Aiya Kyu and Aneko Yusagi’s Rising of the Shield Hero is a manga adaption of Yusagi’s light novel series of the same name. It is an isekai portal fantasy.
Finding himself short on cash, twenty-year-old student Naofumi Iwatani takes refuge in a convenient library. A fantasy novel catches the otaku’s interest when it falls off a shelf onto his head. He scans it briefly and decides that its scenario — four chosen ones saving their world — seems too contrived. No sooner does this thought cross his mind when he is transported to the world within the tome. He’s one of the four chosen ones.
The Kingdom of Melromarc is subject to periodic monster invasions, known as Waves. The monsters are gating into the kingdom from other realms. Lucky that the kingdom’s mages know how to summon Heroes from other worlds to defend the kingdom. Thus, Naofumi finds himself in Melromarc, along with three other otaku: Ren Amaki, Motoyasu Kitamura, and Itsuki Kawasumi. Each Hero is bonded to a different holy weapon:
- Ren/Hero of the Sword
- Motoyasu/Hero of the Spear
- Itsuki/Hero of the Bow
- Naofumi/Hero of the Shield
Naofumi quickly realizes he is the odd one out. The others are gamers who find the rules of this new universe quite familiar. Naofumi is a book nerd. The other three have offensive weapons. Naofumi has a shield. The other three are immediately popular, whereas Naofumi
Joined by a single companion, Princess Malty Melromarc, Naofumi morosely heads off to grind levels until he has improved enough to survive a Wave. After just one day of grinding, he wakes befuddled, stripped of his money and purchased armour, and framed for sexual assault by the malevolent Princess. Thanks to Malty, he has progressed from nonentity to pariah.
The kingdom is stuck with Naofumi; the only way to replace one Hero is to replace all of them, which requires the current Heroes’ deaths. The Heroes of the Sword, Spear, and Bow seem promising. The kingdom grudgingly refrains from imprisoning or executing Naofumi. He is free to wander the kingdom as an outcast. Perhaps he will distract a monster or two.
A bitter and paranoid Naofumi adventures on his own. He finds that he is strong on defence and useless on offense. He needs someone to fight for him. He purchases a slave to serve as his sword arm. Because funds are limited, he settles for the sickly, traumatized demi-human Raphtalia.
Although he tries his best to be the indifferent sociopath that reason tells him is what it will take to fill his role, self-interest forces him to treat Raphtalia in kinder fashion than any past owner has. His shield grants healing powers; he cures her. They soon become an effective team. She levels up whenever he does.
The other three Heroes are willing to take their new world at face value. They are happy to rely on the abilities their magical weapons grant them. They are happy to enjoy the support of the aristocracy and the clergy. Naofumi’s outcast status and his reliance on Raphtalia dictate a different strategy: he masters the shield’s hidden skill trees and forges bonds with the little people the other Heroes ignore.
The rules of this world are not quite what the Heroes of the Sword, Spear, and Bow assume. Consequently, the trio cause more problems than they solve. Who gets to tidy up? Why, despised, angry Naofumi and his slowly growing band of friends and allies, of course.
This manga isn’t just about bitterness and social isolation. It is also about crippling depression. Naofumi spends a good chunk of the series too depressed to taste food. It all might as well be ashes.
One of the many ways in which Naofumi differs from the other three Heroes is that they all were summoned as they died in the real world, whereas that does not seem to have been the case for Naofumi. If he did die, the only hint was a bit of dizziness before he was summoned.
Good news: Naofumi doesn’t sexually abuse any of the young women who form his circle of warriors. Bad news: that the option exists is continually flagged, in case any of the readers missed it. This is a world that allows the powerful to indulge their darkest whims and while Naofumi is oblivious to those possibilities, it’s clear others are not.
However, he isn’t reluctant to use the magic tattoo to punish his slaves/adoring companions for noncompliance. Was he a bit of sociopath before he was pulled into this world? Or was he just quickly corrupted? At least he’s not a complete monster (no sexual abuse). Compared to some of the folks he meets, he’s a paladin.
Not being as horrible as he could be is enough to win him Raphtalia’s heartfelt loyalty. Her previous owners were horrible indeed. Someone who is willing to feed her, train her, heal her, and trust her is an unexpected step up.
In this world, the aristocracy and clergy are (most of them) short-sighted, vicious bigots. Is there a point to saving the world from monsters? Well, this is not the only kingdom in the world and the aristocracy and clergy are not the whole population within this kingdom. Although sullen Naofumi would be loath to admit it, there are decent people amongst the townsfolk and demi-humans.
The art in this is fine. Naofumi’s character arc of betrayal, embitterment, and comprehensive paranoia seems reasonable. Where the series stumbles for me is its dependence on idiot plotting. I will grant that it is not implausible that a state could be run by people too invested in performative cruelty to spot the obvious drawbacks of their schemes. But the other three Heroes seem to be complete knuckleheads, hobbled by the author to make the flawed protagonist look better. These are people who immediately discard the only holy warrior whose magic items confer defence and healing.
This may all sound very depressing and large swathes of it are. The point seems to be Naofumi’s slow recovery from bitter isolation — but there’s a lot of disillusionment before that.