Content Warning: Discussions of slavery, prejudice, systemic oppression, torture, and abuse.
Spoilers: For the first The Twelve Kingdoms novel and volumes 1-5 of The Rising of the Shield Hero light novel series.
In the English-speaking anime community, it’s been almost impossible to fully avoid discourse about The Rising of the Shield Hero. Through the outcry of both its most outspoken opponents and its most ardent fans, even anime fans who weren’t watching it learned about many of its basic plot details.
As I heard more, I realized it bore a striking similarity to one of its predecessors: the classic isekai novel series, The Twelve Kingdoms. Although the two stories’ first arcs run largely in parallel to each other, Twelve Kingdoms offers a much richer and satisfying personal narrative, along with a more strongly prosocial undercurrent.
The most basic similarities between the two stories are obvious: both are novels. Both are isekai. But that describes literally hundreds of series. Take a closer look, however, and the common ground the two series share becomes remarkable.
In both cases, the protagonist is in a strange world with no allies, while a powerful, hostile individual conspires to keep them away from their purpose and their supporters. In Shield Hero, this protagonist is Naofumi, an otaku college student and the titular Shield Hero; in Twelve Kingdoms, it’s Nakajima Youko, a high school girl who is unable to connect emotionally to anyone around her.
Both Youko and Naofumi are betrayed early on, leaving them unable to trust anyone around them. When they are at their lowest points, they form an emotional bond with a demihuman, who are an oppressed class in their new world. Through that relationship, they learn to trust again and are able to take down those who conspired against them.
The Hero’s Journey: Sources of adversity and character growth
One of the most immediately apparent differences between the two narratives is in their protagonists, Youko and Naofumi. Some of these differences can be explained by the stories’ respective demographics: while Twelve Kingdoms, like many isekai series of the 1990s, was aimed at an audience of high school girls, most isekai in the modern era, including Shield Hero, are aimed at men 18-25. However, their greatest difference is where the two protagonists start from and their development as heroes.
Naofumi and Youko, before they are transported to their respective worlds, are in very different places in their lives. For Naofumi, an otaku college student, life is basically perfect. His parents approve of his lifestyle, let him live at home rent-free, and even give him an allowance so he has enough spending money to buy pretty much whatever he wants. He regularly alludes to having friends, and seems to be content in every way.
Youko, on the other hand, is an obsessive people-pleaser. Her strictly patriarchal father has taught her the most important thing for a girl to be is quiet, obedient, and polite. At school, she goes along with the pack, trying to be whoever the people around her want to be. Because of that, she’s grown up to be spiritually empty and devoid of any real personal connections.
In short, there is nowhere for Naofumi to go but down, while there is a huge amount of room for Youko to experience growth. Series where the main character has everything and loses it can be interesting, it’s true, but unless it’s a tragedy, they’re more satisfying when they end up in a better place than where they started.
That’s impossible for Naofumi, who lacked for nothing and, according to the narrative, is a pretty swell guy. Even after he starts rebuilding his life in Melromarc, he will never be as comfortable or content as he once was.
By the end of the first Twelve Kingdoms book, on the other hand, Youko has gone from a person who barely existed to the Empress of Kei. She had to fight for survival at every step, against malicious forces, starvation, and even her own mind.
She hit physical and psychological rock bottom over the course of the first book’s arc, almost starving to death and turning distrustful and suspicious after being betrayed repeatedly. That’s what makes her ascension to Emperor so satisfying—not only is she taking her rightful place, but over the course of the story she’s grown into someone capable of filling that role.
And, even though she was appointed at the start of the series and thus must have had the potential to be a good empress, she was clearly not yet ready for it. She whined and complained, literally throwing her sword at an attacking monster instead of making any attempt to wield it effectively.
When her kirin advisor Keiki assigns her Jouyu, a “latch-swell demon” that will control her body in a fight, she begs Keiki to remove him and calls him a monster. Jouyu doesn’t appreciate how Youko reacts to him, and at the end of the book reveals that he remained silent, even when she begged him to speak, as punishment.
That’s another major difference between Youko and Naofumi: Youko makes mistakes and must deal with the consequences, causing her to mature as a person, while Naofumi rarely, if ever, makes poor choices.
