The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
The Price of Smiles
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Price of Smiles ?
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How was the first episode?
Every time the preview guide rolls around, I am reminded anew just how much perfectly reasonable yet largely unsung anime there is out there. Not those rare shows that show up in all the critical lists, not the action staples that dominate the popular charts, and not the shows so bad they get recognized by infamy alone; the reasonable, unassuming shows in the middle, which accomplish their goals with perhaps not so much flair, but certainly plenty of dignity.
So it is for The Price of Smiles, a show whose first episode never dazzled me, but nevertheless demonstrated great consistency of writing and execution. Introducing us to the futuristic kingdom of Soleil and the young Princess Yuki, this premiere mostly just established the context of her life, and illustrated her relationship with childhood friend slash royal guard Joshua. With both her parents having died years before, Yuki has had to quickly assume a mantle of responsibility in her kingdom, but still isn't quite the most regal of princesses yet.
Perhaps what most impressed me about this premiere was its offhand approach to worldbuilding. Oftentimes, scifi or fantasy anime stumble over themselves in their rush to exposit all the cool features of their world, making their early episodes feel like a group of characters listing off paragraphs from their own show's wiki. In contrast, Smiles' first episode only contained one brief fragment of “as we both know” exposition, while more of the context of its world was revealed naturally, through offhand lines like “this is Tokyo, a city located on our old homeworld.”
Smiles' graceful methods of relaying information also extend to its characterization. Though Yuki's character certainly isn't unique, her mix of youthful naivety and genuine dedication to her role made her a heroine it was easy to root for, particularly once she took Joshua's challenge to his fellow officers into her own hands. Instead of simply telling us that Yuki is young but dedicated and competent, the show naturally demonstrates that, showing her strength both in negotiating with potential naysayers and coming up with battle strategies.
In visual terms, Price of Smiles is a relatively middle-of-the-road production. There isn't that much fluid animation, but the show's energetic direction and snappy pacing meant the occasional comedy beats landed well, and the character designs are all pretty appealing. Even the CG robots from this episode's battle simulation had reasonable models, and it was easy enough to follow the flow of battle.
Overall, while Price of Smiles seems to lack a distinctive hook that might set it apart among sci fi sagas, its mix of likable characters, generally confident storytelling, and fine visual execution still make for a very solid premiere. Nothing about this one is likely to shock you, but if you're looking for a familiar and reasonably executed adventure, it's definitely worth a glance.
The Price of Smiles is such an odd hodgepodge of genres and tones that I don't quite know what to make of it. The opening scenes, where the klutzy Princess Yuki of Soleil celebrates her twelfth birthday by giving a speech to a throng of citizens who are all waving glowsticks like it's an idol concert, initially gave me the impression that this was going to be some kind of slice-of-life fantasy show, where we follow a moe princess as she goes about learning the ins and outs of aristocratic bureaucracy. Then the giant-robot simulation battles showed up, and I realized this was going to be a much more action-oriented show than I first suspected. Then the post credits scene reveals that Soeil and its rival Empire are in a for-reals war that Princess Yuki isn't being told about. So what we have is an ostensibly-cutesy-but-actually-super-serious sci-fi mecha battle war drama romance. I think.
I usually love it when anime colors outside of the lines of genre like this, but something about The Price of Smiles' premiere didn't quite sit right with me. It could be that the unimpressive production values failed to capture my imagination – the 2D animation is washed out and stiff most of the time, and the one CGI mecha fight we got wasn't anything special, either. For how much exposition and world-building this first episode threw at us, we didn't actually get to know the characters or their world well enough to be engrossed. Princess Yuki is the same kind of naïve and eternally optimistic Young Monarch that we've seen many times before, and while I'm sure that's part of the setup for some development later on, it isn't enough to carry the show on its own. Joshua is likewise too cookie-cutter for my tastes, and his relationship with Yuki mostly relies on the audience being familiar with the trope of “childhood friend to royalty who's also their knight-protector”. The one character that stood out was Yuni Vanquish, the woman who dares to suggest that the people may no longer have need of an absolute ruler. Her steely attitude promises a revolutionary undercurrent that I find more interesting than the perspective of the sheltered ruling class.
