Monday, May 27, 2019

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Episode 2: "The Slave Girl"


So, continuing where I left off, I'll be analyzing the anime "Rising of the Shield Hero" and explaining how western SFF writers and readers can learn from Japanese "Light Novels". If you're not a writer, and simply want my thoughts on the show, then feel free to skip the last bit.

Again, you can watch the show here, or buy the novel on Amazon. If you enjoy my posts and haven't yet checked out the series, the show is free to watch on Crunchyroll, though delayed by a week.
So with that out of the way, onto the summary! Also, obligatory spoiler warning.

When we last left off, the Shield Hero Naofumi was falsely accused of a terrible crime, and shunned by society for it. Without any offensive capabilities, and unable to recruit followers to help him, he's at the end of his rope, and unsure of what to do. And at that moment, a slaver arrives from the shadows, saying he's heard of the Shield Hero's unsavory reputation. He offers Naofumi the chance to buy a slave as a party member, and Naofumi accepts, unsure of what else to do at this point. He has to save the world after all, but if he can't kill monsters, he can't gain experience and level up. Thus, he agrees, and is taken to the evil, Monopoly Man-looking slave trader's shady tent.

It's here that Naofumi is shown an assortment of salves in cages, almost all of which are beastmen or demi-humans (humans with animal features). The slaver informs Naofumi that these are both seen as subhuman in this kingdom, but thanks to spells placed on them, are obedient and unable to lie or attack their masters. Naofumi wordlessly watches as the slaver shows him powerful-looking beastmen, but his attention is caught by a half-raccoon demihuman girl, whom the slaver says "has a mental disorder" and "won't last long because her previous owner loved his torture." Naofumi pauses for a bit, and with an ominous look, says he'll take her. They both leave the tent, as the slaver admires Naofumi's (apparent) sick sense of sadism, saying he'll likely be a regular.

Naofumi then takes her to the blacksmith shop, and equips her with some new clothes and a small sword. He then unveils his cloak, showing off one of the weak monsters he keeps hidden, telling her that she'll be killing them from now on. Though hesitant, the slave-spell "tases" her until she complies, popping the balloon-like creature. The blacksmith watched all this with disgust, saying "you'll die a painful death, kid."

And from here on out...we begin to see a shift in Naofumi's apparent behavior. Up until this point, the episode depicts Naofumi the way everyone else in this fantasy world does. As a sociopathic monster whose last vestiges of decency were broken by bitter resentment. But upon arriving at a restaurant with a "no demi-humans" sign, we begin to see a change in his character. He invites Raphtalia inside after hearing her stomach growl, and buys her an extravagant kids' meal (I guess they have those in this fantasy world) while he eats off the ye olde value menu. She's confused at first, asking why he'd do such a thing.

"Because you looked like you wanted it." he says.

It's at this point that both Raphtalia and the audience figure out what's really going on. Though Naofumi acts the part of a villain in society, deep down he really wants to be the good guy. Even if it's just to one person that absolutely no one in society cares about. And over time, we see him clean her up, cut her hair, cure her chronic cough, and train her in sword fighting. It's a shockingly heartwarming turn of events, and weirdly Pixar-esque, given the subject matter. Seeing this little girl who'd lost all hope, find solace in the once person literally everyone in society's great characterization. Especially when we see other demi-human children like her being treated like garbage, driving home the point that nobody in this society cares about people like her. But my favorite scene out of all of these is when Naofumi catches Raphtaila looking at some children playing with a ball. Even though she insists she doesn't want one, Naofumi buys the toy for her anyway, telling her she can play with it "after work."

During this period, we also see Naofumi train Raphtaila, whose kills grant him EXP as a party member. Though she seems to do will with simple balloon-like monsters that pop on impact, upon catching a  rabbit, Raphalia hesitates. We learn that due to the traumatic death of her parents, she has a deep fear of blood. However, Naofumi compels her to kill the rabbit anyway, as he needs the EXP if he's to grow strong enough to save the world...and her. Though she hesitates, she kills it anyway after Naofumi states it's the only way he can protect her from the outside world. Shortly after this, we see the two visit a mine in a nearby town to collect some ore. The ore turns out to be really valuable, but as they collect it, Raphtalia stops, frozen in fear. It turns out there's a two-headed dog demon, one that looks almost exactly like the three-headed one that killed her parents. Unable to run, Naofumi leaps in and takes the hit. And for once, the creature's bite actually penetrates his iron defenses and causes him to bleed.

Raphtailia is terrified, and after compelling her to fight the thing, Naofumi realizes just how scared she is.  He says he'll figure out a way to escape if she gets to safety, but Raphtailia gets flashbacks of her parents being killed by the dog demon. Realizing she'd rather fight than lose someone she cares about again, she charges at it and kills it. She begins to cry, and Naofumi tells her what they need to do to save everyone. "You attack, and I'll protect you."

