The Rising of the Shield Hero and Psychological Trauma
The Rising of the Shield Hero was one of the big hits of last couple of years, and it’s not hard to see why. It has well-drawn sympathetic characters and a story that is a marked departure from the cliches of its genre. But what has gained remarkably little attention from the English language pop culture media is the show’s handling of psychological trauma.
Make no mistake, The Rising of the Shield Hero is a series that is first and foremost about trauma and healing from it. And it handles its subject matter with a startling level of accuracy — in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it may be one of the most authentic depictions of trauma victims and their road to recovery put onto the small screen in recent memory.
The Initial Trauma
Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery and one of the early psychologists to identify Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, defines the cause of psychological trauma events as an incident or event that overwhelms one’s ordinary coping mechanisms. As she says, these events “confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe.”
Both of the main characters of the series, Naofumi and Raphtalia, experience psychologically traumatic events. In the case of Naofumi, the environment he is summoned into is emotionally abusive from the very beginning. His existence is not acknowledged by the king when all the heroes are summoned (a form of belittling), and when he complains about this treatment, he is told that he is being disrespectful (gaslighting). He is told by the other heroes that as the Shield Hero he is “kinda useless.” These heroes then join the king in treating him as a burden, further decreasing his sense of worth.
This only gets worse when Naofumi is robbed and framed for sexual assault, a sledgehammer that breaks his proverbial camel’s back into shards. Where at first he was mistreated, now he is helpless, staring down a death sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. The King provides him with no trial, nor even an opportunity to defend himself. He escapes the death sentence, but his reputation is ruined, he feels that there is nobody he can trust, and his ability to interact with others has been shattered to the point that he is threatening merchants who won’t deal with him. This leads him to buy Raphtalia from a slave trader — not because of any approval of slavery or a desire to own another person, but because the slave curse she is enchanted with prevents her from lying to or betraying their master.
While Naofumi’s trial is mainly emotional and psychological, Raphtalia’s trauma also has a far more physical aspect. First she watched her parents die to protect her during a monster attack. Then, after taking a leadership role in the rebuilding of her village, she watched her village get raided and destroyed by the soldiers of a nearby nobleman, who enslaves the survivors and starts torturing them to death for kicks. She has been left helpless, and the only thing she can do is try to keep up morale with her smile. As she watches, her best friend becomes deathly ill. She is then sold to the slave trader and shipped to the capitol, with nothing to look forward to but an agonizing death in the hands of some other owner.
One of the primary results of trauma is disconnection — the trauma shatters the connection between the survivor and the society in which that trauma has occurred. The victim enters a state of existential crisis, unable to regain the basic trust that allows one to feel safety in the world. We see this clearly in Naofumi throughout the first four episodes: he is incapable of meaningful interaction with anybody other than Raphtalia, the one person who is magically prevented from betraying him. Although there is a mountain of evidence that he is not nearly as isolated or hated as he believes, he cannot recognize that there are people who have given him the benefit of the doubt from the beginning, such as Erhard, the armourer who outfits him, or that the gratitude of those he has saved has any meaning. In his mind even Raphtalia would leave him the minute she had any choice, despite her clear loyalty to him.
Creating a Safe Space
Judith Herman divides the recovery from trauma into three rough stages: the establishment of safety; remembrance and mourning; and reconnection with everyday life and society. As Herman cautions, however, these are more a “convenient fiction” than a hard and fast structure. A trauma survivor can shift between the second and third stages multiple times throughout therapy. However, the first stage is absolute: without the establishment of safety, healing is impossible.
Before the first stage can even begin, however, a healing relationship has to be established. It is nigh-impossible to recover from trauma on one’s own — there needs to be a relationship of some sort within which to start repairing the disconnection and warping of the victim’s perceived reality, and this is the foundation upon which the rest of recovery is based. In the case of Naofumi and Raphtalia, this connection is created when Naofumi purchases her from the slave trader. Each now has another person in their life upon which basic trust can be rebuilt.
Once this relationship is brought into existence, each establishes a safe space for the other within it. Herman describes this as happening in two sub-stages: re-establishing control of the body, and then control of the environment. After a rough start speaking to Naofumi’s own level of extreme disconnection, we see Naofumi establish this with Raphtalia, starting with healing her illness and purchasing her a plate of food that she wants. This establishes a level of control for Raphtalia — she moves from a place of abject horror into a relationship in which her physical health is restored and her emotional needs are being met upon request. She becomes aware that she is safe from mistreatment in this relationship, allowing her to move into the next stage of recovery.
In the case of Naofumi, this safe space isn’t fully established until the end of episode four, during which Raphtalia is forcibly taken away from him, despite her protests, and her slave curse is removed, freeing her to walk away. However, in a raw and powerful scene that makes the entire series, she does the opposite. She returns to him, reaffirms her relationship with him, and establishes that he is also safe within it, free of the mistreatment and betrayal that he has suffered under. This allows him to express his pain and cry for the first time in the series, and she holds and comforts him until he is able to move again the next day.
