The Spring 2017 Anime Preview Guide Sakura Quest
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sakura Quest ?
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How was the first episode?
Yoshino Koharu has some very set ideas about what she wants to do for work now that she's graduating from junior college. Unfortunately for her, none of those ideas seem to be panning out, but she's just young enough that she's not willing to take something she perceives as “lesser,” especially if it means going back to the country. That's a quality in a heroine that's simultaneously recognizable and irritating – I remember being there, but I also want to scream at her to take the damn job because, well, those aren't something to turn your nose up at. Plus she gets to be a queen!
Of course, she's queen of a sort-of theme park in a rural city that's seen better days. And she's second choice, since the idol the town manager originally wanted is dead. Pretty much everything about Koharu's life in this episode says “second choice,” both for her and for the town she's been sent to, so her recalcitrance is understandable, especially since she's from a rural area to start with. And this city is very much in line with larger country towns everywhere – a main street that was clearly once much busier, old-timers who remember the glory days and are determined to bring them back, and even that one weird young guy with a guitar who just sort of shows up. (He's on the bus in the episode, but I usually see him on the stoop of the community center.) It's a town desperate to reinvent itself without changing too much, which actually makes Koharu a perfect fit for it – she doesn't want to be a small-town nobody, and if she succeeds in helping to bring the tourist dollars back to Maruyama, she won't be: she'll really be their queen.
Despite frustration at some of Koharu's protestations, there's something that's just nice about this episode. It has pleasant music (especially the ending theme), a nice pastel palette, and an attention to detail that enhances its setting, like the presence of gossiping old ladies at a meeting or the aforementioned empty downtown. It also has some funny moments – the way in which the town manager and his assistant try to stop Koharu from leaving is great, especially the manager's costume and his “scary” noises – to say nothing of Koharu charging past the sword in the stone to just wallop him with her heavy bag.
This may not be, strictly speaking, an iyashikei show, but it could become a reasonable facsimile of one. It's charming and entertaining, and if Koharu can learn to enjoy what she does and where she does it (which I assume is the point of the series), this could be a soothing and fun story to follow.
Since I'm the last one to the party on Sakura Quest (and responsible for editing in other people's reviews), I couldn't help but notice an uncanny pattern in what other people had written. For half of our reviewers, Sakura Quest reminds them of nothing more than Hana-Saku Iroha, while for the other half, Sakura Quest seems like a spiritual counterpart to Shirobako. It's literally 50/50 if you scroll down the page, and every review opens with such a comparison, which is fascinating to me. I think if you're keener to pick out plot, setting, and protagonist similarities, Sakura Quest will remind you more of Hana-Saku Iroha. If your eye gravitates more to style, tone, and demographic of concept, Sakura Quest will make you think of Shirobako first. And of course, it could also be that some of us have only seen one of those two shows period. Either way, Sakura Quest definitely reminds many people of something else P.A. Works has done first. (My first thought was Shirobako, for what it's worth, and before I saw these other reviews beat me to the punch, I was going to open with the comparison as well.)
As it turns out, that's the one big issue I have with this otherwise promising premiere. Sakura Quest seems to be having trouble carving out an identity of its own. All the pieces are in place for a familiar yet enjoyable tale of a boonies-avoidant working girl rediscovering the wonder and weirdness of the countryside, but it feels like the intangible magic that draws people into these kinds of stories hasn't quite shown up yet. The je ne sais quoi is just plain missing, but I realize that's not remotely helpful to hear from a critic, so I'll try to explain a little better.
If I had to blame this vague feeling of detachment on anything, I think the problem is the cast so far. The production is solid, the pacing is snappy, and many of the gags and twists are clever, but the townsfolk are stock countryside eccentrics so far, and Koharu herself mostly feels like an amalgam of cliches. She's "normal," but she's also a dreamer, when it's relevant to the plot. She's curt and no-nonsense, but she also knows the perfect thing to say to win over the wacky town patriarch and his assistants. It's not that all these traits can't exist within one character, they quite often do, but there's just something missing from the comfortable but admittedly paint-by-numbers old Doc Hollywood setup we're rolling through.
