The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Kosami Isshiki, a Shihandai (assistant instructor) at his family's dojo, is given an unenviable task: be the overseer for Appare Sorano, a merchant's son (and, briefly, former student of Kosami) who has caused trouble through his fixation on tinkering and invention and disregard for conventional work. A jailbreak and Kosami's failed attempt to convince Appare to conform result in them inadvertently stranded out at sea on Appare's small steamboat until they are rescued by a passing American-flagged steamship. That leads to them landing in Los Angeles and, a year later, being joined by a Native American boy in participating in a cross-continent vehicular rally.
How was the first episode?
Appare-Ranman! was a show I had my eye on coming into this season, on account of its anime- original nature, distinctive art design, and unique wacky races premise. Centered on the genius tinkerer Appare and his long-suffering samurai minder Kodame, the show offers a race across the entirety of American, set in the heart of the second industrial revolution. It's a very appealing concept, and as of this episode, Appare-Ranman! is doing a fine job of bringing that concept to life. So far, Appare-Ranman!'s greatest strength is likely its colorful art design. Both the show's racers and their vehicles are a charming mix of absurd stylistic flourishes, with both Appare and Kodame's personalities coming through clearly in their very mismatched outfits. Even stronger than the show's character designs is its background art; Appare-Ranman! is brimming with beautiful painted backgrounds, whose texture, detail, and subtly shifting colors really help bring this world to life. The only weak point so far is the so-so CG of the show's vehicles, which frankly could end up being a problem; if a show about exciting car races lacks good-looking cars, that's a bit of an issue. I'm also not entirely sold on the show's storytelling yet, either. Though this episode moved quickly and with fairly consistent humor through the establishment of Appare and Kodame's partnership, neither of the two leads have sold themselves as likable characters quite yet. Appare is clearly supposed to be the classic “absentminded genius,” but his lack of concern for the effects of his actions came off as more obnoxious than endearing. And so far, Kodame hasn't really gotten a chance to do much but be continuously appalled by Appare's behavior. The two could easily become fine leads, but this episode lacked the immediate charm and likable characters of, say, Rage of Bahamut's equally carefree, adventurous premiere. On the whole, Appare-Ranman!'s premiere is sturdy in most regards, but only really exceptional so far in terms of its background art. It seems likely that Appare-Ranman!'s true nature will only be fully determined when the race actually begins - but until then, this is already a production worth keeping your eye on.
Creator/writer/director Masakazu Hashimoto has had a few mild successes before – he wrote and directed 2012's Tari Tari and 2014's Soul Eater Not! – but this original project is by far his most ambitious-looking effort to date. If it ends up working as well as it looks like it could based on the first episode, this could become both his breakout and signature anime title.
The episode opens with the beginning of the Trans-America Wild Race – a race from Los Angeles to New York City – in which Kosami and Appare are participating, before flashing back a year to show how their story began in Japan. The race could have several possible inspirations: it could be a reference to the outlaw, no-holds-barred Cannonball Run cross-country races held in the 1970s (though those went the opposite direction) or perhaps even to the individual who inspired them: Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who set over a hundred early time records for cross-country travel, including one for an LA to NYC run which stood for over 40 years; perhaps both apply here. Regardless, to say that the participants are a motley assortment of individuals and vehicles might be the understatement of the year; you've got steam-powered three-wheelers to Mad Max-like tanks to classic sports cars driven by individuals ranging from female Chinese martial artists (or at least I'm assuming she is since she looks to be modeled on Ranma ?'s Shampoo) to Native Americans to American pretty boys to a funky African-American guy to a guy in an iron mask and sombrero. So yeah, this is going to be some crazy stuff once it gets going in future episodes, and the series might be watchable just on those merits.
Past the first couple of minutes, the rest of the episode focuses on laying the first stage of the groundwork for how Kosami and Appare got to that point. It establishing Appare's eccentric character as an inventor little-fazed by anything and Kosami as his exasperated, more traditional-leaning nominal overseer. This gives the series the kind of “dreamer vs. practical man” clash a title like this needs. Their interactions in Japan are fun enough that an entire series probably could have been based just on them getting into and out of trouble over there. But like the steamship-inspired, Jules Verne-loving Appare, the series has higher and crazier aspirations, including a good scene during their time stranded on the boat where Appare talks about his vision. The episode ends with them arriving in LA, so the story has no inclination wasting time heading towards its destination. That's definitely the right call.
Trying to set an exact time period for the series is functionally impossible, as the content provides a conflicting mix of clues and tech levels. References to the “new government” in Japan clearly place it after 1868, and non-race vehicle designs in LA suggest turn of the 20th century, but some of the vehicle designs in the race would be cutting-edge decades later. (The funk guy also has some amusing low-tech version of a car stereo system.) Historical accuracy clearly isn't a goal of this series anyway, so it's just best to roll with it and enjoy the craziness. Technical merits provided by P.A. Works look pretty sharp, too, including the inventive character and vehicle designs (although I have to wonder about the make-up at the corners of Appare's mouth) and the opening theme is a winner.
Yeah, I'll definitely be watching this one.
I have to get this out of the way, because it absolutely affected my ability to enjoy this show: the red marks on either side of Appare's face annoyed me to almost ridiculous levels. I'm not sure why, but every time those two red patches of ketchup-like clown makeup (or are they tattoos?) was on the screen, I fixated on them and my desire to scrub them away with a napkin. It's rare that a visual like this has such an effect on my viewing, but there you have it.
As it happens, that's not the sole visual issue I have with the episode; it's just the strangest. Appare's bright coloring is undoubtedly meant to make him stand out from the rest of the cast, but it feels a bit dissonant when compared with the subdued, semi-realistic tones in the bulk of the episode, and there's definitely a little confusion as to time period when we look at the costumes. I'm also definitely concerned with Hototo's look; if he turns out to be Native it has some problematic elements, albeit not as many as I've seen in other works. I do, however, love some of the period details when they pop up, particularly the early car we see in the opening few minutes (it actually looks like a horseless carriage) and the buildings with their painted slogans.
Story-wise, this has a pretty solid adventure feel, even without the shout-out to Jules Verne in Appare's reading material. Kosame is the hapless straight man to Appare's mad scientist, but neither perfectly fit the tropes, with Kosame apparently resigning himself to his fate once he accidentally opens the throttle on Appare's steamship rather than protesting and whining every chance he gets. Appare is also interestingly subdued, not prone to showy flights of genius but instead every inch the scientist; he tinkers, he experiments, and when things don't work, he exhaustively researches why and tries to improve. Yes, his creations are on the anachronistic side, but he doesn't just MacGuyver them together – it's clear that he's really thinking about them and working hard. If his inventions aren't always useful, they at least appear to be little projects that he could be using as templates for larger ones, although I admit I'm not sure what he was getting at with the exploding tea-serving automaton.
The plot seems like it could be moving relatively quickly, with barely any time spent in Japan before Appare and Kosame end up in Los Angeles thanks to a passing American steamer. It could also have a substantial cast, going by the opening scene of the car race's start, so that may be worth keeping an eye on as it goes forward. It's got potential, but even without Appare's red smears, it hasn't done enough to hook me yet.
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