Sakura Quest, 2017 P.A. Works

Big Eyes, Pink Hair and Rural Economic Stagnation

Sakura Quest is Unexpectedly Pragmatic for a Slice of Life Anime

A few weeks ago there were signs around my neighborhood that spring had finally sprung. Warmer weather and flowers and probably some other stuff, I wasn’t looking because more importantly, spring means new anime. During spoiler season, P.A. Works’ Sakura Quest made it to my “I’ll give it a couple episodes” list. The slice-of-life concept intrigued me, but it also had the flags of a squishy moeblob anime (a cast of hyper-saccharine girls doing cute things for the sake of being cute; for some people that’s their jam, but I had a near-fatal overdose of it circa 2008 with K-ON! and Lucky☆Star).

Lo and behold, three episodes in and I’m entirely sold on the new show. To catch y’all up, Sakura Quest’s protagonist is Yoshino Koharu, a recent college grad who’s been severely out of luck finding a job in Tokyo. Threatened with moving back in with her parents in the quaint (boring) countryside, she accepts a cold-call contract job to be the “queen” of a town that’s struggling to revive its provincial tourism industry. Due to a couple classically comical mix-ups, Koharu ends up contracted with the town for a full year as their costumed royalty; while the scenery of bumfuck nowhere is a bit too reminiscent of home, at least she has a few other girls her age to do her job with.

This scenario is nothing exceptional for slice-of-life/dram-com anime; it’s the execution that makes it stand out from the shows of the last decade. I feel like if I was watching this back in 2008, Koharu and her group of samefaced, dysfunctional-yet-still-successful girlfriends would routinely face hilariously impossible odds; but even when armed with impressive incompetence and blistering naiveté of their situations, they’d somehow manage to exceed ridiculous expectations with the power of friendship and Naruto levels of blind optimism.

the dream team, minus one tsundere

But it’s not 2008 anymore. The world is a different place, and just as how any artistic medium or pop culture reflects the society that consumes it, it seems the anime industry may finally be catching up to the reality that its audience has been struggling through for years now. And the result… feels endearingly genuine and encouraging, even while we watch the characters do their best and fail repeatedly. While stories about characters overcoming absurd odds with the power of their kokoro are inspiring in their own way (It’s been exactly 10 years since the airing of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, in my mind the exemplar of hype train anime), for me there’s always been a disparity between these shows I watched and the reality that even my best wasn’t good enough most times to achieve my oversized goals and dreams.

In the third episode of Sakura Quest, Koharu must represent the Queen and her companion mascot, the Chupacabura, at a regional town mascot trade-show in order to garner support. Her challenge is to give a speech to convince a bunch of disinterested villagers that reviving the tourism industry can help save their rural town from economic obscurity. She speaks from the heart, relaying her honest uncertainty about to how solve their problems, but vowing to work with her team to bring about a brighter future. Her delivery has all the elements of being the magic bullet to turn things around at the 20-minute mark, ending the episode on a positive note. Instead, the town comes in 3rd from last in the speech contest, with no other evident positive results.

And that’s what I love about this show so far. There wasn’t an incredible turnaround in the characters’ fortunes, but it did feel like one small step forward. Koharu formally requests the help of the four other girls who have been aiding her in various ways during the past week; from now on, they’ll be an official team that tackles the Queen’s problems together, along with the support of several other townsfolk they’ve managed to charm. Even after several disappointing failures, it feels like yet another starting point, somewhere beyond where Koharu found herself after getting off the last train into a land of more rice-paddies than people. Despite bombing out of 30+ job interviews, Koharu is competent at many things, as are her friends, all of whom lack the bubbly airheadedness that often dominates the personalities of girl groups in anime. (Hopefully that also heralds a much-needed change in the portrayal of female characters in the medium).

Sakura Quest is only three episodes in at the time I’m writing this, so nothing I’m extrapolating on now should be considered defining for the show. But what I’ve seen so far has greatly exceeded my expectations, and gives me good reason to expect more. While I haven’t been deep into the anime game for a while now, it’s the first show I’ve seen that reflects the quiet optimism of the newer generations. While Gurren Lagann taught me to always keep spiraling towards the moon, Sakura Quest reminds me that getting there is a rough journey; one that can be made, but maybe not in a single episode.

— Nagi