to own a slave: we’re not supposed to feel comfortable with this. Not at all.
Following this, the story provides constant contrasts between Naofumi and other masters of slaves. After he remarks that he barely has any money left, Naofumi’s attention is caught by a large man yelling at children moving goods onto his wagon, calling them ‘little shits’ and telling them to ‘get a move on’. Naofumi’s response? He hears Raphtalia’s stomach rumble, and decides to buy her some food. He doesn’t just get her what she needs: he orders what he can tell she wants. He pays attention to what would boost her morale. Though she’s contracted to serve him, he quickly begins to treat her less as a slave and more like an employee: as Aneko noted, ‘company employees have a lot in common with slaves’. He wants her to fight, but he’s not willing to push her beyond her limits, as most slave drivers would with their property.
The second episode of Shield Hero begins to reach its climax as Naofumi seeks to help Raphtalia with her nightmares. Scarred as a child by the devastation of a previous wave, and a particular monster that took her parents, she becomes unable to fight the way Naofumi needs her to. How he phrases his frustration is important: “If you can’t fight, then I won’t be able to look after you any more”. His foregrounds not his needs, but hers. He then goes on to explain the waves, and how he needs to get strong enough to fight them, and that if she can’t help him, he’ll have to find someone else who can; he says this partly to motivate her, but also to be honest about how dependent he has to be on others. But this only comes after he’s stressed that he won’t be able to help her if she can’t help him. This is not a master-slave dynamic: it’s a budding relationship of co-dependence.
When Naofumi and Raphtalia find the monster from her nightmares, Naofumi does something even more unbecoming of a slave master: he takes the position that Raphtalia’s parents once occupied. Though his first thought is to use the slave brand to force her past her psychological turmoil, he quickly abandons this in favour of offering himself as a sacrifice. He tells her that she can escape if she wants to. In doing so, he encourages her to not want to turn her nightmare into a cycle: rather than use her to save himself, he gives Raphtalia someone to save, so that she can save herself from her nightmares and overcome a much greater slavery than any magical contract. Her own psyche is freed, her inner demons overcome.
Think what more Naofumi could have done with Raphtalia if he really saw her as a slave. He could have followed the example of Japanese soldiers in the second World War who forced Korean and Chinese women into sexual slavery as ‘comfort women’. He could have taken out all his frustrations on Raphtalia, but all he cares about is becoming strong enough to go home in spite of his predicament. He only initially uses her slave brand to command her to help him level up, as much of a slaver as a video game protagonist is when ordering their party members. And when he sees Raphtalia hit a psychological wall when it cones to fighting for him, he deviates even more from the idea of a slave driver. Rather than using the slave brand to force her to overcome her fears, Naofumi makes a point of not using the brand, and letting his own life be put on the line so that she can psychologically heal.
Following the second episode, Raphtalia and Naofumi continue to develop dependence on one another: she is his sword, he is her shield. Most brave warriors would wield both, but for Shield Hero these tools are split between two parts of a whole, continually reciprocating support for each other, like one leg holding the body steady while the other moves forward. But as Raphtalia still carries the title of ‘slave’, the kingdom of Melromarc is outraged by their co-operation, seeing nothing beyond the surface and believing that all of Naofumi’s allies can only be victims of his supposedly evil nature.
But the efforts of Myne and the Spear Hero only reveal their own rotten cores: when Naofumi is forced into a duel for Raphtalia’s freedom, no-one validates Raphtalia’s own voice or feelings – she’s literally gagged during the ordeal. The battle isn’t really about her – it’s all about striking a blow against the Shield. She’s objectified by those who claim to be fighting against her use as an object. Myne seems to care about the unethical nature of slavery, but she goes go back to demonizing Raphtalia as a demi-human when she once again sides with the Shield, and neglects the fact that it’s her royal family’s legalization of slavery that put Raphtalia in the predicament of slavery in the first place. All this dramatic irony gives Naofumi more and more reasons to hate this world.
There’s a parallel that can be drawn between Myne, along with the Spear Hero, and privileged people who will support a ‘progressive’ cause only to later reveal that they’re rotten to the core and only appearing morally superior for their own self-benefit: Myne’s actions reflect the ‘white saviour’ trope of Western cinema, where white heroes prove their righteousness by using non-white characters as nothing more than narrative objects, saving them only to make themselves look better in the eyes of other white people. In contrast to Myne, Naofumi ends up being an ‘evil’ hero who actually sees the humanity in those who have been discarded by the privileged.
Some might flinch at the phrase ‘virtue-signalling’ given its overuse on social media, but it has always been rational to distrust those who craft their entire character out of announcing how morally superior they are to others, and who claim to be helping those less privileged than them only to boost their own image and ego. Naofumi, on the other hand, is open about how self-serving he is. But he spends much of the story helping the less fortunate, mopping up the messes that the other heroes create and giving a hand to those who get trodden under the footsteps of those claiming to fight for them.
