Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Initial D: Stage 4
DVD Part 2
After finishing the challenge assembled by Saitama's best, there is only one team left before Project D can claim dominion over the prefecture: the Lancer Evos, a group of unscrupulous punks who see in Project D a chance to make some serious cash. All they have to do is defeat Keisuke Takahashi and Takumi Fujiwara, the Project's uphill and downhill specialists, and their punk garage will have all the free publicity it can handle. Out come the dirty tricks, but will they be enough to slay the Project's monster drivers? When Saitama is finished, resident brain Ryosuke plans on taking Project D to Ibaraki, where a pair of middle-aged racers await their challenge. The paunchy duo may prove to be the Project's toughest opponents yet, though. Not only are they pro-good, but Takumi is on another of his Bunta-instigated learning curves and not necessarily in the best condition to be racing.
In case you missed it somehow during the first half, part two of Initial D's Fourth Stage broadcasts its message loud and clear: If you aren't here for the racing, then you may as well not be here at all. Though marginally less competition-focused than the first half, the season's final half is still, to put it a little fancifully, more machine than man. It consists almost exclusively of finely-tuned racing action, shedding most any human softness not specifically required to make its races gripping. The end result is undeniably exciting, but also more than a little cold.
There is still a little humanity left in Frontline's steel Valentine to fast cars and the men who love them. Witness the between-race lulls during which the oft-sad love lives of Itsuki and Keisuke play out. Echoes of the romantic fatalism that marked Takumi and Mogi's relationship—the first two seasons' main fount of teen drama—can be found, and in their own unhappy way they're kind of sweet. During such respites the series treats its cast with something that almost approaches warmth. There's even a little humor mixed in. But for all their real-life pessimism and welcome restfulness, Initial D's stabs at non-racing drama are ultimately pretty awful. It creepily conflates wannabe girlfriend Kyoko's car with her chastity ("if it's my darling driving it, it's okay"), paints Itsuki's crush as something of a fickle wench, and never quite shakes the sense that affection, heartbreak and even friendship are outside of its comfort zone.
Which is why it's just as well that, when the rubber hits the asphalt, touchy feely goes the way of the ozone layer. The show may not handle affect, even manly affect, very well, but it knows plenty about the blinding intensity and testosterone stink of competition. There's more truth in one glimpse of the mess of fear that underlies the competitive impulse than in all of the romantic byplay in the entire series; more feeling in one smoldering glare than a torrent of tears. As always the series' best moments aren't its quiet ones; they're the ones where the beast inside Takumi comes out to play on the back roads of rural Japan.
And if there's one thing the series does, it's to give that beast plenty of room to play. There are four races here—two for each team faced, split evenly between Keisuke and Takumi. The first two feature the season's most defeat-worthy opponents, a pair of dirty-dealing villains whose twisted personalities and crooked strategies are just begging to be straightened out. The matches play out predictably, but with no shortage of mean-spirited satisfaction. The last two are the real deal, though: uncertain competitions during which everything the racers have is dredged up and smashed against the other guy for three long, cuticle-punishing episodes (each). Each is arranged with the series' customary economy and care, eschewing all extraneous events and emotions and establishing the personalities, strategies and stakes involved with consummate, and heartless, professionalism.
The series' look starkly reflects its priorities. The characters are flat, angular, irregular, and generally unpleasant to look at, in addition to being typically inexpressive and sometimes interchangeable (women mostly). The cars, on the other hand, are gorgeous: Sleek, freakishly accurate and stinking of personality from their lovingly rendered 3D CG lines to their meticulously reproduced engine noises. When Keisuke wrecks his FD, it's far more painful than when he wrecks Kyoko. There is something deeply wrong about that, but also rather inevitable. There's often a sense in Initial D that a human is just the chewy meat center of a car. At the very least, an Initial D character is a binary organism that includes a person and a car, neither of which is complete without the other.
Given the allocation of animation budget and artistic skill, though, you'd be excused for thinking that the car is the more important half of the organism.
The series' 3D CG hasn't improved any—it still resembles a video game—and the 2D animation is frankly embarrassing, so the burden of beefing up the adrenaline falls on the series' less technologically dependent merits. Director Tsuneo Tominaga choreographs the races well enough, combining sweaty close-ups, Hong Kong slo-mo, and whimsical automotive flourishes (following combusting gasses as they burn from piston to tailpipe, for instance) to drive home the frequent reversals of fortune. The series' real force, however, is in its soundtrack. Chimera-izing techno dance beats, rap, and hints of guitar rock in ways that only a work completely divorced from the genres' original contexts can, it's a pulsing monster with an almost Pavlovian effect on the heart rate. Predictably it weakens when tinkering with acoustic emotional tripe, but like the series as a whole, never for long.
By this point it's clear that Funimation's slang-tastic rewrite is here to stay. The cast plays it admirably straight, delivering lines like "it'll take a real man to go up against its curves and straighten them out" without so much as blushing, which makes them just that much funnier. Unfortunately the niggling self-consciousness that accompanies the ribbing further wrecks the dramatic sequences and also opens a distance between show and viewer that isn't flattering to the dialogue that isn't subverted by surfer-dude accents and '90s slang. It's a trade-off, if a generally equitable one.
Season's end is traditionally a time for big developments. Initial D's Fourth Stage, however, is content to go out the way it came in: on greased skids of pure racing action. And well it should. Big developments, as its clunky romantic subplots will tell you, are not its forte. Putting pedal to the metal, on the other hand, is.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : C-
Music : A-
+ Finishes the season focusing on its strengths: breathless races and automotive fetishism.
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