When I was younger, I read a picture book called The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. It’s one of the more popular Aesop’s Fables, like The Tortoise and the Hare, that are often given to children. I read it when I was young. So young that my memories of that age are mostly flashes of images or conversations rather than fully-developed scenes.
Ultimately, the lesson is that, while things may seem better in the city, there are perks and downfalls of living in both the city or the country. Neither is perfect and, although the country’s downsides are more easily visible, country life with safety and comfort is often preferable to the opulence and dangers of the city.
This same lesson lurks in the background of Sakura Quest, the latest iteration of PA Works’ working series that aims to tell stories of people and their professions. Previous anime in this series include the generally well-liked Hanasaku Iroha and critically-acclaimed Shirobako. PA Works has also tackled similar themes of city and country in Tari Tari.
Despite using this tried and true backdrop, Sakura Quest is a difficult show to pin down. At times, it tackles challenges and benefits inherent to Japanese country life with nuance. At other times, it comes across as insincere.
No other character challenges the value of sincerity quite like Sanae Kouzuki. Previously an overworked office drone, Sanae left Tokyo and moved to rural Manoyama. Her impetus for moving was the realization that anyone could do her job. She was wholly replaceable, proved by how someone else easily filled in for her when Sanae worked herself into a hospital visit.
Upon moving to the country, Sanae puts in little to no effort. She becomes a shut-in, never leaving her house while allowing garbage to surround her in a nearly-dark room. The only light source is her computer screen, where she writes about her wonderful, natural adventures in the pastoral wonderland of Manoyama. Nearly every word is a lie.
Beauty blogs jumped into my mind immediately while I smirked at Sanae’s blog post, but anyone who has read hobby or specialty blogs — yes, even anime blogs — will immediately recognize Sanae.
Sincerity has become currency in so many things, but especially in blogging, or anything on the internet, really. It’s something that brands want to tap into and slyly market without the consumer noticing who exactly is pulling the strings because so few things are wholly sincere. The idea that Sanae would peddle sparkling rural pastiche for popularity is hilarious because it’s so believable, as is her failed marketing of Manoyama manju as “fancyccult,” a mixture of fancy and occult designed to lure tourists to Manoyama in droves. It sounds exactly like something that a town would want social media influencers to find just weird enough to love, inspiring posed photos against Manoyama’s scenic backgrounds.
What makes Sakura Quest sincere — far more than Sanae’s blog — is that it doesn’t call out Sanae directly. Nor does it call out anyone for their mistakes and over-reliance on cheap gimmicks in the myriad of attempts through the years to bring droves of tourists to sleepy Manoyama. One of the most egregious offenders is the cantankerous Ushimatsu Kadota, who heads the Manoyama tourism board and has been fruitlessly making the same mistakes for years. Sakura Quest protagonist Yoshino Koharu became queen of the town, another gimmick, due to his blunder and subsequent stubbornness.
Yet, it does ensure that these characters — Uchimatsu included — learn why their efforts, even the seemingly well-intentioned ones, have failed. It always comes down to sincerity. Sakura Quest consistently asks its cast, “Why do you want to revitalize the town? What are your true intentions? Does the town really need ‘saving?'” Most of the time, the answers are inherently selfish, ignoring Manoyama’s needs in favor of building an unrealistic tourism hotspot that few people want. They’re also nuanced and character-specific, giving many members of the cast surprising depth, especially those who initially appeared as one-note wacky townspeople.
That being said, when compared to the rest of PA Works’ oeuvre, I can’t help but think that there are more than a few strings visible behind Sakura Quest. Many of their series have dealt with returning to the country from the city and finding that it isn’t so bad after all. The story of Hanasaku Iroha‘s Yuina Wakura sticks out as a particularly bad example, where her mindset changes very quickly from hating the idea of staying in her town and running her family’s hot springs, to finding her passion for it. I’m not saying that Yuina’s motives — in her own words, trying to add fun and adventure into her life — weren’t selfish, but Hanasaku Iroha didn’t even allow her to live in Tokyo for a time to find out. Yuina’s change of heart always rubbed me the wrong way in what was otherwise a fun series.
In all of these series — whether they’ve lived there all their life or are a Tokyo native moving to the country — the majority of characters learn to love the country. Sakura Quest sets up Yoshino’s journey along these lines, dropping hints that her family is from a different part of rural Japan and she went to Tokyo to escape. Similar to Yuina, Yoshino seems to idolize Tokyo for all the wrong reasons, stubbornly sticking to its touted glamour even when her 32 unsuccessful job interviews say otherwise. She became the town’s queen/tourism gimmick under duress and desperation. Now she’s come around to the idea enough that she’s putting effort into her job. All that’s left is for her to proclaim that the country is indeed better than Tokyo, embracing what she once scorned and left behind when she was younger.
It’s frustrating to perceive these strings in a series that is otherwise treating this overarching conflict with nuance and a fair amount of delicacy. Sincerity is difficult to come by and I can’t help but wonder just how much, or little, of it Sakura Quest has.
Great post. I think you’re right to feel bothered– These days, PA Works seems to have an enviable problem: They’ve got a storytelling formula that works really well and really consistently, and they’re pretty unabashed about reapplying it.
“Work is hard but ultimately rewarding.” Check.
“Happiness is right where you are, even if it’s not the bustling city.” Check.
“Everybody is looking for a place to belong.” Check, check, check.
On the other hand… This is going to be a 25-episode series, and I remember both A Lull In the Sea and Hanasaku Iroha taking a hard turn at the halfway point. In fact, both of them zoomed outward to address bigger questions of a dying world (both figuratively and literally).
With that in mind, I can imagine some directions Sakura Quest can go, all centering on the big question: Are Queen Yoshino and her ministers really going to turn anything around for the town? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. At least the artifice you can see thus far hasn’t pulled back that particular curtain yet.
As of Episode 5, I still have my lingering doubts; however, the series continues to execute what themes it has introduced well.
I can definitely see this series continuing to zoom outward — it’s already started with Sanae’s arc — especially since dying rural towns is currently a crisis in Japan, and one well worth examining.
If anything, I’m hoping that they don’t really change much about the town. No sudden population increase, no tourism boom, no gimmicky result. The most natural conclusion for me would be for Yoshino to find a direction. If that direction leads her to stay in the country that’s fine, as long as it’s not a sudden change, but a gradual narrative arc.
Solid article. You make some interesting points and I don’t think I’m far enough into the series yet to argue. The idea of sincerity is one we are always striving for – what we’re always seeking from people around us (including ourselves) that is filled with masks to veil ourselves from who we are. Well said.
These were interesting parallels to read about. I’ve seen many shows drawing contrast between the ideals of country life vs city life, but I can’t say that I’ve seen many that deal with the character’s motives so in-depth. Most just focus on the virtues of simple country life and ignore what originally drew the character to city life or what motivated them to move to the country. This was an interesting read, thank you for sharing.