The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Smile Down the Runway
How would you rate episode 1 of
Smile Down the Runway ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I don't care about the fashion industry at all, which is something we should get out of the way up front. I absolutely recognize how much talent goes into designing and producing all those outfits, and I don't envy the pressures that come from trying to live the life of a runway model, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to engage with the particular flavor of drama that comes from such work. Smile on the Runway had that basic fact going against it upfront, along with its strange sense of tone. Our heroine, Chiyuki, has a conflict that is both sympathetic and hard for me to take too seriously: She's a model, a beautiful girl whose father runs Mille neige, the fashion company she dreams of working for, but she's twenty centimeters too short to be considered for runway work. The opening scenes of the episode play this reveal as deadly serious, and even though the rest of the premiere has some jokes and a lighter tone, I still couldn't ever get a grasp on how self-aware Smile on the Runway was about how extra it was being regarding its heroines personal drama.
It may sound like I'm really down on this episode, but truth be told, I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The humor was never anything more than mildly amusing, and I still can't bring myself to care all that much about Chiyuki's personal obsession with becoming a supermodel, but the plot and character dynamics are well executed, and the production is great all around. A lot of this is because of Ikuto, whose story is what got me connected to Chiyuki's character, and the show's plot as a whole. His relationship with his sisters and his mother is much more relatable than what is going on with Chiyuki, and there's potential for the pair's partnership as they both climb the ranks in the fashion world. If the show can nail down the personal stakes going forward, there's real potential for it to become a genuine crowd-pleaser, instead of the moderately but surprisingly successful one-off this premiere is.
That promise came through in the episode's final moments, which began with me feeling incredibly anxious about some of Chiyuki's decisions regarding the work Ikuto went out of his way to do for her, but eventually had me grinning from ear-to-ear, even though I was feeling ambivalent for most of the preceding twenty minutes. When a story can instill that kind of automatic reaction, it is doing something right. I was not expecting to give Smile on the Runway a couple of more episodes to cement its place in my seasonal watchlist, but I'll be doing just that.
Cases like this are good examples of why I don't mind putting in all the extra time and effort to do these Preview Guides. Any description of this series on paper, or any description of how this first episode plays out, probably would have discouraged me from even checking it out if I wasn't obligated to. I have absolutely no interest in the world of fashion or clothing design or any of the drama that goes along with it and typically find the world of high fashion to be overblown and pretentious. Hence it is with great shock that I can admit that the first episode of a series thoroughly devoted to those topics actually clicked for me. Hell, I can even see myself following this one.
I'm honestly not sure why I liked this one as much as I did, as the progression of events is predictable and a lot of the content consists of staple scenes. I think it helps a lot that this is derived (of all things) from a shonen manga, so it avoids the shoujo style points in its character designs and atmospheric effects that I so thoroughly detest. It depicts Chiyoko in a believably-pretty way and allows her to be beautiful without the camera ever seeming like it's leering at her or the other models. I also like the characterization approach taken with Chiyoko. She may be a dreamer but isn't completely unrealistic about it; she knows the deck is stacked against her because of her (lack of) height. She's keen enough to recognize on her own that she needs to do a paradigm shift in her approach to modeling if she wants to achieve her goals and also to recognize that what she needs to make the shift is right at hand: a boy in her classroom with a talent for making clothes that's remarkable enough to quickly catch her attention.
Ikuto also has his own appeal, though his character stands out less so far. He's the fairly typical shy, unassuming, self-deprecating type who more quietly gets passionate about his interests but is fully ready to prioritize family needs – in other words, practically the polar opposite of Chiyoko in terms of temperament. They will both be good for each other, and seeing their initial connection portrayed more as the beginning of a potentially-legendary partnership than a budding romance was a refreshing touch. Him getting to go straight into a job but still pursue his interest seems a bit too good to be true, but at least it was handled in a somewhat plausible way. The end of the episode suggests that, though Chiyoko had the lion's share of attention in the first episode, Ikuto will get his turn as well.
I don't know how long the series can hold the appeal that it shows in the first episode, but I am interested in finding out.
To be perfectly honest, I couldn't get past the first chapter of the manga Smile Down the Runway is based on. Mostly that was because of heroine Chiyuki – while she's clearly meant to be a spunky and determined go-getter who won't give up her dream for anything, to me she came off as entitled and annoying, believing that her father's position as head of an agency and her own good looks and determination would allow her to break the system. That's still an issue in the anime adaptation, which treads very close to the source material – the opening scene is almost shot-for-shot the same as the manga – but the addition of color and sound does help to make the whole thing feel a bit more palatable.
In large part this is because of Tsumura, Chiyuki's hitherto ignored classmate. He's best known as the kid who just brought bean sprouts on rice to school for lunch, prompting Chiyuki's incredibly insensitive “Are you poor?”, but when she goes to get a form from him as the student on duty, she's forced to learn that there's more to him than a kid with an unfashionable haircut. Tsumura, she discovers, is actually a talented tailor and designer, making the most of what little he has by way of materials. He'd love to go to design school, but family obligations (the inevitable hospitalized mom, absent dad, and three younger sisters are all factors) mean that he's just going to have to enter the workforce as soon as he graduates high school. As both he and Chiyuki know, no reputable fashion house is going to hire a designer without a degree, so his dream, like hers, appears to be impossible.
That Chiyuki immediately tells him that is a marker of her general thoughtlessness. She doesn't intend to be mean, and she does realize that her saying he can't do it is basically the same thing as others telling her she'll never go to Paris, but her idea of backtracking on that is to have him make her an outfit she can audition in yet again…and then not even to give him the credit for designing it when she's interviewed on the street, because she “can't say [her] friend made it for her” to a magazine. It's only when her dad's company's phone lines blow up because she gave Mille Neige credit that she fesses up, and her dad is fortunately good enough to immediately offer Tsumura a job, degree or no.
Most of the work this series is going to need to do is with Chiyuki. She's so entitled and thoughtless that it's difficult to get behind her quest, and if there's more of a focus on Tsumura's side of things, well, that'd be a major plus. The story itself is interesting (who doesn't love an underdog story?) and the art enhances the black-and-whites of the manga very nicely, bringing out the beauty in the lines. But Chiyuki herself could make or break this, and right now for me, she's definitely coming down on the latter.
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