by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Karakuri Circus ?
“A Smile” is a fascinating episode to mark Karakuri Circus' halfway point. We've spent three weeks on this Shoki/Angelina plotline now, and this episode drops the framing structure of Masaru's present day woes entirely and devotes its entire runtime to the flashback. The animation is creaky, the characters are off-model half the time, and it feels so weird to have spent so much time away from what is ostensibly the main focus of our story. The whole pretense of this extended flashback was for Masaru to discover the origins of this “Sadayoshi downloaded his personality into your brain and is now possessing you” situation, but Sadayoshi himself has had less than a minute of screen time over the past three episodes. Given these aesthetic and narrative speed bumps, you'd think that “A Smile” would have ended up as a signature Karakuri Circus Hot Mess™, but the biggest surprise of all is that is one of the best episodes the series has delivered yet.
A lot of this has to do with the amount of time we've had to spend with these characters. Karakuri Circus' worst moments have been underscored by too much pressure being put on emotions and character beats that haven't had enough time to properly develop. Shoji and Angelina's story has still felt rushed at times, but it benefits from having the context of the story that has come before and after it, and some of the character payoffs we get this week are powerful based purely on their concept alone, making it yet another example of how the messy Midnight Circus portion of the show is better now in hindsight than it was in the moment.
I was hesitant for Doll Francine to arrive as suddenly as she did last week, especially since it was obvious that little baby Éléonore was going to factor in to DF's quest to learn how to smile, and the title of this episode made it fairly obvious where things were going to end up. However, I was happy to see Karakuri Circus making the most of its clipped pace, playing up the comedic moments without sacrificing the character development that comes with them. The early scene with Guy begrudgingly caring for little Éléonore was a treat, and I was laughing out loud when Guy and Doll Francine had a sparring match to determine who was the better babysitter; Guy has put in the hours to make up for trying to murder Angelina all those months ago, but Doll Francine has had to change diapers and take a crash course in the science of human gestation, so it's kind of a wash.
Things take a turn for the serious once a horde of automatons descends upon the shirogane's homestead, and while the shoddy animation unfortunately detracts from the suspense of the moment, I was nevertheless emotionally riveted seeing the destruction of this little surrogate family, even if I wouldn't have minded more time to see them bond first. Angelina's death was predictable but still sad, given the ups and downs we've seen her suffer through, and her connection to Guy gives it more impact since that's a character we can still invest in. I was a little confused about him calling her “Maman” in her final moments - at first I thought the show was telling us that she was somehow Guy's biological mother - but once I understood that Guy and Angelina were confirming their adoptive emotional bond in the latter's final moments, I found myself getting a little misty-eyed.
The waterworks started in earnest with Doll Francine's final moments, where she ends up trapped in a well of corrosive aqua vitae with baby Éléonore after Shoji and Angelina trust her to spirit their baby away to safety. The slow death that DF suffers at the hands of the aqua vitae that Éléonore is producing gives the automaton the opportunity to reflect on her terrifying cruelty and the pain she's caused so many people. In her last moments she manages to calm the frightened child by singing Angelina's lullaby and making some silly faces, and Éléonore's smile is what finally allows Doll Francine to smile on her own. It's a melodramatic ploy that shouldn't work at all, given how little time DF has had to come around on humanity compared to all of the effort made to paint her as the Big Bad of the whole series. Yet I have to admit, this moment got to me.
I still have questions. If Guy was aware of the sacrifice DF made to save Éléonore, then why did he not make mention of it during the present-day hunt for the Midnight Circus? Given that we don't see how Doll Francine ultimately meets her end, should we be suspicious of her being completely dead? Is this event how Éléonore ended up being the “reincarnation” of Doll Francine that Narumi is so hellbent on destroying, and how would that even work within the show's own logic? What does any of this have to do with Sadayoshi and Masaru? I don't know how well this episode will hold up against the tangled ball of drama that is this show's big-picture storytelling, but I appreciate it all the same. It's sloppy and logically shaky melodramatic storytelling that speaks to my sappiest instincts in spite of the show's shortcomings, which is perhaps a perfect way to describe the best parts of Karakuri Circus.
Karakuri Circus is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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