The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 4 of
The Price of Smiles ?
The Price of Smiles is clearly supposed to offer a multi-faceted view of war, but thus far that perspective has been rather lopsided. Just one episode has focused on the Empire of Grandiga, and it came after the big shock of Joshua's death, with no time to focus on the aftermath. Well, now we're back focusing on the Kingdom of Soleil this week, as Yuki grapples with the reality of the whole ruse her cabinet had been running on her. Admittedly, this is where all the more complex thematic stuff has been done in the show so far, but it still feels like Stella and her side are getting shortchanged at this point.
That said, this episode is no slouch in the details department. Soleil's characters are much more into the ground movements of the war than Grandiga's more espionage-focused portion, so the various tactical elements get fleshed out to make the conflict feel broader in scale. The series does a good job of explaining and illustrating its tactics with explanations that helpfully boil them down for less military-minded viewers. Basically, we can grasp that Soleil is losing the broad portions of this engagement, given the way that various military leaders and advisers have to explain this to Yuki, who's a literal child.
I'm finding Yuki's role in all this more contentious as the show goes on. She's supposed to be a young and inexperienced leader, of course, learning her way as she's rapidly thrust into a situation far beyond her understanding. That's an interesting perspective for a show like this, but the problem is that the nature of her role leaves her more inert than she should be as the main character. A large portion of this episode is dedicated to Yuki reacting to her underlings deceiving her and disobeying her orders, but it's treated less as a personal conflict that grows the cast's characterization, and more as Yuki being tutored in a leadership role she's expected to embrace quickly. She feels like a passenger in her own story at this point, lacking much agency to affect the plot and instead acting simply as a viewer surrogate for heavy-handed messages about warfare.
And boy does the show love its messages. I'll make no secret that I agree overall with the story's thesis at this point, that war is largely a wasteful exercise in blowing national pride out of proportion in the name of controlling resources. But the clarity of the show's point just makes its heavy-handed delivery of that message all the more tedious. The final scene of this episode is dedicated to showing how an impulsive yet compassionate decision by Yuki leads to a disastrous death-toll far worse than the demise of the civilians she was trying to save, and I could buy the complexities the show was selling based on that alone. But then it goes over-the-top with the literal destruction of a memorial to the fallen, and a stone-faced commander gravely intoning that "this is the nature of war." Okay, I get it. The driving ideas behind The Price of Smiles are already sound, so it doesn't need to treat these observations as profound truths without further elaboration.
The other major portion of the episode is handled better, with a flashback detailing the origin of this war. There are a lot of interesting elements present, like the detail that the nations of Soleil and Gandiga were allies a mere twelve years ago. Admittedly, that's still a long time ago in world-stage terms, so perhaps I'm just used to the more ‘endless’ wars of other sensationalized anime. At any rate, this flashback focuses on Yuki's advisor Layla, who in another shocking twist turns out to be the mother of Stella, who presumed her daughter dead after that infamous terrorist attack. This big blowout had been teased in a previous episode, but its follow-through this week is actually one of the most effective segments of the show so far. It makes deft use of sound, subdued music, and especially pointed silence to sell the disorienting dissonance of a disaster like this, and it really makes an impact. Of course we know that Stella survived, but Layla's muted reaction to her daughter's presumed death still hits hard because we're invited to empathize with her sudden loss. More than all the unsubtle ‘War Is Bad’ proselytizing, this part really crystallizes the harrowing nature of the horrors we've been watching escalate for four episodes.
For all its heavy-handedness, The Price of Smiles is still telling its story pretty well. It's clearly dedicated to its message, and even if it seems obvious from the outside how easy it would be for these two sides to sit down and compromise for their own benefit, the show does mostly sell how the sheer amount of loss and emotional agony everyone's gone through might complicate such a possibility. I just wish it would respect the audience to come to that understanding ourselves. I'm hoping that after putting us and Yuki through the wringer like this, the story's on its way to developing her leadership skills so we can get an idea of how this war might be able to resolve.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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