The anime studio P.A. Works generally follows a consistent formula: establish an interesting setting such as an old-fashioned hotel (Hanasaku Iroha), an animation studio (SHIROBAKO), or a small town in decline (Sakura Quest), and then place front and center a cast of primarily cute girls with lots of emotion, humor, and drama. That’s why the recent Appare-Ranman!—a show starring a primarily male cast about a transcontinental race across the United States in the late 19th century—caught my eye. It’s in many ways the total opposite of the studio’s standard output. While the title is not entirely what I initially hoped for based on the premise, Appare-Ranman! turns out to be both an inspired and inspiring anime.
Appare-Ranman! stars Sorano Appare, an eccentric Japanese guy whose love of engineering and invention puts him at odds with his traditional merchant family. A series of strange events (largely of his own making) takes him and a samurai named Isshiki Kosame to the US, where Appare decides to compete in the Trans-Atlantic Wild Race. Competitors range from heroes to nobles to criminals, but unlike the rest who are using gasoline-powered cars, Appare aims to take the win with his own steam-powered creation.
Racing shows are usually about, well, racing. Whether it’s the classic Speed Racer/Mach GoGoGo, the insanely energetic Redline, the technical Initial D, or even Hanna-Barbera’s slapstick Wacky Races, one expects emphasis on three things: what the vehicles can do, who will come out on top, and how each of the competitors go about trying to win. Appare-Ranman! does highlight all those aspects to a degree, but half the time it feels like those things take a backseat to both more personal character stories and more conventional action outside of their vehicles.
This shifting of priorities is by no means a sign that Appare-Ranman! is a bad anime, and it benefits a lot from exploring its characters through their relationships with violence, adversity, and ambition. Jing Xialang is a female Chinese racer who’s had to overcome sexism and racism to find a place in the racing world. Appare himself is a great protagonist whose creative genius and flouting of cultural standards is shown to have both its strengths and limitations, and while it’s not outright stated, I get the impression that he’s non-neurotypical. In certain ways, this series reminds me of the fantastic Mobile Fighter G Gundam. That being said, the comparison to G Gundam goes beyond the multicultural cast and competitive setting. Appare-Ranman! ramps up the martial-arts-action gunfights to such a degree that, as the series reaches its climax, you begin to wonder where the heck that transcontinental race went.
Appare-Ranman! kind of swerves a bit, but it’s ultimately an entertaining anime that starts off strong and finishes well, even if it goes to some odd places. The main character’s car being steam-powered also makes the story feel like some kind of reverse-steampunk because of its portrayal as being on the way out historically. Now, what I find funny is that the focus away from racing at times actually brings to mind what I mentioned at the very start of this review: the fact that P.A. Works anime tend to use their settings as background for the real story they want to emphasize, and in a sense, Appare-Ranman! fits that bill perfectly. Only, istead of romantic drama, it’s wild shootouts.