by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 13 of
Sakura Quest ?
Sakura Quest has been a lot of things so far in its run. It's mostly been about the process of reviving the town of Manoyama, told with all the drama and comedy that entails. The humor has ranged from low-key to ridiculous, and the drama generally manifested as step-by-step character development with occasional dips into questionable melodrama. One thing the show has not done, however, is be genuinely suspenseful. Even when it tried to wring some audience concern from the possibility of a Tourism Board team member leaving in a huff, it was always pretty clear they'd come back stronger. Seeing how things would be resolved next episode was always a foregone conclusion. Until now.
Episode 13 of Sakura Quest caps off the first cour of the show by shaking up the formula in a way the show desperately needed. While the warning signs of the issues that would befall the founding day event have been apparent since the preceding episode, the whole first half of this one passes by with only moderate concern. The team running the show is happy, the visitors are happy, even the nominally antagonistic Merchant's Board is happy. The hiccups that do occur are on the same level as what we saw in the previous episode; it's nothing our seasoned group of tourist organizers can't handle.
The issues with the concert delay, how they disrupt the trivia contest, and the resultant fallout that permeates the rest of the episode do an excellent job of setting the other shoe up to drop. It's interesting how effectively the show presents the concert as a menace without framing it with obvious antagonism. The band and the people attending certainly seem to be having fun, and Yoshino's team is soldiering on with the contest as best they can. But the snide aside comments from the band leader about how he feels about the small town, and the diminished crowd at the trivia contest and its staff being ineffectual in the face of the concert noise, all drives home just how wrong things are starting to go.
This is a powerful section of the episode, not because it's a big dramatic moment for the show, but because it presents the problem more in a way I think most of us have encountered before. Things seem to be going okay, if not quite as planned, but there's a central undercurrent of how wrong it all feels, the idea that this isn't what we had in mind. Sakura Quest has always excelled at evoking these types of real-world feelings, and this more intense application of that concept instantly sets this episode apart as a bigger deal.
That inherent wrongness sets up the remaining gut-punches the episode has prepared. Yoshino's morning-after observation of the empty, unchanged town plants the seeds of doubt that will have ramifications moving forward. Most damning is the garbage piles of unused coupons that they were banking on to increase commerce in Manoyama afterwards. The episode actually called attention to these previously, with Grandma Oribe noticing them but deigning not to say anything about them to Yoshino. When even the typically obstructionist matriarch of the story seems to feel sorry for your efforts, you know something has gone wrong.
The real clincher comes at the end, as everyone sits down to watch the episode of the travel show that all this was produced for. The varied hollow reactions of the characters are understated in Sakura Quest's usual down-to-earth style, and they sell the complex issue at hand. Even after everything they've worked towards over this period, were their efforts in vain because of any time they lost sight of working for the town itself? The travel show paints a pretty narrative, but it's divorced from what they were actually trying to achieve, and it's clear that it won't actually increase tourism anytime soon. This is the final trick of meta-text that Sakura Quest throws out: what makes for an entertaining story isn't always best for what the Tourism Board trying to do. Grounded work on the town's deeper problems has to be maintained at all times.
Sakura Quest is still Sakura Quest throughout the hills and valleys of these proceedings; there's still time to watch the ins and outs of the Tourism Board's activities, as well as a little comedy (courtesy of Sandal, of course). All of that helps sell how heavy the end of the episode lands. Previously, any dramatic punch the series attempted was via forced melodrama (like the business with Shiori's sister and Kumano) or clearly non-serious indulgences (like the ‘lake monster’ that turned out to be someone's old boyfriend). The cliffhanger presented at the end of this episode is on another level entirely, because it's rooted not just in the central conflict of the series (reviving the town), it's predicated on calling into question all of the characters' efforts up until this point.
My consistent criticism of Sakura Quest has always been its rigid adherence to formula, but it actually puts that to effective use in this episode. Because each mini-arc of the series has thus ended with a resolution and return to the status quo, they can now call into question what any of those cleared hurdles actually achieved. The quiet town still going about its sleepy business as usual when Yoshino wakes up the next day speaks for itself, which makes us wonder: Why haven't we seen the wood-carvers doing anything since then? Is the restaurant still serving that special somen,and where are all the people eating it? In this way, the audience is as much a participant in the show as our characters were in the travel show they filmed. The story was entertaining, but was anything learned or gained from it?
More cynical viewers could accuse elements like this of being emotionally manipulative, but I think that's welcome in a series that has coasted through on feel-good yarns until this point, whose formula had finally started wearing thin. Sakura Quest needed a kick in the pants of some sort at its halfway point, and this episode found it. At the end, Yoshino abruptly announces to her friends as well as the audience that six months have passed, and we suddenly remember that this was never supposed to be a permanent arrangement. As the Queen boards a bus for the station with half the show still left, we can predict that she's going to be drawn back to her quest somehow, but the how and why are more up in the air than they've ever been. I've always enjoyed watching this series and been impressed with its composition, but this episode was the first time I've felt totally excited about where it's going. Rather than just enjoying my time with Sakura Quest, I now can't wait to see what happens on the next episode!
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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