Understanding Pacing & Potential: Featuring Shield Hero

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Shield Hero is one of the most frustrating stories I’ve ever come across and that’s not just true of the anime.  In prior posts about the show my main complaint is that the anime deliberately tones down some of the darker aspects of the story which made the manga so appealing.  And while this is true even the manga has a serious flaw – it blows it’s load way too early.  There will be MAJOR SPOILERS, you’ve been warned.

The thing which drew me to Shield Hero in the first place was that the story went out of it’s way to make Naofumi a pariah.  He wasn’t the OP swordsman, winning the hearts of girls everywhere with his gamer skills or otaku knowledge – instead he’s so ostracized and so limited by his own power that he’s forced to buy a slave to fight for him.  His story was not a glorious one, told from the perspective of a typical hero.  It was a bitter, resentful and angry tale about a man who has been screwed and isolated by the world he needs to protect – but it’s in this very crucible from which his strength is forged.  So far so good, the story checks out, it hits all the right notes.  There’s just one problem, this part of the story is basically over by the end of the second wave and it will be completely over by the end of the next arc, as the remnants of the forces which have persecuted Naofumi from day 1 struggle desperately against his growing fame.

By the end of the second waves though, Shield Hero takes an important, and ultimately detrimental turn, it makes everyone else look like a joke.  By this point Naofumi isn’t just stronger than the other Heroes, he makes them look like total chumps.  Even Raphtalia and Firo are portrayed as far more competent.  In addition, Myne and the King are no longer even vaguely threatening as villains, many of the local people adore Naofumi thanks to his work and to top it all off this gap between Naofumi and the other Heroes will only get wider.  What started out as the harsh, abrasive story of a man struggling against the world he’s been forced to protect eventually gets really close to a typical light novel hero story about an OP guy.  It’s honestly a bit depressing.  Thank fuck the manga at least made Naofumi so bitter and resentful early on that even when the story calms down he can get darker than does now in the anime.

The goodwill earned by the early portion of the story has kept me and others around to see where the story goes but I think the author made a giant fucking mistake in having the tables be turned so quickly.  The world of Shield Hero is not even remotely interesting, the cities, people and monsters are generic and what mysteries there are behind the plot to captivate us take so long to get anywhere that’s it easy to lose interest.  The magic is boring as shit and is terribly named even by light novel standards so that can’t be used for anything either. What made Shield Hero appealing is the struggle, the regular good guy side of Naofumi struggling with his inner demons, brought to the fore by the powers that be and their persecution of him.  The Naofumi who scraped by, the realist who did good deeds when he could, for a price – that guy was way more interesting than you’re average hero.  It was even better when you consider his need to maintain a sort of balance with the other Heroes, if he never interacted with them he would be perpetually out of the loop, but obviously due to their mistrust of him and his justifiable rage at them and the situation he finds himself in, he can’t be around them often.

What Naofumi had in the early part of the story, and what he’s basically about to lose in the anime, is that he had a very Guts-esque slant to his character.  He was on his own against powers that terrorized the world and the authorities that benefited from his deeds were not on his side.  And much like Guts does in his own story, had Naofumi been kept in the same position narratively speaking, he would’ve run the risk of becoming too monstrous in his isolation.  Berserk is a fantastic manga and while I would never even think of putting Shield Hero in the same class of storytelling, here’s a ramble about what I mean.  In Berserk, quite possibly my favorite arc is the Lost Children arc.  It’s also arguably the most brutal arc of the entire manga, or at least it’s the arc where Guts is at his most brutal.  Unlike later chapters where managing the Berserker Armor is a major concern, in the Lost Children arc Guts is always in control of his own actions.  There are countless individual panels in this arc that striking in their brutality, that illustrate just how far down the rabbit hole of hate and vengeance Guts has gone.  It gets to the point that the main villainess of the arc basically asks who the real monster is here, and it serves a vital turning point in the story.

