When Your Story Becomes Your Manifesto

We’re proud to bring you another piece today from Tyler Burnette, one of our most active partners at Beneath the Tangles and a benefactor. You can catch him talking about theology, wrestling, and all things in between in his role as an admin on our Discord Channel, or commenting on our Facebook page.

Writing fiction can be quite difficult work. In order to build characters, worlds, plots, and a mythos, it necessitates that you fully understand the world view of your protagonist and antagonist and at least partly understand the supporting characters. This is why many authors use people they know or self-insert themselves into supporting roles or even the protagonist spot. It makes a good deal of sense. You write what you know, and only God can know you better than yourself. This sometimes leads to a series having a distinct perspective on the world and a unique experience.

I was pondering this for a while as I watched The Rising of the Shield Hero during the past couple months. The main plot is your standard isekai fare of a struggle against an unnatural extradimensional threat called “waves” that threaten to unseat governments and plunge the world into destruction and chaos, making the stakes as high as can be. Some of the lesser but more prevalent antagonists in the show also enact evil deeds, and that’s where I want to focus. The series has definitely had its share of clashes with the intersectional left over a number of issues. Some viewers dropped the series over issues with slavery as well as having the decidedly politically incorrect storyline of nearly getting the protagonist killed with a false rape accusation by the princess Myne in order to steal all of his belongings and imprison him, akin to the Biblical story of Potipher’s wife.

Later on, Myne actually does attempt to commit anime character assassination (pun intended) when she sends a platoon of guards to murder Melty, her sister and heir apparent to her mother’s kingdom. There’s probably not a good bone in her body. It reminds me of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in how Myne takes smug joy in being as evil as possible. Even during her trial when all of her schemes are laid bare, she sees fit to tell blatant lies even when she’s under a truth ward, and the creators see fit to degrade her with blatant fanservice in what is supposed to be a dramatic moment of comeuppance and justice. There is no hiding the author’s disdain for this character, and he wants to see every misfortune and degradation befall her.

The king Aultcray Melromarc, while not as deviously contrivance as his daughter, works actively to hinder the Shield Hero at every turn, but his motive for why he hates the Shield Hero on such a personal level is not fleshed out as much as I would expect. He appears to exist to have an authority foil to Naofumi. His evils seem to spawn more from incompetence and gullibility than malice. At one point he demands that Naofumi fight the Spear Hero in an obviously rigged duel with the pretense of liberating Raphtalia when it’s fairly clear slavery is at the very least tolerated in his kingdom, and he himself has a significant role in the systemic racism against the demi-humans. The implication is fairly blatant that it’s just a move to weaken the Shield Hero’s influence and effectiveness to lose his only present means of dealing damage in combat, a scheme likely devised by the princess. The indecisiveness and moral apathy of the king is seen as a form of evil in itself by the writer, as it allows evil people to subvert the best interests of a country when a king lacks the presence of his own will.

I believe it is fairly clear that we are meant to view the princess and her father as the definitive villain antagonists in the series. They are to be viewed with the scorn the author has for the acts of evil they perpetrate. These characters are not nuanced, and they do not have much in the way of large political machinations. While their voice actors and artists do a splendid job depicting them, ultimately they are not as much characters as much as vessels for the traits in humanity the author despises. We are meant to feel our own sense of justification, just as the author does when writing in their punishments. It reminds me of the famous Objectivist author Ayn Rand, in her book Atlas Shrugged. At one point she placed several characters on a train, each of whom embodied the things which she hated about human nature and collectively casts judgement upon them not just as characters but as an exercise in moral catharsis where she has them die unceremoniously when their train crashes. The writer Whittaker Chambers recognized this and coitized Rand on it.

Likewise, in The Rising of the Shield Hero, the princess and her father are placed in stockades to be beheaded by their sovereign, the queen, who in herself is also a vessel for what the writer believes is good. The queen seeks justice for her people, but at the same time has compassion for her daughter and husband, and in a bit of a nod to the Japanese bushido code, would have stabbed herself in remorse over the shame, dishonor, and corruption she brought to her people by letting her family get out of hand. The whole time I was expecting and hoping for some kind of plot twist where the heroes and villians reverse roles somehow or spiral into some kind of betrayal against the Naofumi, but everything happens as telegraphed. I even predicted some of the plot points to my wife while we watched the show. The author slides his self-insert protagonist into the scene to break up the executions just in time and implements his own punishments which are really just slaps on the wrist comparatively. I suspect it is an attempt by the author to embody his hero with both justice and mercy. They are merely given derogatory nicknames as punishment. Logically, letting two monstrous characters like this live would easily cause a succession crisis after it’s clearly established that Myne is willing to murder her way into the line of succession.

Another arc which could be interpreted in this way is his conflict with their religious figurehead and his followers. The Pope views the Shield Hero as the devil, likely because of some previous experience in that world we are told about, and he refuses to consider Naofumi as different. He musters all of his followers to entrap Naofumi in a crater he created trying to destroy Naofumi with a holy spell. The Pope brings along his followers and acolytes to feed him spiritual energy, which potentially kills some or knocks them unconscious. One probably wouldn’t be too far off to read this as a criticism of organized religion. Eventually Naofumi gives into his demon power in his shield and summons a blood monster to shatter the Pope’s staff and bloodily eviscerate him like something out of Evil Dead. There is not much here to dig deeply into theologically as they don’t exchange much in terms of philosophical banter. He is a pretty one-note villain, and I didn’t gain much out of the fight. I definitely feel the conflict was an potentially an externalization of the creators’ opinion of organized religion if not Christianity. It probably can be a skippable arc if you don’t like “evil Catholicism” stand-ins.

