The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 9 of
The Price of Smiles ?
I don't want to unilaterally praise The Price of Smiles' storytelling choices, since it's still rubbing up against a lot of the recurring issues that have always defined it. But this week it went from simply beating my head into a wall with 'war is bad!' to addressing so many of the other factors surrounding the badness of war that I have to praise it for clarifying its points. And it still ended up wrapping all that in enough anime absurdity that I appreciated the pulpier aspect of its storytelling as well.
So of course we have one big question coming off the last episode: What is the big bad secret about the chrars that Langford sacrificed himself to impart? My hypothesis was an admittedly tired nuclear weapons allegory that proved how small-scale I was thinking. No, the real threat of the chrars is environmental destruction, and The Price of Smiles is not subtle about its parallels. The threat of chrars usage leaving the planet's soil barren will manifest within ‘a millennium or two’, letting the more pragmatic among the cast question how long-term they need to be thinking. Research about its effects were blocked by a relatively small group of wealthy nobles who sought to enrich themselves with its usage before they left the planet to future generations. I definitely have to give the writers credit for finally taking a more distinct stance in what had been a mealy-mouthed argument against military action so far.
Does that strong stance make the show itself good? I think so, The Price of Smiles is a show built on delivering its messages, and the military complex's massing of resources at the expense of the environment is one more bulletin on its board. It's definitely appealing to imagine at least a couple of people like Yuki and Layla in positions of ruling power who become aware of these long-term planetary issues and want to try and do something about it. This series sells me on the fantasy of cool robot fights and environmental sustainability goals; there's something for everyone!
Where things may get more overwrought is when it comes to explaining just how that environmental degradation works. Not content with a simple ‘mysterious sinister power source’ handwave of why chrars power should stop being used, we instead get a demonstration and outlandish explanation by Layla, and it's precisely as ridiculous as I feared. It turns out the chrars are siphoning energy off ancient nanomachines that were sent to terraform the planet, and that's why they're rendering it uninhabitable. It's a lot of steps to explain what was an easy allegory to grasp otherwise, and mechanically only seems to serve a foreshadowing purpose as Layla's experiments lead to the team accidentally inventing an EMP weapon. They argue that it's not practically applicable in battle at this point, but this kind of convenient development hasn't just appeared for no reason.
Once again, the show's heavy-handed nature seems to have finally cleared its biggest hurdles and started to work in its favor. The character work this week is just as low on the subtlety scale, but as we crest the last quarter of the series, I'm almost thinking I wouldn't have it any other way. A power-outage-induced campfire chat prompts Yuki to muse on how humans could get along and avoid war if they just lived simply enough, while Harold argues that "If we didn't have weapons we'd just kill each other with our bare hands". Harold is currently a ridiculous cynicism machine, with his increasingly extreme actions after Langford's sacrifice only growing to signal his own death flag. To his credit, it proves to be just as affecting as his compatriot's goodbye last episode, if quite different in tone. Harold's death is decidedly pedestrian as a soldier staying behind to hold the line, choosing to fight and die because he knows it's his duty. It gives us a cool mecha battle in a show that's spaced such set pieces out well, lending a strong ending to a character who had to exit before they implement the story's endgame.
I do want to give The Price of Smiles credit for finally making the most of its ambitions. It's not afraid to get a little ridiculous and blatant in its plotting and messaging as the situation grows more and more vivid. Yes, that results in its setups becoming even more melodramatic and obvious, but I think a show like this works best when it's not subtle. It's not stupid, just silly sometimes, and it is uncompromisingly confident.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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