It’s basically the last warning to Guts that he’s become so single-minded, so consumed by his hate that he’s lost sight of his other goal, protecting/restoring Casca.  What I found so damn awesome about the Lost Children arc is not just it’s narrative significance though, it’s what it depicts that I find truly fascinating.  It shows us someone driven to their absolute limit, someone who doesn’t balk at the horror and carnage he brings in his wake, who relentlessly and ruthlessly destroys all who stand before him no matter the cost.  Lost Children poses a terrifying answer to the hypothetical question “how far will you go?”  It doesn’t really matter what the goal is, it’s the means by which you achieve it and Lost Children depicts Gut’s boundless rage, his need for the fight and his drive taken to a logical extreme in the worst possible direction.  What does all this have to do with Shield Hero?  I want to see Naofumi treading this path longer.

Mind you I never want him to be Guts or go nearly that far, but I do want him to spend more time as the pariah.  You could even leave the Second Wave arc mostly unchanged.  Instead of it serving as a shift from Naofumi’s dark days to his future glories it should be a wake up call to the other Heroes.  Imagine how much more interesting Shield Hero would be if, rather than Naofumi being indispensable while the other Heroes seem more and more useless, by the third wave the other Heroes have gotten serious and suitably beefed themselves up enough to manage mostly without him.  What would he have to do to catch up, how would he prove his worth all over again?  Does he even fight with them anymore or has the persecution gotten so bad that he ditches this kingdom and only serves one of the demi-human ones?  The possibilities are endless.

Naofumi is at his most interesting when it’s him and his crew on their own.  He’s at his best when he’s torn between being a good guy for his companions’ sake or giving the world the finger because of how he’s been treated.  Why?  OP light novel heroes with girls aplenty are a dime a dozen, they’re incredibly boring unless you do a fantastic job making one.  But Naofumi as he was in the beginning of Shield Hero, that was the glue that held the story together.  Because early Naofumi is not an archetype, he’s much more unique and his situation has us explore themes and ideas which most of these light novel isekai stories never touch.  In blunt terms, early Naofumi deeply resonated with people, because he was more like a person.  He wasn’t as likable, he wasn’t as heroic, he probably even drove some people away for being too messed up but he also didn’t feel like the hero of a story, he felt like real dude in a fucked-up fantastical situation.

Ultimately one of Shield Hero’s greatest strengths is the tightrope Naofumi has to balance on.  His instinct is to be good, the political situation and his own financial one forces him to be realistic and yet there is clearly great power available to him via the Curse Shield if he indulges his darkest urges.  Naofumi in that stage of the story is a character who can go a lot of different places.  I feel like Naofumi could have become a truly amazing character if the author was willing to keeping him living life as the pariah for longer, he just has so much more to do.  He can try to be a better person and fail or get sabotaged – or he can descend into further bitterness and risk being consumed by his Curse power.  And importantly he can journey to and from either of these ends.  He doesn’t have to be good all the time, or bad all the time, he can shift in one direction or the other from arc to arc, based on the challenges ahead of him.  And just as importantly, the other Heroes will get a chance to shine as well.  Instead of basically being total jokes as the story goes, they too could develop into important and complex characters as they have to square their weakness with their feelings toward Naofumi, and how much their attitude shifts as Naofumi changes both in strength and character.  That’s a story that sounds way more interesting than what we will get – which is basically Naofumi’s victory lap until the end of the third wave, and after that the other Heroes are so fucking useless they basically don’t matter.

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It’s OK to be Dark & (a little) Edgy: Shield Hero Eps 2-3 Review

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In my last post about Shield Hero, my main concern was that while the anime would add valuable details that the manga glossed over, it would not lean into the darker aspects of the manga hard enough.  And this would be a shame because it was the darkness, the severity of the discrimination against Naofumi and his own bitterness and vitriol towards this world that screwed him out the gate, that made the early chapters of manga fucking awesome.  The anime is unfortunately apparently trying to be the kid friendly version of Shield Hero – and so they fucked it up.  There will be spoilers.

