The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 6 of
The Price of Smiles ?
In a lot of other war stories that strive to make their point about the pain and futility of the practice, sides can be presented as equal in their struggles. You think about shows like Legend of the Galactic Heroes, with their constant back-and-forth games of one-upmanship, showing how the fighting goes on with neither side able to gain a permanent advantage. The Price of Smiles, however, has been doing things differently. Since the show revealed its greater conflict, it's been making it clear over the last several episodes that the Kingdom of Soleil is on the losing side. The sense of the Empire encroaching on them, slowly backing them into a corner figuratively and literally, factors into everyone's decisions, particularly those of Yuki. This latest episode, down to its title of ‘The Crossroads of Fate’ would seem to be bringing that point to a head, but in practice it still doesn't feel like it's quite stuck the landing.
One thing this episode does nail is a particular tone. There's no real swell of hope in Soleil's last-ditch efforts to preserve themselves or even uplifting nobility in the sacrifices they're prepared to make. Everyone we follow, from the commanders to the formerly smile-embodying Yuki herself, all seem so tired of this situation and what it's put them through. That's a unique angle afforded by the show opting out of portraying a more even struggle; it gets to illustrate the effects that type of regular loss has on an army and the society they protect. There's almost a sense of numb disbelief that plays off the audience's expectations. Soleil has the more elite-looking mecha fueled by a powerful new plot-device, and they're still losing to the Empire and its overwhelming numbers. It adds to their helplessness when we see that even their ace custom mecha can't help them rally victories they so desperately need.
It's impressive that this weariness is communicated to the audience without weighing on us too heavily. We get how the situation is supposed to make Yuki and the others feel, but it never quite drags down the pacing or the tone to be truly unpleasant to watch. There's simply a sense of an arc building up. That perhaps exacerbates the issue with the episode feeling cut short, since everyone's still miserable and no clear answer has been suggested for Soleil getting out of their predicament. It's interesting that The Price of Smiles, despite its semi-shifting viewpoints, still has episodes that regularly feel like mere chunks of one ongoing narrative rather than serialized storytelling.
This episode also depicts the budding convergence of these stories quite well. Some Grandiga pilots make appearances outside their mechs, ostensibly as props to teach Yuki another lesson about the enemy soldiers being people as much as they are. The trick is that we immediately recognize these soldiers as Stella and the rest of the Buerger Squad from the previous Empire-focused episodes. The narrative doesn't really draw attention to that aspect, it's simply a natural consequence of the show's split viewpoint approach. It makes for a neat ‘crossover’ element, working on a meta-level for the lesson being presented to Yuki in that we already know how much these soldiers are the stars of their own other story.
Yuki learning her lessons does continue to be the least engaging part of the story for me. I understand the purpose they serve in the narrative, but they just aren't as strong as the other things the show is doing better. I think the simplicity, necessary for demonstrating the show's views on war to the viewpoint of a literal child, is my main issue. The plans she tries to formulate on her own to deal with the conflict feel overly simplified as a result of that, creating incredulous situations like her temporarily halting a battle by blowing open a trench that it seems trivial for either side to go around, or delivering sincerely absurd lines like “I'm going to use those weapons to stop the fighting!”. I understand the feelings these moments are trying to evoke, but it becomes clear every step of the way that the story is still too interested in beating down Yuki's idealism. That's made clear again by where this episode cuts off, when Yuki's plan to sacrifice herself as a surrendering figurehead are waylaid again by her commanders who actually know what's best for her.
That's the part that wears on me as a viewer, that and the pointed feeling of losing exhaustion on the part of the characters. We get more nice battle scenes and a sense of where some of these supporting characters may be going in their development, but it's all still framed around illustrating how out of touch Yuki is with the war she's ostensibly leading. This episode handles its conflicts well enough, but I'm hoping it can find a new angle to explore sooner rather than later.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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