by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Sakura Quest ?
Sakura Quest sets the land-speed record for resolving one of its preceding-episode cliffhangers this week, as Maki's audition gets wrapped up in just the 90 seconds. She does indeed fail to make callbacks, but the emotional roller-coaster this episode takes us through in that short span of time is something to behold. It's suspenseful, momentarily uplifting, then switches to a brutal rending of our expectations. Her loss seems to be emotionally manipulative on purpose, but it makes it no less effective, leaving us wondering how the rest of the episode will top the intensity of that introductory snippet.
Instead, the episode succeeds simply by not trying to surpass it. What follows instead is a neat twenty minutes of feel-good entertainment, as Maki returns to work immediately, taking her failure in stride. There's a great sense of familiarity from all the characters just interacting at this point, even as their conversation lays the metaphor of closing the middle school to the declining nature of the town on just as thick as usual. This scene, and most everything in this episode's wintry walkthrough, just has killer atmosphere.
The following scene with everyone at the diner making plans continues this strength, burgeoned by the way they bring up all the ways that winter impacts a small town like Manoyama. It's an eye-opening scene for those of us who might not even think of things like the impact on bus routes or local eateries, and it really shows how much work the staff put into thinking everything through. It's also just a well-done parade of cozy interactions, from the amusing ongoing ‘Argh’ joke to the pleasantness of seeing Sandal getting a studio in one of the school rooms or the impromptu Tourism Board snowball fight. This is more slice-of-life than Sakura Quest has been in a while, but it's cute and welcome, even if it does make this concluding episode feel more disconnected from its Part One than some of the other arcs.
Maki does get the team back on track in the second half though, which calls attention to how satisfying it is that this show stars real grown-ups who put hard work into their jobs. There's discouragement and roadblocks, to be sure, but Sakura Quest has pointedly eschewed quick day-saving solutions in favor of consistently showing that sustained effort accomplishes more for our heroes and their quest. That's most notable in this episode, with Maki knuckling down on the play they plan to put on for the school-closing ceremony. It would be easy to have her in a dramatic slump, depressed about going anywhere near acting again, but as the show has already made her love of the craft undeniably clear, we instead see her getting over her disappointment by throwing herself into that work.
Maki's return to acting for the love of the craft spells out the key theme of this arc, that how we choose to love our passions is ultimately up to us. Maki can't make a career out of the drama she so enjoys; she'll never do what she loves for a living. But she can infuse that personal passion into the other work that she does and be just as rewarded. This also calls attention to a factor that hasn't been brought up much thus far: what Yoshino wants to do with her life. After it gets mentioned this week, her lack of an answer becomes conspicuous. We've always known that Yoshino wanted to live in Tokyo and work there somehow, but we never had much information beyond that, and it's easy to suspect that she doesn't either. It's a smart point to bring into the narrative, if a bit conspicuous in how much it will likely factor into the impending series finale.
So as a reward for all her hard work, Maki's acting gets to highlight the final chunk of the episode, as we simply watch her put on a Christmas play with her troupe. It's not exactly Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, but this episode's commitment to just letting the show play out as it's staged, complete with the audience's reactions, is admirable and entertaining. The animation and voice acting does an excellent job of selling Maki's stage acting even in anime form. The real payoff comes at the end, seeing Maki take her appreciated bow and pass that momentum to Yoshino for her winning proposal for the school building. The music, framing, pacing, and tone of this segment are all pitch-perfect, selling the feel-good atmosphere of this episode. The level of polish in the craft on display is clear.
This all wraps with Maki deciding to start an acting troupe out of the school building, probably the most predictable element of this plotline, but no less welcome. This decision showcases some good full-circle character development for Maki, who started her first arc avoiding her problems and resigning herself to failure, but now enjoys being proactive in plotting the course of her own life. If this episode feels more disconnected from the previous one, it at least establishes a strong through-line for the whole series itself, which we can probably expect to see utilized thematically for all the characters in these remaining episodes.
The quality of an episode like this will depend heavily on your fondness for the cast, but if you're still here twenty episodes in, that's probably a given. I know it's only August right now, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-watch this nice little episode once Christmas rolls around.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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