One of the details added to the manga almost immediately after Naofumi gets the false rape charge which is apparently triggering SJWs because they can’t just let a story be a story is that he gets these bags under his eyes which immediately make him look a hell of a lot meaner.  It gave him a perpetual glare that consistently scared Raphtalia before the two had their big bonding moment after killing the demon dog.  Most importantly though the bags which caused Naofumi to have his perpetual glare really helped sell his bitterness.  They enhanced his dialogue, when he made a threat he really did look like the kind of guy who would fucking act on it.  In the anime the only scenes that sort of get this are when the merchant tries to screw him in Ep 1, when the bandits want to mug him under the guise of joining his party in Ep 1, and when he almost lets the guards die in Ep 3.

But as important as the bags and the resulting glare are as visual enhancements of every scene it is ultimately the attitude which matters.  Can the anime tap into the core of Naofumi, the man unjustly branded a criminal and hurled out of proper society, with the dark shift in attitude such a life style entails?  The answer seems to be no.  Not only is this a problem in the current episodes and episode 4 soon to follow, it’s going to be a major problem down the line and anyone who has read the manga knows what I’m talking about.  Naofumi will eventually gain a power which is entirely birthed from his hatred of the world and the assholes who have tried to keep him down – and importantly this power is a major fucking plot point on several occasions.  Obviously the anime will give him the power in question anyway because there would be no way the story could continue without it.  But that begs the question, if this power is so vital to the story going forward shouldn’t the anime do everything in it’s power to make it seem like something Naofumi really deserves, that the darkness from whence it came seems as intense as the story can manage while hitting the right story beats?  I obviously think so, hence why I’m annoyed at the anime.

Here’s an example.  In Ep 3 just before the wave hits Naofumi and Raphtalia go and buy some better gear.  In the anime the only options for Naofumi are barbarian armor (it was called tribal armor in the manga but whatever same shit) which is ultimately what he ends up getting and plate armor.  They kind of jokingly bypass the plate armor saying it would rob Naofumi of his individuality, and settle on the barbarian armor.  In the manga the options are the barbarian armor and a set of chainmail.  Raphtalia is super pumped about getting Naofumi the chainmail before he yells “I’m not wearing that fucking thing!” or something to that effect because it’s a legitimate trigger of his.  Remember he had bought chainmail before when it was just him and Mein, and she stole it and gave it to Motoyasu the Spear Hero.  He quite reasonably has bad associations with chainmail and thus doesn’t buy it even if it’s the better armor.  This scene matters in the manga not just because it reinforces Naofumi’s bitter attitude, it plays into the next scene where the other heroes confront Naofumi when he visits the magical hourglass to see when the wave is coming.  By comparison his decision not to buy plate armor doesn’t really make sense beyond an aesthetic preference and/or a general misunderstanding of how plate armor works.  Plate armor is commonly presented as though it’s too heavy to use unless you’re big and strong but it’s not even remotely true.  You can sprint and do flips and shit in full plate armor because it’s designed to distribute the weight to hinder the wearer’s movements as little as possible.

Point is the anime scene is a dumb joke, the manga equivalent is genuinely important both as it’s own scene and in how it flows into the rest of the chapter.  Because following the blacksmith scene the heroes have a confrontation by the magical hourglass as Motoyasu first hits on Raphtalia before he starts to tell she won’t be safe with Naofumi because he’s a rapist.  Naofmui interrupts him and storms off with Raphtalia but the darkness again a decisive factor in how both the manga and anime turn out so differently.  In the anime even when Naofumi is giving his best glare the whole scene makes him feel impotent, which it was supposed to, but afterwards the anime cuts to a scene of Naofumi quietly grinding herbs while Raphtalia tries to ask about the rumors but Naofumi brushes her off.  In the manga Naofumi looks like he’s straight up about to attack Motoyasu, he looks berserk enough to do it if pushed any further and while ultimately he still leaves the scene feeling impotent, in the manga he storms out into the fields and when Orange Balloon demons attack he tells Raphtalia to stand back because “I really want to hit something right now” and then he proceeds to spend the entire evening punching the demons to death while swearing like a sailor at the top of his lungs to vent his rage.

