Despite being a fan of anime, from its late-nineties breakthrough into the mainstream, with Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, I never got into Intitial D on its early release. With the change in rights from Tokyopop to Funimation, the Initial D series is being released and in some cases re-released in specific stage formats (first, second, third stages etc.) I finally decided to give the D a chance and see what the hubbub was all about.
Takumi Fujiwara is a high school student that has just passed his driver’s test. His best friend Itsuki Takeuchi (a racing fanatic) keeps pestering him into going to watch the street racing that happens on Mt. Akina every Saturday night, even though Takumi is relatively indifferent. The local team, the Akina SpeedStars, have been challenged to a race by a nearby racing team, the RedSuns, and it looks like the SpeedStars will lose — especially when their best man crashes his car doing practice runs on the course.
Desperate, the SpeedStars follow up on a rumour of the ‘Ghost of Akina’, a street racer that only goes driving on the hill late at night and (it’s said) can outrace any vehicle thrown at him. In the final minutes before the race starts, the Ghost of Akina does show up on the starting line.. and it’s none other than Takumi Fujiwara. It turns out that for the last five years (illegally without a licence) Takumi has been driving the late night/early morning tofu delivery run for his father’s shop, and over the years he’s gotten quite good at memorising the downhills of Mt. Akina. He’s also mastered a technique called drifting, in order to make it home faster and back to bed.
It’s immensely likeable that Takumi has no idea that what he does, as a job, is viewed by other people as a competitive sport and something to get excited about. He has become so jaded by his time behind the wheel, seeing it only as a means getting from point A to point B in the quickest time possible, that he gets no joy out of it. Also enjoyable was the time taken between races over an episode or two to get to know our characters better and really setup the importance of the next race. This does, however, bring me to a gripe: the almost videogame-like nature of the racing scenes. Whenever Takumi beats an opponent, the next one lines themselves up for the subsequent race like some kind of level boss. Each one seems to actually requires some puzzle element to beat, which always seems to be discovered through an internal monologue. There are more soliloquies on display here than in a Shakespearean play.
Another issue for me is the animation style. Back in 1998, 3D CGI wasn’t something you came across often in anime. Sometimes — in high budget OVA’s and movies — but not often in TV shows. For Initial D, the cars were animated in 3D to portray the racing, I’d imagine for budgetary reasons — not having to draw all those cars racing down hills frame-by-frame must have saved some time. However, apart from the cars and some of the track they are racing on, most of the series is animated traditionally, and switching between the two styles can be a very jarring experience that takes some getting used to.
After viewing Initial D First Stage, I’m still not a fan of the show, but I found it to be watchable and would recommend it to those who like the sights, sounds and smells of racing.
(For a second opinion, why not read Ian’s review of Initial D written before the rights change, when it was licensed by Tokyopop.)