“Today, I’m going to outline a plan for Manoyama’s economic revival – it is a bold, ambitious, forward-looking plan to massively increase jobs, wages, incomes and opportunities for the people of our country. If we lower our taxes, remove destructive regulations, unleash the vast treasure of Manoyama’s energy, and negotiate trade deals that put Manoyama First, then there is no limit to the number of jobs we can create and the amount of prosperity we can unleash. Manoyama will truly be the greatest place in the world to invest, hire, grow and to create new jobs, new technologies, and entire new industries. Instead of driving jobs and wealth away, Manoyama will become the world’s great magnet for innovation and job creation.” –Excerpt from a speech delivered at the Manoyama Tourism Board
Resolved to improve Manoyama in whatever way she can in her role as the town’s “Queen”, Yoshino begins exploring the region’s specialities, including wood carving and sōmen. Her endeavours and visions are bold – even though the tourist board cannot fund Yoshino’s ideas, they begin making progress slowly: traditional wood carvings from native artisans are installed at the train station, impressing visitors, and a local cooking festival ends successfully. A film crew also scouts out Manoyama as a viable filming location, recruiting the tourism board and locals to assist. Their plans to burn down an abandoned home are met with resistance from Shiori, who reveals that the home is special to her, and the shoot also reveals that Maki had lost her passion in acting. Later, the tourism boards hosts a romance tour of Manoyama for the Community Club, taking them around Manoyama. Ruriko finds herself envious of Yoshino’s resolve and spirit. While Ruriko is embarrassed to participate in the Manoyama dance, Yoshino has taken the courage to learn it. Ruriko later falls ill, and comes across an alternative interpretation of Manoyama’s legend of the dragon while resting away from her duties. When she learns that Manoyama was originally about being open to outsiders, she performs her the dragon song on the final day of the tour. Though it all, Yoshino herself still resents normalcy, as well as her own role in things: when a reality show is filmed in Manoyama, Yoshino finds herself questioning her goals. Even so, she continues to do her utmost in making the tourism board’s initiatives successful, helping the television studio organise a major concert.
Sakura Quest has covered a substantial amount of territory at the halfway point. With twenty-five episodes, there remains another half to go – insofar, Sakura Quest has done a phenomenal job of bringing Manoyama and its characters to life. Whether it be the struggles and doubts each of the characters face, or the realities surrounding social trends in rural Japan, details are elaborated upon to give the town and its people dimensionality. Challenges surrounding Maki’s past with acting, Saenai’s doubts about whether or not Manoyama was her running away from her problems, or Ruriko’s isolation with the community are vividly detailed: flawed and very much human, each of the characters’ attributes come into play and slowly shift through Yoshino’s influence. Despite being an outsider herself, Yoshino also begins feeling more connected to the town of Manoyama, despite having only visited briefly during her childhood – being in this quiet and close-knit community brings about a change in her perspectives that is quite noticeable from her outlooks at Sakura Quest‘s onset, and by the halfway point, it becomes apparent that the synergy between Yoshino and the others have indeed had an impact on Manoyama. With the characters established, Sakura Quest is set to continue with detailing the tourism board’s quest to Make Manoyama Great Again℠, and I look forwards to seeing what Yoshino has in mind for the future.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Sakura Quest covers a considerable amount of turf during its first half: story arcs are typically contained within the span of two episodes, depicting a combination of both the main cast’s internal struggles as well as the tourism board’s difficulties in engaging the town. One of the first challenges Yoshino faces in her role as Queen is to figure out how to raise awareness for Manoyama’s wood carving sector. While innovative, the town’s more conservative Board of Merchants and wood carvers immediately take a disliking to Yoshino’s ideas, feeling them disrespectful towards tradition.
