Isekai is easily the most ubiquitous genre in today’s anime and manga. While this means the genre has a huge audience of avid fans, it also means that it has plenty of detractors, as well. Often seen as incredibly cliche, if not boring, the faraway fantasy worlds that isekai transports its heroes and viewers to all seem to blend together at this point. Add in a host of social faux pas, and you have the recipe for a potentially terrible anime.
That recipe was cooked to perfection with The Rising of the Shield Hero. With an overpowered protagonist who’s seemingly never wrong, topped with socially contentious undertones, the series has gotten its fair share of well deserved flak. Despite this, it continues to find a fanbase, as evidenced by its consistently high ranking on sites like Crunchyroll. Here’s a look at how one of today’s worst anime has become one of its most popular.
Like nearly every isekai series, The Rising of the Shield Hero began life as a light novel series before becoming a manga and finally, in 2019, an anime. The plot follows Naofumi Iwatani, a college student who is suddenly transported to a magical fantasy world. After discovering the Book of Four Heroes in this world, he is greeted by three other men and is designated as the titular Shield Hero.
Unfortunately for him, everything goes downhill from there. He’s not exactly charismatic among the chosen heroes, having been something of an outcast in his original world. This leads to only one female – a cardinal sin in the harem filled worlds of isekai anime – to join his party and, once she does, she falsely accuses him of raping her. From there, he has to learn how to thrive as a hero in a world where his reputation is lower than dirt.
Fittingly, the show’s own reputation and critical reception are lower than dirt, and for good reason. The story kicking off with the hero being falsely accused of rape was especially controversial, with many seeing it as being at odds with the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement, if not wholly opposing it. This led to many Western fans in particular criticizing the series for its casual misogyny, though the sentiment was significantly less felt in Japan. Regardless, though this plot point is played for laughs, many felt that the confines of a fantasy isekai might not be the best place to handle such a serious topic.
The show has also been accused of supporting slavery. Early on, the protagonist actually buys a slave girl and, instead of immediately freeing her or even feeling conflicted over the fact that she’s a slave, Naofumi keeps her enslaved to him. Some have excused the plot element through the show’s medieval setting, as well as the fact that the hero doesn’t treat his slave in a degrading or dehumanizing way. Within the show, Naofumi justifies his needing a slave by saying that no one else would willingly work with him due to his fractured reputation. This hasn’t helped the character’s real life reputation as an “incel self-insert” who feels put upon by the world.
Even without these unsavory elements, the show itself is just another generic isekai show, and a poorly done one at that. This is exacerbated further by Naofumi constantly winning in some form or fashion, despite him supposedly being the world’s victim. He wins fights with relative ease – despite his inexperience with the fantasy game world. Far more experienced gamers and fighters pale in comparison to the awesomeness of Naofumi…for some reason. Other characters also constantly come off as incredibly dumb, either blindly worshiping Naofumi or simply acting stupid for the sake of the plot.
Despite all of these legitimate issues, the show continues to develop an audience. Crunchyroll revealed that it was in their Top 20 list of the currently most popular series, in the same ranking as much more acclaimed shows like My Hero Academia, Naruto and One Piece. One justification for the questionable series’ popularity is the current wave of other generic, poorly constructed isekai shows that seem to somehow find a loyal audience. The genre is currently plaguing anime as a whole, much as the harem genre had in years before.
The controversial elements might actually be a boon for the show’s popularity. Some viewers may seek out Shield Hero because of its taboo, almost risque reputation, while others might even sympathize with the protagonist. This would justify the show’s label as an “incel fantasy,” but it would also explain why rampant criticism has failed to break the show’s viewership. Another interesting explanation for why the show is so widely watched may be its cult status in the West. The source material was one of the first web light novels to be translated into English, opening a new world of potential readers, and eventually viewers, to an underdog, no-name web novel author. This Western cult status is ironic, given that the West is where the series has seen the majority of its criticism. Nevertheless, the show’s popularity, much like its eponymous hero, continues to rise, and it certainly won’t be the last generic isekai to get more notoriety than it deserves.
Despite a self-insert protagonist who defies all logic and seemingly condones slavery, Shield Hero's popularity is only rising.