I would absolutely recommend giving Sakura Quest a few more episodes, which should be no problem given that it's a breeze to sit through, but it's a little too easy to compare to other P.A. Works productions for a reason. This show hasn't quite found its heart yet, but it's worth waiting around to see what might set it apart.
Though they only truly share a studio and similar design sensibilities, it's not hard to draw a line from Sakura Quest to 2014's phenomenal Shirobako. Both of them star a group of five loosely associated young women attempting to hack it in the adult world. Both of them have a broad ensemble cast and a character-focused approach to drama, portraying the overall workings of an entire company. And both of them match a warm spirit of optimism and humor with a world-weary acknowledgment of adult life as it is, finding joy in not just our momentary successes, but also the communal experience of hardship that make them special.
In short, Sakura Quest is extremely, absolutely my sort of thing. I love these styles of grounded character dramas, I love this kind of incidental, understated humor, and I love shows that struggle for optimism without denying reality. Of course, a show simply occupying my favored genre space isn't enough to make it a personal favorite - but fortunately, so far Sakura Quest is also very good.
Sakura Quest first introduces us to Yoshino Koharu, a young woman just about to graduate from junior college. Yoshino is desperate for work and running out of options, fending off her mother's advice to come back home to the country. Yoshino doesn't want to grow old out in the sticks, but doesn't really have any other plans - and then she's offered a job by the Manoyama Board of Tourism, who want her to become their tourism queen.
A few unfortunate mix-ups later, we have our premise - Manoyama is a fading town, but its tourism board is still passionate about attracting visitors, and they hope Yoshino can help them. The rest of the episode is a mix of solid conversational humor, meditations on Manoyama's fading attractions, and Yoshino attempting to escape this whole tourist queen situation.
Yoshino's grounded worries and human reactions made her an instantly likable lead, but I was even more taken by Sakura Quest's thematic thrust. Manoyama is as much a character as any of Sakura Quest's humans, and the inherent sadness of old boom-era attractions rotting in the modern age offers a great deal of pathos here. “Young protagonist enamored with modern things discovers beauty in the old world” isn't exactly a fresh narrative, but it feels particularly urgent at this moment in history, and Sakura Quest's grounded approach makes me confident the show won't arrive at any easy answers. This world is fading, but we still have to find joy where we can.
Sakura Quest's visual execution is generally strong, with the expressive character designs being a particular highlight. My one real visual complaint is that the backgrounds feel a little too flat to truly embody the fading-beauty tone the show's going for, but that's a complain you could level at most P.A. Works shows. Overall, Sakura Quest's premiere offers a fun and poignant opening to what could turn out to be a very special drama.
In many respects this new original offering from P.A. Works is the spiritual successor to their 2011 creation Hana-Saku Iroha, the title which arguably helped raise them to elite status among Japanese animation studios. Like the original, it features a young woman struggling to find her place in Tokyo who winds up consigned to working in a rural setting, a prospect she is initially resistant to. Also like the original, it's a place that she has a distinct connection to from the past and she quickly finds herself surrounded by distinct and sometimes lively characters who all have their own agendas. That the two women in question are at different stages of their lives is a significant difference, though; at age 20 Koharu might not be that much older than the 16-year-old Ohana was, but it's enough to completely change life prospects and some of the themes. Whereas Ohana was a flower waiting to bloom, Koharu already has bloomed and is now looking for a place to take root. She just isn't willing to admit yet that the town of Manoyama is probably a better place to do so than Tokyo was. Or at the very least, that's the message that this series is clearly pitching.
The first episode lays a firm foundation for the story by letting viewers get to know Koharu and some of the other characters who will be important going forward. It also gives us a sampling of Manoyama and its history. The tourism promotion angle is a potentially interesting one, as other anime series about rural life have touched on the topic before but, to my knowledge, this is the first anime series to use it as a focal point. The whole kingdom approach has amusing potential which already bears fruit in this episode, and the opener and Next Episode preview suggest that she will eventually be surrounded by some female “champions.” As expected from P.A. Works, the technical merits are quite strong, with an emphasis on rural landscapes and scenic views, and aside from Yoshino's pink hair character designs so far have been sensible and realistic, very much in the vein of Hana-Saku Iroha.
