Death flags for everybody!
What’s the Story?
On a planet far, far away from Earth, war rages between an ancient kingdom and a militaristic empire. Princess Yuki, head of the kingdom, is slowly gaining more responsibilities and learning what it means to rule, but she doesn’t know about the war. Her advisors keep her in the dark, hoping to preserve her bright smile and optimistic nature that they all treasure so much, but the horrors of war can’t be held off for long and soon the kingdom is pitched into a desperate situation. On the other side of the conflict there’s Stella, a loyal soldier of the empire, who always smiles despite how she feels inside. Stella and Yuki are on a collision course though and no matter how long it takes them to meet, when they do, they’ll have the fate of the whole planet to decide.
I’m struggling a bit with this review. My usual way of reviewing is that I tend to watch series as they air, one episode a week, until we get to the end of the season and then I’ll type up my thoughts after watching the final episode. Normally, by that point, my brain has had twelve or so weeks to form an opinion, I know what I think works and what I think doesn’t. Every now again though, I get a series like this one, where, having just watched the final episode as I type this up, (and I realise I’m going to be posting this well after I write this. Hello people of the future! Do we have hoverboards yet, or has the world ended already? I’m betting its the latter), I can’t quite put my finger on what I think. I’ve certainly enjoyed this series, I’ve looked forward to watching it every week, but at the same time if I break this series down and analyse it there are thousands of better series out there. It’s not bad, but it’s not mind blowing either and I don’t know quite why I’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I am waffling at this point as my brain tries to work out the answer, but let’s go through the series and maybe I’ll have come to a conclusion by the end.
From a visual stand point this is fairly middle of the road. The action is decent and fast-paced and I like the majority of the character designs (weird anime hair aside), though there are several moments were you can see the budget is stretching so that it can be saved for more important scenes. There are a lot of nice shots in this series, there are several backgrounds and stills that I’d like to take from this series and hang up on a wall. It’s just a shame that it can’t keep that level of style and direction going the whole way through, but then maybe that’s an overall problem with the series. It has moments of brilliance, a perfect scene or character interaction, but then there are other times when the series feels like its falling back on clichés or into a pattern and that robs it of the meaning its going for.
That brings me on to the story and were the majority of my gripes with this series come in. Honestly, I’ve seen this story a thousand times, two empires at war and we follow the people caught up in the middle of it, learning the horrors of war first hand. We’ve got the loyal soldiers who begin to question orders and sunny optimists confronted with the fact that not everyone is going to reach that happy ending. There’s plenty of mech battles, trying to outsmart opponents with battlefield tactics and enough death flags to kill off whole nations, the series even throws in a vaguely relevant environmental message towards the end (it’s actually not that bad an addition, though I feel it should have been brought up more in the final episode). Now there’s nothing wrong with these story elements in and of themselves, many, many great stories have been built off the back of them, but The Price of Smiles never really does anything that new or inventive with them. The potential is there, but the show never seems to use it. It doesn’t help that the series quickly falls into a pattern, going from the first character death being something shocking and gripping, to significant characters lining up to be dispatched one after the other, each with their own emotional send off and it just gets played that many times that I quickly stop caring.
Speaking about wasted potential, let’s talk about Yuki. Now, personally, the idealist having their eyes opened to the greys and moral quandaries of the real world is one of my favourite tropes, and that did look like the path Yuki was on, but she’s never allowed to fully go with it. Yuki at the beginning is a happy optimist, seeing only the best in all around her and yet there’s also signs of a keen intelligence buried underneath her childish charm. When she finally learns about the war it breaks her heart and she struggles to cope with it emotionally, making rash decisions in an attempt to keep more people alive, only for said decisions to lead to more people dying. Now the natural arc for her is for her to abandon some, if not all, of her optimism and unleash that strategic mind of hers on the Empire, closing herself off as more and more people die, but if we did that then the series couldn’t wrap up in twelve episodes with all the conflict tied up in a nice little bow, so Yuki keeps her idealism until the end and as a result feels like a character that hasn’t quite finished her journey.
At least Stella gets to complete her arc, going from someone who’s closed off, burying all her feelings and smiling through it, to someone who wears her heart on her sleeve yet still struggles with her feelings. I wish we had more of the scene of her with her mother, but aside from that Stella feels like she at least got to complete her journey. The rest of the cast are all pretty enjoyable, a lot of favourites coming from Stella’s squad, but even those on Yuki’s side had some really captivating moments, even if that moment was right before they died.
In the end The Price of Smiles isn’t a bad series, but it won’t blow anyone away either. The animation is decent with some nice direction in places, but the story has been done better before and often falls back on clichés and familiar patterns. The characters are all likeable and interesting and, even with my disappointment in Yuki’s arc, they are reason I think I’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have. The series has its ups and downs, but when the characters get their moments to shine, they really do shine and that was enough to carry me through some of the more mediocre patterns of this series. I do recommend it, there’s certainly worse you could be watching, but I’ll completely understand if anyone wants to give this a miss.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.