The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 5 of
The Price of Smiles ?
The episodes focused on the Kingdom of Soleil seem to go harder into The Price of Smiles' big-picture ideas of war, but as far as pure entertainment value goes, I think I've enjoyed the couple of episodes focused on the Empire of Grandiga more. Yes, we're back following our little espionage team this time, and the difference in presentation between this and last week is really night-and-day. Much of that comes from the change in scope, of course; whereas the Soleil parts of the story are primarily focused on the royals and higher commanders, Grandiga's parts are based on this single ground-level squad. It's an interesting way for the show to communicate the differences between different moving parts of a war machine, while also focusing on different sides in the conflict.
Different teams aside, the general tone of The Price of Smiles is still consistent. War definitely isn't glorified regardless of the change in viewpoints, though the Grandiga side necessarily goes into less detail about the broader motivations of the Empire and how their society may be presenting that to the civilian population. We barely catch a glimpse of the Chief of Staff Fleet at the beginning of this episode, and we still haven't seen any of the higher leadership. Focusing on the ground troops for this side makes the war a more matter-of-fact setting of misery for those involved. Chipper camaraderie aside, the Buerger Squad we follow certainly isn't thrilled about their position. As they say, they're easily disposable and they keep having to make sacrifices over and over. It's an interesting perspective to see them regard this conflict as just a job, with little commentary on how they feel about the enemies they're facing. The script even brings up a point of disregarding any distinction, as Lily recalls a previous Civil War conflict where they were fighting their fellow Empire soldiers. War isn't some shocking reality for them the way it was for Yuki last episode. To them, it's all they've ever known in life.
This episode works with that material well because instead of the rote proselytizing of the previous episode, this one presents those themes as detailed window-dressing in the margins of the plot. Otherwise, this is an action-heavy episode that moves at a brisk pace. There's lots of exciting mecha battles and demonstrations of troop movements that sweep you up in the action. In that respect, it could be argued that this episode of The Price of Smiles is at odds with its constant anti-war message in the same way so many other anime with that theme can be. Even as the writing is making a point about the constant drain on resources and sacrifices the soldiers have to make, we're still ready to cheer for Stella and Lily saving each other between a flashback and now, taking out soldiers now designated ‘enemies’ who would have been on the sympathetic side just one episode ago. I suppose it's an effective way to demonstrate the idea that no one is truly in the right here, so our sympathies can easily shift with the perspective. It's a key dissonance to get across in a story like this, but it may be more whiplash-inducing than necessary.
But that's just the kind of over-thinking the complexities of this series' premise invite, and when it's not indulging those broader strokes, the small-scale points of the story do work. Much more backstory is given on Lily and Stella this week, explaining that they're actually the longest-serving members of their squad. It's good info to have after we saw Stella's unexpected origin story last episode, even if this one still doesn't quite fill in all the gaps. Similarly, their commander Gale's background motivation is merely hinted at, possibly to be filled in later, but also possibly to demonstrate that everyone fighting in a war has their own reasons that simply won't be known to everyone. The squad has to come to accept that throughout this episode, trusting Gale just enough to lead them as they fight through these ambiguous orders and situations. Despite my critique of the show's tendency to soapbox, The Price of Smiles has done rather well at showing the tension of war as much as it tells us about it.
All those moving parts of the story work more harmoniously this time than some of the similarly-ambitious choices in the last episode. Even the informative flashbacks function to pay off character development as much as they build the world and the conflict. Perhaps I'm just finding it easier to sympathize with the more ‘common’ people shown in the ground war portions from Grandiga's point of view compared to the disconnected royal lessons learned by Yuki in Soleil. That definitely makes me curious as to how these two stories will complement each other once they inevitably crash together.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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