- Feeling that she’s been running away from problem after problem, Sanae no longer feels motivated to help Yoshino, distancing herself from their duties. However, Yoshino manages to motivate her: even if people can be replaced, individuals each apply their own unique touch to a challenge to create their solutions, so efforts are not for naught. Consequently, Sanae’s interest in Manoyama is re-kindled, and she suggests a scaled-back version of Yoshino’s plan to elevate the visibility of Manoyama’s artisans, decorating the train station with work that impresses visitors.
- Now that we are fifty percent into Sakura Quest, it is quite apparent that Yoshino does not have anywhere nearly as many funny face moments as her opposite number in Shirobako: Aoi Miyamori is a character I remember well for her exaggerated facial expressions. By comparison, Yoshino is more dialled back, and while highly enthusiastic about her duties, is less prone to overexcitement or stress than Aoi, even if her goals put her directly in conflict with the Board of Merchants, the folks who coordinate the businesses in the area.
- The inaka are beautifully portrayed in Sakura Quest: intricate and remarkably well-done, Sakura Quest captures the countryside. While the cities (Tokyo especially) are a hotbed for economic activity and opportunity, the countryside of Japan has fallen by the wayside, seeing a general decline in population as youth migrate to the cities for better education and employment prospects. However, during my travels to Japan, I found the inaka to be much more enjoyable than the cities, feeling a lot more expressive of Japanese culture than the cities. In some translations, the inaka is represented as “the sticks”, a British expression for rural in reference to living amongst the trees (i.e. sticks).
- After Sanae’s doubts are resolved, it’s Maki’s turn to have her background explored. A former actress capable of handling a variety of tasks, she refuses to play the role of a stand-in, feeling that she lacks the proper determination to be a proper actress. She rebuffs Yoshino’s request, leaving her with more work, but after a conversation with Sanae and helping coach Ririko with a role, slowly begins to rediscover her passion. When she stumbles across an old class video her father took of her class play, she rediscovers her love for acting.
- After the director decides to use an abandoned house for filming, Shiori puts up a surprising amount of resistance, concealing the fact that she’d acquired permission from the house’s owners to torch it. It turns out that the house has sentimental value for Shiori, who’d spent a great deal of time there during her childhood. It is also explained that abandonments, haikyo, result from the cost of demolitions making removal of older buildings unviable. Often, buildings are left to decay where they are, creating these modern ruins. When Yoshino steps up to the plate and confronts Shiori about the situation, Shiori comes to understand that the decision is not for her to make.
- Sakura Quest is the first P.A. Works anime I’ve given a review to since Shirobako – while I’ve watched both Charlotte and Kuromukuro, and found enjoyment in both to some extent, they did not prove to be shows that I could easily write about: thematic elements were tricky to determine, and the plot progression for both anime were inconsistent, making it difficult for me to ascertain what the anime’s main messages were. Comedy and slice-of-life dramas are P.A. Works’ specialities: their down-to-earth stories about everyday people are usually much more compelling than their science fiction or fantasy offerings (Angel Beats! and Nagi no Asukara are the exceptions).
- By the episode’s final moments, Maki’s love of acting is reignited, and she agrees to stand in for Moe. Here, she prepares for a scene where she will dive into the burning remains of the home, and the entire event proceeds without a hitch. Later, one of the film staff thanks Shiori, who’s come to understand that allowing the house to be destroyed does not mean that her memories of it will be lost forever; instead, in its final moments, this derelict house allows Shiori to gain yet another treasured moment.
- Just because Yoshino might not make funny faces does not mean that other characters do not – Maki tries to tug a beer from Yoshino, only to find that Yoshino’s maintaining a death grip on said beer despite having fallen a sleep. One of the things that I found a bit unusual in Japan (and Hong Kong) is the fact that alcohol is sold in the open at supermarkets, right beside conventional drinks. Back home, we have liquor depots and dedicated stores for selling alcohol.