Just as the Shield is a punching bag for those who proclaim their superior morality in the show, Shield Hero has become a cursed story among many anime critics, who only see the show and its characters as a way of propping up their own public image. The actual thoughts and feelings of Raphtalia are considered as little by these critics as they were by Myne, the Spear Hero and the King while Naofumi fought to keep her by his side: it doesn’t matter what Naofumi says or does with her. So long as she has the title of ‘slave’, the story is evil and those who support it must be shamed. In this way, the story has already cried out against its own critics.
After the events of the duel, Raphtalia chooses to have her slave brand re-applied. It’s a symbolic act of defiance against the mindset of Myne and the Spear Hero, and all of Melromarc. Naofumi cared more about her as a slave than they all did as they were supposedly trying to set her free: she’s happy to be nothing more than a slave in their eyes, because what matters is how she develops a relationship with Naofumi that a simple label can’t define. Later in the show, Naofumi calls her one of his ‘party members’, but even that only scratches the surface when it comes to the bond of co-dependance she has developed with him.
That dependence runs deeper than combat for Naofumi: further into the series, we begin to see Naofumi’s offensive capabilities. The ‘curse series’ of shield upgrades unlocks for him as the injustice of episode four’s duel reaches its peak, but it’s Raphtalia’s kind and encouraging voice that rescues him from being forever lost in that pit of despair. This becomes a continuous pattern: Naofumi only uses the curse shield with reluctance, apologizing for feeling like he needs its power, because he doesn’t want to hurt those who care about him – Raphtalia, Filo, and anyone else who gets caught in the inferno of anger he can create.
Even with Naofumi’s smaller acts of unkindness, Raphtalia is always there to give her disapproval, and we’re placed in her shoes, wanting Naofumi to be better even though he feels justified in being cruel when it suits him. The ultimate conflict of the story isn’t Naofumi trying to triumph against the evils of Melromarc, or the Waves – it’s his companions struggling to help him be strong enough to succeed without giving into the rage within him. The plot is explicitly about denying ‘incel’-like feelings, and only using your anger so long as you can keep those close to you safe.
The extremes the ‘villains’ of the world go to in order to see the Shield defeated render them caricatures, easy targets for venting one’s woes against the world: don’t we all sometimes have people lie about us, who make us want to give up having hope in other people? Shield Hero emphasizes that there’s a way out from giving in to your anger: finding someone to rely on who will also rely on you. Find a close, human relationship, and prioritize protecting it over indulging your own bitter feelings.
It’s important that Raphtalia was initially bought as a slave: early in Shield Hero’s narrative, Naofumi had no interest in connecting with a living being for comfort. But seeing Raphtalia’s trauma made him want to see her set free from the pain she felt, and in return Raphtalia chose to help set him free from his anguish. In the fifteenth episode, Naofumi returns the favour again, encouraging her out of a hole of self-loathing with a reminder that they’ve become dependent on each other for strength. Raphtalia displays this herself before her breakdown, acknowledging that she doesn’t need to act on her anger in order to satisfy herself: she doesn’t need to kill the man who originally enslaved her in order to know that she’s been set free.
How anyone could watch that episode, with its focus on the atrocities of slavery committed by Melromarc, and claim that the show wants you to see the history of slavery in a positive light, is beyond all explanation. The show doesn’t shy away from foregrounding the brutality of torture and dehumanization. How can critics compare these things, which real slaves around the world have experienced, to Naofumi and Raphtalia’s relationship? Even his initial actions of forcing her to fight for him are nothing more than a reflection of what players do with their party members: never thinking about whether the paladin in your party really wants to go in the frontline right now, only thinking about what helps you take down the boss. Naofumi’s initial cruelty is nothing compared to those who have delighted in keeping slaves throughout history, and those who do likewise in the show itself. Claiming that Naofumi’s actions make any supportive commentary on real-life slavery is an insult to every slave who has died horribly at the hands of Western civilization.
Our community should be better than this, but online discourse is being regularly poisoned by people who want to misrepresent shows like Shield Hero to drum up controversy where there should be none so that they have something to scream about. Instead of getting swept up in the clamour of condemnation, we should always pay close attention to what a story is actually saying with its characters and plot points. But really, anyone following Shield Hero should know that the show doesn’t condone or support slavery in the slightest, just as Naofumi’s party know that he’s a real hero at heart. But those privileged in a society love to crush those who can be judged on the surface. Rather than listen to popular journalists who care only about their careers, we need to put what the story says first.
But like Naofumi, we need to not spend all our time lashing out against other people’s lies. Shield Hero fans should speak the truth about the story, and then carry on enjoying it. Getting wrapped up in the wrongdoing of other anime ‘fans’ means spending less time appreciating the shows we love.
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Thank you especially to PhaetonsFolly for becoming a $10 Patron last month!
Apologies again for the slowness of content. I’m still exploring my options for how I want to modify the site. Hopefully if I start getting beter this month I can focus on it more.
Until next time!