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.

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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Otakon 2016 Interview: P.A. Works

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This interview is part of Ogiue Maniax’s coverage of Otakon 2016. While the interview was with multiple staff members at P.A. Works, only the producer, Horikawa Kenji, gave responses. I’ve reflected this in the answers.

It’s a pleasure to have this interview with you. My first question has to do with True Tears. It was your first work as a studio, and from what I’ve heard the anime is quite different from the visual novel. What led to you choosing to adapt this series for your first project, and what led to it changing from the source material?

Horikawa: So the producer at that time, Mr. Nagatani, had said, “Let’s work on a few projects together!” And out of those choices was True Tears. We thought that it was perfect for what we could do at that time. We also thought it granted us lots of freedom, too, because as long as the theme was “tears,” we could do what we wanted.

Hanasaku Iroha is a series that shows the charm of the countryside and Japanese tradition. It seems that more and more anime are focused on the promotion of tourism to regions of Japan. You created the Bonbori Festival in Hanasaku Iroha, but was the promotion of a region of Japan a part of production from the very beginning?

Horikawa: When we made Hanasaku Iroha at first, we didn’t intend for it to empower tourism, quite the opposite, actually. Recently, there are many cases where anime fans go to the locations where their favorite anime take place. Some people call it going to “holy sites” or “investigating the show.” But while it can be a good thing, the act of fans going to these sites might not always be positive. When the fans gather, they might take pictures of, say, average houses and it might be very troublesome and disruptive. When I make select a location for a work, I think about how to have it so that even if fans visit it’ll be okay.

So when we were making Hanasaku Iroha, it was part of our thoughts that we would base it in a hot spring city that would be okay with having some volumes of fans coming. We also took care that the residents of that city would be notified when a large number of fans would come.

In regards to the Bonbori Festival, it originally wasn’t there, but it came up during the making of Hanasaku Iroha. We thought that, if it was a festival that the people could continue—not in the anime sense but that of a legitimate festival—that would have a much bigger, long-lasting, and positive impact. While an anime might be forgotten in a few years, a festival is part of Japanese culture and won’t be forgotten.

In Hanasaku Iroha, the grandmother is a very important character. In Shirobako, most of the characters are career women or out of high school. Tari Tari has one of my favorite characters, which is Takakura Naoko. Do you feel that there is a better market for series starring older characters, perhaps similar to the series you make now, but with people in their 20s and 30s?

Horikawa: As much as I would like to make something centered around older characters, there is such a thing as monetary value associated with characters. In Hanasaku Iroha, the characters were supposed to be out of school already and working, but due to those complications they became high school girls.

Since Shirobako, however, we took that step towards making the characters people who are actually out of school and working. That was a great adventure for us. Since we found out that Shirobako was indeed a success, we have shown that the girls don’t have to be in high school for fans to be interested. So, it was great to find out that fans like mature women as much as high school.

There are a number of characters in Shirobako based on real creators, for example Maruayma Masao and Anno Hideaki. Did you consult them in your portrayals, and did they have anything to say afterwards?

In terms of the people connected with those characters, we did ask them for their acknowledgement. The director knew Maruyama-san, so he probably asked Maruyama-san, while I asked people I know. But some seem to say that they never received the requests for acknowledgement.

Thank you.

Horikawa: Thank you very much.

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