Look at the difference here.  Not only does the darkness within Naofumi in the manga make each individual scene better than it’s anime equivalent but it gives the chapter a very strong buildup with each scene and the emotions they bring flowing into each other flawlessly as Naofumi, who was becoming a bit nicer as his trust in Raphtalia grew, is thrust right back down to his emotional nadir.  He’s confronted by the armor that he wore and which was later stolen from him when he was betrayed, he has to see the other heroes who hate his guts again (and Mein too because she’s Motoyasu’s companion), he’s made to feel impotent because the system is rigged against him during his confrontation with Motoyasu ,and then when his hatred and rage reach their peak Naofumi finds an outlet, weakass monsters he can spend hours beating to death, before he faces the wave the next day.  By comparison the anime scenes flow into each other from stray lines of dialogue, specifically when the blacksmith tells Naofumi about the magical hourglass and when Motoyasu mentions the rumors about Naofumi.  In the former case Naofumi obviously just goes where the blacksmith tells him to go, while in the latter Raphtalia tries to ask about the rumors Motoyasu mentioned but Naofumi won’t give her an answer.  But there is no flow of emotions, no buildup of tension, no cathartic release.  It’s just kind of flat.

Look if you think I’m being to hard on the anime or whatever, I think the anime is fine.  If it were a totally original IP I would not be complaining, and as a standalone experience the anime is decent.  I’m just annoyed because the manga is better than decent and I want the anime to be too.  I want the manga to spring to life and improve in the anime, not for the anime to be a family friendly, milquetoast version of the manga – which sad is what we seem to be getting.

Personally I think part of the problem is that Naofumi is ultimately too nice anyway, even in the manga he rarely goes harder than looking menacing and speaking of the world and inhabitants with scathing venom.  He’s not really a bad guy even when he’s mad enough to be.  Maybe the anime is toning it down because the director sees that and wants Naofumi to never seem all that dark to begin with.  But to me this feels like a marketing decision.  It feels like the producers said to tone it down, to make Naofumi a more sympathetic character, to drain the darkness as it were so that product will appeal to wider demographic and sell more blu-rays – not understanding that the darkness is not just integral to the story in an artistic sense but also that was the darkness that drew many of us in the first place.

I will probably keep watching Shield Hero but as it stands I don’t see how it will ever live up the manga so long as they keep toning it down.  And that sucks because I prefer anime to manga in a general sense.  I would rather watch a good anime than read a good manga.  But in Shield Hero’s case it looks like the manga is the way to go.  See you in the next one.

The Devil is in the Details: Ep 1 of Shield Hero vs Manga

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Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  Why the fuck am I comparing the manga adaptation of a light novel to the anime adaptation of a light novel instead of going back to the source material?  Simple, I don’t read light novels so the manga is the only other thing I have to go on.  More to the point I quite like the manga and some of the differences between how it’s chapters were handled as compared to episode 1 of the anime are noteworthy enough to mention in terms of how to write and direct scripts and their relevant scenes.  There will spoilers for episode 1 and the corresponding manga chapters only.

For those who’ve not seen the episode nor read the manga, here’s a brief explanation.  Naofumi is warped from Japan into another world via a fantasy novel he starts reading.  When arrives he finds that 3 other Japanese boys of roughly the same age range have been summoned as well to save a fantasy kingdom from the incoming wave of monsters.  All of four Japanese boys, the 4 Heroes, are locked into using a sacred weapon and in Naofumi’s case it is a tiny shield.  They are then given companions so they can go out in separate groups and level up from the coming wave.  For reasons he doesn’t know Naofumi is discriminated against very early on by the upper crust of the fantasy kingdom and he is falsely accused of rape by his only companion and is cast out in shame in short order.  From there he will have to find his own way.

