Mike wonders aloud which anime would be a good fit for the prestigious Criterion Collection.
Reviewby Bamboo Dong, Jan 19th 2004
DVD 1: Akina's Downhill Specialist
On the slopes of Mt. Akina, there is a driver who can only be seen in the early mornings. Driving a AE86 Toyota Trueno, he knows the mountain like the back of his hand and can drift with the best of the street racers. To the surprise of the local racing team, the Akina Speed Stars, this mysterious driver is a just a mere high school student who works part-time at a gas station, delivers tofu for his dad and, and knows less about cars than a kindergarten girl. When another team comes to challenge the Speed Stars, local pride is at stake. With the new rivals' powerful cars and supreme talent however, the only chance Akina has of winning is to hope that the AE86 will show up to save the day.
Now that all the heat and controversy have died down, the time is ripe to take a look at the most widely discussed Tokyopop release of 2003—Initial D. A rather unique series about the world of Japanese street racing, it had already established a niche, but firm, fanbase on both sides of the ocean by the time that the news of its US acquisition was announced. Even before it was released, fans were already screaming accusations of bastardization and inexcusable tampering of the English language track. Hoping to market the series to US television networks and release a show that would introduce another generation of viewers to anime like Speed Racer did for older fans, Tokyopop made the decision to Americanize the English version of Initial D. The original music tracks were taken out and replaced with a variety of Made-in-America tracks and the names of characters were changed, all to be marketed as a “Tricked Out” version of the show. Despite allegations that the company had destroyed a Masterpiece and what was possibly the “Best Racing Story of Our Time,” the end product didn't come out too bad. It would have been preferable had Tokyopop released a second English track that included the original names and music tracks, but what's done is done.
To really understand why Initial D is so popular among certain chunks of the population, only one thing needs to be made clear: it's is absolutely dripping with fanservice. What mechanically minded male out there wouldn't love to see cars tearing down a mountainside, complemented by average Joes spouting out car specs every few scenes? It gives viewers a bit of personal excitement to think, “Yes! If that tofu kid can rip down a mountain like that, I can do it too!” Even though the show can be enjoyed by all car and racing enthusiasts, the main concept of the series is still a predominantly Japanese phenomenon, which is why it's odd that Tokyopop chose to localize this series. From the carefully groomed details of mountain racing to the interest that it attracts in Japan, this series is steeped in Japanese pop culture.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a hardcore car lover to enjoy the series. What's nice about the show is that while it seems like just a mass of screeching tires, there's real substance lurking just beneath the surface. Even with just the first three episodes, Takumi is constantly changing and challenging the way he thinks about the events around him. From personal relationships to the way he feels about driving, this dynamism gives the series the added layer of depth that prevents it from becoming a Hot Wheels commercial.
Sadly, while the series doesn't look like a Hot Wheels commercial, it does look like a racing game in its first stage of pre-rendering. Although the series is only a few years old, the various types of animation used look old and mismatched. Combining cel animation, CGI racing sequences, computer rendered cars, and occasional live videos, the overall combination is poorly blended and the different medium stick out like wounded antelope. It's easy enough to ignore the stark contrast once you really start getting into the show, but first time viewers will probably be taken aback at just how unpolished everything looks. With the plain cars and lazy, uninteresting character designs, it's certainly hard to get used to. It's best described as an acquired taste, and as the episodes progress, the jerky cel animation and shoddy artwork become less and less noticeable.
Of course, the issue most at contention here are the different audio tracks. The original Japanese track has an edgy, upbeat feeling that is largely provided by the bountiful amounts of Eurobeat sprinkled throughout the racing scenes. The songs just dare you to get up and start dancing. The voice acting is top notch and brings the characters' personalities to life wonderfully. Whether it's Takumi's stoic and completely apathetic nature, or the cheerfully annoying squeals of his friend Itsuki, the Japanese performances truly bring these characters to life.
On the other hand, the English track has a completely different atmosphere altogether. It just can't seem to decide what it really wants to be, other than forcefully American. The Eurodance beats were removed and replaced with a wide variety of music genres, ranging from hip hop, punk, power pop, trance, and even an overly dramatic segment that sounds like what the Discovery Channel plays in its nature videos right before the cheetah is going to pounce on a hare. It would've been better if just one tone for the show was decided and adhered to, but instead, it jumps between ‘MTV reality show’ and ;2 Fast 2 Furious trailer'. To top it off, the music is mixed in rather poorly with the dialogue and sound effects. In one of the episodes, Takumi's day is started off to the punk vocals of “Vertigo,” by the Willknots. Comparable to bands like Blink 182 and New Found Glory, the song is enjoyable enough, but alas the sound engineer must have been sick that day. At times, the song almost drowns out the dialogue and every time the actors stop talking for even a second, the volume is cranked up so that the scene is filled to the brim with angsty punk.
