If you’ll pardon the pun, Smile Down the Runway has a difficult needle to thread in order to make the show a success. The world of modeling is inherently inaccessible, the runways of the most prestigious fashion shows around the world cordoned off to all but the most exclusive brands and guests. High fashion is expensive while becoming a model can involve pushing your body to the limit in order to fit unhealthy ideals of beauty. If the focus of Smile Down the Runway episode 1 was to introduce the audience to the show’s main characters, episode 2 is the first episode to attempt to thread this needle by making the general public care about this inaccessible world.
Does the anime succeed at this? Just about. Perhaps understanding these concerns, conscious decisions have been made to find relatability within this exclusive world, which comes through a focus on two outsiders attempting to enter an industry which standards dictate they don’t belong to. Episode 1 of the series used these relatable characters to tell a story about the determination necessary to follow your dreams, the industry being used as a backdrop for the message being conveyed here.
Smile Down the Runway episode 2 attempts to develop on this idea, diving deeper into the industry while focusing mostly on conflicting ideas surrounding approaches to achieving your goals and the importance of rejection. However, is this the right approach for the topic at hand?
Why Should You Follow Your Dream?
Smile Down the Runway episode 2 can be split into two distinct sections. This first half of the episode continues to focus on our ‘outsider’ main characters and particularly Ikuto, the clashing ideals around success and following your dreams being a point of discussion for both them and Chiyuki.
This is perhaps best epitomized in an argument set in the school following the opening credits. Just a few minutes into the episode, we’ve already seen the resolution of both our characters entering the industry (Chiyuki as a model and Ikuto as a designer) ripped away through Ikuto’s rejection from the job he had been offered for being a high school student. For them, it’s enough to move on. They make clothes for the joy it brings to people, after all, their goal isn’t necessarily to make clothes; if clothes can bring a smile to someone’s face, that’s what’s important.
This clash is all about the validity of a person’s dream. Chiyuki’s goals are external, seeing herself on the runway’s of Paris is what’s important, being recognized for their success and proving people wrong is a parameter for success for them. By contrast, the important thing for Ikuto is the idea that their clothes can enable others to be happy, whether on the biggest stage or in the smallest apartment, an internal joy seeing others find happiness in their work. Seeing other’s achieve through their skills as a designer is part of their goals, and we get the episode’s strongest moments through a clash of ideals designed to provoke the audience into considering their differing points of view, elevated by strong vocal performances and expressive character designs that allow a viewer to empathize with their views.
This is the inciting incident for everything that happens throughout the entire episode, as the purpose of a dream is an idea explored through the character of Ikuto throughout the remainder of the episode. This allows Smile Down the Runway episode 2 to neatly follow from what the first episode established thematically while simultaneously making the characters more relatable because of it.
The Importance of Rejection
Due to both of the characters being typically regarded as outsiders, Smile Down the Runway episode 2’s other main theme is allowed to flourish through them, the importance of rejection.
This episode is defined by the idea. The episode opens on Ikuto’s rejection for the design job he had been promised. Overcoming this rejection they ask again, a determination rewarded by a trial with a small brand from a former designer of the company, Yanagida Hajime. Further rejection. An unwillingness to let go sees them push on through this to prove them wrong.
As the episode progresses we delve deeper and deeper into the world of fashion, heading into the studios the clothes are designed and made in and backstage at the runway itself. These are alien concepts to many, and though interest can be generated learning how a runway show is prepared and performed and how clothes are made at companies of various shapes and sizes, it’s just as easy to lose the interest of others as their eyes glaze over at an overload of terminology and conventions set out for an industry the don’t care for. So far, the anime is able to avoid this issue by mixing its discussion of the industry into its drama, allowing for the anime to avoid discussing the details and becoming bogged down in explaining the norms which define how the industry functions.
It’s perhaps a necessity, considering what these norms entail.
Working to the Bone
Smile Down the Runway tells a compelling drama, with likable characters who ensure you remain engaged through a character-driven story focused on young people determined to follow their dreams. When those dreams begin to become a reality, however, we encounter a fashion industry filled to the brim with abusive working environments and impossible beauty standards.
The fashion industry’s obsession with unreasonable body standards and expectations of beauty is a much-discussed problem, one which I can add very little to. There’s an expectation that models transform their body’s in order to fit an unrealistic standard before many high-caliber brands will even consider them for the catwalk. Voices of dissent calling for realistic beauty standards are little more than a nuisance, and things have barely changed in this regard in the years since. As a result, eating disorders within models skipping meals in order to reach a low weight are common.
Smile Down the Runway episode 2 sees these standards as a representation of hard work, grit and determination. For example, Hajime’s assistant praises Chiyuki on her thin waist.
‘You have a model’s body. You can’t do this eating 2 meals a day.’
Without criticism of the unreasonable body standards expected of models, comments like this suggest that dangerous diets are a positive aspect of an industry, and that’s not all. With Hajime’s assistants sleeping on the floor of his studio and overworked to the point of collapsing, their zombie-like stumble through the workday is praised as positive work ethic and a necessity to get the work done, rather than another dangerous aspect of an industry causing many talented designers to suffer from burnout.
Perhaps animators working on these scenes felt a sense of camaraderie around this point.
Smile Down the Runway Episode 2: Beauty At a Price
All of this leaves me in a difficult spot. Both episode 1 and episode 2 of Smile Down the Runway have told an engaging character-driven story that is engaging regardless of your interest or knowledge of the fashion industry. For this, it should be praised.
Yet its framing of burnout culture and unrealistic body standards within the industry as being positive and a sign of the lengths people are willing to go to do what they love paints potentially lethal work habits as normal and proper. Even with a powerful drama underpinning these moments, I would find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend an anime, no matter how strong its story, which glorified such workforce exploitation as necessary in order to achieve your dream.
In particular, if the anime continues in the direction its opening episodes established where the determination of outsiders to the field can change the industry they wish to enter in order to achieve their dreams, is it fulfilling this ideal if such industry reform allows them to succeed while failing to change the lives of those who helped them on their way to greatness?