Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Rising of the Shield Hero Watch-Through Episode 4: Lullaby at Dawn


(Originally Posted on Jan 30, 2019)

Episode 4 is here, and this one's a doozy! And probably my favorite since Episode 2. Possibly Naofumi's lowest low, and the introduction of the "curse series" abilities, one of which threatens to destroy him.

For those who are new to these breakdowns, I’m covering each episode of “Rising of the Shield Hero” and explaining what western SFF writers and readers can learn from Japanese “Light Novels”. If you’re not a writer, and simply want my thoughts on the show, then gain, feel free to skip the last bit. You can check out my prior watch-through articles here, and if you want to check out the story yourself, you can buy the novel on Amazon, or watch it for free on Crunchyroll. So without further ado, let’s dig into the summary! Also, spoiler warning.

After the first wave, the King invites all the heroes to a royal banquet, celebrating their victory. Not wanting to mingle with the others, Naofumi is off in a corner, and I suspect he's really only there so Raphtalia can eat. It's clear he doesn't want anything to do with the other Heroes, but at this point, a clash between them seems unavoidable. Raphtalia tries to get him to eat some cake, but he still doesn't feel like it. And making matters worse is the fact that the Spear Hero begins to approach him, asking to duel him seemingly out of nowhere.

Turning back the clock a bit, it turns out that Myne's not done being a goddamn trash bag, and wants to ruin Naofumi's life even more by removing the one party member he has. So to that end, she informs the Spear Hero that Raphtalia is a slave, to which he predictably freaks out and confronts Naofumi in the most showy way possible. All the nobles seem perturbed by this, and the two other cardinal heroes arrive with "oh God, what's he done now" looks on their faces. When Naofumi tries to shrug them off with his villain routine, even going as far as to say "so what, slavery's legal in this world." The Spear Hero and everyone else are understandably disgusted by this, and the other Heroes take it upon themselves to explain to Naofumi that owning people is bad, even in a fantasy world. However, their lack of any real emotion betrays their real attitude towards the Shield Hero. Again, they kind of see him as that one guy gumming up the role-play session with his perverted actions towards NPCs instead of someone who's actually hurting people.

However, the conflict escalates until we get to the Shield Hero's challenge. If he wins, Raphtaila goes free (which will conveniently halt the EXP Naofumi gets, THANKS MYNE) and Naofumi wins, he can go on as he pleases. Naofumi tries to get away, but is forced by the king to accept the duel. The two are then taken to an arena, and as he reaches for a sword, Naofumi is again given a stark reminder that this "game" is completely busted. However, he has more than a few aces up his sleeve, something that the Spear Hero is blissfully unaware of.

As they begin to fight, Naofumi decides to play up his villainous side and fight as dirty as possible. He takes advantage of every singe upgrade and ability his shield's gotten including a frickin' TWO-HEADED BLACK DOG SHIELD that attacks enemies. It's here that the whole "shield upgrade" thing really shines, as we see the payoff that all his tedious grinding's accomplished. Though the Spear Hero is technically stronger, Naofumi's so crafty in how he uses his shield forms, that he actually seems like he'll win this fight. It turns out he's even been hiding more of those orange balloon monsters under his cloak, and threatens to attack the Shield Hero's face and nads with them. At this point however, Myne cheats and throws a gust of wind at Naofumi, knocking him off balance and allowing the Spear Hero to win the duel. He lost. And despite Raphtalia's protestations, it seems the King and Myne are going to "free" her. Which, given their openly racist attitudes, probably means she'll be locked in a cage and shipped off to the Monopoly Man again once the other Heroes' backs are turned. That, or the Spear Hero attempts to get creepy with her.

Upon loosing, Naofumi is distraught. Making matters worse is the fact that Myne is revealed to be the king's daughter, a princess who decided to "help people as an adventurer," in the same way Marie Antoinette liberated the peasants. And upon realizing the King of the land is in on all this and basically plotted against him from the start, Naofumi snaps. His shield activates a new ability, but not the good kind. He becomes utterly consumed by a "curse series" ability, making him lash out at everyone and become taken over by resentment and hatred.

Raphtalia however, has had enough of the Spear Hero's BS. And she basically takes every thread of his self-righteous attitude and snaps it over her knee in a glorious verbal smackdown. She claims she never wanted to be "rescued," that Naofumi treated her well, saved her life and basically fed her whatever she wanted to eat. And asks if the Spear Hero would even bother doing the same for someone like her. When he stammers out a half-hearted "of course," Raphtalia BTFOs him by asking why he doesn't then have a party of freed slaves instead of nobles. At this point, even the other cardinal Heroes are calling bull on this, and Raphtalia's insistence that Naofumi is a good person is leading some of the Cardinal heroes to get suspicious. In fact, it's the Bow and Sword heroes who call out Myne's cheating, and insist that Naofumi did nothing wrong from the looks of things. Spear Hero refuses to believe this, and a few snidely racist comments from Myne  reveal that she and Daddy Dearest never really cared about Raphtalia's well-being, just that the Shield Hero suffers for their amusement.

However, the curse has consumed him so much that even when Raphtalia reaches out to him, he rejects her and calls her a "traitor". Raphtailia then spills the beans. She knows about the accusations. And she doesn't believe a word of them. She brings up all the good things he's done, but one by one, he offers up excuses for why he's still a terrible person. But Raphtailia's still intent on breaking this curse, and won't leave him, telling him that "she's his sword" and she'll protect him and stand by him, even if the whole world hates him. This breaks the curse, and Naofumi breaks down in tears, because those are the words he's wanted to hear. And even though she's said them before, he blocked everything out, because he refused to see her as anything but a child. But he's so surprised by this, he asks "who are you?" not even recognizing her at first. But soon he realizes that she is in fact, grown up. And that she can stand by him not just in battle, but as a friend and someone who can share his fears and pain.