Shield Hero leans very hard into the idea that it actually is Naofumi versus the world, as opposed to that just being his perception. He faces every single disadvantage at the outset, including knowing nothing of the world, a hostile royal family, and the dominant system of belief in Melromarc treating him as a heretic and a demon.
None of this is because of his own personal failings, however. Although he’s written as a brusque, mistrustful jerk, almost everyone who he meets likes him instantly. Anyone who dislikes him is malicious, an idiot, or both. The other three Legendary Heroes are fools who constantly go around making messes he has to clean up.
Being blameless doesn’t make Naofumi any more likable; if anything, it makes him more insufferable. It’s like listening to the world’s most unaware person list every perceived grievance and slight without taking any of the blame.
He feels some vague guilt about buying Raphtalia as a slave, but his friends and allies constantly offer him absolution, and he has no qualms about convincing others to give up their freedom in exchange for boosted stats. The closest thing he has to a flaw is his “curse” series of shields, which are fueled by his anger and trade incredibly powerful moves for long-lasting but not permanent consequences. Does it really count as a flaw if it saved his life multiple times, though?
While in Shield Hero it feels like everyone has a personal vendetta against Naofumi, in Twelve Kingdoms, Youko’s plight comes from a combination of factors, including poor choices, personal persecution, institutional discrimination, and just plain bad luck.
Soon after she arrives, Keiki disappears, leaving her alone and lost. She ends up in Kou, where kaikyaku, Japanese people swept into this world by accident, are immediately arrested and put on trial. Youma, vicious monstrous beasts, seem to actively pursue her, which is extremely atypical behavior. The first person she tries to put her trust into, Taki, tries to sell her to a brothel, and a fellow kaikyaku steals all her possessions at an inn. She even comes under attack from her own mind, as her innermost thoughts become externalized in the form of a gloating blue monkey.
This confluence of social and environmental factors, rather than some grand conspiracy where everyone is specifically “out to get” the protagonist, builds up into an extremely oppressive atmosphere where Youko grows paranoid and unable to trust even people who are trying to save her life.
This lasts for a significant portion of the book. She has no one to turn to, no one to teach her the rules of this world; only a phantom of her own mind telling her that her life has no value as she lies starving by the side of the road. Since she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, neither does the audience. We have no way of knowing how she’s going to get out of her terrible situation.
And then she meets Rakushun.
Allies and Oppressors: Marginalized communities in isekai worlds
Rakushun of Twelve Kingdoms and Raphtalia of Shield Hero are more or less analogues for one another. Rakushun is a rat beastling, and usually appears to be a bipedal rat the size of a child, while Raphtalia is a tanuki demihuman: human in appearance except for tanuki ears and a tail.
In their respective stories, Rakushun and Raphtalia each offer the protagonist grace and redemption when they feel like they have nowhere else to turn. Likewise, in both worlds, animal-human hybrids are largely oppressed. There’s a big difference, however, in the way oppression functions in each world and in how the heroes interact with that, with Twelve Kingdoms offering a much more sophisticated understanding of institutional marginalization.
Twelve Kingdoms grapples with prejudice long before Rakushun enters the scene. Youko faces it herself as a kaikyaku; she also sees refugees streaming into Kou from troubled nations nearby. Rakushun, as someone who grew up in Kou having his rights restricted, broadens the story’s perspective. He’s extremely intelligent, but isn’t allowed to attend school or get a job outside his homestead because the Emperor of Kou hates beastlings. His mother sells their land and becomes a tenant farmer in order to support them.
Rakushun is, by many metrics, free. Nobody physically forced his mother to sell their land; he’s not in any kind of bondage. However, because of what he is, rather than who he is, he faces prejudice and many paths are closed off to him, no matter what he wants or how well-suited he is to them. Even besides the legal considerations, it’s implied that most humans carry anti-beastling bias; after Youko ascends the throne, her advisors complain about her keeping company with one.
Compare that to the relatively simple (and paradoxical) system in Shield Hero. Melromarc is a human-supremacist society, so demihumans there are enslaved. In other countries, it’s the reverse. While we’re told Raphtalia is a slave and therefore oppressed, we see almost none of this in actual practice. Outside of Naofumi’s early cruelty (more on that later), everyone in the main cast is polite and friendly to her, and even minor characters outside of obviously evil villains treat her fairly, as an equal.