As of now, The Price of Smiles is dealing with some potentially intriguing themes that need more time to incubate before I will know if this show is worth sticking around for. I've been listening to unhealthy amounts of historical podcasts about revolutionary era Europe and the Americas, so I'm all for an anime that gives us two very different perspectives of what it's like to rule of “kingdom of smiles”. I just hope the show can nail down its tone and character-writing better in the coming episodes, so that it can live up to the promise of its premise.
This original series, which is the 55th anniversary project for Tatsunoko Production, does not initially seem too compelling. Almost the entirety of the first episode is a basic story about a young princess coming into maturity by trying to take on responsibility for her kingdom, while a young man seeks to become her personal “knight.” That leads to simulator battles that reveal this is actually a mecha series, but there's still no major surprises there. Things get a little more interesting when the series opener played under the credits prominently features a new female character alongside the princess, but again, no big deal. Although there's at least some mild sense that something else may be happening, it's not until the very last shots of the epilogue that the ball finally drops, revealing that things aren't anywhere near as peaceful as everyone lets on.
This completely changed my perception of what was otherwise an unremarkable first episode – in other words, the price for Yuki's smiles is keeping her ignorant of what's really going on at the border. It also gives new context to Yuni's harsh words that triggered the aforementioned duel. Did Yuni actually not know that Yuki was being kept in the dark? If so, how long will conditions allow for Yuki to be kept ignorant? The other girl certainly looks like she might be an opposition pilot, which means that the two of them will meet at some point. Yuki also isn't being portrayed as dumb; she clearly has some capability as a leader, including a good sense of strategy.
The other notable feature of the first episode is the simulated mecha battle, which uses units awkwardly named Chrarslapis (after their power source, a mineral called chrar). While the mecha don't look like anything special design-wise, the animation of those action scenes is quite sharp without the CG being too obvious and distracting, which gives the series some promise on the action front. The series is directed by Toshimasa Suzuki, who's certainly no stranger to mecha action (Heroic Age, Lagrange, Fafner: Heaven and Earth), so at least there will be a skilled hand in staging them going forward.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this one, but that final twist at the end is just enough to get me to watch at least a little more.
You do have to admire a show that puts its intentions front and center. The Price of Smiles seems to do just that in its premiere episode by introducing the perky and cute Princess Yuki of the kingdom of Soleil – not only does “soleil” mean “sun” in French, fitting the princess' sunny disposition, but her given name can be written with the character for “courage,” which is likely something she'll need as the story goes on. Add in that the antagonist of this episode's family name is “vanquish”, and you've got a story that's already feeling a bit too on the nose.
A more subtle saving grace for this episode is how it becomes apparent over the course of the episode that the people around the orphaned Yuki are trying their darndest not only to prepare her to be a good queen, but to protect her from the realities of political life for as long as they can. Yuni Vanquish's entry on the scene from a border province is what really marks the end for that hope, although there's still a definite effort being made – when Yuni isn't immediately reprimanded for suggesting that Yuki's position as monarch isn't good for Soleil, it implies that the light-stick-waving citizens of the capital may not be representative of the whole kingdom. That's driven home when Yuki's childhood friend/personal bodyguard opts to go to the border with the rest of his unit to see that it's less of a “border” and more a “front,” as in “warfront.” Harold, the older soldier in charge of Yuni and the others, then explicitly states that Yuki must be protected from this knowledge.
So that's probably not a great way to prepare a monarch to rule her kingdom, although given Yuki's tender age it does make sense. I do like that Yuki is allowed to act like a slightly young twelve, and I can understand why her advisers would want her to be able to enjoy her childhood innocence. How much Joshua knows is an interesting question, and what his time at the front will do to him and his relationship with Yuki may prove an emotional selling point for the show. Clearly another young woman will be joining the cast and interacting with Yuki (possibly as an enemy soldier?), and their inevitable relationship will also be important to the show's quality. (I'm getting more a friends/sisters vibe off them in the theme song, but I could be wrong and maybe there'll be a romantic component.) In any case, the plot will have to carry this one, because the visuals are just okay, although I did like the extending neck of the mech during the battle simulation.
This definitely feels like one that'll need at least one more episode to see where it plans to go. I'm just hoping they elucidate on that thing where Yuki is clearly signing off on shipments of “maple syrup” and “lobster.” Did New England just get transplanted to a new planet in the future? If we see someone drinking Dunkin coffee, we'll know for sure.
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