Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Initial D: First Stage
DVD - Part 1
Steep and mined with lethal switchbacks, Mt. Akina's downhill slope is a Mecca for street racers. The local team, the Akina Speed Stars, are a pretty sorry bunch to be holding court on the mountain's holy curves, but they still have their pride—in their mountain and their own modest skills. So when the Red Suns, a flashy out-of-town team of superstar street racers challenges them, they accept. Pride gets them nowhere, though. Especially when team leader Iketani wrecks his car. Iketani hears a rumor, however: that the fastest car on the Akina downhill is a local tofu store's aged Trueno 86. What he doesn't know is that the car is manned by laconic co-worker Takumi Fujiwara. Takumi has been forced since early adolescence to deliver tofu for his dad. In order to get the distasteful task over with quickly, he's perfected the Akina downhill. But will he lend his talents to Iketani, given his antipathy towards driving? Of course. But can he beat Red Suns lieutenant Keisuke Takahashi, or the march of challengers to follow? Not so certain.
Ever been watching a comedy when a pointlessly bad CG car, perhaps accompanied by a blast of techno, comes slaloming around a corner and wonder what the hell it was all about? Then maybe you need to watch Initial D. If understanding in-jokes is the measure of your pop-culture education, then Initial D is essential viewing. Want to get every joke from, say, School Rumble or Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan? Then—in-joke incoming!—don't miss it.
Of course, part of the reason Initial D is so frequently spoofed is because it's so eminently spoofable. Few if any anime series have as immediately identifiable a stylistic signature as Initial D's combination of 3D cars, techno beats, and wooden characters. For comic imitators it's a combo made in heaven: inherently silly, glaringly incongruous, and recognizable within an instant. For Initial D itself...not so heavenly. In later seasons the series ironed out some of the worst kinks in its visuals, but even then they aged poorly. And if those seasons were dated, this one is fossilized. You can see the polygons in the computer-rendered cars, roads, guardrails...anything and everything in the 3D sequences. Tailpipes are octagonal instead of round, road lines shift direction in linear spurts instead of even curves, even steering wheels have strange joints and irregular shapes. The animation itself jerks more than it should, and it's obvious from the first that the physics engine needs serious work. The characters are generally hand-drawn, which beyond their stone-faced inexpressiveness and general stiffness and wormy-lipped hideousness, isn't a problem. But when they're computer animated—i.e. when they're inserted into 3D sequences—they are rendered using what appears to be Microsoft Paint and float swami-like above their purported perches on the 3D landscape. You can actually see the pixels in their outlines—it's that bad. In fact, about the only thing that has aged well at all is the deliriously trashy techno-pulp soundtrack, and that has a lot to do with its shameless camp value.
Objectively speaking, the whole exercise is a joke—particularly when you factor in things like the orgasmically enthusiastic onlookers and rank auto fetishism. Like, say, the acting of Charlton Heston, it's too big a target not to take aim at. And, like Charlton Heston, secretly it's pretty cool. That has everything to do with the racing. Initial D's races are meticulous constructions. Rather than toss them off every episode, the show builds carefully to a very limited number of fully realized automotive showdowns. This, the first half of season one, has only two races in it (a third, during which Takumi puts the hurt on a pair of racing punks, is too perfunctory to be worthy of the name). Each has their own antagonist: sturdy characters with their own motivations, own specific threat to Takumi's supremacy, and own theme music (Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Night Kids grip racer Nakazato; an evil-laughing spoken-word tune for Shingo, whose duct-tape death match will kick off the next set). By the time the series has wrung its suspense from the "will he, won't he" questioning of Takumi's willingness to race, lined its roaring cars at the decline of Akina's downhill track, and kicked off the countdown, you're all-in. And when Takumi breaks out the drifting fireworks and the soundtrack starts thumping, no amount of shoddy visuals or cheesy ooh-ing and ah-ing from the roadside peanut gallery can pull you back out again.
Having been released and, one assumes, dubbed after Fourth Stage, it isn't too terrible a shock that Funimation's English cast seems a little more at ease in their roles. There're missteps and weaknesses of course: Joel McDonald has trouble projecting Takumi's cold fury in the few scenes where he's provoked, and a general flatness afflicts it on occasion. But there are also times when the English is genuinely superior to the Japanese. Most of them involve playfully slangy rewrites or Josh Grelle's Itsuki, who manages to be funny without being an irritating ass a la Mitsuo Iwata's original. The reams of technical dialogue—Shuuichi Shigeno loves his anal details—are handled reasonably well, with J. Michael Tatum, whose Ryosuke is the source of most of it, sounding suitably confident and knowledgeable, while the script blunts the edge of Shigeno's acronymphilia. The Japanese overall remains the superior dub thanks to a healthy sampling of the finest talent the '90s had to offer—including the great Ayako Kawasumi in the thankless role of Takumi's love interest—but the English version can grow on you.
Season one is the best of Initial D. Here racing has yet to wholly consume the series. There's space to breathe between the downhill battles; space for characters and their opponents to grow beyond their roles in an upcoming race. The series still has the sense of humor (admittedly not the best) that it would discard like so much refuse somewhere in season two. And the thrill of seeing Takumi's legend born—as opposed to maintained, in an unending jam of races—is potent. But ultimately the reason season one is good is the same reason each of the following seasons is: the thrill of competition, and the ability to make us feel it.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : D
Art : D+
Music : A-
+ All the racing thrills of later seasons, without the restrictive focus or clumsy drama; that soundtrack!
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