The main difference between anime and manga thus far are the degrees of extremity.  The manga is much more heavy handed in regards to the condemnation of Naofumi, our titular Shield Hero.  The discrimination against him is both more blatant and the details justifying any of it are scant.  By comparison, in the anime there much more mild discrimination against him until the rape charge and most of it has some circumstantial evidence to justify itself on, like the fact the other Heroes seem more familiar with the mechanics of this world because they experienced gamers.  Likewise the manga frames Naofumi as an actual rapist whereas the anime makes his crime an attempted rape.

By and large I like that the anime added extra details.  The kingdom spying on the Heroes to find out about Naofumi’s lack of knowledge, which they then use as a pretext for not helping him is n especially good touch. But there other details which do add to the experience as well.  In the manga it is not spelled out until much later that the fantasy kingdom holds women in higher regard than men, while that is made clear in episode 1 of the anime.  This is important because it means the punishment for Naofumi is heavier and that his accuser’s claim is given more weight.  Having the guards plant a torn nightgown was also an excellent touch as it makes the overwhelming shift of everyone condemning the Shield Hero more believable.  Perhaps most important though, the anime establishes that the other Heroes not only come from different Japans (i.e. worlds/times/realities) but it showcases some of their weakness of character from the beginning without making them assholes.

One of the weaker parts of manga was that the other Heroes, who otherwise lacked any apparent flaws, were so condescending to Naofumi from the beginning, it did make his hate more justified but all the same it was almost cartoony in just how heavy handed it was.   By contrast in the anime the other Heroes have more entitled attitudes, as later manga chapters would detail, right from the beginning but they are not total dicks to Naofumi until the false rape charge.  They might tease him a little because he was stuck with the shield or doesn’t have as strong a grasp on RPG mechanics but on the whole they treat him as one of the guys.  And while that obviously shifts when they believe the quite believable – in the anime – rape charge, it does make the other Heroes stronger characters, with more nuance, adaptability and true to life behaviors and attitudes.

That said I vastly prefer the extremity of Naofumi’s response in the manga.  In the anime he gets pissed and wants to leave, and when the fantasy king explains that he can’t until the 4 Heroes defeat all the waves, he says ‘fine I’ll fight the waves on my own/my own way.’  In the manga his hatred of the fantasy kingdom post-rape accusation is much more pronounced, he says to himself ‘this world can burn for all I care’ and laughs when he finds out that the other Heroes are stuck with him before storming off to do things his own way.  I felt that Naofumi’s reaction in the manga was way more appropriate considering the false rape claim and the fact that word of his crime was spread throughout the kingdom.  Moreover the way the manga leans so hard into his anger and bitterness, in his dialogue, attitude and in the artwork, was what really caught my attention.

There are also a few edits which baffle me.  The worst is that when Naofumi first wakes up he looks like he fell asleep playing a goddamn MMORPG, whose mechanics he is later shown to have virtually no grasp of.  In the manga he described himself as an otaku who didn’t play games and his exposure to this world was from a book while the other Heroes were sucked via their respective games.  This is super important especially in the anime which bases a number of it’s best changes on the conceit that Naofumi didn’t know things the other Heroes did, in this case RPG mechanics.  Given that, why in the fuck would ANYONE ok a scene where he’s playing any kind of game at all, let alone one which looks the part of an RPG or MMORPG?  Setting that blunder aside I thought the merchant scenes were clumsy.  In the anime Naofumi sells worthless monster drops to a merchant who tries to screw him, pulls his own fast one on the merchant and then sells healing herbs without a problem.  In the manga they forgo the monster drops and have Naofumi sell the herbs to the merchants who tries to screw him before Naofumi pulls his fast one on the shady merchant.  It just seems so much more elegant in the manga and more efficient as well.

All told I think Shield Hero got off to a strong start with mostly good changes from the manga, though I worry the anime will not lean into Naofumi’s bitterness and rage hard enough if episode 1 is anything to go by.  I do hope I’m wrong on that count though. Thank you for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.