by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Sakura Quest ?
Episode four gave us a part one that managed to not feel like just setup, and now episode five delivers a great part two, bringing together all the elements of the series so far to create a winner for both the story and characters. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I've talked previously about Yoshino throwing herself into her work with the Tourism Board, but I don't know that I've been clear about how earnest she seems about it. Despite her previous excessive desire to escape from the town, as soon as she consigned herself to her fate and began her new job, she seemed intent on taking it seriously and not doing anything halfway. Perhaps this was always an apparent for her character; her application to so many jobs and constant hope for acceptance spelled out her clear desire to dive into work, so the idea that she would give her best even to an unusual one she got 'on accident' does seem to fit. Even the bus driver comments on Yoshino's surprising drive, making it clear that this is an intentional part of her characterization. A first job, wherever it is, is a good opportunity to prove oneself.
At any rate, this episode's beginning finds Yoshino's resolve to progress in her quest still seemingly undaunted by the previous trials. Taking Kazushi's criticism to heart, she sets out to actually learn about the wood carving she had been trying to exploit for quick tourism success. We've always seen Yoshino enthusiastic about her work, but this is probably the most seriously we've seen her take it. Instead of throwing whatever she can at the wall to see what sticks, she slows down and focuses on key elements like the ranma. All of her research coalesces into her big idea that drives this episode: the creation of a giant, wood-sculpture-covered building to attract attention to the town.
Of course, the idea is patently ridiculous, so it gets shot down on multiple fronts. Indeed, the rest of the episode is dedicated to refining this concept and applying input from everyone else first, but it represents fundamental growth on the part of Yoshino and her new friends. Originally, they had been trying to find a successful element of Manoyama's past to exploit for tourism success, but those eras are over for a reason. Their job should be to learn from the town's past to predict what its next era, its next big success will be. Times have changed, and Manoyama has to change with them; not in the sense of marrying its traditions to cheap gimmicks, as with the inventions from the previous episode, but in finding new ways to move those traditions forward in ways that benefit everyone to some degree.
Individuality becomes the second driving force of the episode, centering on Sanae's quiet struggles with her sense of purpose. Her wandering ruminations lead her to some chance conversations with the open-minded wood-carver Tatsuo, which inspires him to try his own hand at unique sculptures. His concept of wood-carved shoes actually doesn't end up being the winning idea of the episode's plot, but it does put forth a clear counterpoint to Sanae's previous hang-ups about not having anything only she could do. As Yoshino says in her rebuttal to Sanae's confession from last episode: "Even if every job can be done by someone else, some results can only be achieved by certain people."
Rather than a meritorious statement pushing the disenfranchised Sanae even further into running away to let someone else do her job, this idea encapsulates how the Tourism Board team goes about achieving their previously unthinkable wood-sculpture-building idea. They've spent all their time until now getting to know the people of the town, and now it's the citizens' turn to show what they can do. When they need a notable artist to design the building, they turn to local eccentric Mr. Sandal. Dour wood-carver Kazushi has his outstanding ranma commissioned to be the first piece displayed in the building. Even Doku's improbable exo-suits are shown being used to heft the piece into place. And of course, it's Sanae's logistical expertise that brings Yoshino's crazy concept home. It seems obvious that the ultra-modern IT Minister would be the one to think of using crowdfunding to help bring some money into the project, but of course the real stroke of genius is the decision to build at the train station and starting with the ranma carved by Kazushi.
The story behind the acquisition of Kazushi's ranma is the other wonderfully full-circle element of the episode. Last episode saw Kazushi as the righteous dispenser of traditional wisdom: new gimmicky uses of the wood-carvings were a bad idea, and the Tourism Board didn't understand what they were working with. In this one, we get a look into his backstory, revealing that he's not as flawlessly wizened as he seemed at first. The ranma Kazushi is working on was an older carver's work for a now-dead customer, a canceled project that may make him feel good for its sense of tradition, but won't be worth anything in terms of profit. If it's a little too on-the-nose as an allegory for the predicament the town is facing, it's also startlingly necessary, which brings the conflict of these last two episodes into focus with clear resolution. The Tourism Board marches into Kazushi's shop and explains how their new plan actually makes use of the ranma in a way that will be respectful to the wood-carving trade, along with benefitting the town as a whole. Working to understand Kazushi and his traditions led our heroines to a solution that worked for everyone. This gives us an answer to last week's question: helping a town does mean acting in the best interests of everyone in it. Finding a plan that is in those best interests will lead you to the best method of helping the town.
There are more plot threads than usual running through this week's episode, and while they come together magnificently by the end, the journey does seem slightly more disjointed until that payoff. Following which characters are with who talking about what is more of a chore than it was in the past; that breezy, whip-smart pacing can't quite keep up with all the details being thrown at the audience this week. These stumbles don't make the show bad by any means; this is definitely one of the best episodes of the series so far. However, it does make clear that Sakura Quest still has some growing to do, especially if it wants to fulfill even loftier narrative ambitions during its run.
Picky misgivings about pacing aside, this episode succeeds because it gives the girls of the Tourism Board something they've needed for a while now: a victory. It's not the grand, town-saving success they were trying to get up until this point, and it's clear that they still have plenty of trials and tribulations ahead. But the smiles of the new arrivals to the train station at the end definitely feel earned. Such a simple little victory is immensely appreciable after we've seen all the build-up to it, and it will be that much easier to cheer these characters on as their stories continue.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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