I’ll admit that when I first decided to tackle this review I ended up staring at the empty page for a good few minutes because how does one start to describe a show that has had such a long history? So let’s just put it this way: if you like street racing and you want to see some original “Tokyo drifting” at breakneck speeds then this is the show that you should be checking out…
The manga series written by Shuichi Shigeno has served as the material that has brought about the many, MANY Initial D series and movies. The manga ran from 1995 – 2013 with a total of 48 volumes and technically falls within the “sports” genre since there are elements of competitive racing between various street racing teams however this racing is obviously illegal, unlike other sports animes where the games are legally organised. The animes have been produced by various studios, including Studio Comet, Studio Gallop, Pastel, Studio Deen, A.C.G.T and SynergySP since the “First Stage” of Initial D, which was released in 1998, through to the new movies which have come out in recent years. In between this we have had “Second Stage” (1999), “Extra Stage” (2000), “Third Stage” (2001), “Fourth Stage” (2004–2006), “Extra Stage 2” (2008), “Fifth Stage” (2012–2013) and “Final Stage” (2014). And if that wasn’t enough to keep you busy for a while, there was a live action film released in 2005 and we have the New Initial D movies – “Legend 1: Awakening” (2014), “Legend 2: Racer” (2015) and “Legend 3: Dream” due for release in 2016. For the sake of this review I’m going to stick to the new Initial D movies, which were directed by Masamitsu Hidaka and released by Sanzigen and Liden Films.
Initial D has a long-running history spanning just over 20 years
Unlike most “sports” animes, this one does not follow the stock standard formula of watching a team rise to the top and that in itself makes the show rather appealing and refreshing right from the get-go. The story revolves around Takumi Fujiwara, a kid in high school who leads a pretty ordinary life. He wakes up early in the morning at 4am and drives up and down the mountain to make a delivery to the local resort/hotel for his father’s tofu shop, goes to school and then goes to his part time job at the gas station with his friend Itsuki Takeuchi before coming home. That regular, almost boring life that Takumi is accustomed to slowly begins to change one fateful morning as he makes his way down the mountain. It’s on this morning that Takumi inadvertently gets involved in a street race with one of the best racers around, Keisuke Takahashi of the Akagi Red Suns, and subsequently “defeats” him when he reaches the base of the mountain first. Of course, Takumi has no idea who the other driver is or that he’s “beaten” anyone. He just simply wants to make it down the mountain as fast as possible because these early morning deliveries are a pain in the ass.
Takumi and Keisuke inadvertently go head-to-head coming down Mt. Akina one morning
After that encounter, Keisuke takes it upon himself to find the owner of the car – an “86” as it’s known in the racing world – and challenge him to a proper race so that he can prove that he is indeed the best racer/downhill specialist around. The best way to do this is to go to the local racing team, the Akina Speed Stars, and challenge them to a meet in the hopes that the ’86 may show up. The Akina Speed Stars, led by Koichiro Iketani, accept the challenge but whilst engaging in some downhill racing Iketani is involved in a crash which means bad news for the team since he’s the most proficient driver they have. Desperate to save the name of the team and to keep the Akina pride alive, Iketani manages to find out who the mysterious driver of the ’86 is and goes every day to the tofu shop to ask for his help. Quite amusingly, he thinks it’s Bunta Fujiwara (an ex-street racer) who has been driving the car – Takumi’s dad. Bunta doesn’t deny anything but he also doesn’t make any kind of commitment to showing up at the meet. With some persistence however, Iketani gets Bunta to agree to show up to the race in the ’86. The day of the meet rolls around and after a little manipulation here and there, the ’86 shows up just in time, but the person behind the wheel shocks everyone in the crowd because it’s none other than Takumi… The guy who has zero interest in racing, doesn’t know about cars, doesn’t know who the famous racers are and has no intention of being part of a team. But what happens at the meet? You’ll have to watch it for yourself…
Keisuke goes on the offensive to challenge the ’86
The gauntlet is thrown down in the form of an impending meet
Iketani does whatever it takes to save the name of the Akina Speed Stars
An unexpected surprise as Takumi is revealed as the one behind the wheel
As most people should know by now I am a sucker for sports anime, but for me this show just doesn’t quite adhere to the definition. Yes, there are teams racing against each other but it’s more action than sports. And this is what you feel when you’re watching this show… a sense of urgency and danger that you would usually associate with the action genre, which is a great thing! The new Initial D movies are around an hour long each and follow on from each other. So far, I’ve watched the first two movies that have been released and am patiently awaiting the 3rd in the series, which should be out at the end of February 2016 in Japan. The format of the movies is such that although they follow in succession, it’s perfectly fine to watch each one without worrying about cliffhangers, which is great for someone like me who can’t even handle waiting just a week for new episodes to come out!