Sound tech problems aside, the music is randomly thrown into the series without regard to matching the scenes. With all of the music springing from a deal struck with NOMA Music, a music licensing company that hooks up independent artists with entertainment outlets, the haphazardness adds to the already disjointed animation. The opening and ending themes, originally performed by m.o.v.e, have been replaced with a horrid manufactured rap song called “Initialize.” It's hard to be optimistic about a song written by people named ‘DJ Milky’ and ‘b_nCHANt_d’, and to no huge surprise, the song is awful. The random English phrases rapped by m.o.v.e were entertaining enough, but DJ Milky takes the cake.
With phrases like,
“Initialiiiiiiiiiiize! Team, start your engines, drive with a vengeance. Gasoline dreams, we're the true kings of tension!” it's hard to keep a straight face. And if you were ever wondering what the D in Initial D stands for, our songwriter enlightens us:
“Initial Drive! Initial Dreams! Initial Drift! Initial D-D-D-D-D!!!!!”
The song is in fact, so spectacular that it's given to us not once, but twice per episode, since it's also the ending theme. Featuring a “DJ Milky remix” with freakish Indian warbles every few notes or so, it's even given special treatment. The original ending theme showed different m.o.v.e members painted with flower motifs running around looking artsy. Naturally, this would make a confusing sequence for a song about gasoline dreams so the ending was replaced by a generic set of screenshots. Only the Tricked Out version has English credits though. For fans wanting a Classic “ride,” they can be content with the original Japanese credits for both the opening and ending themes.
Despite unfair accusations that the English script was completely hacked up and rewritten, the dub isn't that bad. The actors all threw their hearts into their lines and they made everything seem fun. If there was but one group of guys who could make viewers excited about barreling down a mountain at breakneck speed, the actors that Tokyopop selected are the ones to do it. There are only two noticeable differences between the English and Japanese versions. One, most of the names have been changed. Takumi was changed to Tak, Itsuki was changed to Iggy, Natsuki was changed to Natalie, and so forth. These might seem silly, but keep in mind that Tokyopop's goal was to fully Americanize the series. The other big difference is the hip teenager street lingo used for the lines.
Something like “Good morning Takumi. Nice car.” would be changed to “Hey yo, sup Tak! Man, that's one hot ride!”
Aside from the language upgrade, the script was translated properly for the most part. A small reference to Natsuki's older male companion (aka Papa) was tweaked, but subsidized dating is a Japanese trend that would most likely slip past casual television viewers anyway, the audience Tokyopop incorrectly assumed would be watching this version.
On its own, the Tricked Out version of Initial D is really not that bad. Watching it is actually sort of fun, and if one can excuse the mismatched music, it's a lot like watching any US TV show aimed at teenagers. The characters are fun, casual, and the entire thing is altogether a relaxing, entertaining watch. However, seeing as how the show already panders to a niche audience, the DVD is being marketed to a majority of people who already know about the series. The fans that like their anime dubbed are stuck between the decision of either watching the subtitled version of the show or dealing with the Tricked Out version. What Tokyopop tried to do is understandable, and while the end product is admirable, they should have released a second English track. By doing it this way, many dub fans may feel alienated and disinclined to purchase the DVDs.
After knowing all of this, it's really up to the viewer how badly they want an unmodified English language track. Initial D is a fun series that any car lover would enjoy. Even if you don't know anything about cars, this series packs a lot of momentum and fun characters that just might snare you in. The problem is, the release doesn't bother to accommodate dub fans at all, and this is quite unfortunate. Subtitle fans and Initial D-crazed dub lovers willing to eschew their usual choice in favor of a more accurate translation of the series have nothing to fear from this DVD. If you were looking forward to a dub that preserved the integrity of the series, you'll be very sorely disappointed. In that case, you might just want to avoid this release altogether. At least you'll always have Para Para Paradise and Gran Turismo.
Overall (dub) : D+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C
+ Great for car lovers and racing fans
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