In all, the first episode of Sakura Quest is nowhere near the instant masterpiece that the beginning of its predecessor was, but that's not really a fair standard to judge any series against. It does, however, have its own charm and potential for appeal as a lower-key character study.
This might be partly due to their shared production studio and visual style, but the first episode of Sakura Quest feels like it's trying really hard to be Shirobako's rural cousin. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but this series does have a slightly harder task ahead of it. Life at a small-town tourism office doesn't have the same built-in appeal as life at an anime production company, so Sakura Quest needs to do more to catch viewers' interest in the early going. The results of that initial effort are solid, if not spectacular.
There's a fair amount of setup work to get through in this episode, and the series doesn't appear to be in much of a hurry. We see Yoshino struggle her way through an interview, improvise dinner out of a nearly empty fridge, and argue with her mother on the phone. These are very familiar plot points, and that feeling of predictability carries through into her arrival in Manoyama. The town's a dump, her job is silly, and of course she wants to bail and go back to Tokyo. Between the leisurely pacing and the standard story structure, there's not much exciting or surprising content here.
The good news is that things do start to pick up by the end of the episode. Yoshino's staged encounter with the “Chupakabura” is a very funny sequence, and it's one of the few scenes in this episode that actually benefits from the audience knowing how it's going to end. It's obvious that the monster is one of the tourism board members in a costume and that Yoshino is going to knock him out cold, but the willfully silly presentation makes the scene enjoyable. We also get a sappy but useful connection to Yoshino's childhood memory in the episode's final moments, which gives her some plausible motivation to stick around.
Sakura Quest's biggest strength so far may lie in its setting and atmosphere. We don't get to see the town at its best here; the tree branches are bare and most of the shops appear to be permanently closed. It genuinely feels like the middle of nowhere, and not the idealized rural picture that slice of life shows love to paint. That sets up some potential common ground for the cast; the younger characters' concerns about their careers can easily overlap with the older characters' desire to revitalize the town. These are timely and relatable ideas, and Sakura Quest may be on to something if it can blend them successfully. Given a couple of weeks to develop its characters, this series could grow beyond its ordinary introduction into something special.
Lynzee LoveridgeRating: 3.5
P.A. Works heads back to its thematic small town roots for Sakura Quest cycling back to the first work that studio created that introduced me to its hallmark of gorgeous background art and tonal color choices: Hana-Saku Iroha. Like Hana-Saku Iroha, Sakura Quest stars a city girl thrust into a rural setting and put to work unexpectedly. Unlike its predecessor though, this story is about a college student and her hard work is to indulge in one of Japan's ridiculous past tourism campaigns.
Most viewers aren't going to recall Japan's micro-nation tourism campaign from the 1980s, but in an era of “Cool Japan” and seemingly every small town has some kind of off-the-wall mascot and coupled with a trend of tourism-specific anime, a nation of Chupacabra hardly seems outrageous. If you watched Frame Arms Girl earlier this week you might have noticed the lead character Ao had pictures and tons of merchandise featuring a weird white monster character. It's a real mascot named Udolla for the city of Tachikawa and it represents an underground vegetable.
All of this preface is to acknowledge that yes, the idea of electing a PR queen and parading her around is weird, but it's not the strangest thing Japan has done to pull in tourism yen. Yoshino's inevitably heartwarming journey from put upon fish-out-of-water to a hardworking girl who discovers the charm of her new home can be seen from a mile away. I'm doubtful there are many surprises in store here but I'm a sucker for these types of feel-good dramas. The stakes are low and revolve around characters making missteps with one another, learning from their gaffaws, and growing into earnest individuals over time.
It doesn't hurt that P.A. Works makes these low-key shows gorgeous to watch so that by the end the audience is rooting for everyone to learn to co-exist with one another, even the prickly characters. The next episode preview promises to introduce the girl peering out the window who bares initial similarities to Hana-Saku Iroha's Minko. Will she also be a hard-nosed ice queen? Probably. That's usually the foil cast to hone a character like Yoshino who wants to be treated like she's special but hasn't done anything specific to deserve it.
In short, if you have a lot of anime viewing under your belt this looks to be a rather predictable drama but that doesn't preclude it from being a pleasant ride.
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