- Food is lovingly illustrated in Sakura Quest to the point where other viewers have suggested that some episodes should be watched on a full stomach, lest one desire food mid-episode. Today marks the start of the last weekend in June: this month’s disappeared, and it’s now been more than a month since I returned from Japan. Things have been incredibly busy with work, especially with our project migration to a new framework that’s taken longer than I anticipated, so I’m immensely happy that it’s the weekend. While I spent a bit of today helping with adding some features ahead of Monday, things were also relaxing enough so that I could play enough Battlefield 1 to unlock the Lebel Model 1886 and go out to the Café 100 for dinner, where I ordered the Hong Kong-style chicken steak. Delicious and cooked just like they do in Hong Kong, it’s always nice to be able to experience a taste of Hong Kong right here at home.
- While I’ll respond that Shiori is my favourite of the characters in Sakura Quest, with Yoshino coming in a close second, all of the main characters are likeable. Presenting realistic characters simply means giving them a range of traits, both positive and negative, and allowing these interactions to drive things – these elements mean the characters are believable, and consequently, audiences tend to care more for them, developing an interest to see what events will await them. By comparison, dull, jejune characters are blatantly overpowered, have little difficulty in accomplishing their objectives and constantly struggle from their own internal sense of inadequacy without any well-defined reason (this is the main reason I’m not particularly fond of Sword Art Online‘s Kazuto Kirigaya).
- Celebrating Sayuri’s moving out to become a nurse, Shiori and her family encounter Kumano, an old friend of Sayuri’s from high school who trained in France as a chef and intends to inherit the family restaurant. He has long held feelings for Shiori’s older sister, Sayuri, but owing to a miscommunication, neither was able to make their feelings open to one another. In spite of this, his dedication is commendable: his original intent to study French cuisine was because Sayuri greatly enjoyed French toast.
- Shiori’s response to Kumano’s French Toast speaks volumes as to its quality. Sakura Quest states that French Toast is not French in origin – P.A. Works has plainly done their homework, and the combination of soaking bread in egg before frying it with milk has been around since the fifth century, being of Roman origin. The French take on this dish is called pain perdue (lit. “lost bread”), after the idea of making tough or stale bread more palatable by frying it in egg, and both England and Germany have their own variations on this dish. The modern incarnation of French toast is actually a bit of a misnomer: similar to French Fries, they are a food item popularised by arrival of French immigrants in North America, hence the nomenclature.
- While the Tourism board’s plan to host a cooking special event conflicted with the Merchant Board’s event, Shiori takes control of the situation and strikes a compromise that allows both events to proceed: the cooking competition will be to make the best sōmen dish, which is a Manoyama special. It typifies Shiori’s resourcefulness when the situation demands it, and she’s the first person that Yoshino turns to whenever questions about Manoyama and its background arise.
- While Shiori works out the details to ensure the event’s success, Yoshino works behind the scenes to get a special display ready: a mechanised nagashi-sõmen game where the goal is to catch and eat noodles as quickly as possible to maximise score. It’s a little messy, as Yoshino finds out, but the exhibition turns out to be a success, drawing the children’s interest. Yoshino is open to making use of new technologies into reviving Manoyama traditions, and while this initially puts her at odds with the townspeople, this new perspective also offers Manoyama something new.
- Shiori and Sayuri are both rather clumsy at times: when their mother remarks that Shiori’s fear over the festival date is a trait her sister shares, Shiori realises that Sayuri must’ve missed Kumano for the same reason. She sets in motion the events that allow Sayuri and Kumano to meet again at the Chubacabra Palace, bringing their story to a solid conclusion and also allowing the two to make their feelings open to one another. One wishes reality would allow for such neat resolution, but more often that not, this is not the case.
- With the festivals over, Yoshino makes Shiori a “Minister of Mediation” for her role in talking things through to ensure that all parties are reasonably satisfied with arrangements.
