Best Anime Characters of 2020

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Sorano Appare (Appare-Ranman!)

Having the protagonist of a racing anime be a serendipitous inventor makes for an interesting dynamic. Appare chafes against the cultural norms and restrictions expected of him in his home life in Japan, and an impromptu trip to the US (along with an entry into a transnational motorcar race) allows his eccentric genius to flourish. Above all, there are two main things that make Appare great. The first is that his interactions with others both big and small make for a very convincing portrayal of a protagonist whose way of thinking, priorities, and philosophy run along a different path from everyone around him. The second is that he grows tremendously on his journey—in part due to his initially reluctant racing partner Kosame—and ultimately ends up with both a passion for technology and compassion for his fellow human beings in equal strength.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Kanamori Sayaka (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!)

In one of the greatest celebrations of the creative process ever made, the most impressive character is Kanamori Sayaka, the practical-minded “producer” of the main trio. The very fact that she embodies that producer mindset (as opposed to director, artist, or animator) is a rare treat, and while she’s basically the fun police in terms of the narrative, the story portrays her as integral. There’s something downright refreshing about how grounded and logical Kanamori is in contrast to the rampant imaginations of her friends Asakusa and Mizusaki, and it makes a character who would otherwise recede into the background stand out all the more. In certain ways, she reminds me of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—always a fine character to be compared to.

Final Thoughts

When I look at my choices for best characters of 2020, the thing I see in common is that both are unorthodox characters who provide windows into the act of creation, be it artistic or mechanical. Funnily enough, Appare and Kanamori play opposite roles in their respective stories, with Kanamori being the straight man to her friends’ disregard for pragmatism and Appare being the unimpeded tinkerer who Kosame has to manage. It would probably make more sense if I had picked two similar characters on each side, but in both cases, the way they upend expectations makes me believe in them.

I’d also like to make an honoroable mention for Kaburagi from Deca-Dence, who was extremely close to being my pick for male character of the year. Kaburagi is an aged combat veteran, but as we learn more about his life and perspective, we can see the inner struggle in him extends beyond merely his loss of zest for life and into what it means for a society to survive versus what it means to prosper.

A turbulent year full of worries and delays has nevertheless seen many wonderful anime come out that both challenge norms and provide hope and inspiration.

Dick Dastardly’s Gun Kata: Appare-Ranman!

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.