Sakura Quest: How To Revive a Dying Townby Christopher Farris,
The fading appeal of small towns is a wistfully popular subject in fiction these days, especially in a country with population and economic problems specific to Japan. P.A. Works's anime Sakura Quest specifically looks at the struggles of the fictional rural town of Manoyama, as its ‘Queen’ Yoshino and her team at the Tourism Board work to make it relevant again. True to the studio's grounded style, the series sees the girls running through many strategies to increase commerce that have also been applied to the real world.
The concept of Manoyama as ‘The Kingdom of Chupakabura’, "ruled" by Yoshino as its figurehead Queen is rooted in the ‘Micronation Boom’ that took place in Japan in the early 1980's. Inspired by Hisashi Inoue's novel Kirikirijirin, this trend saw over 200 towns cheekily ‘secede’ from the country to form their own nations, complete with setting up their own governments, chambers of commerce, and even minting their own currency in some cases! The entire exercise was generally taken in good fun by the Japanese government, which worked with the new ‘kingdoms’ to help promote the tourism that was the point behind the whole charade. Unfortunately, due to Japan's economic bubble bursting at the beginning of the 1990's, the trend ended, leaving many of the towns these nations were based in to merge with larger cities or at least abandon their fanciful micronational trappings, as the beginning of Sakura Quest sees Manoyama parting from The Kingdom of Chupakabura.
Another key part of Manoyama's history is the progression of its local mascots. The town originally started with the ‘Kabura Kid’ (based off a locally-farmed root vegetable) before morphing that into the Chupakabura. Local mascots, or "Yuru-chara", started to pop up in Japan in the early 2000's, but they really took off around 2010 after the success of Kumamon, the now instantly-recognizable representative of Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamon was reaching Hello-Kitty-esque levels of marketability, estimated to be worth 9 billion yen in advertising value. Another Yuru-chara you may be familiar with is Funassyi, the pear-fairy mascot of Funabashi, Chiba. Though technically an unofficial representative of the city, Funassyi was distinctive and successful enough to spawn plenty of merchandise and entertainment, appearing at events, festivals, and even its own concert.
Characteristic representatives of towns hitting it big caused an explosion in Yuru-chara similar to the micronation boom. The current ubiquity of town mascots is exemplified in Sakura Quest's third episode, which features a Regional Mascot Competition that Yoshino and Kadota participate in, complete with Kadota in a hybrid Kabura Kid/Chupakabura costume. Similarly, Japan does hold an annual Mascot Grand Prix, which has grown to include over a thousand Yuru-chara competing for votes from all over the country.
Of course, such a competition proves that not all local mascots are created equal. Famously, Sento-kun of Nara attracted a large amount of negative attention for its ‘creepy’ and ‘blasphemous’ design. Hyakuman-san from Ishikawa-ken was another mascot derided for its design. Meanwhile, larger areas like Osaka have had to discontinue or consolidate many of the mascots from their regions due to how crowded the playing field has become.
One interesting subset of Yuru-chara are ‘Local Heroes’, Tokusatsu-style superheroes created to represent their city and promote it using stage shows. In a similar vein to Sakura Quest, this season's Action Heroine Cheer Fruits features characters working to become local heroes to promote and revitalize their town, while older series Tentai Senshi Sunred focused on the antics of the fictionalized local hero of Kawasaki, Kanagawa.
Producing movies and TV shows to promote towns and attract visitors is another common tactic. In Sakura Quest, we saw the Tourism Board working with a movie studio to film a zombie movie, and in real life, anime itself has helped put some places back on the map. 2007 famously saw Washinomiya Shrine in Kuki, Saitama overrun with otaku making pilgrimages after its appearance in Lucky Star. The head of the shrine and the local residents eventually embraced the influx of fan-tourists, turning it into profit for the area and eventually holding an official event with voice actors from the series. A similar phenomenon happened with the Hanabushi Shrine in Shichigahama, which was the model for the shrine in Kannagi, and reported a 500% increase in visitors in 2008. Seeing results like this, some cities have attempted to intentionally replicate these accidental successes. For example, in 2014, Takahashi, Okayama sponsored a new entry in the Tenchi Muyo series, Ai Tenchi Muyo, with the intent of promoting the town featured in the series and selling character goods to otaku who would make pilgrimages there. However, Ai Tenchi Muyo does not seem to have made as much of a splash, either as the face of its locale or in the general otaku-sphere.
That Lucky Star shrine in Washimiya hosted other events to bolster its tourism, including a matchmaking tour for the visiting otaku. While those events seem to have been as successful as other promotions in that area, once again attempts to replicate that success have found more struggles. Matchmaking tours based around Madoka Magica and K-On several years back had issues locating eligible female applicants, while the ToraCon otaku matchmaking party just this year was in jeopardy of being canceled for the same reason. The Tourism Board in Sakura Quest sees this happen with their own attempt at a matchmaking tour, as just three women travel to the town to go on a group date with a whole club of local bachelors.
Beyond all this gimmickry, the tacit understanding is that the rural towns of Japan cannot revive themselves without meaningful increases in their population, so strategies must attract long-term residents. One of Sakura Quest's most recent episodes spells out this distinction, that more permanent residents moving to the down would be far more beneficial to its growth than momentary boosts in tourism. That's a much longer road to reform than the city-planning equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes they've been churning out, so in this case, Sakura Quest's Manoyama might look to the story of Kamiyama, a rural Japanese town that saw a stem in its tide of depopulation and even a minor increase in residents by catering to young IT professionals who wanted an alternative to the daily grind of Tokyo. The mixed opinions of that major metropolis as well as the bent toward young, modern workers (exemplified in Sakura Quest's ‘Minister of IT’ Sanae) indicates that the series might be echoing Kamiyama in several ways already. How that actually plays out will be a point to watch in the show's second half.
As an interesting footnote to all this information, figure producer Good Smile Company recently announced a Nendoroid figurine of Sakura Quest's Yoshino. Serving the purposes of its origins well, the figure will be produced not in a Chinese factory as with most other Nendoroids, but rather in Japan, from a factory in Tottori, the least populous prefecture in the country. Even the merchandise of Sakura Quest is doing its part to promote the smaller areas of its home nation!
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