- The Manoyama romantic tour programme turns out to be yet another story arc filled with a fine balance of comedy and mystery: comedy arises with the community club’s members putting the moves on to impress the ladies who arrive for the tour, and despite their reduced numbers, Yoshino and the others do their best to ensure the events are successful. It is here that the Manoyama dance and its origins are revealed: like the Legend of the Fire Maidens in Sora no Woto, there are two different versions of the story behind Manoyama’s dragon.
- The men and women participating in the tour are in their middle ages: travelling around to meet people is a rather interesting concept. One observation thrown around amongst folks of my generation, the millennials, is that it is more difficult to find meaningful courtship relative to previous generations – commitment and trust is weaker than it has been for numerous reasons, but I personally think that it’s a lack of maturity for the most part. Once folks become a bit older, they will have a more well-defined notion of what they want, and by extension, more realistic expectations of what a relationship entails.
- The Manoyama dance is an area tradition that all Manoyama girls learn. Ririko’s shyness precludes her from participating, and as a child, she’s withdrawn, spending very little time with her peers during school. Her interests are in the occult and supernatural: things like extraterrestrials, spirits and cryptids are right up her alley. Despite this, she slowly opens up as she spends more time with Yoshino and the others. By comparison, Yoshino is very much willing to learn and experience new things, picking up the Manoyama dance well enough to perform it for their guests.
- Noticably absent from the proceedings is Ririko: similar to how Sanae, Maki and Shiori have seen exploration with the wood carving, film-making and cuisine arcs, respectively, the romantic tour arc places emphasis on Ririko. Reserved, shy and stoic, she lives with her grandmother after her father left for work overseas following divorce with Ririko’s mother, an outsider. This explains her grandmother’s mistrust for Yoshino and also explains why she’s cold towards the Tourism Board’s activities. Walking home alone under a thunderstorm, she catches a cold and is resting for much of the subsequent episode.
- Alexandre Cena Davis Celibidache, known by his metonymy as “Mr. Sandal”, is a wanderer with blonde hair and who speaks with a very laid-back manner, dropping by to offer deep and mysterious insights whenever Yoshino or the others are wondering what their next move is. Voiced by Vinay Murthy, Alexandre’s Japanese is slower, more broken and accented, hinting at his foreign background: he also speaks English quite well. His story is that his grandparents were Manoyama natives, and despite his wandering nature, he is a skillful artist familiar with Manoyama’s history.
- The climbing wall and tower overlooking Manoyama offers a fantastic view of the area. This moment in Sakura Quest offers yet another reason why I continue to watch anime after all this time: the attraction of skies of deepest blue and vast landscapes of mountains, plains and forests have long held my attention. I have not seen any cartoons of Western animation that go to quite the same lengths to render these landscapes: in Futurama, Rick and Morty and Adventure Time, skies are usually a solid blue colour on clear days.
- Yoshino finds Ririko at a local temple after the latter sneaks out to the library while she’s supposed to be recovering from her cold. It is here that Yoshino learns the alternative interpretation of the myth, and in an emotional moment, Ririko and Yoshino shed tears as they open up to one another. This brings about a change in Ririko: while her grandmother is long-weary of Yoshino and the others for their perceived tendency to disturb the peace, Yoshino sees this as a chance to show that the Tourism Board is not selfishly absorbed in their own machinations. Thus, she invites Ririko’s grandmother to the finale of the romance tour.
- The surprise is that Ririko performs the Dragon song; while she whiles away her days on the internet and is not employed owing to her withdrawn nature, Yoshino manages to bring out the best in her, allowing her to take the first step towards changing. Ririko is voiced by Chiemi Tanaka, a newcomer in voice acting whose only previous role was as Sansha Sanyou‘s Sasame Tsuji, but Sakura Quest shows that Tanaka has a beautiful singing voice. Her rendition of the Dragon song is incredibly moving, to the point where it would be an insult should it not be included in the soundtrack or one of the character albums. The anime’s opening and ending albums have been available since June 7.
