Iwatani Naofumi was summoned into a parallel world along with three other people to become the world’s heroes and save the kingdom from the Calamity. Each of the heroes were respectively equipped with their own legendary equipment when summoned. Naofumi coincidentally received the Legendary Shield as his weapon, the only defensive weapon of the lot. Scorned by everyone for his uselessness, Naofumi’s destiny in a parallel world begins…
Hands down, Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari takes one of the most unique approaches to the virtual video game genre I’ve ever read / seen. And that is, the light novel incorporates a very real emotional element in its storytelling. Having read many tales in this emerging genre, I am definitely not over-generalizing when I say that most virtual MMORPG stories are lacking in “dramatic complexity.” And that’s perfectly fine because audiences are buying into these stories for the vicarious experience of living a video game, becoming heroes / villains, and conquering the world. Even Log Horizon, which takes a more “slice of life” approach to the genre and explores the psychological difficulties of suddenly living a video game, has mostly one dimensional characterization in a mostly happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Well, Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari is definitely not happy-go-lucky, and characters are certainly far from one dimensional.
It’s Still Epic When It Matters
Traditional fans of VMMORPG, don’t panic. This light novel definitely delivers the crowd-pleasing elements, and it does so well. Main character Naofumi is cast as a growth anti-hero, meaning that he starts off super weak (and looked down upon by everyone) but experiences the shounen manga superstar type of astronomical growth. Naofumi, though, will always have the handicap of being the “Shield Hero” so he’s never going to be an offensive juggernaut like Kurosaki Ichigo or Uzumaki Naruto (the Shield Hero is restricted from using weapons and his attack points is basically zero). As such, Naofumi has an exponentially more difficult hero path than the other three offensive heroes, and he’s forced to rely a lot on ingenuity to level up and get ahead. I think this kind of strategizing is actually more appealing to most gamer fans than the Sword Art Online hack-and-slash style so kudos to Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari for taking this route.
Last but not least, the Shield Hero must quest with a party because he can’t do any damage otherwise, and it just so happens that his party consists mainly of cute girls. What a shocker right? But the girls are seriously cute. Like, even I (a girl) want to take Raphtalia home and coo over her for hours. She’s a slave (Naofumi literally bought her) but WHO CARES ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS ANYWAYS. As far as harems go, this one definitely counts as a win for Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari.
Just With More Pesky Feelings
But on to the unusual stuff—feelings. Now, if I wanted a tearjerker, I would head straight for the kdramas, but Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari shows up as a strong contender for “biggest bucket of tears you will weep.” Ok, maybe that’s exaggerating, but the unfair, pure evil situations that happen to the main character are just unreal. The writer simply loves to put Naofumi through emotional roller coasters—giving him a chance to see a glimmer of heaven, before robbing it and shoving him straight to hell. Take this example. Amidst everyone’s initial disdain, a girl stands up for him and becomes his only friend. He thinks: “well, even through my life sucks, at least I know this pretty girl believes in me.” But of course, nothing happens without a reason. The girl not only steals all his money over the night, but she also told everyone that he forced himself onto her. So now the whole kingdom actively hates him because everybody thinks he’s a rapist. Overnight, Naofumi becomes destitute, homeless, and public enemy number one. Is it any surprise that he turns into a dark, bitter and angry young man?
But just when you thought he’s lost all hope for humanity, you find out that underneath those defense mechanisms, Naofumi still has a vulnerable heart. He hates the world and he hates life…but he still can’t let everyone in the kingdom die because of the calamity. So he puts himself forward once more to save people, …only to leave himself vulnerable again to the dark side of humanity. I just can’t convey appropriately with words the sheer injustice and ungratefulness that the main character faces. As readers, be prepared to feel murderous rage, needs to wring people’s necks, and dreams of committing genocide. Seriously, if there’s any population that deserves to be wiped out by the apocalypse, this is it.
The saving grace of this light novel is that it is as much heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. Pure evil thrives, but its presence also highlights the true worth of human compassion. The ending of Raphtalia’s introduction arc actually brought tears to my eyes. Yes, it’s super cheesy on paper, but since Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari loves to serve readers lemons, I had no idea which way the axe was going to swing. Part of my emotional reaction must be pure relief that Naofumi is not going to be completely destroyed. Again. I don’t want to spoil too much in this review so pardon my vagueness. Just know that reading Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari keeps you on your toes. I love the “main character eternal success” trope as much as the next action fan, but sometimes I just want things to be more realistic. Victory is much sweeter if you aren’t expecting it.
And More Realistic Characterizations
Finally, I want to highlight one last trope that I really like about Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari and that isn’t featured enough in the virtual video game genre—evil can be redeemed. Oftentimes, I find that villains in these stories are too one dimensional, or even zero dimensional if that’s possible. They are exactly what they were created for in a video game, which is to serve as the token obstacle for the main character. But in a 3D virtual MMORPG, villains shouldn’t remain trite 2D characters. Like the hero party, who are now “human” with complex motivations, villains too need to be leveled up with their own back stories, realistic characterizations, and rationales.
Personally, I know when an artist has characterized a villain well if I find myself understanding or even empathizing with the villain’s POV and actions. Nobody is born evil, and nobody chooses to do the wrong thing in their POV. We just have different understandings of right or wrong, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Thus to be realistic, all evil must come with an explanation—Voldemort did it for revenge, Darth Vader did it for love, and Hannibal is just suffering from PTSD. But these people are still human, and change is possible, especially if the “evil” arises from ignorance. I had thought originally that the characterization in Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari was too extreme (like a caricature), but the later character flexibility—the so-called “Change of Heart”—has changed my mind about the light novel’s realism.
Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari is off to a good and unique start. It’s relatively under the radar right now, but it deserves more love. Sadly, only volume one and a little of volume two has been translated so far (read it here), but there’s also a manga adaptation that will hopefully keep going and get more attention for this lovely series.