Initial D Legend 1: Awakening
by Paul Jensen,
I really liked the ending of Recovery of an MMO Junkie this week, but now I'm starting to realize that the early finale means I'll have to get through the rest of the season without it. You know a series is good when the thought of not having new episodes to watch makes you feel a little bit sad. I suppose there's nothing to do but fill that void with other good shows, and it helps that this season has more great stuff than I have time to keep up with. Commence the catch-up marathons! Welcome to Shelf Life.
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Initial D Legend 1: Awakening
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Shelf Life Reviews
New Theatrical Movie Initial D Legend 1: Awakening is the very long title of the first in a series of remakes of the well-known street racing series. I took a look at it to see if the story still holds up after all these years.
The protagonist of the story is Takumi Fujiwara, the teenage son of a tofu shop owner who drives the family car up and down a mountain pass every night to make deliveries. Takumi's best friend Itsuki dreams of buying his own car and becoming a famous street racer, but Takumi couldn't care less about the idea of driving fast for fun. When a well-funded team of racers rolls into town and threatens to defeat the locals on their home turf, Takumi is drafted into competing head to head against ace driver Keisuke Takahashi.
In recreating the first story arc of the original series, Awakening thankfully retains one of the most important parts of its source material. Initial D has always had an obsessive eye for technical details and a heart-on-sleeve reverence for performance cars. To draw a comparison to a more recent franchise, Initial D loves cars in the same way that Girls und Panzer loves tanks. That nerdy enthusiasm comes through in the trivia-laden dialogue, the way each car is matched to its driver's personality, and the tricks and techniques used in the races. If your interests happen to overlap with this particular subject (as mine do), Initial D's exuberant energy can be very contagious. Even if you don't really care about cars beyond their use in action scenes, the attention to detail and consistency of tone should still make this movie a more immersive experience.
Awakening condenses what was a five-episode arc in the old series down to about an hour, which is a much more reasonable task than the full season compilations that we often see these days. It does have to cut out some content here and there, but the losses are generally acceptable. In some cases, the quicker pacing is actually an improvement; where the process of setting up the big race felt drawn-out in the TV series, it's a much tighter buildup here. The downside is that the brisk pace leads to less natural character development. Awakening often has to tell the viewer about different characters' personalities instead of letting those traits come through in their actions. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Takumi's love interest Natsuki, whose role in the movie feels disconnected from the rest of the story.
There are also a few flaws that are less unique to Awakening and more inherited from the source material. My biggest problem with this story arc has always been Takumi himself; he's just not a very compelling protagonist. He's not a member of the local racing team, nor does he have any reason to care if they lose to Keisuke and his crew of outsiders. The stakes for Takumi are incredibly low in this story arc; he wants to borrow his dad's car for a date, and his dad will only let him have it if he can beat Keisuke in a race. In the larger context of the franchise, this is an acceptable starting point for a story about Takumi discovering the appeal of racing, but in the more narrow context of this film, he has too little to lose, which makes it harder for the audience to get emotionally invested in the outcome.
Awakening does improve on the old TV series in one major way: it looks a thousand times better. To call the animation in the original Initial D “dated” would be a massive understatement. That show has not aged well at all in the visual department. Awakening still uses CG car models for parts of its racing scenes, but a decade and a half of technological advances make a big difference. The 2-D animation is also a significant step up, and the visual direction uses those newfound resources to pull off some very cool shots during the driving sequences. The character designs are also easier on the eyes, though their distinct looks are still recognizable for returning fans. I'm a bit sad to see the over-the-top soundtrack of the original series replaced with something less bombastic, but the new music does at least set the appropriate mood for each scene. The English dub from Sentai Filmworks retains most of the cast from Funimation's dub of the TV series, with the biggest change being Gray G. Haddock replacing Todd Haberkorn as Keisuke. It's a competent dub that manages to get through most of the script's technical jargon without stumbling. Along with the usual trailers, this release also includes a short clip form the second movie in the trilogy.
As remakes of old franchises go, this is a pretty good one. It trades in some of the vintage charm and character development of the TV series for snappier pacing and visuals that translate the original manga from page to screen in a much more impressive manner. Initial D is always going to be a niche title, and some of the nagging issues with its narrative wouldn't go away without some significant rewrites. As someone who enjoyed the old series and happens to fall into its core demographic of gearheads, I'm glad that this polished remake exists. If I were to introduce Initial D to a new viewer, this is probably the version I'd use. Having said that, some part of me will always have a soft spot for the old TV series, cruddy visuals and all.
That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!
No Shelf Obsessed entry this week. If you'd like to show off your anime collection, send me your photos at [email protected]!
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