by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sakura Quest ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Sakura Quest ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Sakura Quest ?
In a season front-loaded with explosive, action-packed spectacles like Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, and Re: Creators, a more low-key series like Sakura Quest could potentially get lost in that high-octane sea. A show like this has to turn heads purely through quality storytelling, and fortunately for Sakura Quest, the show seems to be a strong production right out of the gate.
The first episode is devoted entirely to introducing the setting and concept, as a series of mistakes and desperation sees main character Yoshino Koharu relocated to rural Manoyama village to serve as their ‘queen’ in a dated bid to increase tourism. The show skips briskly through the proceedings here, keeping the audience engaged while sprinkling in information about the town and its situation, mostly conveyed through quick lived-in details. The rest of the episode employs similar anecdotal explanations for the town's past versus current condition, culminating in the hilarious setup of Yoshino being stuck working in the town for a year. Everything from Yoshino slowly backing off the bus to her bag-assisted take-down of the ‘chupakabura’ moves this first episode into A+ comedy territory, and her discovery of a moment from her own past in the castle, leading her to spend the night, provides a nice sentimental cap to all that build-up.
It's a marvelously effective premiere for the show, laying out the premise and attuning us to all the feelings we can hope to expect from the series. Just like the setting of a small old town with its own charm, Sakura Quest draws you in and makes you want to spend more time there, just to see what else lies in store.
The second episode uses this setup to focus on a more particular plot, tasking Yoshino with selling 1,000 boxes of manju so she can get out of her year of service in the town. (As someone who has been burned on similarly confusing units of measure before, the gag about how they ended up ordering too much manju was especially funny to me.) This episode also works to introduce the remaining four girls who will sever as our main characters, judging by the opening.
What impressed me the most about this manju plot was how utterly the story allowed it to fail. There is no sudden revelation at the end, no last-minute save that revitalizes the town and its tourism. Over the course of just a week, Yoshino and her newly-formed crew manage to sell just four boxes of manju. Even Yoshino's frustration at still being stuck in the town gets treated like the foregone conclusion she was told it would be at the beginning; Manoyama simply doesn't have the tourism or economy to support any business like that. This sets an interesting goal for Yoshino's quest to escape from the town: to save herself from Manoyama, she'll have to save Manoyama itself.
Episode 3 sees Yoshino, having consigned herself to her fate, diving into the actual work of being Manoyama's queen. The first issue brought to the fore is that she doesn't actually know much about the town, so she sets out to speak with her subjects to better familiarize herself. Whereas last episode went about introducing the main characters, this sequence gets to work introducing the town itself, the different people who live there, and how their attitudes relate to their home's current predicament.
A wide variety of denizens' opinions are shown during this segment, with some people ambivalent about Manoyama's fading glory, others feeling more aware of the problem but resigned to being unable to fix it, and an implied frustration of the local youth being outright hostile to the town. (One resident's child simply left because there was nothing for him there.) Speaking with the residents, Yoshino also learns about the origins of the chupakabura story. Manoyama was primarily known for farming a type of Japanese radish (kabura) which was upgraded into a chupakabura to capitalize on the UMA fad.
This origin story, along with one more nod to tourism-driving fads in small Japanese towns, leads into the final portion of the episode, as Yoshino participates in a regional mascot contest. A scare with the mascot costume leads to a compromise between the old kabura and the current chupakabura being used, as Yoshino determines from her previous interactions with the townspeople that they don't actually know what the defining aspect of Manoyama is supposed to be, so she resolves to spend her year as queen finding out. At the end of the episode, she and the other four girls have formally assembled into the group who will work on this tourism project, nicely bringing the establishing arc to a close.
The show immediately comes across as a terrific production, attractive and snappily directed. The plots for the episodes move along at a smart pace, never lingering too long on any one scene or explanation, but not going so fast that the audience has trouble keeping up. Details are communicated effectively using visual cues; it only takes Yoshino glancing at all the closed-down businesses in the town to make its economic woes clear, while the argument between board chief Kadota and his beleaguered assistants is a whip-smart exercise in exposition, revealing the plot, relationship dynamics, and character tics in one fell swoop. Episode 3 slows down a bit, and the segment of interviewing the townspeople seems to take a little longer than it should, but things pick up again for the rest of the episode. The bit with the team searching for the old Kabura Kid costume is a nice piece of detective work, amusingly rounded out by the reveal that Kadota's assistants had their own adventure locating the chupakabura head.
For as outstanding as the overall production and direction are, where Sakura Quest really shines is in the little things. The series succeeds at conveying details quickly without jamming them in your face. Maki's difficult past as an actor and her distaste at being known for only one tiny role is evident in rapid exchanges she has with the others. Sanae's status as a bogus ‘country living’ blogger who never actually goes outside is revealed through a few quick shots immediately upon her introduction (reinforced by her fear of bugs, itself contrasted with Shiori's nonchalant way of handling them). It's really impressive how many little details are packed into every scene, helping the characters and their tiny world of a town feel real. Apparent shut-in Ririko is the only member of the quintet that feels not fully introduced, but she does assist in the group's efforts, illustrating her knowledge of the occult and eye for detail.
I could go on and on about this element of the series, as I think it's going to be key to the show's consistent enjoyability. Other highlights include Shiori handling the prop sword/stone at the end of Episode 1, and how Sanae cleans up from her slovenly blogger state to sharp business attire when she goes into "working mode" with the team. There is one late dip in quality on the subtlety front, again courtesy of Episode 3; the sweets-shop owner's vendetta against Kadota's chupakabura and repeated shots of her scheming got just a little too mustache-twirly for my tastes. Other than that misstep, everything plays out very effectively, but the show would be wise not to dwell on aspect of its plot much moving forward.
While the combination of wistful small-town nostalgia with a pile-up of character tics seems like it might lead to a disjointed series, I would assert that this all actually works. Most of these concepts and details are delivered in rapid-fire shots and comments through the actual plot and character interactions, with the rest of the story playing out more like a standard sitcom with a great sense of humor. The characters play off each other well, since save for the currently underdeveloped Ririko, they all have distinctive personalities that complement and contrast each other. The script also has no qualms about exploring different levels of humor, going from amusing conversations between the characters to full-on zaniness in their ridiculous creation of a promotional video for the manju. (Basically anything this series does involving that chupakabura costume seems guaranteed to be a riot.) Through it all, there's an air of interest in the actual economics of drumming up interest in tourism and local business. (Sanae's explanation of the best way to sell the manju without a web-store features ideas that wouldn't be out of place in Spice & Wolf.) It's a varied experience that keeps itself interesting and almost never feels like it's dragging, despite its relatively low-key subject matter.
This will be the key to Sakura Quest's success throughout its run. The series is clearly invested in its own concept of revitalizing Manoyama, and it has the character and comedy chops to maintain the audience's interest in that story. There's so much going on that's been brought into a cohesive whole already, so even among all the blockbuster spectacles of the Spring 2017 season, this series stands out. At the very least, Sakura Quest has already made me happy to stop and spend some time in Manoyama.
Sakura Quest is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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