In the wake of Stone Ocean’s announcement, there is a significant sector of the JoJo fandom who only care about how this brings us that much closer to an adaptation of Steel Ball Run, widely considered to be the part part of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I don’t know why they’re so concerned with that; Steel Ball Run got an anime already, but it was produced by PA Works and named Appare-Ranman. This is not my retrospective review of Part 7, as I would have had to skip a few parts to do that, and I know how JoJo fans hate skipping parts, so I’ll talk about Appare-Ranman instead.
Appare-Ranman happens to be an original anime from PA Works, which is a sentence powerful enough to produce cold sweat from an otaku. Sometimes you get an Angel Beats, sometimes you get a Charlotte, and you never know whether or not that chamber is going to be loaded until you pull the trigger on that final episode. Despite that, I quite liked Appare-Ranman.
It is exactly the kind of weird and imaginative storytelling that you don’t see out of anime and also Mad Max. Steampunk as a genre is nigh defunct outside of anime and manga, but it’s near and dear to me, and you get an irresistible combination when you add a strong sense of aesthetic and competent fight choreography to that particular Chemical X. Appare-Ranman is far from a disappointment.
I threw this out as a contender for Anime of the Year in 2020, even if it didn’t stand much of a chance against sequels like Kaguya and Re:Zero or new giants like Jujutsu Kaisen, which actually did win AOTY. Appare-Ranman is not a lovingly crafted MAPPA production based on one of the best Shonen Jump titles in the last decade, but it’s still worth a watch, and I’m here to tell you why.
Appare-Ranman takes place in late 19th century America, following the titular Appare, a Japanese science prodigy intent on leaving his homeland for the rapidly advancing United States. He is joined by a swordsman, Kosame, who was assigned to protect the boy before unwittingly sailing across the Pacific Ocean, and Hototo, a Native American boy pursuing the man with a snake tattoo who killed his family. They’re a motley crew of rejects and misfits for various reasons, and their chemistry and interactions carry most of the racing segments.
To earn enough money to charter a ship home, Kosame and Appare enter a race across the country with a big payday to the winner, even though Appare isn’t much interested in going home. The cast is rounded out by other racers who come from all different walks of life, cultures, and especially Old West archetypes. I’m a sucker for a good Western, and Appare-Ranman plays some of the greatest hits with the theatricality of a lavishly produced anime, and it just works.
Their rivals include Al, the wealthy scion of a European automobile empire, and Chinese-American martial artist Jing, who they help secure a spot in the race. There’s also Dylan and TJ, two outlaws and members of the “Thousand Three”, legendary gunslingers who were allegedly worth a thousand men. Dylan is standard outlaw material, complete with a generically tragic backstory, but TJ is a hoot. Loud, audacious, and supremely arrogant, he improves just about every scene with a charismatic performance.
I mentioned in my brief overview of the series for AOTY that it might come across as racially insensitive, though that is a premature assessment. The series has a large and diverse cast of characters, and while it dabbles in stereotypes, it is far more interested in portraying these people and their cultures tastefully and authentically. Appare-Ranman is aware of the western classics and their use of racial caricatures, but it is set on doing right by both those peoples and the genre that inspired it. Rather than judge on a knee-jerk reaction, it pays to pay attention here.
Transcontinental races are a bizarre trope that allows for many different approaches and ways to tell interesting stories. It sets the stage for high octane action, including a sort of gunslinger martial arts duels, as well as the automobile action you probably came to this show for. Don’t worry, it has plenty of that; whatever your flavor of car-fu, they have got you covered, with custom death traps careening down desert roads and city streets alike. There has clearly been a lot of love poured into both the fights themselves as well as the design of each car featured in the race, whether it’s Appare’s steampunk-fueled contraption, Al’s elegant sports car-inspired take, or TJ’s spike-laden vehicle that is every bit as loud as the man himself.
But the transcontinental race also means that the story can take place in many unique one-off locations, and the cast never has to linger in one locale for long. They can visit a town being terrorized by bandits where Kosame can learn to overcome his trauma and hesitation in combat, or confront outlaws who have rigged a train to explode over a bridge. This plot, concocted by the villainous final member of the Thousand Three, Gil, the primary antagonist of the series.
This confrontation leads to the last few episodes being dedicated to the racers joining forces and using their collective skill sets to storm the shantytown where Gil and his gang have made themselves at home, holding Al’s chaperone Sofia hostage. It is a buffet where each member of the cast can show off what unique talent they bring to this operation in a different fight. This is a simple storytelling technique, but these kinds of sequences are the entire reason big action ensembles thrive. And rather than abandon its racing roots, Appare-Ranman makes the wise decision to split the final fight in two; while TJ and Dylan collaborate to bring Gil down, those more suited to racing attempt to stop another bomb rigged train from exploding upon impact in the heart of Chicago.
However, Appare-Ranman is not just about the races and the cars, it has a whole lot of characters that it is very proud of. Firstly, I want to say that the character designs throughout are some of the best in the absolute lunacy category. With every character having a distinct color scheme and immediately recognizable silhouette, this series has the basics of design down. No two main characters look alike, and you can get a grasp of them as people at a glance.
And the fusion of steampunk, Old West archetypes, and at least a dozen different cultures means that their personalities are able to shine through both their interactions and their rides. You could write a long complex backstory for TJ, but the moment I see this man with his neon green outfit, four guns at his hip, and the silliest visor in existence, I know everything he is about. Character writing is every bit as much what you can gather about these people from their behavior and demeanor as it is dialogue and biographies.
And the story effortlessly weaves each of their motivations into how and why they race. None of these are revolutionary from a writing perspective, but when you add that to their dexterous juggling of these characters’ arcs with a satisfying story and excellently choreographed action, it becomes an impressive feat. Seriously, this series had a few contenders for fight of the year and none of them got nominated at the Anime Awards. I’m personally holding Crunchyroll responsible for that travesty.
The entire point of ensembles is to provide the audience with as many possible points to latch onto: no matter who you are or why you watch, you should be able to find a favorite. Appare-Ranman goes above and beyond that philosophy and includes half a dozen self-contained stories, nearly as many character arcs, and making them feel as though each is an organic extension of the world they are building. That’s a weird thing to say, that Appare-Ranman is this good at world-building, but it is. It could easily have sequels and spawn an entire franchise because while these characters are fun to watch, you could also see them doing so many more things than a simple race.
Appare-Ranman is a short and sweet series that manages to pack a whole lot of development and fun into its runtime. I know I just said it could afford a sequel, but I also appreciate an anime that knows how long it should go and not lingering a moment longer. Too often a 12 episode concept gets dragged into two 25 episode seasons plus a movie, and it destroys the tight pacing they could have otherwise achieved.
The power of an anime to provide a consistent and entertaining experience is not to be underestimated. We all know the rough start, the sagging middle, or the disastrous ending, but an anime that can stick to a consistent level of quality throughout is a rare surprise. I mentioned this in my essay on the appeal of a 7/10 anime, which you can read here, if you haven’t read it, the gist is that there is a substantial need for series that are good, but not great. Despite that, when a show manages to do something ‘good’ for its whole runtime, it serves to elevate the entire story beyond that previous level.
If you have an afternoon to burn, I wholly recommend Appare-Ranman. It might not absolutely deserve your attention like some of my more earnest recommendations, but that’s no reason to pass on a perfectly good time.