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The Community Activism of P.A. Works

by Kim Morrissy,

P.A. Works is well known among anime fans around the world for creating beautifully drawn, down-to-earth shows like True Tears and Hana-Saku Iroha, but their community activism is less known. Fans of P.A. Works shows may have noticed that the stories are often set in rural Japan, but did you know that the studio itself was set up in the countryside, and that it is one of the very few major animation studios in Japan to do so?

P.A. Works was first established in 2000, when the company's president Kenji Horikawa moved to the Toyama Prefecture. According to interviews, this was because he had agreed to raise his children with his family in Toyama. For years, Horikawa had worked as a producer at the Tokyo-based anime studios Production I.G, Tatsunoko Production, and Bee Train; many of his colleagues told him that an anime studio wouldn't be able to survive in the countryside. At the time, there wasn't even a direct Shinkansen between Tokyo and Toyama. Yet Horikawa was determined to make a studio that would do more than just survive in the remote countryside -- it would thrive.

After eight years of doing contract work for other anime studios, P.A. Works finally pulled together the staff and resources to handle their own production. True Tears (2008) was an unmitigated success for the fledgling studio; not only did the show sell well, it also inspired many fans to visit Johana, the mountainous town in Toyama where the anime is set. In rural Japan, where the effects of population decline and economic slowdown are keenly felt, the influx of anime tourists was a welcome sight.

True Tears would mark the beginning of P.A. Works's forays into anime tourism. From then on, the studio would create many of their original stories in collaboration with the local community where the anime is set. Their most recent attempt at this was through Sakura Quest, a story that is quite literally about a group of young people that attempt to revitalize a dying town. But P.A. Works doesn't just create anime -- here are some of the other methods that the studio employs to get the local people involved:

Festing it Up for the Bonbori Festival

Hana-Saku Iroha is based on the real-life Yuwaku Onsen in the Kanazawa Prefecture, but you may be surprised to learn that the Bonbori Festival shown in the anime was not drawn from any real or pre-existing local festival. The Bonbori Festival began as a fictional invention, but it is now celebrated as a yearly festival by the locals of Yuwaku Onsen.

The genesis of the Bonbori Festival is quite an interesting story in its own right. According to Nobuhiro Kikuchi, an executive producer at P.A. Works and a member of the Yuwaku Onsen Travel Committee, the local people of Yuwaku Onsen approached P.A. Works with the idea of creating a festival. In 2009, the area had been afflicted with heavy rain, causing flooding damage to over 2000 buildings. Three years later, the people wanted to celebrate the region's recovery from that disaster. At that time, the script for Hana-Saku Iroha hadn't been fully written yet, and so the townspeople and P.A. Works worked together to develop the concept and logistics behind the Bonbori Festival.

The basic idea behind the Bonbori Festival is that a young female kami (Japanese deity) is lost, and the lanterns guide her to the Izumo-Taisha, one of the ancient Shinto shrines. Legend has it that in the month of October, the kami gather in the Izumo-Taisha to determine people's fates. Broadly speaking, Yuwaku Onsen's Bonbori Festival draws from other religious traditions in Japan, such as the Matsue Water Lantern Festival, while also having a strong symbolic connection to the narrative of Hana-Saku Iroha, where the festival serves as a climax to the story.

Here, the protagonist Ohana is shown hanging a nozomi-fuda (a wooden plaque with her wish written on it) under a paper lantern.

Because the committee had no idea how many people would participate in the Bonbori Festival in its first year, it was planned in such a way that it would be possible to carry out the festival with only ten people. Like many local traditions, the idea was that it would start small before gradually becoming bigger.

The Bonbori Festival ended up exceeding all expectations. In its first year, it attracted over 5,000 visitors, and that number has only grown since then. In 2017, the seventh year of the festival's running, over 15,000 people attended.

The turnout is all the more impressive considering that there were doubts that the festival would be held this year at all. Earlier this year, there was another flood in the area. Fortunately, the Kanazawa and Ishikawa prefectural governments helped pay for the damage, ensuring that the festival would take place without a break. In less than seven years, the Bonbori Festival has already become a valued local tradition.

Kikuchi has said that P.A. Works is starting to take a more hands-off approach with organizing the festival these days. They've toned down the anime collaborations so that the festival can be enjoyed by anyone, not just anime fans. P.A. Works won't pull out of the committee entirely, but they want the Bonbori Festival to be handled primarily by the local people, for the local people.

