Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 2nd 2010
Initial D: Stage 4
DVD Part 1
Ryosuke Takahashi's Project D is in full swing, shipping Gunma's two preeminent racers out to other prefectures to challenge local teams on their home turf. With Takumi on the downhill, lesser Takahashi sibling Keisuke on the uphill, and Ryosuke's strategies backing them all the way, the team seems unbeatable. This, naturally, leads to some resentment. And Project D's online trumpeting of its triumphs doesn't help. But the winning isn't easy, and the races only get harder as Ryosuke pushes his proteges into ever more impossible match-ups in the name of relentless improvement. But improve they do, especially Takumi, whose increasingly uncanny skill heats up his long-standing rivalry with Keisuke. With pressures like that, who has time for a personal life?
Previous seasons may have had a certain level of teen drama and even a rudimentary sense of humor, but here in Stage 4 Initial D has been stripped of all but one aim: maximum thrills at maximum speed. This is not complicated stuff. The first two episodes map out the series' basic strategy with naked efficiency: Set up the opponent, delineate the stakes, make the outcome matter, and then let it all loose in one long, expertly staged street race. Outside of some intriguing role-reversals (Takumi is the seemingly invincible challenger and his opponents are the ones with everything at stake), this isn't that different from what the series has always done: Same anal attention to technical detail, same "wow, this is so totally mind-blowing!" declarations from the peanut gallery, same nail-baiting tension. What's different is the level of focus. If you'll pardon my French (and Latin), racing has always been Initial D's de facto raison d'être, but here it becomes de jure. Peripheral characters like Mogi and Itsuki fall largely or completely to the wayside (with varying degrees of mourning at their loss) and racing consumes Takumi's life, and the show, to the exclusion of all else.
That isn't to say there isn't some level of personal development; there are, after all, opponents to build up, and Takumi's shifting attitude about racing to deal with. There's even a little romance, as unexpectedly hard-edged as ever, in the later going. But frankly that's all dressing, or more accurately fodder, for the racing action. Very little gets into the show that isn't part of the build-up to some one- or two-episode downhill-racing, drift-braking spectacular. Even the romance plays its part in a couple of races, and outside developments are kept to the absolute minimum necessary to ensure that the race's players are human and interesting. Ultimately something like fifty percent of the series is pure, unadulterated racing action. That, dear reader, is a sh**load of racing.
And somehow it works. The series executes its formula with a mechanical precision that would do calculator-brained Ryosuke proud. Opponents are quickly and efficiently sketched, the threat posed by each precisely machined to feel as real and potent as possible. The challenges posed by each course and each driver are varied for maximum effect, as are the strategies used to overcome them, and the structure of each race is mixed up just enough that its ultimate conclusion is impossible to divine. And truncated as the characters' emotional lives are, they're still somehow potent enough to make the prospect of failure a frightening one. The resultant show isn't well-rounded by any stretch, but it is exciting, perhaps more so than any in the franchise at large.
The series' look remains a sticking point, however. Specifically the character designs. No one will ever accuse them of being derivative—once introduced, you will never mistake an Initial D character for another series'—but they aren't very appealing either. In generalized attractiveness they range from wormy-lipped horrors to reasonably good-looking bishonen and bishojo, but even the lookers are frequently off-model and seen from enough unflattering angles to come across poorly. They tend to be woodenly inexpressive and move in flat, unconvincing ways as well. All of that said, they do do their jobs, particularly in Takumi's case, where a wooden face communicates perfectly his apathy, and his burning inner rage can be left to the Kuleshov Effect.
Plus, all that scrimping on character animation is definitely a boon for the automotive animation budget. It's in the cars that Initial D's love shows (tellingly). In the glistening labyrinths of pipe and wire beneath their hoods, in the glossy 3D CG of their exteriors, in the John Woo slo-mo of their racing moves. Their CG animation hasn't necessarily aged very well—often the races resemble video games—but when director Tsuneo Tominaga's little visual inventions (raindrops evaporating in the flaring exhaust of a racing roadster, for instance) combine with the almost sexualized lines of a car in the midst of some game-changing maneuver, the result is still pretty darned cool.
They wouldn't be nearly so cool, though, if it weren't for the series' thumping techno score, and particularly Tominaga's impeccable sense for when to crank it up to 11 and get your brain (and not insignificantly, your heart) pulsing to the beat. Indeed nothing in the show would work without the synthesized dance beats and near-perfect timing of the soundtrack. Not the races, nor the races, nor the races. (Remember, there really isn't much else). So omnipresent and terrifically trashy is it, that the perfectly respectable rap-rock numbers that bookend each episode feel kind of flaccid in comparison.
Funimation has a winner on their hands with this dub. Not in terms of acting, which is a little listless in parts, or casting (no cast could be expected to match the Japanese track's all-star line-up), but rather in the scripting. The rewrite fills its punk drivers' mouths with salty language and mildly dated slang (much ass-handing is spoken of) that is both appropriate (more or less) and often very funny. Itsuki in particular benefits, going from intolerable in the original to vaguely amusing in the rewrite. Sometimes the dub steamrolls nuances of the original, but that's a small price to pay. Larger is the price paid for the cast's spotty emoting, but given the fairly minimal role emotions play in the series, it's far from a deal-breaker.
You don't have to have your VIN number tattooed on your bicep to like Initial D. (Indeed, if my experience with shows dedicated to things I have expertise in is any indicator—I still shudder when I think of Master Keaton's depiction of archaeology—it might be better if you don't.) The peerless thrill of competition knows no boundaries, and it is exactly that thrill that Stage 4 captures. And with an alacrity unseen since the glory days of Fighting Spirit. Maybe it hasn't much else, but really, it doesn't need it.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : C-
Music : A-
+ The usual Initial D formula pared down until nothing but pulse-pounding street action remains. That soundtrack!
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