Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD Stage 2 + OVA Extra Stage
A new team is in Gunma looking to mix it up with the locals. They're Team Emperor, a street-racing team who drive only Lan-Evos, the fastest, bestest car on the civilian market. Kyoichi, their leader, has his eyes on one thing only: erasing his humiliation years before at the hands of Ryosuke Takahashi. First, though, he plans on destroying every team in Gunma. Takumi doesn't worry overmuch about any of this. He's on top of the world right now. He's the undefeated champ of the Akina downhill, plus his relationship with main squeeze Mogi is sailing smooth. Foolish boy. As a downhill specialist he should know: when you're on top the only place to go is down.
More so than any of the other seasons, Stage 2 is about Takumi's growth—as a racer and as a man. Growth means overcoming obstacles, so Takumi gets a lot thrown at him this season. He learns some unsavory truths about Mogi, faces his first racing defeat, and even loses his car. Tough times for Akina's fastest. The series does a good job of weaving all three into a single unmitigated low point in Takumi's life, and also of illustrating how he comes out of it. There are no cheap speeches or convenient coincidences to pull Takumi from his funk: only his own inner strength and newfound passion for cars and racing. It's the first time in the series that we really see Takumi mettle. He doesn't mope or moan—he buckles down and powers through. And emerges on the other side stronger, more centered, and self-reliant. In short, he grows up. A bit. He's still a kid in a lot of ways, but he's also an adult in others. For a series that had nothing but racing on the brain before, it's a pretty impressive performance.
And yet, despite all the growing Takumi does, this season still feels like a step down, both from what comes before and what follows. Why is that? Ironically, because Takumi does all that growing. While impressive, Takumi's dark night of the soul isn't as impressive as his races. The hard truth is that neither growth nor character, much less teen drama or romantic heartbreak, is what Initial D is about. Initial D is about racing, nothing more. Anything that distracts from that, no matter how solidly done, is to the show's detriment. And unfortunately, Takumi's evolution distracts, and mightily. Aside from a few who-cares side battles there are only three real races in the entire season, and one of them—the mid-season climax—is so laden with non-race dramatic baggage that it never really takes off before it comes crashing to an end. That's a big problem. Racing is Initial D's lifeblood, and without it the show is a shadow of the pulse-pounding adrenaline monster that it is at its street-racin' best.
That is nowhere so clear as during the two races that do take off. Carefully built to and tensely staged, they're two immense testosterone highs in a season too often marked by emotional lows. The first is a classic beat-the-bad-guys battle and the second a cathartic blowing off of a long-building head of steam, and like the best of the series' races each one has you screaming downhill right along with Takumi and his scrappy little tofumobile. It's hard not to chafe when the show turns away from that to wallow in Takumi's personal life. The extra depth is nice, but deep down we don't want to see Takumi mature or triumph over adversity. We want to see him hit the road and peel out in a puddle of some punk's leftover pride.
On a purely technical level, this season is an improvement over the first. The characters are still flat and ugly as sin, and the 2D animation isn't much prettier, but the 3DCG is definitely improving. Lines bend more gracefully and there are fewer obvious CG polygons in both the cars and their surroundings. When a tailpipe moves, you can still see that it isn't round like a tailpipe should be, but at least they aren't octagonal any more. The physics engine is also better, so the cars are less atrociously unreal in their movements, as are their engines during the sprinkling of intern-o-cam engine shots. The all-important soundtrack adds a few more roaring guitars but otherwise remains the same electronic rave-up it has always been.
Even improved, though, there's nothing particularly attractive about any of it—save the soundtrack. When the series is trying to get at Takumi's inner turmoil or get us to feel Mogi's pain, the stylistic decisions it makes—particularly as regards to those hideous, immobile character designs—are undeniably unfortunate. That said, during the races the intense character designs, slick CGI cars, and techno-thumping eurotrash soundtrack make perfect sense, colliding to create thrilling automotive ballets that maintain high excitement for improbably long periods. Which just makes it that much more unfortunate that there's so few of them this season.
Funimation's dub is consistent if nothing else. Its odd mixture of spirited writing and less-than-enthusiastic acting can be pretty funny when it wants, but is mostly just stoically professional. Which is what it has been all along. While it's impressive that the cast can deliver lines like "I can't tell if you're some naive little girl or a walking set of brass balls" without so much as winking, the dub actually could have used some wink. It would have at least added some color.
Other than clean versions of the TV and OVA opening and closing sequences, the only extras on this set are the uncut versions of the Extra Stage OVAs. The OVAs themselves are a pair of side-stories about Mako, who D'dites might remember as Iketani's one-time girlfriend. They offer a single decent race and a good deal of perspective on what was going on on Mako's side of the relationship, as well as where she went afterwards, but are otherwise pretty disposable. The uncut versions remove some steam from the episodes' shower and bath sequences, which fans of fan-service will appreciate (frontal nudity, boys; have at it!) but won't make or break anyone else's experience.
While Takumi mentally overcomes all the bad stuff thrown his way this season, none of it actually gets resolved until the Initial D movie (located chronologically after these episodes, but released earlier). And the relative dearth of nerve-punishing racing action doesn't get resolved until the television series following that. Still, a pair of excellent races and some surprisingly well-written character drama make this a worthy view, even if it weren't necessary to fully appreciate the high-octane gearhead action of the next season.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : C-
Music : A-
+ The best-written of the Initial D seasons; squeezes a couple of good races in between the teen drama and lesser competitions; improved visuals.
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