Love Live! Sunshine!! and the Complexities of Anime Tourism

Love Live! Sunshine!! Real Escape Game in Numazu

Love Live! Sunshine!! is a media-mix property whose purpose, apart from pushing its stars and profiting from a match of anime fandom and idol fandom, is to promote tourism to the region around the city of Numazu in Japan. What I find fascinating about its approach, however, is that it not only encourages people to visit Numazu, but also reflects and tries to address many of the problems facing Japan in terms of the link between sustaining population, community, and business.

There are three main issues brought up in terms of population in Japan in recent years. First, and the one that gets the most attention, is declining birth rates. Whether it’s “herbivore males” or the difficult choice many women have to make between starting a family and having a career, theories abound as to why fewer Japanese people are having children. Second is the post-3.11 decline in tourism; a nuclear meltdown scares off not just international visitors, but those from within Japan as well. Third, and perhaps the most familiar to people around the world, is people moving out of rural areas into urban ones, leaving the old towns a shadow of their former selves with little new blood coming in.

Flying Witch

The ways in which anime have been used in response to these problems are myriad. Famously, the popularity of the anime Lucky Star led to people visiting the very shrine featured in the show, Washinomiya Shrine. The first Love Live! School Idol Project anime had a similar effect on Kanda Myoujin Shrine in Akihabara, where the character Nozomi works. But there are also anime which try to show the splendor of Japan whether directly or not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Flying Witch was made into an anime a few years after 3.11 when Japan was trying to revive tourism to the affected Tohoku region. Taking place in Aomori (a prefecture in Tokyo), Flying Witch features lovingly crafted shots of picturesque landscapes as if to say, “This area is lush with life.” The studio P.A. Works used the series Hanasaku Iroha to create the fictional “Bonbori Festival” and then bring it into the real world. Their more recent work, Sakura Quest, is an anime explicitly about trying to deal with a declining population in a small town through tourism and promotion.

Official Love Live! Wish Board from Kanda Myoujin Shrine

Love Live! Sunshine!! takes place in the small town of Uchiura, near Numazu. Much like the first franchise, the main characters’ school is threatened with closure due to declining attendance rates. The girls, inspired by the group known as μ’s (from the original Love Live!) attempt to replicate the latter group’s success in saving their own school, and form their own idol group called “Aqours.” Already, it’s clear how Love Live! Sunshine!! touches upon issues of population movement and tourism, but it’s especially notable when comparing the series to its predecessor.

Consider where the two properties take place. The μ’s girls of the original Love Live! are centered around Akihabara, which is both the spiritual center of otaku in Japan and, as a result, already a popular tourist destination. The Aqours girls of Love Live! Sunshine!!, on the other hand, are situated near Numazu, which has a population of under 200,000 as well as a recent history of absorbing nearby towns—a major plot point in Sakura Quest and a potential future for Uchiura. Unlike Akihabara, Numazu is hardly world-famous. And yet, if Love Live! had started differently—if it had decided to go with Numazu from the start—then I don’t think it would’ve reached its original success. Much like AKB48, it relied on the notoriety of Akihabara to build itself up, and is now paying it forward, in a certain sense. Love Live! used tourism, and now tourism is using Love Live!

Love Live! Sunshine!! can be seen as another arm of the “Cool Japan” concept, which uses Japan’s fame as a symbol of cultures both traditional and popular to promote itself at home and abroad. It appears to be succeeding, at least in the short term. In fact, over at Apartment 507 where I also write, one of the most popular posts is a guide to visiting Numazu. But as Gundam director and Anime Tourism Association chairperson Tomino Yoshiyuki has warned, short term success is not enough; permanent change is necessary, even if it’s to come from anime. The fact that Love Live! went from being supported by pop culture to being a pop cultural influence that can potentially make a change is a big deal, and I’m curious to see if this experiment has any long-term impact that goes beyond the cute idols of Aqours.

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The Precarious Balance of Tradition and Progress: Sakura Quest

For years, the raison d’etre of the anime studio P.A. Works appeared to be creating intetesting settings as a pretense to showcase cute female characters. Whether it was True Tears, Hanasaku Iroha, Tari Tari,  or something else, they appeared to focus on personal relationships above all else. A more careful look, however, will reveal another major theme permeating many of their works: the declining population of rural Japan, and the complicated effects of tourism on this situation. Now, P.A. Works has doubled down on this idea in their new anime, Sakura Quest.

Koharu Yoshino is a young woman struggling to find work, when she’s been asked specifically by name to come work in the small, virtually forgotten town of Manoyama. Desperate for employment, she takes the offer, only to discover that it was a mistake. But the contract’s been signed, so now Yoshino—along with a group of other young women—are tasked with helping to revive Manoyama.

Much like one of their previous hits, Shirobako, the main cast of Sakura Quest is notably all adult-aged women as opposed to high school girls. When I interviewed P.A. Works at Otakon 2016, they expressed that they’d been wanting to do that as early as Hanasaku Iroha, but trends and the need to make a profit pushed them to stick with the reliable teenage formula. Now, with two series bucking that trend, it looks like they’re eager to challenge that status quo—at least in part.

The use of attractive girls to anchor Sakura Quest means that the series does not fully escape the market forces of young, attractive heroines, but in many ways it also does not pull its punches. Yoshino and the rest of the core cast, consisting of both those new to Manoyama and life-long residents, are confronted with difficult decisions that often leave their best plans only half-formed and arguably doomed to failure by the many considerations they must account for.

Central to this conflict is the contrast between valuing the traditions of Manoyama and its people, and when those traditions stifle the potential for the town to adapt and evolve. Trying to make tourism and local promotion work in a long-declining town is portrayed as a struggle where the gains are few and the solutions are rarely cut-and-dry, if available at all. The series is not necessarily a cynical one, but any progress comes in small steps.  This can be frustrating at times, but it grounds the show in more realistic expectations. After all, if the solution to the rural decline of Japan were easy, we’d probably have seen it by now. It also highlights the idea that, while gimmicks can boost tourism, this is a serious double-edged sword.

Sakura Quest is not one of those gripping anime that keeps you in suspense, or has you falling in love with the girls so hard that you feel compelled to buy their merchandise. It’s a pretty slow burn, and the characters will repeat their mistakes on more than one occasion. However, it’s a very satisfying work in its own way, as it challenges viewers to think about one of Japan’s major problems today, and the myriad factors that complicate it.

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