“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” —John Ruskin
Ushimatsu manages to find Mayor Naumann and takes him to Manoyama just in time for the Mizuchi Festival’s play, which presents an alternative version of the legend of the Dragon where the town learns to cherish acceptance of outsiders and their ideas. An unqualified success, Yoshino and the others celebrate in its aftermath, reflecting on both their time together over the past year and their future actions. The next day, Ushimatsu announces that Kingdom of Chupakabura is being dismantled, and Yoshino steps down as Queen; Manoyama has found the drive to continue improving with the times and will no longer need a tourist gimmick to draw in visitors. Yoshino departs in pursuit of her own dreams, remarking that she will always consider Manyoama a second home, and sets off to help rejuvenate another town. Sanae has taken up a position as a local IT consultant, renting space from Akiyama, while Shiori continues working with the Tourism Board. Maki continues with her theatre troupe with the aim of continuing the exploration of Manoyama culture, and Ririko follows her dreams of travelling the world. In Sakura Quest‘s finale, the culmination of a year’s efforts is presented – this is the ending that Yoshino and the audience deserves, marking a solid conclusion to one of the most well-presented anime of this year. Through its journey, Sakura Quest has covered a considerable amount of territory with its narrative, exploring topics such as the decline in older ways as technology becomes more ubiquitous, socio-economic issues facing rural regions of Japan and the aspects of culture that are worth preserving over time. However, in spite of the breadth of topics covered, Sakura Quest consistently ties in each of these elements with the central narrative, focused on Yoshino and the changes she undergoes as a consequence of her time in Manoyama in her journey to Make Manoyama Great Again™. By all counts, Yoshino and her friends have succeeded.
A part of P.A. Works’ repertoire of career-focussed anime, Sakura Quest stands apart from Hanasaku Iroha for dealing with more mature characters, and compared to Shirobako, is less focused on the technical elements, preferring to capitalise on the rural town of Manoyama to dial the pace back and emphasise things that might otherwise be missed in an urban setting. In setting Yoshino’s journey in a small town, pacing becomes much more relaxed, forcing Yoshino and the audiences to appreciate the smaller details. This new perspective has a profound impact on her, and the greatest joy of Sakura Quest is watching Yoshino working towards improving Manoyama, eventually becoming invested in the town’s citizens and futures when learning more about their backgrounds and beliefs. Through Yoshino, Sakura Quest shows that behind each person is a story, and understanding their stories is what is necessary to drive change in a region. While Yoshino technically does not succeed in revitalising Manoyama from an economic perspective, her actions nonetheless have significant consequences in Manoyama: she is able to revive the citizen’s love for their town, and this is a major accomplishment. At a smaller scale, Yoshino’s heartfelt commitment also inspires her friends to pursue their own futures with greater zeal. The extent of her actions’ outcomes is most visible in the finale, when half the town appears to see her off as she sets off on her next journey. Besides the importance of perspective, the other major theme in Sakura Quest is that errors and misunderstandings can set in motion journeys that, while seemingly unrelated to one’s aspirations, eventually end up contributing towards helping one find their way in the world. Yoshino’s experiences in Manoyama allow her to develop a unique skillset and in turn, also allows her to realise what she wants from a career.
The sum of developments and Sakura Quest‘s presentation of where things lead Yoshino, as well as Shiori, Sanae, Maki and Ririko mean that, when all is said and done, my verdict on Sakura Quest becomes a strong recommendation, especially for recent graduates and people early in their careers. I count Sakura Quest as a masterpiece, a ten of ten; this is not a score to be made lightly, and to rationalise my score, it becomes important to note what my definition of a masterpiece is. In contrast to most standards, which score anime based on a rubric akin to one used on assessing undergraduate work, my definition of a masterpiece is much more loosely-applied – I consider a work a masterpiece if it is able to either significantly alter or augment my world views. In general, such works are able to move me, either leading me to see the world from a different perspective, or else help me reaffirm that my own world view is one with merit. Such works present their characters in a manner that allow me to empathise with them. Whether or not a work does this successfully is dependent on the presentation of thematic elements throughout the entire narrative; I count the contribution of individual events against the bigger picture in order to decide whether or not a particular message was successfully delivered. In the case of Sakura Quest, the journey that Yoshino experiences in Manoyama and the eventual outcomes it has for her are inspiring and rewarding to watch. After twenty-five episodes, I feel as though I am right there alongside the characters, and so, to see the extent of how much of a mark Yoshino’s made on Manoyama, was particularly moving. While not an anime intended to elicit tears from its audience, I found myself with some of the proverbial sand in my eyes in Yoshino’s final moments in Manoyama, so tangible were the emotions surrounding the end of her contract.