It is difficult to say if the use of slavery in the series is nuanced or deconstructive. It is an odd choice of plot device to introduce Naofumi to harem girl #1, whom he has battle for him. When I word it that way, it sounds really bad, but it’s a video game world. He genuinely cares for her throughout the series, and it’s pretty clear the author intends them to be shipped together. The concept of freedom and willful servitude is played with a little bit, but I can’t say it’s well articulated how the audience is supposed to feel about Naofumi keeping Raphtalia as his battle-pet versus the slave trader selling his demi-human stock among the citizenry. A noble is introduced in the second season who captures demi-humans upon which to enact various unspoken evils, resulting in the death of one of Raphtalia’s old friends. This noble meets a gruesome end fairly quickly in trying to summon a demon which could have some metaphorical parallels to the evils of slavery, but I suspect it’s just mechanism to allow Naofumi to fight a boss and introduce the Filolial Queen.

Another potential signal that a series has a self-insert protagonist is within the blessings gifted to the hero. Many series craft the protagonist to be a reader self-insert, often a bland milquetoast every-man the reader can identify with and project themselves onto for the purpose of showing off the supporting characters. Other characters can be excitable and energetic, or targets for comedic relief as entertainment comes from the other characters interacting with them. They are often defined by their flaws of timidity or recklessness. However, self insert characters are defined by their lack of flaws. This is most obvious in fan fiction, but you see it in any medium, especially in our the modern era of self-idolization. Naofumi starts out with a bland existence in the real world but is soon sent into another world where he quickly receives the most underrated and powerful weapon in the world, the third best anime girl of 2019 as his girlfriend-slave (coming in a distant third behind Chiaki Fujiwara and Kaguya Shinomiya. Fight me.), and a three-girl harem, and he is generally the most rational person in the realm because he has the bird’s eye perspective of the whole scenario. What he lacks is a flaw in the writer’s eyes. The only thing he gets “criticized” by the Filolial Queen on is his lack of cooperation with the other heroes, which to the audience’s perspective is understandable given what jerks the other heroes are. His immediate turn from reluctance to friendship and burying the hatchet with the other heroes shows him as reasonable and forgiving. For all of these benefits he has, the series writes him as having no true flaws, as flaws are written in to be corrected in a character arc. Unless the author is telling a story about his own struggles in life and is opening his heart to the viewers, you will not see significant character flaws in self-insert protagonist.

Interestingly, the way Naofumi behaves from the start of the series is not flawless, and those traits never really go away or result in even so much as a brief scolding as he is written to hold the highest moral authority. The Queen is intended to come close, but she is not given much in the way of screen time relative to the protagonist to develop her motives or examine her decisions. Naofumi feels immediately scammed by the world he enters as his reputation becomes tarnished, and nobody wants to be his partner except the woman who accuses him of rape and steals all of his stuff. People slander his name and refuse him business, with many trying to cheat him save for one blacksmith who exists out of necessity. Because of this, Noafumi takes a demeanor indicative of a belief common in the modern “alt-right” which believes that, “They’re going to call us evil no matter what we do. We might as well be the evil they call us.” This of course is a flawed perspective, but for the first few episodes it’s the one Naofumi embodies. He harasses shopkeepers, buys a slave, and generally acts standoffish and distant from the other characters until he warms up to Raphtalia. In his evils that he does, Noafumi receives no punishment because I believe we’re intended to feel he is justified in the sense of “an eye for an eye” and “doing unto others as they do unto you.” He does evolve into a better person over time, but moral comeuppance does not happen to him unlike the other characters in the series. I think this is possible because most creators are reluctant to hurt or chastise themselves in their own works.

Why do we do this? Is it human nature to want to plug ourselves into a historical or fictional event? Is it just escapism combined with some form of self-vindication? Are we just seeking our own fame and recognition, or is there something more to it? The early church had problem with this often. Christ wasn’t the only person to proclaim he was the Messiah or God incarnate. Of course, all other claimants fell by the wayside, but even under risk of execution there were still illegitimate pretenders to God’s throne, and it was enough of a threat to be warned against in the Bible. Likewise, some attempted to unduly influence the doctrine of the early church by writing their own fictional accounts of history and scripture, potentially not even for the purpose of derailing Christianity, but just because they wanted their own perspective and story told among society. Pride is a dangerous vice to others as well as ourselves, and we always need to keep it in check lest we misorder our priorities.

In no way am I calling out the author Aneko Yusagi in any negative way if he intentionally or subconsciously wrote a part of himself and his world view into the Shield Hero. I know that if I were to write an anime or work of creative fiction, I would absolutely make it a vehicle for my own worldview because that’s how my brain works. I would want to convey my thoughts on morals and society rather than entertain my readers. The Rising of the Shield Hero, however, does an admirable job of both, helping it to become one of my favorite anime this year.

Let Tyler know what you think of his analysis in the comments below. Did he get it right? Wrong? Both? You can also touch base with him on Discord.

3 thoughts on “When Your Story Becomes Your Manifesto

    1. It’s pretty good! The first few episodes are really interesting and a little strange—you get a better sense for the story by about episode four or five.

  1. It’s one of the better Isekai animes out there in my opinion. There’s a few that do better but not many develop personalities like the protagonists in Shield Hero. The action is also pretty good, and the writing is clever if not too revolutionary.

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