by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 23 of
Sakura Quest ?
Sakura Quest's best foot definitely seems to be forward again, and that's a relief. This episode marks the beginning of the end of the story, as it forgoes its opening theme in favor of a quiet, atmospheric start: a smart choice to kick off the final act.
Starting off with Yoshino and Shiori being approached for a deal to open a branch of a trendy dessert shop in Manoyama, our thoughts immediately drift back to the Manoyama native who supposedly wanted to help his town in the middle of the series. We all remember what a disaster the reality show and concert turned out to be, and you have to wonder if anyone in the cast will bring up how they've been burned on a deal like this before. It doesn't come up in this episode (most of the many characters who discuss the proposal seem for it on some level), but given what a major event that was at the mid-season finale, I have to hope it becomes a concern eventually.
The good news is that's the only real issue hanging over the construction of this episode, as everything else flows as smoothly as we've come to expect from the best of Sakura Quest. This dessert shop plot does an excellent job of illustrating the effects of the various plans that the team has executed throughout the series. For instance, there's a definite sense of contrast in everyone enthusiastically tasting the tarts they'll be selling with the varied reactions to the manjuu from way back at the beginning of the show. More importantly, it makes clear that the story isn't actually done with the empty buildings in the shopping district from the last arc, a relief after how much of a let-down the brief resolution to that element seemed to be.
The story actually manages to spotlight some of the negative side effects of the buildings being owned by those that live in them, and the difficulties of renting them out as a result, a nice about-face after it went to the small-town-sentimentality well a little too much over the last arc. Along with that, the driving conflict of Merchant Board Member Akiyama, who owns the best candidate for the new shop but refuses its services, is a compelling core element. We only meet this character in this episode, but the framing of the discussions with him and the importance of the mission successfully creates an intriguing mystery.
That element does get resolved effectively, giving a stronger elucidation of Sakura Quest's themes than we've had in a while. Yoshino is still questioning what she wants to do after her tenure as Queen is up, with the new acknowledgement that she does like Manoyama and wants to stay there. The sheer matter-of-fact way this is stated makes it impressive. In shows that thrive more on melodrama, this would be a major revelation, a declaration to end the episode or even the series on. But as we've watched Yoshino's appreciation for the town grow so organically, it's become plain to the audience and other characters already. Similarly, Chitose's earnest efforts to assist in setting up the dessert shop reinforces the growth she's undergone from her arbitrarily obstructive self, but many of her actions are still rooted in the major point about her we learned about from the fifty-years-ago flashback: she doesn't actually believe Manoyama can be revived. Her sense of futility comes through in her push for the disbandment of the Merchant's Board, and the debate that spins out of that leads to the best part of the episode.
It's an effectively-shot argument, successfully capturing multiple voices and illustrating the concerns of all sides involved. This all surrounds the revelation of the aforementioned Akiyama's past and the reasons for his misgivings, which undercuts the scene with tension over what we want to know. It's also matched with shots of Maki's rehearsal of the dragon play, complete with an excellent scene of her performed panic in contrast with Akiyama's more tranquil fear in one of the episode's strongest moments. If the allegory of Akiyama as the misunderstood dragon of the myth is another one of the show's less-subtle symbolic moments, it still makes an incredibly effective use of music and imagery.
The show also uses that to bring around one of its core original ideas, that reviving a town means doing so for everyone in it. They clarify that point even more effectively here, noting the difference between ‘revitalization’ and ‘development’. It's parts like this that make a long, slow-burn series like Sakura Quest such an effective experience, bringing the concepts full-circle in narratively satisfying ways. It illustrates how much the characters have grown and rewards the audience for keeping those ideas in mind as they watch.
This episode really represents all the ideas of the series working well together, such as Yoshino's integrated outsider status lifting the burden of suspicion from all out-of-towners, or the snippets of the dragon play making a decently clever framing device for this story about changing based on others' perspectives. It's all wrapped up with fun callbacks to the rest of the series, as an episode that works well on its own while being strengthened by effective setup; it's not quite a ‘Part 1’ (though there is a major cliffhanger at the end), but it strongly sets the stage for the big finale.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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