by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 21 of
Sakura Quest ?
Here's a storyline that's been a long time coming! After a lot of background build-up for her, this week's episode of Sakura Quest focuses on Erika, the young girl from the diner. As expected, the plot surrounds her desire to escape Manoyama. The Tourism Board picks her up as she attempts to hitchhike to Tokyo. This escape attempt is impulsive and childish, sure, but that's in-character for her, and it leads to the ensemble discussion throughout this episode that discusses the central theme of our desires and what we do to fulfill them.
The team's actual discussions with Erika are really sharp. Yoshino smartly brings up how many of them have tried to make it in Tokyo and how hard a task that can be, and each character taking turns trying to reach Erika makes for a good use of most of the cast so far. Maki's old trick of using a cliffhanger story to make sure Erika goes to school is especially clever, (and cruel to the audience, since we too want to find out how it ends!) and the overall pacing of each conversation is smart. Each character imparting lessons that Erika will hopefully take to heart lends the whole affair a rather fable-esque atmosphere.
There are some conflicts in this story, beyond the central plot, however. Erika and her diner-owning mother apparently have more serious difficulty between them than Erika's standard preteen sarcasm implied. This episode could be appreciated for its simple behind-closed-doors realism of family drama, but for some it might come off as lazy storytelling, since it's a problem we'd never heard about before added into the conflict simply for the sake of drama.
Besides that, the key conflict in this episode lies between Erika's pointed dismissal of Manoyama and Shiori's unconditional affection for it. As the one fully born-and-raised-Manoyaman member of the team, Shiori's love for the town has been an ever-present element of the series since the start, but this storyline finally plants some seeds of doubt in her defining opinion of her home. This is another element that might come across as forced, the idea that Shirori never really thought about why she loved and wanted to stay in her hometown all this time, and it certainly gets the audience considering it if they haven't already. However, this case works better than some of Sakura Quest's other instances of forced drama, as the writing carefully makes the point that Erika's actions are the catalyst to get Shiori thinking in this direction. The plot is still conveniently working in favor of the ideas that the show wants us to analyze, but the ability to still call the characters and their motivations into question this far into the series at least says a lot about its ambitions.
Little touches help ease the more blatant manipulation of this storyline. It would be easy for Sakura Quest to fall into the trap of having Erika come off like a petulant brat, but while she's certainly immature and unpleasant at times, she still comes off more as a typical disaffected youth, rather than just an ungrateful child we want to see proven wrong. There are also some well-timed jokes early on as the team takes her in, particularly an unexpected laugh from Yoshino accidentally propositioning Sanae.
While the more personal story mostly works, the town-development B-plot falls more into autopilot than usual. Sakura Quest does have a rote formula if you know what to look for at this point; a problem typical of declining towns is described before a creative solution is found (usually in the Part Two of a story arc), but the show has gotten by just fine dressing those proceedings up in strong atmosphere and character work. However, Yoshino's inquiry about the closed-down stores in the shopping district and what to do with the owned-but-empty buildings makes the expected setup just a bit too obvious. There's at least a solid point made about stagnant living situations making people complacent, but then maybe that's where Sakura Quest should have taken its own advice and added some window dressing to these now too-familiar beats.
Similarly, the third festival treasure, the Golden Dragon, is telegraphed just a little too much. They're trying to use it to tie a lot of elements of the episode together, but instead it just feels tacked-on. That trying-too-hard feeling extends to the final issue of the episode, as Yoshino voices her doubts about trying to revive the shopping district and by extension the town. These are the same doubts that have been over-emphasized at weaker points in the show's past, and rehashing them still doesn't work at this stage. At least the outburst of home-defending emotion they provoke from Shiori is effective, in a strong moment sold very well by her voice actress.
The episode ends on an abrupt cliffhanger, as our heroes get underway looking for the last treasure. Formula predicts that the second half of a Sakura Quest story arc will strongly tie together disparate parts of the setup chapter, but this one in particular feels disjointed and ineffectual, like it's trying to do too many things as we head toward the end of the whole story.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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