by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Sakura Quest ?
Does helping a town mean acting in the best interests of everyone in it? Our heroines face a dilemma from many directions this week, as they make a big push to pin down a defining feature of their town and exploit it for their tourism needs. Yoshino's invigorated enthusiasm for her quest is visible, but it might not be enough to overcome disparate ideals between residents, not to mention her own team.
The previous episode's varied interactions with the townsfolk were a memorable element, and I might have underestimated how major that aspect would be for the series moving forward. The Tourism Board crew meets and greets with even more residents in this episode, each with their own distinctive quirks. There's Doku, the local mechanic who moonlights as an inventor (how plausible is it that he actually built a working exo-suit by himself in his garage?), as well as a pair of wood carvers, the enthusiastic Tatsuo and the withdrawn Kazushi. All three figure prominently into this episode's plot. With the revelation that wood carving is a traditional art form of Manoyama, the Tourism Team sets about combining the carvings with Doku's inventions for attention-grabbing ideas. Unfortunately, not everyone involved is so keen on a radical cross-pollination of their craft, and as is typical of the series, the girls' ruminations on the subject turn inward.
Sakura Quest's pacing and juggling of characters and concepts is still shining in this episode. It naturally introduces a few more characters before it segues into the subject of wood-carving, giving us a few establishing bits (like Yoshino noticing the impressive ranma) before bringing in the wood-carving business. Likewise, Doku and his inventions are endeared to the audience early before being brought back around for the main story of combining them with the wood-carvings. There's a natural flow to the proceedings, moving from scene to scene so confidently that you don't even notice that most of the action is just people standing around talking. Everyone gets a chance to voice their opinion for maximum thematic emphasis, but it doesn't just feel like talking heads taking turns. Even the sweets-shop owner, whose vindictive machinations last episode had me worried when she reappeared, instead comes across like a citizen who's simply arguing for her own strong beliefs.
The efforts to combine the wood-carvings with the inventions succeed as a stealthy indictment of the flaws in this quest to revitalize the town so far. Before now, the girls have been making the same mistake that Kadota (and many real-world Japanese towns with this problem) have, relying solely on flash-in-the-pan gimmickry to spark as much immediate interest as possible, in the hopes that one winning bet will pay off. They're still searching for something superficially 'cool' and marketable about Manoyama that can attract tourists, without trying hard enough to understand why those aspects are special to the town in the first place. Cranky carver Kazushi calls them out on this late in the episode, pointing out that they don't even know what kind of wood the carvings they've been exploiting are made of.
This episode also turns character focus to Sanae, the blogger and 'IT Minister' of the group. Sanae, like Yoshino, moved to Manoyama from Tokyo, though her reasons for being there are amusingly reversed from the Queen's. She tells her story to Yoshino late in the episode, how she felt she had to escape from Tokyo when she realized there was nothing special for her there, coming to Manoyama to seek personal opportunity. Her concerns and search for meaning echo a common sentiment in anime, the search for 'something only I can do'. It's a deeply personal revelation for Sanae at this point (certainly one I think a lot of young adults in the audience can relate to), which causes her to conclude that she isn't giving the job her all, so she resolves to quit the team.
Sanae's struggles connect nicely with the issues facing the group and the town, while contrasting with others like Kazushi and his devotion to his craft, regardless of whether it can be monetized. Sanae utilized her new residence and blogging ability to make a living in Manoyama, but she never learned anything about actual life in the country town. (This is symbolically reiterated by her inability to deal with bugs.) Now working with the others to revitalize a town she knows nothing about, she's again confronted with her own uselessness and opts to run away from that feeling. The episode ends on Sanae's apparent resignation, and while it's obvious she'll come around in some fashion eventually, her initial change of heart is executed effectively, using the whole episode's story as a backdrop.
Sakura Quest's attention to detail is still as sharp as ever. The character's outfits continue to vary from day to day, and the trip to the wood-carving district gives the backdrops a slightly classier appeal that underlines the prestige that this artform holds for the town. One great aside was the early discussion of how to make the carvings relevant to current audiences. The characters note that a ranma doesn't have any place to go in houses these days, and televisions aren't thick enough to set carved animals on. It's a nice tacit admission of the changing times behind their entire dilemma that the characters stumble upon, and I suspect it's going to be a key issue underscoring their struggles as the series continues.
This episode's strongly paced story and quiet character ruminations did leave little room for comedy, so Sakura Quest was a good bit less sitcom-esque than it had been for the first few episodes. This isn't necessarily a complaint, as the story and execution were still excellent, but it does bear mentioning. That's not to say the episode was entirely without humor; the wood-carving-enhanced inventions were good for a chuckle, and the best joke actually came courtesy of the sweets-shop owner, who decries their transforming vending machine as blasphemy, not because it was in the shape of a Buddha, but because they desecrated a traditional Manoyama wood-carving to make it!
This is Sakura Quest's first attempt at setting up a true multi-episode arc, but it hardly feels like just set-up. Between the continued establishment of Manoyama's characteristics and development for its main cast members, this already-strong show seems like it's only just getting warmed up.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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