- I take a brief detour to note that in its current form, the slogan “Make Manoyama Great Again℠”, is attributable to a design that I alone have created. It’s an uncommon enough slogan so that a cursory search for it will not yield too many results – one may find other usages before my first post on Sakura Quest, but since that post, folks on image-boards have taken to using the slogan more widely. The page quote is an adaptation of the current POTUS’ economic speech at the New York Economy Club back during September 2016, modified to work with what is in effect, what the Tourism board is trying to do with Manoyama.
- The pressure of a reality film crew filming the Tourism Board’s daily routine causes Yoshino and Shiori to speak strangely, with Yoshino finally cracking up under the pressure. It takes a certain degree of control to ignore the camera and proceed normally, and while I’ve done several appearances on local television for news segments featuring my old research lab, as well as being comfortable in speaking in front of audiences, I’m not entirely sure I am cut out for live-streaming my Battlefield 1 and other gaming endeavours on Twitch.
- Yoshino’s personal peeve of being “normal” is mirrored in her appearance – she’s the only character to have a distinct hair colour, and her uncommon way of thinking is what’s precipitated all of the events in Sakura Quest insofar, to the point where even Ushimatsu praises her. The definition of “normal” is the point of contention in Christopher Boorse’ definition of health, which states that “health is the absence of disease defined by a statistical normality”. My classmates still repress a shudder when the name Boorse is brought up despite the six years that have elapsed since we read the original 1977 paper: we argue that health is an incredibly complex topic and extends well beyond the state of being free of disease. Further to this, health as a human construct is intrinsically value-laden: by Boorse’s definition, if a large portion of humanity were to be afflicted by a condition such as blindness, then being blind would still constitute as “healthy”, since it is typical that most folks cannot see in this hypothetical population. Conversely, a value-laden approach would tell us that this population has an endemic condition impairing their quality of life.
- I’m not here to continue discussing the definition of health: I exited the course with a decent mark and we’ll leave it to the medical specialists to discuss what health is. Returning things to Sakura Quest, the reality show is compounded by the appearance of a famous band, which promises to bring in a large number of visitors into the Manoyama region. While exciting, the logistics prove to be a rogue element, since the producers continue to assure Yoshino and the others that everything is under control. The outcome of this will be left for the upcoming episode.
- Yoshino, Maki and Sanae are surprised at the unexpectedly large turnout for their concert. The twelfth episode comes to an end here, and looking ahead, I imagine that Sakura Quest is building up towards Yoshino’s inevitable departure once her year-long contract expires. Regardless of what the outcome will be, Yoshino will have gained a considerable amount of experience working in Manoyama by this point: staying in Manoyama and calling it home, or else returning to Tokyo with a competitive set of skills are both possibilities, and I look forwards to seeing the journey that Yoshino will have in reaching this milestone in Sakura Quest‘s second half.
It should not be surprising that I am enjoying Sakura Quest the most out of any of the anime this season. With its character development, stunning artwork and a highly relatable narrative, Sakura Quest represents a triumphant return of P.A. Works – with the exception of Angel Beats! and Nagi no Asukara, I’ve long felt their work and slice-of-life anime to be the strongest. Incorporating genuine social issues into the narrative is also a fantastic touch that elevates the anime’s authenticity: whether it be the community dynamics of a smaller town overarching in the anime or something as simple as why haikyo come about, Sakura Quest is faithful towards occurrences in the real world. This is something that Shirobako and Hanasaku Iroha excelled in depicting. Sakura Quest is following its predecessors in execution, and it’s difficult to find any strikes against this anime – even the more critical of viewers are enjoying Sakura Quest. Each episode has been enjoyable to watch thus far, and having passed the halfway point, Sakura Quest appears on track in its the quest to continue captivating its viewers. With its honest but colourful depiction, it might be more appropriate to consider not whether or not Yoshino and her colleagues can Make Manoyama Great Again℠, but rather, the route that they take to get there and what changes Yoshino’s time in Manoyama will have on her, those around her and the town as a whole.