Sakura Quest (サクラクエスト) is an original contemporary anime series that is also referred to as a “working series,” which tells narratives about Japanese people and the work that they do. It was produced by P.A. Works, who has been specialising in this line of serials as a way to raise more awareness about the cultural and social climate of Japan with younger generations and Western viewers. The series initially aired during the Spring 2017 simulcast season with 25 episodes. When I first came across the anime, I had felt like it was going to be something very special. Upon finishing it, I stand by my feelings and strongly believe that anyone who is interested in Japan outside of otaku culture must watch it.
Sakura Quest is about the small town of Manoyama and a group of girls who either moved there for work from larger cities like Tokyo or were born and raised in the town itself. These women come together under a common ground of revitalising a place that was once filled with rich Japanese culture and history but has recently started dying due to a lacking population and high decrease in tourist traffic.
I know, the premise in its simplest form, doesn’t sound like it would be that interesting or fascinating. When I first read the synopsis, I was pretty sceptical about it. Yet, after having seen it in its entirety, I feel that Sakura Quest is probably one of the most insightful and educational serials that I have ever seen, as well as quite inspirational.
Japan is an extraordinary nation. When most people hear the name “Japan” they immediately think of places like Tokyo, where the city life is sensationally bustling and active, or Kyoto, where the history and culture is rich and lush with temples and shrines. There’s even Akihabara, the centre of otaku culture and technology. Rarely do people ever ponder what the countryside or small towns are like. Even in Japan itself, many youngsters who are born and raised in small towns are seeking avenues of escaping their homes. They are moving to more suburban and highly populated areas. Because of this these local venues are fading away into the distance, which is a terrible shame because the core of Japanese culture and identity, the true essence of what Japan once was and how it has come to be what it is now, resides in places like Akita, or in the anime’s case, Manoyama.
That’s what Sakura Quest is about. The series shines a light on the dying locales of Japan and how it significantly impacts the nation as a whole, not just the people who live in these specific areas, as well as the different tactics that these places try out for revitalisation, and it does it with a gradual, character-driven chronicle, a cast with varying yet relatable circumstances, and beautiful animation.
The anime begins with us following a woman named Yoshino who recently graduated from college and is having a tough time finding a job in the big city. So, when she is offered a temporary acting gig in the small town of Manoyama, she accepts it. When she moves to Manoyama, she isn’t charmed by it. It feels like a ghost town with how empty the streets are and how quiet the ambiance is. The people are also a bit timid and awkward to her. Yoshino is positively ready to get the hell out and try her luck back in the city once more. However, she doesn’t leave. She comes damn near close to it, but as she meets and interacts with the individuals of the city, she grows passionate about its rejuvenation and eventually finds a homely comfort there that she didn’t realise she was lacking in her life. A simple notion of discovering oneself in a place that you would least expect to is probably one of my favourite types of narratives.
Yoshino’s self-discovery and uncertainty about her future is an allegory for the precarious future of Manoyama. They work parallel to one another the entire time during the anime. With each discovery and set-back that she has, you will see a similar occurrence pertaining to the town. In this way, the anime makes the economic struggles of a tiny city accessible to everyone. It’s not limited to watchers that have an interest or passion in that very precise subject matter, but recognisable by any person who has ever had similar difficulties in their lives; it humanises it. It creates a thread between the audience and the town, which helps to place the rather real-life aspects of its problems into perspective.
In Japan, the core of the small town culture exists within the people and their experiences. For example, you have a woman named Chitose Oribe, who owns a confectionary store. She’s depicted as being this hard-arse type of person that is quite aloof. Yet, underneath all of that is a woman who was raised in Manoyama. A girl who once wanted to be a musician. But things ended up not working out due to certain circumstances and she inherited the family business instead. Her aloofness stems from her bitterness at not being able to pursue her dreams. However, by remaining in Manoyama, she came to appreciate the town as well as her Japanese heritage.
We have another character who is a local mechanic that dabbles in engineering. A lot of things that he invents are rather incredible and would probably be a big hit in larger cities, or a huge draw for tourism. Yet, he is an older gentleman and doesn’t really know how to market this gadgets and gismos. People view him as eccentric and a bit of an outsider, but his passion for his creations—the joy it brings him—and the uniqueness of their designs are something you’d never see outside of this small town. Beyond his skills, he’s actually a lonely individual who ponders the future of his home like many others.
Similarly to him, many of the other characters are aging, and with all of the youth leaving their hometowns for energetic and fast-paced environments, when the elderly pass on, so will these towns. I remember reading an article last year that talked about how the growing metropolitan places are affecting Japan. In many instances, the towns and villages are being torn down. This can be beneficial because it allows that land to be returned to nature. Nevertheless, the economy suffers because many things in those larger cities are produced and sent in via small towns. When a more efficient method is discovered, the towns lose their only source of income and livelihood, which then puts more people out on the streets or worse. Fewer towns means fewer tax dollars and increased pressure on the governing parties, plus of bunch of other stress factors.
In Sakura Quest, we see how the lack of funds from a non-existent tourist season affects the budgets of the town, making it significantly more challenging for them to work on actual revitalisation. Tons of effort goes into making even the slightest of positive changes. When those changes do occur, they tend to arrive in waves and phases that last for a hot second and then dissipate. The concentration on these aspects within the anime may seem unexciting and humdrum, but once again, when you tie them to characters that have emotionally evocative contentions, it is quite difficult not to get invested and to not want to know more.
I found the symbolism in Sakura Quest to be one of the most essential things to ever have been portrayed in the anime medium. It really highlights the dilemma of a country that many love and appreciate, but also who don’t truly grasp what the country is going through on such an intimate level. Everyone has this fantasised idea of what Japan is, thus taking it and most of its difficulties for granted. It’s ridiculously easy for Westerners to say, “If Japan did this, then they could do this,” or “If Japan did this, then they wouldn’t be struggling as much,” and more. Nonetheless, the gravity of their situation and its effects on their future is far more complex and deeper than many people realise. It goes so far beyond “do this” and “don’t do this.” Sakura Quest allows us, the outsiders, and youngsters, to understand why that is.
Even on the surface, Sakura Quest isn’t a simple and straightforward story. It’s so incredibly multi-dimensional. There are a bunch of women trying to work through their own shit by focusing on facets outside of those respective problems. Some of those problems include facing your fears, confronting disappointments, dealing with dysfunctional families, or merely learning to grow the hell up. Then you have an analysis of the profound impact that dying small towns have on an entire country, as well as how cultural identities die in the modernising era, regardless of where you are. Those are just to name a few in much larger jar. So, if the concept of resurrecting tiny towns doesn’t float your fancy, maybe one of these other elements shall. Either way, I’m so glad I invested my time and effort in watching Sakura Quest, and I recommend that you do the same.
8.75 manju outta 10!
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