The episode ends with Naofumi narrating to the audience that after this incident, the terrible nightmares she's had have gone away.

This was another really solid episode, and so far, this show's really exceeding my expectations. Part of why I wanted to choose a LN adaptation was to talk about not only what does work for western fantasy, but what really doesn't work. Yet so far, the story's just really solid.

One of my favorite things about this episode and the series thus far, is the wide gulf between what the protagonist says, and what he does. He's driven to a point where he feels being seen as a villain actually has some perks. The whole reason he's in this mess is because he was a meek little nerd, and predatory people (Myne the Spear Hero, etc) picked up on that and saw him as an easy mark. Now that he sticks up for himself (albeit in less-than-heroic ways), people don't push him around or rip him off. He's learned that fear has its uses in this world, and feels justified in using it due to the backwards morals (ie slavery being legal) of the people here.

However, despite the villainous theatrics he puts on, Naofumi is two things at heart. He's a normal person with a reasonable conscience, and an RPG gamer. And both of those things play into him actually wanting to stop the Big Bad in this world (the Wave of Darkness) from killing literally everyone. And I feel that saving Raphtailia is his way of both getting back at this world and its' messed-up norms (having a demi-human sit down and eat where "no demi-humans" signs are up) and satisfying his desire to be a heroic person on a micro-scale.

Which brings us to Raphtalia, the adorable little raccoon-girl who, while technically his slave, acts more like his adopted daughter than anything else. I'm honestly shocked at what a great character she turned out to be. She's dynamic, has an exceptionally strong character arc so far, and actually pulls off the "Strong Female Character" thing better than a lot of western shows and films, because she's actually vulnerable and has to struggle to get where she is. In the span of one episode, she overcomes her trauma and fear of blood and becomes a real warrior by the end. And the fact that she's a scared little girl who cries at the sight of blood makes it all the more bad-ass when she musters up the courage to kill a two-headed Cerberus. She doesn't just pick up a weapon and kill dudes like Sacrjo in that godwaful movie Lucy. She gets there by overcoming her fears as a ten-year-old child and manages to kill something most Navy Seals in the real world would soil their pants just looking at. Even better, the main hero relies on her, because all he can do is guard. When all's said and done, she's the one who carries the party, even if Naofumi is the "hero." That's fantastic characterization, and it really makes me want to see where her and Naofumi's father/daughter relationship goes from here.

Now I'm by no means a "Japan does everything better," guy, nor even a massive anime fan when you get down to it. I enjoy good stories regardless of the medium they're told, be they movies, TV Shows, novels, light novels, or manga. And there's plenty of examples of the latter two that have really, really poor characters, especially female ones. Again, Sword Art Online comes to mind.
In the end, I think both Naofumi and Raphtalia perfectly illustrate that to make good characters, you need vulnerability. The worse off they are, the better the story is, because it makes their ascent and eventual victory that much cooler. And for the record, this goes for male characters just as much as female characters. Stories about men who struggle, who cry, who go up against terrible odds and do the right thing in the end are far more memorable and loved than 99% of the schlocky action movies Rodger Corman ever made. It's why Lord of the Rings is a better story than Deathstalker. Frodo is a weak, vulnerable little hobbit who cries and just wants biscuits and tea and jam and nearly fails his quest in the end...and is a better character for it. But if Frodo Baggins was some muscle-bound warrior who killed everything he touched and had no character arc or emotional moments, Tolkien's books would be all but forgotten, and fantasy as a genre might not be a thing. Emotionally, physically, and in any other way you can manage, good characters must be vulnerable. Because characters who aren't vulnerable aren't "strong" or "brave" -- they're crap.

As far as worldbuilding goes, it's just more of the same. The RPG tropes are used in pretty cool ways, although I do find some it weird and off-putting. It would be so much cooler if the fantasy world just happened to have sigils that worked like skill trees, or maybe guilds with "ranks" that are similar in function to RPG tropes, but not identical. I still think it's funny that kid's meals exist in this European-style fantasy world, and that they contain sushi with rice. Then again, I guess it's no weirder than the burgers in Guild Wars 2.

I'm still largely looking at this from a western fantasy reader/writer's perspective, so there's bound to be things I just don't "get". Most of the anime I do like aren't the Light Novel LitRPG type, but action shows like Hunter X Hunter and Berserk. And while I think those manga/shows are still better than Shield Hero...Shield Hero's pretty damn sweet so far. I do find that the worldbuilding is the weakest link in this story's chain, but by now, it's clear that the focus is less on uniqueness, and more on clever use of familiar tropes. Also, kickass characters who feel genuinely human and wonderfully flawed. That too.

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