Screenshots and Commentary
- While Ushimatsu’s antics end up getting him hauled into a police station for questioning, he does manage to meet up with Mayor Naumann, who is greatly enthusiastic about all things Japan and immediately hits it off with Ushimatsu. One of Sakura Quest‘s many strengths is the combination of comedy and drama in the appropriate amounts – I almost always view anime that succeed in finding this balance in a favourable manner (Angel Beats and CLANNAD immediately come to mind).
- Before we continue any further into this post, I will note that for Sakura Quest, I have a total of forty screenshots as opposed to thirty. I’ve noted that Sakura Quest covers a large breadth with respect to topics, and at the finale, there’s so much to consider that even the usual thirty images is insufficient to cover everything. Because there’s forty screenshots for a single episode, I think this makes the Sakura Quest finale talk the largest I’ve ever done for one episode. Here, Doku has finished repairing the LED grid in the shopping district, and visitors are impressed as the lights turn on, illuminating the area in a gentle glow as the sun drops below the horizon.
- Yoshino is pleasantly surprised to see that her family has stopped in Manoyama to visit her, keeping their promise to visit her in Manoyama. Seeing the minor details such as these fulfilled in Sakura Quest was especially rewarding, and is also a sign of solid writing. The narrative device is called a Chekov’s Gun, but in Sakura Quest, it’s quite unlike Brave Witches in that the Chekov’s Gun is not actually a gun. Nonetheless, one of the aspects that make Sakura Quest stand out is that minor details, such as Doku’s exoskeletons or choices of words found in conversations eventually appear again in later points within the anime.
- From a distance, the plastic golden dragon isn’t particularly too out of place. A part of the Mizuchi Festival is the carrying of a mikoshi, a portable shrine for transporting a deity during festivals. Later, when Naumann arrives in town, he asks if he can help carry the mikoshi and the folks carrying it accept. Naumann’s enthusiasm for Japanese culture might seem a little excessive, but I remark that while in Japan, I was feeling the same way he is shown to act, although I dialed back my excitement: there’s so much to take in, which is why this feeling is understandable.
- By the finale, Chitose is fully supportive of Ririko’s involvement with helping Make Manoyama Great Again™, and even accepts Ushimatsu’s antics without too much opposition. Here, she suggests hito o nomu (人を飲む) to Ririko as a means of calming her nerves during the performance. The translation of the practise yields “domination [over one’s fears]”, and it’s done by writing 人 (hito) three times on one’s palm before mimicking swallowing. The practise is roughly similar to the Western approach of imaging one’s audiences as pumpkins, potatoes, etc., and I tend to imagine speaking in an empty room.
- I’ve got a disproportionately small number of moments from the Mizuchi Festival itself primarily because, while Yoshino and the others have worked towards this moment, their efforts here are backed by the whole of Manoyama and so, would have ended up successful. There was no doubt in my mind that things would work out for the festival, especially after all of the effort that Yoshino and Manoyama’s citizens have put into making the festival a success.
- Ushimatsu’s efforts to take Naumann back to Manoyama end up in failure when he runs out of gas, forcing Takamizawa to come and pick them up. Normally, a red light will signal that one is low on fuel, coming on when one is down to their last twenty or so kilometers, providing a margin of safety so one can refuel. In the case of Sakura Quest, we accept that in the excitement of the moment, Ushimatsu has forgotten to refuel and ignores his gas light. However, quick thinking averts disaster, and a make-up artist is even sent to help prepare Ushimatsu as they head back to Manoyama.