Because of Myne's cheating, Naofumi is declared a winner, but only after the frickin' Pope of this world intervenes. Spear Hero refuses to accept this, but the other heroes begin to suspect Myne and the King. And the show ends with Naofumi accepting that Raphtalia is no longer his "pupil," but an equal and possibly even stronger than him, and that perhaps he needs her now just as much as she needed him.

Get your kleenex ready, because if any episode of this show's gonna make you cry, it's this one. In the past few episodes, it seems like Naofumi's slowly been coming out of his icy shell, despite some relapses into "villain mode." Most of this is due to raising Raphtalia, someone who genuinely cares for him and believes he's a good person. It's largely due to her that he hasn't completely slid off the deep end by now, even though basically everyone in this world decided he was a piece of crap before he'd even done anything.

Thus, the thought of having her forcibly taken away from him (which was always the intent, as Myne never really cared for the "filthy demi-humans") basically breaks him as a person. He's so consumed by resentment and hatred that he literally becomes cursed, shunning everyone and everything.
Raphtalia also continues to be my favorite character in this, utterly blowing the Spear Hero's arguments up in his face. Seeing this dude get called out on his bullshit, two-dimensional morals is downright therapeutic. And funnily enough Raphtalia seems to almost directly challenge a lot of the complaints from social media in this bit. "A real hero wouldn't own a slave!" says Shield Hero, yet as Raphtalia points out, he saved her from dying, fed her, and only ever compelled her to do something when both their lives (as well as basically everyone else's in this world) were at stake. He took her from an abusive situation and gave her a new life. And finally, she delivers the bombshell. That if the Spear Hero really were a hero, his party would also have a slave, because he'd feel compelled to help them and deliver them from abuse like Naofumi did. And it does beg the question...if Spear Hero cared so much about slaves, why didn't he buy them and free them? Hell, why didn't he use his position to advocate against slavery as a concept? Back in Episode 1 and 2's summaries, I mentioned that Naofumi's reputation is so utterly toxic, that any attempt to free the slaves on a bigger scale would be seen as him being a degenerate and helping the "filthy" demi-humans. But Spear Hero is loved by the people, and seen as basically a real-life St. George figure. So why can't he be that revolutionary hero?

Instead, he surrounds himself with gorgeous women, and judging by the way he treats Raphtalia, is condescending and belittling to them as well. He doesn't actually care about being a good person so much as playing the "role" of a good person. Again, he and the other Cardinal Heroes basically see this as little more than a video game. But to their credit, they also call out Spear Hero, and concede that Raphtalia's behavior isn't exactly what you'd expect from someone suffering at his hands.
Again, it all goes back to actions vs words. The show is deliberately set up so that basically anything Naofumi does looks utterly reprehensible from the outside. And he's so far gone at this point that he actually sees that as a strength. This isn't a good or admirable trait (it's what makes him an anti-hero, after all), and the things he says when put in these tense situations are utterly horrific But because he has the unbridled charisma of a bag of dirt, any nice things he'd say would come across as weak, if not just as bad as his "villainy" (again, see my prior bit about demi-humans). Thus, lashing out is the only way he knows how to deal with the immense pain and borderline suicidal depression he faces. Saying things that shock and disgust people is the only way he can stop them from taking advantage of him, simply because he's paired with the "unlucky" shield. But it's gotten to the point where he's actually internalized a lot of this negativity, and genuinely thinks he's at least somewhat evil. To the point where he straight-up lies when she mentions the good things he's done, saying that he had bad intentions when doing them. Literally the only thing he disputes is Myne's accusations.

In the end though, Raphtalia is the one that breaks him out of his funk, revealing that she knew about the rumors surrounding him the whole time. And that she doesn't believe a word of them because she knows he's a good person. And for the first time, Naofumi begins to see her not as a child, but as an adult he can rely on not just for combat, but as a friend and companion. And it's her influence that ultimately breaks the curse on him and shows the cracks in Myne's false narrative. And speaking of this, the reveal that Myne is the king's daughter, and that the King was in on it the whole time? Looks like yet another character is added to my ever-growing list of antagonists to despise.

There's also one more major thing this episode begins to depict, and that's Raphtalia's burgeoning romantic feelings for Naofumi. In the beginning, she attempts to feed him cake (In Japan this is considered a "thing" with couples, especially around Christmas), and by the end of the episode she tells him she "needs" him. He doesn't reciprocate this at all (which is understandable, as up until now he kind of saw her as his daughter), but even though I find this mildly weird, it at least makes sense and is in character for her. After all, Naofumi is basically the only positive male figure in her life, and probably the reason she's not dead. And at this point, it's clear that Naofumi's a'm glad the show takes the high road and doesn't get...uncomfortable with this setup, even if I still find the "demi-humans age when they level up" thing kind of unnecessary. Granted, the show's not pushing it as a romance between them, merely that Raphtalia's love for him goes beyond that of a mere friend. But it's still a very one-sided affair at this point, and I think the show's a lot better for it.

This does however, bring me to a problem I'm beginning to see with Shield Hero, and that's its origin as a webnovel. Originally this series was a serialized story uploaded on the internet, much like Worm, or Welcome to Night Vale here in the west. And the more I watch it, the more I see what I feel are additions made over time to lengthen the story. So initially, the author wanted Naofumi to rescue a little girl. But because little girls are kind of terrible at killing things, she had to be aged up. And I'm guessing readers wanted to see some kind of romance after this, so...yeah. There's also things like the different heroes being from alternate realities, which thus far hasn't been expanded upon. All in all, it feels like an adaptation of a serialized webnovel which was being added to week by week. And while I love the story overall, I do feel this is one weak area in it.

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