Instead, the majority of the stigma falls to Naofumi, who is regularly scorned for owning a slave, even though slave ownership is legal and apparently common in Melromarc. Instead of putting some care into creating a world that reflects actual systems of power and oppression, the series frames the slave owner as the person facing day-to-day prejudice, only serving to contribute to Naofumi’s victim mentality.
In The Twelve Kingdoms, Rakushun quickly becomes Youko’s closest ally, teaching her the ways of the world and accompanying her to En, a nearby kingdom where kaikyaku not only can be accepted, but have a social safety net to help them find a place in the new world. Beastlings have access to the same opportunities as full humans, including attending university and becoming government workers.
Youko learns from her time in En and institutes similar policies when she eventually takes the throne in the kingdom of Kei. Just as Rakushun assisted Youko when she was helpless and confused, once Youko reaches a position of power, she becomes an ally to the downtrodden and oppressed.
Naofumi, on the other hand, responds to his loss of privilege by becoming an oppressor of the even less privileged, immediately buying a slave. He tortures Raphtalia and, later, Filo into submission, forcing them to do his bidding even when they’re frightened and hurt. He threatens to sell them back, to abandon them for another master who would treat them even worse. Even his method of physically punishing them and then treating them to something nice afterward is a classic abuser tactic.
And yet, in the narrative of Shield Hero, what he does is okay because he’s “nice” to them after he’s tortured them into submission. He gives them the illusion of freedom by letting them do what they want (except when it’s inconvenient for him), even though they are still completely subject to his whims, leaving them extremely vulnerable to his wrath.
Journey’s End: Vengeance, justice, and personal fulfillment
In Twelve Kingdoms, Rakushun goes on to attend school to become a government official. In Shield Hero, Raphtalia remains Naofumi’s slave “by choice,” her life defined by her relationship to him. While Rakushun’s relationship with Youko opens opportunities for him to pursue his own goals, as his own person, Raphtalia exists solely to serve Naofumi; her own wants and needs are ultimately unimportant to the revenge narrative Shield Hero wants to tell.
And make no mistake, Shield Hero revels in that vengeance. When the Queen returns and discovers how Myne and the King have been plotting against Naofumi, he celebrates their punishment. He initially suggests they be executed and, short of that, enslaved, their names changed to the derogatory “Bitch” and “Trash.”
Not only does Naofumi enjoy it, but the author seems to as well: Myne’s torture is written in postively gleeful detail as she repeatedly violates the conditions of her slave seal and is shocked in return. It’s a mean-spirited narrative that takes more joy in inflicting pain and torture than actual redemption and human growth.
In Twelve Kingdoms, Youko must also face down he who conspired against her: the Emperor of Kou. He persecuted her not only because she was a kaikyaku, but because she was the future Emperor of Kei and he wanted there to be at least one kingdom his people could look to as being worse off than them.
However, Twelve Kingdoms does not dwell on Youko’s revenge—in fact, their final confrontation isn’t even depicted on the page. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying, though. Because the story focused on her growth as an individual, rather than seeking revenge or satisfying her darkest urges, her taking the throne offers a sufficiently satisfying conclusion. She has grown as a person, well on her way to becoming someone worthy of leading others.
Naofumi’s driving motivations—of revenge, anger, and pettiness—aren’t ones that can lead to emotional or spiritual growth. He can and does only get worse as a person, dragged down by his disdain for everyone around him. Meanwhile, as soon as Youko feels safe enough, with Rakushun by her side, she takes an interest in learning about her new world and finding answers.
I understand the basic appeal of Shield Hero—a hero with everything stacked against them, forced to make ugly choices when they feel they have no one to trust—but Twelve Kingdoms offers the same thing with more nuance. Shield Hero’s themes of revenge, wrath, and victimhood undercut any room for growth, while Twelve Kingdoms uses almost identical story elements to explore the nature of power and oppression and push its protagonist towards positive change.
Anyone drawn to Shield Hero’s story of an isolated hero fighting against overwhelming odds would find a much more fulfilling experience by seeking out The Twelve Kingdoms instead.
Editor’s Note: Now seems like a good time to remind everyone that personal attacks and bad-faith arguments are in direct violation of AniFem’s comments policy and will not be approved for publication. Be respectful, y’all.