- As the play begins, Erika and Maki’s brother share a conversation. Throughout Sakura Quest, it’s quite obvious that Erika has a bit of a crush on him; when he shares his plans for the future with her, Erika resolves to work harder and realise her own dreams, as well. Like Shirobako, Sakura Quest is unhindered by love stories amongst the main characters, and while love stories do begin amongst other characters, each of Yoshino, Sanae, Shiori, Maki and Ririko remain committed to their jobs without any distractions (and attendant drama) that love stories can bring to the table. The choice to leave the main characters free of distraction allows the anime to focus purely on Manoyama.
- En route back to the forest, the start of a romance between the police officer and one of the festival staff begins lighting: he knows the area quite well and his confidence impresses her. One of Takamizawa’s friends, he was shafted earlier during the singles tour; it’s a pleasant touch for things to turn around, and in a manner of speaking, it is because of Yoshino’s actions that he’s able to meet someone, reflecting on how far-reaching Yoshino’s determination and optimism have been for Manoyama.
- With Ushimatsu ready, the play can finally begin in earnest. From a visual perspective, Sakura Quest is not quite as vivid as Tari Tari or Glasslip, but it is of a superior standard to Shirobako and equivalent Kuromukuro with respect to artwork and animation quality. While the visuals alone do not make an anime, it certainly helps in the case of Sakura Quest, adding an increased sense of realism in the environment in and around Manoyama.
- The incidental music in Sakura Quest is varied and diverse; it’s certainly made the soundtrack one worth listening to, although the song I’m looking forwards to most from Sakura Quest is Ririko’s performance of the Dragon Song. It’s performed with a grace and sincerity that makes it the strongest vocal song in the series, capturing the culture of Manoyama and its history in a very powerful manner. It would be such a nice bonus if the soundtrack includes both the vocal and instrumental versions of the song.
- Ririko’s performance marks the end of the Shrine Float’s journey, set atop the calm surface of Sakura Pond. The combination of lantern lights and the float itself create an ethereal, magical scene that serves as the culmination of the tourism board and citizen’s efforts to revive the Mizhchi Festival. By all definitions, Ushimatsu has definitely found his redemption ever since his actions caused the festival to be scrapped fifty years ago, and the success of this event marks the beginning of a new tradition for Manoyama.
- During Ririko’s performace, the other staff are enjoying things, but Yoshino sports a more contemplative look on her face. While no words are provided here, it’s clear that Yoshino is not looking forwards to saying goodbye to a town and its people that she has grown close with during her period here. While Yoshino may have not ignited the economic or tourist components of Manoyama, her overall success comes in winning the town’s hearts and minds through her unorthodox, yet thoughtful methodologies towards addressing issues the townspeople face.
- Through hearts and minds, Yoshino’s accomplishment in Sakura Quest may not yield immediate results in an executive summary or financial report, but it accomplishes something more significant: she’s inspired Manoyama’s citizens to love their town and express this love to other visitors. This love can potentially correspond to greater efforts to preserve, maintain and promote Manoyama’s culture, having a greater long term impact than initially apparent, and ultimately, I would contend that Yoshino’s outcomes, while smaller than her initial goals, nonetheless have a tangible impact on the town.
- In short, it’s definitely a win for Yoshino, and Ushimatsu understands the significance of what Yoshino has done for Manoyama. In the finale, the festival ends with the float reaching its destination, and the remainder of the proceedings occur smoothly, brining the episode’s first half and the festival to a successful close.
- In the post-festival celebrations, the mood is definitely in high spirits as the staff relax after having revived the Mizuchi Festival in full, bringing back one of Manoyama’s old traditions and helping the town’s citizens learn of their city’s cultural history and institutions. As to my own hometown’s culture, I know that my city is named after a hamlet in Mull Isle, Scotland, and that despite being the West’s oil capital, the city’s earliest economic drivers were through agriculture and ranching, as evidenced by the Calgary Stampede.
- One of the best moments of the post-festival celebrations was seeing Naumann and Ushimatsu partying together with beers in hand – they’ve evidently taken a liking to one another. Between Naumann’s open mind and Ushimatsu’s determination to show Naumann Manoyama’s best, the two strike up a fast friendship, and this direction will likely help Ushimatsu in twinning Manoyama to the city that Sandal is from. My home town, Calgary, is twinned with Quebec City, Jaipur (India), Naucalpan (Mexico), Daqing (China), Daejeon (South Korea) and Phoenix (United States): sister cities are intended to promote business and tourism ties between participants. The program came from the end of the Second World War to promote peace.
