The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Price of Smiles ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
The Price of Smiles ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
The Price of Smiles ?
The main thing that The Price of Smiles has going for it so far is the element of surprise. I'm still impressed with the trick the first episode pulls off. Many anime wait until the end of the first episode to show off their opening animation, but in the case of The Price of Smiles, it's actually a major game-changer for the story. The audience mostly spends the lead-up wondering what kind of show this is actually going to be. I thought we were in for something along the lines of Maoyuu, with a detailed look at the economic workings of this far-flung future fantasy kingdom. The action in the mock battle seemed like a concession to keep the audience's attention, so I was all set to focus on the mild tale of Princess Yuki and her knight Joshua as they learned the ins and outs of governing the Kingdom of Soleil.
Then that opening drops and it becomes immediately apparent that we've only gotten half the story so far. We're stung with the revelation that Soleil isn't just engaging in tense border negotiations with the Empire of Grandiga, they're at outright war with them. This is probably meant to be part of the show's commentary on the nature of warfare; we don't consider the sides that aren't our own unless we're specifically shown their struggles. Yes, The Price of Smiles is one of those shows, a big high-concept mecha-filled exploration of war themes.
For what it's worth, I'm happy to have a show like Price of Smiles this season, as another anime about the fog of war without the word "Gundam" in the title. And as an anniversary showcase for legendary studio Tatsunoko, the show's all the stronger for not being frivolous. More characters and conflicting nations get added over the next two episodes, and it handles both mecha series and war show tropes with aplomb. The series seems to recognize how much it needs to try and take the audience by surprise to make an impression. Right after that first episode and its open-war reveal, the second episode ends with an absolute whammy of a development, as the seemingly-important knight Joshua is shockingly killed off!
More than anything in these introductory episodes, this was the turning point that made me think The Price of Smiles could be the biggest pleasant surprise of the season. Even the way Joshua is killed off is unconventional. He sustains a major wound but swears he won't die from it, and we even see him seemingly flying back to safety in his experimental ace custom mecha. But then just a few minutes later, it's revealed that he did die from those injuries. In a real war situation, people can't just shrug off serious stab wounds because they happen to feel like main characters. In just those two episodes, Price of Smiles makes clear that it wants to keep us on our toes and play for keeps.
But that same quality can make it hard to evaluate the show at this juncture. Due to its expectation-upending nature, the audience spends these first few episodes just trying to figure out the show's goals. The first episode turns into a neat trick by the end, but the economical elements introduced still don't amount to much afterward, beyond some blatant exposition about the contrast in resources between the two sides. Soleil has potential resources with their Chars energy source but can't seem to translate that into successful crop yields, while Grandiga has huge amounts of land and people, but few resources to provide for the populace. It's blatant setup that leaves the audience less room to wonder what compromise these two sides could reach and instead simply waiting for them to figure out the obvious.
This heavy-handed kind of storytelling hangs over the show when it isn't doling out solid plot twists. The third episode in particular is loaded with blatant exposition as we follow the collection of Empire espionage agents who will apparently drive that side of our story, describing their commander's previous actions as relatively noble by the standards of a military dictatorship. Similarly, main Grandiga girl Stella makes for an obvious foil to Yuki, lacking any rank or heritage compared to the Princess's royal status, and smiling whenever she can seemingly for herself, rather than at the behest of some childhood friend. The contrast clearly works for the story, and it should be interesting when these two central characters inevitably cross paths, but while it works to humanize the Empire's side in spite of the espionage team's uncompromisingly brutal actions, it still feels like the series is coming across as too on-the-nose.
The Price of Smiles definitely has a lot of intrigue going for it so far. There are places where it feels more eager to express its Capital-I Ideas while mired in the midst of all this scenario-setting, plus the characters and production values are merely average at best. At least the action and mecha battles are dynamic and interesting enough, and the twists in these first two episodes are strong enough to encourage us to keep watching just to see what the show might pull off next. But even with those big shocks landing well, I feel like the series is still wanting for some ‘wow’ factor that could push it to the next level and transform it into the surprise hit of the season.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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