The "isekai" genre ("different world" in Japanese) is an extremely popular genre. If you've ever watched Sword Art Online or Overlord, you'll be well familiar with it, but not, here's the lowdown. Isekai series revolve around a character or group who have been transported from Earth and their normal lives to a parallel universe.
Typically the universe is fictional, or it might be an Earth of the future. It may even be a video game, in some cases. Usually, the character or group transported to the new world have a wish they want to be fulfilled or some sort of abundance of knowledge of video games, the time period, or some reason they've been sent there, to begin with. Many of the popular stories end up tapping the characters sent to their new worlds being treated as "chosen heroes" meant to stave off some sort of ultimate evil.
So, we've seen a dime a dozen of these stories. But they've become so numerous that it's difficult to set them apart. Enter The Rising of the Shield Hero, which is, by far, one of the best isekai out there right now. Don't believe me? You're in for a real treat.
You see, this is a much different story than you may be used to when it comes to the isekai genre. Where The Rising of the Shield Hero differs from the rest of its pack is its approach to introducing its hero as well as how it treats him throughout the story. Typically, the hero will be well-loved, or at the very least welcomed into their new land.
Naofumi Iwatani is neither. At first, he's summoned from another world after reading a peculiar library book that names four heroes who are meant to save a faraway world from catastrophe. He begins the series as a trusting, open-minded character who tends to trust others, and makes something of a massive transformation throughout the show after particularly frustrating happenings befall him.
When he's sent to the new world, he meets up with four heroes from other parallel versions of Japan. While they got their own legendary weapons when summoned, each perfect for fighting off enemies, Naofumi is stuck with a shield. You can't do much with a shield save for going on the offensive, so naturally, Naofumi is left wondering what kind of hero he can be with the type of equipment — he can't attack, so what good is he?
He wakes up without any of his equipment, money, or clothing, and his companion missing. As he's arrested by the king, he learns that his companion (actually the king's daughter Princess Melty) has accused him of forcing himself upon her. As a result, despite Naofumi's protestations, the entire country turns against him, including the other heroes, and he loses every shred of support he's had since coming there.
Desperate to prove himself, Naofumi meets off on his own and has to sustain himself on his own, figuring out how to unlock the secrets of his shield and everything it can do as he struggles to survive in this new world.
The Rising of the Shield Hero manages to do something quite rare that most isekai series do not. It throws every single obstacle at the hero it possibly can and even gives you plenty of reasons to doubt him at first. From when he decides to go as "low" as purchasing a slave to do his bidding (who later becomes his companion) to his jaded and cynical attitude, ruined by mistreatment by those around him, it's easy to view Naofumi as a bad guy. But you want him to succeed so bad, against all odds, that you can forgive his negativity.
No one is willing to help Naofumi, save for the errant shopkeepers and blacksmith he's interacted with in the past. Everyone is either too afraid or unwilling to do so thanks to the lies that have been spread about him throughout their town. It gets old seeing heroes being waited on and blindly adored after in so many of these stories (games included) that seeing Naofumi spurned through no fault of his own is far more entertaining than if all the puzzle pieces had fit together and the citizens of the world respected him. It means he has to work that much harder and be resourceful if he wants to make something of himself.
And being resourceful means for better entertainment. Watching Naofumi figure out that he can hide "balloon" enemies under his cloak to help do offensive damage to monsters (or other people) while learning the ins and outs of his shield is exhilarating. Plus, when he partners with his tanuki companion Raphtalia, they make an amazing team — while the other heroes are doing their "typical" thing, Naofumi and Raphtalia are making it on their own, and impressing anyone who ever doubted them.
There's an underpinning of doubt and mockery that comes with being the underdog hero, or someone others don't expect to do well, whether it's based on ability, looks, upbringing, heritage, you name it. The Rising of Shield Hero gives us a hero to empathize with, one who is forced to deal with setbacks out of his control, a man who manages to rise above his peers and prove that he's just as good, if not better than they believe him to be, despite what others may falsely believe about him.
Because The Rising of the Shield Hero takes risks with its setup, its protagonist, and even the way he must go about finding success, it jets past the other isekai out there (yes, even That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime) and represents the best of what the genre has to offer. If you've grown tired of the formulaic way that other shows of this type handle similar content, this riff on the familiar is well worth a watch.
The Rising of the Shield Hero is available for streaming via Crunchyroll.