- Seeking some peace from the party inside, the Queen and her four Ministers step out into the spring night, where the Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom. Ririko is smashed from drinking, and while normally unwilling to drink, she decides the time has come to give it a whirl, becoming tipsy in the process, providing a hitherto unseen facial expression that is actually quite endearing.
- One of the things that made Sakura Quest a joy to watch was the changes that Yoshino’s arrival wrought in the characters. Aside from Shiori, whose love for Manoyama and kindness remains quite unchanged since Yoshino appeared, every other Minister has changed. Maki’s become more resolute and rediscovers her love for acting, while Sanae develops the confidence to pursue her own career. Ririko’s change is the most profound; she becomes much more open-minded and now longs to see the world for herself. That she is open to partaking in some alcohol is an indicator of this change.
- After reminiscing about their experiences and adventures during the past year under the Cherry Blossoms a year previously, Maki, Shiori, Ririko (who’s managed to defeat the effects of alcohol remarkably quickly), Yoshino and Sanae consider their futures. So much has happened in the past year, and now that the time has nearly come to part ways, the group spends one final evening enjoying hanami in the same manner they did when Yoshino came to the conclusion that she would look forwards to working with Shiori, Sanae, Maki and Ririko. The third episode was aired back in late April prior to my travels to Japan, and even in the short span of five months, much has happened.
- One of the more noteworthy aspects of the summer following my return from Japan was the liberal application of the complementary park pass, and with this past weekend marking the entry into autumn, there was another opportunity to make use of free admissions yesterday. Our day began with a drive under overcast skies to Banff; by the time we arrived, the weather had cleared out to reveal blue skies and cool autumn air. We spent the morning exploring the area around Bow Falls and the Banff Springs Hotel, before returning to the city centre for our usual lunch (Angus burgers).
- Yoshino wakes up the next morning to find everyone still huddled together, fast asleep. With our walk concluded, we had dinner at Banff’s Old Spaghetti Factory later that evening, where I ordered their Seafood Linguine Marinara with prawns, scallops and mushrooms. We’ve seen this restaurant at the top of the Cascade Plaza Mall but never actually had dinner there before until now: the Old Spaghetti Factory feels a bit like a spaghetti version of Café HK, featuring tasty and inexpensive dinners and speedy service: their meals are all-inclusive, adding sourdough bread, a choice of soup or salad, ice cream and an after-dinner hot beverage, giving them a fantastic value. Following dinner, I purchased a new summer coat for next year before we made our way back home under darkening skies.
- The morning following their party, Yoshino returns to the Kingdom of Chupakabura’s main building and finds Ushimatsu there, who remarks that in light of everything Yoshino has done, the Kingdom of Chupakabura has fulfilled its purpose and will be dismantled. It’s a curious turn of events that brings the kingdom’s first queen to Manoyama, and one of the more minor themes in Sakura Quest is that fate can be rather interesting a beast – Yoshino ends up changing the town she first visited as a child while occupying the same role as Queen.
- In her final speech to Manoyama’s residents, Yoshino reflects upon her time here and how it’s changed her perspectives on the world, especially pertaining to ordinary places. This realisation, that every place has their own specialities and unique offerings, is what contributes to her decision to follow a career path in rural revitalisation and promotion. Looking back at my home country, we have a national organisation that handles addressing economic issues and job creation, organisational flexibility and education to ensure the continued prosperity of rural communities. I can attest to the charm that smaller towns have: one of my favourite examples is Claresholm, a small town 125 kilometers south of Calgary. They have a wonderful museum that houses ranching and railway items dating back to Alberta’s founding.
- It’s a emotional moment for Yoshino to see the support and gratitude of the people whose lives she’s had a hand in altering, and she begins tearing up when they applaude her. Amongst the crowd is Chitose, who is openly receptive of Yoshino now, and generally speaking, Manoyama’s residents have definitely become more open to outsiders thanks to Yoshino’s actions. It’s the case that all it takes is one bad instance to diminish one’s opinions of an individual, group or idea, and certainly true that a considerable effort is required to restore a positive image following such an event. Yoshino’s time in Manoyama can be said to be a journey of what such an effort might entail, and in the end, it was a journey that proved very meaningful for both Manoyama and Yoshino.