One Day at a Time
Once their respective safe spaces are created, both Naofumi and Raphtalia move into the second and third stages of recovery. We see this first with Raphtalia, who begins to use her newfound control over her environment to do things that will give her satisfaction or pleasure, such as learning table manners. What’s notable about this is not just that this is something for her own personal edification (Naofumi at this point does not have his safe space, is still disconnected, and does not care how she eats), but that she seeks help from a person outside of their relationship to do it.
Naofumi also begins to reconnect upon the establishment of his safe space. This begins with him seeing Raphtalia properly for the first time and regaining his sense of taste, but he too takes his first steps towards self-gratification since the betrayal, buying an egg in a sort of “monster lottery” that will eventually hatch into Filo, the young daughter in his found family. The egg is expensive, and Naofumi doesn’t need it — however, he wants it, and it is the first thing he purchases that is not related to basic survival.
The healing of trauma revolves around the processing of memory — taking the traumatic events, processing them, and transforming them into memories like any other. Doing this, however, is a long and painful process in which trauma survivors have to take their lives one day at a time, dealing with both good and bad days as they come. Like many survivors of emotional abuse, Naofumi suffers from emotional flashbacks — a characteristic of Complex-PTSD in which the sufferer experiences all the emotions of a traumatic moment as though it is happening for the first time. As Pete Walker details in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, pulling out of an emotional flashback requires the survivor to be reminded that they are in a safe space, that they have allies, and that they are not in catastrophic danger. This is dramatized in an incident with the rage shield, in which Naofumi, fearing that he has lost Filo, re-experiences all of the emotions of his false accusation and mistreatment, and Raphtalia pulls him out of it.
Unlike Raphtalia, who has significant distance from those who have abused her, Naofumi’s own tormentors are never far away. As such, his own reconnection is quite slow. His interactions with those he helps are far more meaningful to them than they are to him — he has difficulty accepting or internalizing their gratitude. This extends to trusting others. For most of the first season, the only people he trusts are Raphtalia and Filo — even those who have proven themselves to be his allies, such as Princess Melty, are treated with distrust at the first opportunity, particularly if they in any way remind him of his trauma.
Naofumi is not the only one to have bad days, and when she has one, Raphtalia also needs help to pull out of it. Upon finding the survivors of her village in the latter half of the first season, and discovering that her best friend had died shortly after Raphtalia had been sold to the slave trader, she suffers a massive attack of survivor’s guilt and depression. While not an emotional flashback, Naofumi returns the favour that she has so often done for him: reminding her of the relationship, the safe space, and of her value. This silences her inner critic, which sees only failures, and has made her incapable of seeing her successes. This also helps her mourn the passing of her best friend, turning the traumatic incident of not being able to save her into memory.
While we see the reconnection stage of recovery throughout the series, the second stage — mourning and remembrance — is present as well, most of it taking place invisibly in the background. We see it more in the growth of the characters, as both Naofumi and Raphtalia move beyond the need for revenge.
Although revenge is an old literary trope — and abuse survivors will often have intrusive thoughts of revenge fantasies — it is generally seen as being counterproductive in therapy, and something that prolongs and prevents, rather than enables, healing. It requires one to hold onto the traumatic incidents instead of letting go and allowing them to process into memory.
We see this progress in both Naofumi and Raphtalia. In the case of Raphtalia, when faced with her tormentor begging for mercy, she is able to let go, putting her faith in the idea that justice will be served in some other fashion.
Likewise, when Naofumi finally has his name cleared, and the king and princess who betrayed and framed him are sentenced to death, he finds that he no longer wants their lives. Instead, he is far more concerned with what their deaths will do to those left behind, who he has come to care about. Like Raphtalia, he too lets go of revenge, finding a way to spare their lives instead so that the Queen and Princess Melty won’t lose the people they love.
It is towards the end of the first season that we really see just how far Naofumi and Raphtalia have come in their trauma recovery. In the case of Raphtalia, we find her having integrated her traumatic past properly into memory, and well into the process of mourning those she has lost.
In the final episode, we also see the degree to which Naofumi has reconnected in his encounter with Lecia, who has attempted to commit suicide after being kicked out of one of the other hero’s party following a false accusation. He does not treat her with suspicion — instead, he sees her for what she is, and offers her a place in his party without hesitation.
The Road to Come
Both Naofumi and Raphtalia spend the first season in a long journey through recovery, and we see them at the end of the season with much of their trauma healed. However, this is not likely to be the end. In reality, the processing of traumatic events into memory takes months, and even years, with memories re-emerging and having to be re-processed as new life events create new contexts. With the psychological authenticity of the series, it is likely that the upcoming second season will see Naofumi and Raphtalia continue to live one day at a time, with both good and bad days, as their trauma continues to heal and they help each other through it.
Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, publisher, and researcher in the area of Kingston, Ontario.