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.