by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Sakura Quest ?
Sakura Quest just makes it look easy at this point, doesn't it? I have to regularly remind myself that this is an easy-going show about a group of girls working at a small-town tourism office, for as engaging as it winds up being. It's important to note the skill in execution for this episode not because it's overly impressive, but rather because it feels more like it's coasting along on a formulaic setup while remaining an immensely entertaining watch.
Last week's setup for Ririko's focus storyline saw Sakura Quest at its more artistic, but this episode dials down the storytelling experimentation to instead follow the more expected beats we've become accustomed to from the show. There's some early establishment of the situation, a major issue is hinted at and skirted around, there's a big discussion of a character's issues where they realize they are accepted for who they are, and the whole thing is resolved in a way that most characters did not see coming but still works out for everyone. I've expressed my concern for Sakura Quest falling into formula previously, but since this is the last episode that needs to establish one of the main characters, as well as the last arc before a presumable mid-season climax, I'm rather nonplussed about seeing them do it at least one more time, especially when they've just gotten so good at it.
The opening minutes that show the characters getting back on track with the matchmaking tour are probably the only tedious portions of the episode, even if they introduce the looming threat of some sort of lake-dragon-monster (which we know given the show's genre that it can't really be what it seems). After that early portion though, the show sets out to dispense all the lore and history to set up this episode's finale, and it's actually pretty impressive how much they unload on you. Everything from Sandal's surprising family history with Manoyama to Riri's relationship with the legendary dragon's true history that leads to finding out her own history with the town unfolds at a dizzying clip, yet it's somehow well-presented enough that you can still keep track of it all.
Following up on the thematic set-ups in the previous episode, this week specifically deals with the notion of insiders and outsiders in a group and how well outsiders can manage to belong. Riri never felt like she belonged as she grew up, due to her outsider parentage leaving her Grandmother bitter. This status is blatantly compared with the dragon from Manoyama's mythology, as Riri's relation to the mythical beast leads to her tracking down previously unstudied information that turns the whole notion of Manoyama's anti-outsider culture on its head.
Frankly, a lot of this setup is way too convenient. It's beyond belief that there would be a complete inverse of a town's founding legend located in a library book that everyone in the town somehow forgot about. The point is also made late in the episode that this knowledge only disappeared within the last generation or so, making the group of old residents' collective amnesia until the plot recollects it for them even more unbelievable, especially when it's accompanied by a complete shift in their governing culture. That Sandal, whose heritage was only revealed in this episode, just happens to have the missing piece of the puzzle and blurts it out at an opportune time stretches credibility to its limit.
The amazing thing is that none of that really matters, though. These setups and obvious resolutions are just a framework this episode of Sakura Quest uses to get to meaty thematic elements and surprisingly heartfelt character work. The true story of the town's dragon is a classic mythological tragedy, and we feel it tugging on our heartstrings as well as Ririko's when she reads it. The obvious but poignant point that getting over your fears of others and letting outsiders into your life is a good thing works as a capstone to what the characters have learned about drumming up interest in the town until this point. And the reveal of a whole song going along with the dance from last week may be a deus ex machina, but it lets us see Ririko participate in the town's traditions in her own way (without dancing because she doesn't want to!) and hear her lovely singing voice with some beautiful visuals of fireflies. Sakura Quest plays the audience like a fiddle this week, and I was happy to play along.
The show's decent sense of self-awareness helps a lot with the presentation as well. Ririko's big ‘confession’ scene with Yoshino comes about halfway through after her needed occult knowledge gets dismissed by one of the guys from the matchmaking tour. (That red-shirted toolbox is definitely a contender for Jerk of the Year on that scene alone.) I praised the show's ability to display Ririko's internal turmoil through her characteristic silence last week, but that won't cut it for when we need to lay the cards on the table this week, so she ends up spilling all her words out just like the other members of her team before her. Still, it's presented as a significantly more shocking outburst for Ririko, and her own surprised reaction to herself betrays the writers' awareness of its unusualness to help the scene work. It's followed up by Yoshino's truly heartfelt acceptance and comforting of Ririko, likely the best scene in the episode. I've loved seeing this team come together so far, so to see members growing so close and relying on each other at this point is rewarding to that positive character development.
The show also leans into the obvious nature of the ‘lake monster’ plot development. It's mainly used for cheap, odd laughs throughout, and when the mysterious creature is revealed simply to be a misunderstood ex of one of the tour participants, the characters all kind of shrug and go “Well of course it was something like that”. This plot point seemed mostly inserted to take up some extra time and provide a few bonus jokes, so it's good that the show doesn't afford it much more drama than that.
With all the issues and initial angst of the main quintet worked out now, the main question is: Where will Sakura Quest go from here? Granted, its characters could be continuously developed in additional directions, to say nothing of multi-character focus episodes exploring various dynamics. The show pulled off excellence this week in spite of a rigid adherence to its own tried-and-true formula, but by making plainly apparent what that formula was, it's clear that it can't lean into that setup forever. Sakura Quest knows what it's doing, and I want to keep enjoying whatever it does next, but I also want it to keep wowing me the way it has when it's pulled off something more unexpected. The timing is right for a change-up soon.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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