The New Initial D movies
Promotion for the New Initial D movie, Legend 1
It’s a given that we get to see how an old school Toyota AE86 (Trueno) (the ’86) takes on the latest street racing models (think RX-7s, GT-Rs etc.) and one may think that it would be unrealistic to see an older car like that beat newer cars but that’s what really impressed me about this show: the attention to detail. If you’re a proper petrolhead, you would really appreciate the amount of detail that goes into explaining the physics and reasoning behind why some cars are able to outperform others on these mountain passes. Whether it’s grip, drifting, weight/load shifting, suspension, how you use your acceleration/braking in and/or out of corners to gain an advantage, this show explains it all… It may all seem rather technical (and I won’t lie – it can be at times) but it’s that technical aspect that lends credibility to the outcomes of the various races that Takumi has to face. Hell, even the way Takumi has developed additional skill on top of his natural driving talent is revealed! Some of the characters understand the mechanics and physics of cars better than others, e.g. Ryosuke Takahashi (older brother of Keisuke from the Akagi Red Suns) is writing a paper/book on the subject and has the ability to figure out a car’s potential (power output etc.) just based on what he hears and sees. But of course, the car is just one part of the equation because it is obviously the skill of the driver that sometimes allows seemingly “ordinary” cars to do extraordinary things on the track/roads.
Technical information lends credibility to the show as moves are explained and the pros and cons of the various cars given
I know drifting was brought to the spotlight with the 3rd instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise – Tokyo Drift – but this manga came out way before then so it’s obvious that the Japanese have been drifting along mountain passes since way back when. That’s one of the things I liked about the show – the fact that the locations they speak of actually exist in real life, even if the names have been changed. Mount Akina is actually Mount Haruna and Mount Myogi is home to the Initial D characters Takeshi Nakazato and Shingo Shoji from Myogi NightKids. Also keeping it real are the cars in the show. They use models that you could go out and buy for yourself if you wanted to, from Honda Civics to Nissan Skylines, Mazda RX-7s and, of course, Toyotas – all of which are Japanese makes.
Takumi’s Toyota Trueno AE86 & Iketani’s Nissan Silvia S13
Keisuke and Ryosuke’s Mazda RX-7s in both FD and FC models
Nakazato’s Nissan Skyline GTR and Shingo’s Honda Civic Seeker EG6
Speaking of characters, I liked that these ones were rather well developed from the start. You have the stubborn and disinterested Takumi and his somewhat stoic father Bunta who says nothing but is helping his son along in the best way he knows how; Iketani who is like an older brother type; Keisuke who is a bit of a hothead racer and his brother Ryosuke who is the calculated driver (and probably the best of the rest); Nakazato who believes grip is better than drifting and is confident in his/his car’s abilities; Shingo who is a driver that wants to win at any cost, no matter the price; and Itsuki who provides a bit of comic relief here and there. There’s even a love interest in Takumi’s life as well – a girl named Mogi that goes to the same school.
L-R: Bunta, Takumi, Iketani, Keisuke, Ryosuke, Nakazato, Shingo, Mogi & Itsuki
The animation is well executed in the new movies (obviously due to more advanced technology) – it maintains the look of the original but has polished it up which makes it slightly more aesthetically appealing than its predecessors. Use of 3D CGI has been toned down which gives the cars/cars in motion a much better look and feel that comes across as smooth and fluid, rather than boxy and somewhat stilted. In a show that relies on the cars themselves being represented accurately, the movies certainly hit the mark. And just for a quick comparative note, the movies follow the events of season 1 so if you’re looking for a bit of extra info on characters or a few more additional scenes, then the original anime is where you’ll find it, e.g. the Takahashi brothers drive expensive cars which takes high octane fuel/petrol/gas but they can afford it because they’re from a wealthy family (their dad is the director of a major hospital). The cast of the movies also deserves a mention because they roped in a lot of the big names (Mamoru Miyano, Ono Daisuke, Nakamura Yuichi and Junichi Suwabe among others) and did a lot of promotion for the movies, which has really paid off.
Poetry in motion: the cars pull off impressive stunts that leave you enthralled
This show has all the elements that should appeal predominantly to a shounen/seinen audience and/or anyone that appreciates that a car is more than just a machine – it’s an extension of the person driving it. The way it’s maintained, decorated, modified etc. can say something about the personality of the driver and the connection between man and machine is clearly demonstrated in this show, e.g. when a car gets damaged, the characters shed those manly tears and apologise to their cars as though they were living and breathing people.
The boys apologise to their “toys”
The plot is simple and straightforward – races to determine the winner – but there’s a reason why racing movies/shows are so popular and I think it’s because of those awe-inspiring moments when the true potential of a car is revealed. Yes, this is an anime but it is firmly grounded in reality which lends a lot of credibility to the show and heightens the sense of enjoyment. I know I found myself amazed by the “tricks” these guys use to defeat their opponents and the skill with which they attempt to execute them. So if you’re looking to learn a bit more about cars or you simply want a bit of an adrenaline rush then this is the show that you should be watching!
Image credits: Response JP; Liden Films; Kodansha