- To commemorate their time together, Yoshino and the others plant a tree on the banks of Sakura Pond, dated for May 2018. I’ve heard that some folks consider Sakura Quest as being weaker for its depiction of the extent of the tourism board’s actions and their perceived impact on Manoyama as being limited to the short term. However, from the macro perspective, the outcomes of Yoshino’s actions do not lie in economic value (e.g. improved revenue or tourism numbers): her accomplishments touch the hearts and minds of Manoyama’s citizens, inspiring them to love Manoyama.
- Ultimately, what makes Manoyama Great isn’t its economic resources or attractions, it’s the people, and Sakura Quest has Yoshino acting on hearts and minds precisely because it yields a more enjoyable story (an anime with endless spreadsheets, financial jargon and board meetings is unlikely to draw a considerable viewership outside of folks engaged in commerce). I am very satisfied with the direction that Sakura Quest took during its run, and I note that in my books, a narrative whose events follow one another logically is much more enjoyable to watch than one that emphasises realism above everything else: a story should only be as realistic as it needs to be in order to effectively convey a particular theme or set of ideas.
- Farewells are always filled to the brim with emotion, and here, as the tourism board sees Yoshino off, it’s clear as to just how close Yoshino’s become with the others. Sanae and Shiori will greatly miss her, while Ririko and Maki are very grateful to have met her. Another common remark I’ve seen about Sakura Quest is that the first half is weaker from a narrative standpoint, being more formulaic in nature. While a valid criticism, I find that the first half was intended to establish each of the main characters, their backgrounds and personalities, as well as giving them a reasonable problem where they can address it in a short period of time to reinforce their strengths and skills.
- This exposition then allows Sakura Quest to really seize a direction and run with it in its second half: viewers are now familiar with what skills everyone brings to the table, allowing the anime to really begin forging new grounds. Tom Clancy was particularly fond of doing this in his novels — up to half a chapter or more can be dedicated towards exposition, explaining the origins of a particular character. While some might consider it tedium, I really enjoy reading these because it reinforces that a particular individual in a story is a person with their own background, experiences and competencies. With these aspects established, a character’s actions can then become either more well-rationalised or more contrary to their expected actions, strengthening the weight of their actions and choices. The same holds true for Sakura Quest, which is why I feel that the anime’s first half is essential towards making the second half more enjoyable.
- One of the unintended effects of Sakura Quest I certainly was not expecting was that the anime did end up making me tear up slightly. Here, Yoshino is overjoyed that the entire town has shown up to see her off, including Ushimatsu, who’s made a large sign and shouts out that she’s welcome to come back at any time. This marks the end of Yoshino’s story in Manoyama, and the remainder of this post deals with Sakura Quest‘s epilogue. I’ve never been particularly efficient in handling epilogues, which is actually the main reason why this finale discussion of Sakura Quest is a third larger than normal.
- Sandal narrates the final moments of Sakura Quest; the epilogue lasts a total of around a minute, detailing the events following Yoshino’s departure. However, there were no shortages of impressions I had entering the last minute of the finale, and so, with a screenshot every six seconds, it’s probably one of the highest screenshot-densities I’ve ever had for any anime, including the shorts I did for Makoto Shinkai’s Cross Road and Someone’s Gaze.
- Blue skies of almost a surreal quality and warm tropical waters suggest that Yoshino’s journey has taken her to the more remote reaches of southern Japan, possibly a region near the Okinawa Islands. With its tropical climate, the islands are a popular tourist destination; one surmises that she’s gone to a nearby island to help invigorate tourist and economic interest. As an aside, my branch of martial arts originates from Okinawa, specifically, from Naha; our style is characterised by the chambering of our inactive fist close to the armpit for quick strikes.
- After a harrowing plane ride on a propeller-powered plane, Yoshino finally arrives, utterly exhausted by the rough ride. Closer inspection of this moment finds Yoshino with bags under her eyes, and one might suppose that she’s not accustomed to flights. That Yoshino is on a propeller driven aircraft suggests that she’s on a shorter domestic flight: such aircraft deliver a better efficiency against jet aircraft at lower speeds, accounting for why such planes are still in use despite the wide prevalence of jet engines.