The Anime You Can Only Watch in Nanto

A little information about the city of Nanto: it was born in 2004 as a result of a merger between eight separate towns, each with their own local traditions. In an effort to showcase these local cultures and entice visitors to the area, P.A. Works produced a short series of anime specials in 2013, called True Tours Nanto. The anime was made by the same team behind True Tears, hence the similarity in name.

What's interesting is that this anime can only be watched within certain locations in Nanto. You either have to go to the government administration buildings in the eight towns and watch the anime broadcasted at certain times of the day, or you have to download a free app and traverse the real-life locations shown in the anime.

The story of True Tours Nanto isn't particularly remarkable. It consists of three very short love stories that follow the usual anime romance tropes. More interesting is the experience of visiting the locales and seeing how they've been influenced by the anime.

For example, the town of Inami has had a long tradition of woodcarving, and one episode of True Tours Nanto revolves around the son of an Inami woodcarver. When I visited the real-life location of this woodcarving shop, I learned that the shop owner had carved the wooden frog accessories shown in the anime himself.

He was ecstatic when I bought one of these trinkets for myself!

Using Local Talent to Create Anime Goods

Besides the woodcarver I just mentioned, other local craftsmen have helped create tie-in merchandise for P.A. Works. At P.A. Works, a hand-crafted mecha made of copperware from Kuromukoro was on display, along with a handful of swords from Sakura Quest. All of these were made locally with an exceptional level of detail.

As an aside, I was able to talk to some of these craftsmen personally at a dinner party, where I discovered that many of them were huge anime nerds even before P.A. Works commissioned their work. One of the guys I spoke to talked about how he was trying to make a Gundam out of copper.

Not all P.A. Works merchandise is created locally, but if fans do want to support local craftsmen, the studio's website does list the options. These include dolls of the Ebisugawa twins from The Eccentric Family, created with traditional Japanese paper at Gokayama, as well as the Sakura Quest nendoroid which was made in the Tottori Prefecture.

A Sister City Signing Between Manoyama and Nanto

The town of Manoyama in Sakura Quest is fictional, but parts of its locations were inspired by Nanto, meaning that there is a strong relationship between the two cities.

This is Johana Station, which is identical to the Manoyama Station shown in the anime. For a full breakdown of the locations in Sakura Quest, check out this series of articles on Crunchyroll.

To cement the relationship between the two cities, a sister city signing was held on the 9th of October at P.A. Works. Since Manoyama isn't actually real, a producer at TOHO animation performed the role of mayor. He and the real-lilfe mayor of Nanto performed the signing, after which there was a performance of one of Nanto's traditional folk dances.

Some may see this act of signing as a publicity stunt, but I see it as an act of acceptance. Sakura Quest's portrayal of Manoyama wasn't 100% positive -- in fact, it was downright unsparing in its portrayal of a town trapped in a slow, downward spiral. By becoming a sister city, Nanto acknowledged Manoyama, warts and all. Nanto is a much bigger and more vibrant town than Manoyama was, but the mayor accepted the responsibility of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the city.

My impression was further strengthened when the mayor of Nanto announced after the signing that he was recruiting volunteer “heroes” to help out with cleaning the Sakuragaike lake, which is the inspiration of the Sakura pond in the anime. “Just as Yoshino and her cadre were the heroes of Manoyama, you too can become a hero!” he said. Cleaning a lake isn't terribly glamorous-sounding work, but then again, it wasn't as if the Sakura Quest girls had glamorous jobs either, so that was probably the joke.

At any rate, I'm fairly certain that the campaign will succeed. Anime fans tend to have great respect for the locations they visit. Earlier this year, for example, anohana fans volunteered to clean up the bridge shown in the anime. Anime fans call their visits “pilgrimages” for a reason -- they want to see their holy lands in pristine condition, just as they are in the anime. And make no mistake -- Toyama really is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

It's easy to be skeptical about the long-term effects of anime tourism. It's hard for anime to make a lasting impact when the production cycle of new shows is so short, and not all attempts to coordinate anime with real-life tourism have produced the desired results.

But if there is a right way to do anime tourism, P.A. Works is probably the best example of it. They have strived to create anime with enduring appeal while working closely with local communities to ensure faithfulness and authenticity. In retrospect, their decision not to encourage anime fans to attend the Bonbori Festival with exclusive giveaways and events did a lot to help those fans see the area as more than just a setting for their favorite anime.

It is too soon to know what long-term economic impacts will arise because of P.A. Works's involvement. Yet as far as the local community itself is concerned, P.A. Works isn't just an anime studio -- they're the local heroes of Nanto.

Special thanks to PARUS and JETRO for inviting me on a media tour to visit Nanto and the Bonbori Festival. Photo credit: Callum May

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