- However, back on the ground, Yoshino promptly regains her cheerful manner and heads off to meet off with representatives here to pick her up. While Yoshino might resemble Shirobako‘s Aoi Miyamori in manner and appearance, ultimately, Shironako and Sakura Quest end up being quite distinct from one another: the former emphasises technical aspects and realism, being detail-driven, while Sakura Quest is much more optimistic, diverse and character-driven.
- Shiori continues with her career at Manoyama’s tourism board, continuing on with the programmes that Yoshino initialised. Here, she greets two female visitors and offers them suggestions on local attractions. Through the course of Sakura Quest, Shiori remains unchanged, counting as a static character; while static characters are reviled, Sakura Quest introduces Shiori as the catalyst who helps Yoshino understand Manoyama after her arrival. She’s the first to welcome and befriend Yoshino, and her knowledge of Manoyama is what motivates Yoshino to learn more about the area herself. It is therefore unsurprising to see her doing what she loves after Yoshino leaves.
- Continuing on with her theatre troupe, Maki chooses to forge her own path, combining her love for acting with a newfound interest in Manoyama culture with the goal of making it accessible to outsiders. She meets up with Moe here, much to the surprise of her fellow actors; while somewhat uncomfortable with Moe after leaving acting, Maki’s much more relaxed now, following her career with renewed zeal as a result of Yoshino’s example.
- Akiyama rents his space to Sanae, who’s decided to work as an IT consultant in the area. Thanks to Yoshino being able to understand what he’d gone through, and after he sees the sincere, genuine efforts from Sanae’s group, Akiyama comes around. Sanae’s time with Yoshino led her to understand what she wants with her career, and rather than a conventional nine-to-five job, Sanae desires a job where she can have a more personal touch with her clientele, being a far cry from her original reasons for coming to Manoyama.
- Having whiled away her days in her room online, seeing Yoshino’s openminded nature inspires Ririko to step out and travel the world, with the aim of meeting up with Spanish tourists she’d befriended earlier. This is the request Ririko has after successfully performing the Dragon Song; she’s opened up and is much more adventurous than before.
- Yoshino herself has settled in quite nicely to her new position, developing a bit of a tan under the warm tropical sun as she works with another town to revitalise it. This marks the end to the journey I began five months ago on a quiet Sunday morning. With the whole of Sakura Quest under my belt, I find that this is an anime that is definitely worth watching. I relate to it particularly strongly, hence my overwhelmingly favourable reception of it, but for most folks, Sakura Quest won’t be quite as moving, but it is definitely worthwhile if they enjoyed P.A. Works’ Shirobako and Hanasaku Iroha.
Sakura Quest is a masterpiece for being able to show the steps in Yoshino’s journey and utilise all of its moments to reinforce the anime’s themes, bringing all of the elements together in conjunction with solid animation, artwork and music to make this P.A. Works’ strongest offering since Tari Tari and Shirobako. Striking a fine balance between the dramatic and comedic, Sakura Quest constantly reminds audiences that the characters are human, with their own distinctions, flaws and strengths. In presenting a central group, and town, with memorable characters, audiences come to care about what happens next to the cast, and eventually, what happens to Manoyama. Ultimately, this is what led me to look forwards to Sakura Quest each and every week since the halfway point. While a greatly moving work, Sakura Quest is not without its flaws: the two that come to mind are Yoshino’s similarities with Shirobako‘s Aoi Miyamori in appearance and manner, and the choice of music for the second half’s opening theme. However, as the end result is most favourable, I am very happy to count Sakura Quest as being a ten out of ten; it’s been one hell of a journey to watch this anime and write about it. Finally, as to whether or not we could see any continuation, trends from P.A. Works have shown that continuations are very unlikely – an OVA or movie released a few years down the line is not out of the question (as Tari Tari and Hanasaku Iroha did previously), but for the present, it’s probably safe to say that Sakura Quest has reached a fine conclusion that is definitely satisfactory even in the absence of any additional material.