Initial D: Volume 1 (3 discs) (DVD)
When it comes to anime in the UK, it often appears that it remains the sole province of the 'big' five distributors, with Manga Entertainment, MVM, ADV, Revelation and Beez divvying up the spoils. It's fair to say that these companies do remain on the cutting edge of anime entertainment, with the largest back catalogues, and the latest releases. Since their area of expertise is anime, it's understandable that they have the largest presence. But it's easy to forget that there are other companies out there distributing Japanese animated entertainment, and their output is well worth a look. The trouble is that many of these companies just dabble in the medium, have a half-hearted attempt at a couple of series and then go back to something more familiar, or a surer sell. Others have more of a presence but remain focussed on a select catalogue, opting for a distinctive signature. Optimum are a case in point, who while they have released Appleseed and Barefoot Gen, have had greater success with their acquisition of the Ghibli catalogue. Then there are the big studios that pounce on breakout titles that should shift significantly more than the average title sells. Columbia Tristar have marketed the Cowboy Bebop movie, Tekkonkinkreet, Steamboy and most of Satoshi Kon's features, while Warner have released Yu-gi-oh and Dragonball DVDs, as well as the forthcoming Appleseed Ex Machina. As for those companies that dabble, Metrodome cashed in on last year's Tranformers hype when they released the Takara series, Gonzo tried distributing directly to the UK with Afro Samurai, ILC offer cheap, dub only releases of shows like Project A-ko, World of Narue, and MD Geist, Fabulous Films half-heartedly dabbled in a volume of Inuyasha, before opting for something a whole lot more retro and familiar with Mysterious Cities of Gold, and Artsmagic have released the Salaryman Kintaro series, as well as a couple of CG features. In other words, it's well worth looking away from the big five, as you may be surprised at what you find.
We've also reached a point in anime where the industry is coming of age, which opens some intriguing possibilities. Before, all licences were fresh, and bidding for them furious, and expensive. But now, with the main companies always on the lookout for new titles, that leaves a substantial untapped resource in the UK. There are several titles that were released in the US over the last ten years that never made it here. Some may say that they are past their sell-by date, others could see the chance to get a quick bargain and sell them at a fair price to boot. VDI Entertainment have the rights to Initial D, a show that first aired in 1998 and was released on DVD in the US by Tokyopop between 2003 and 2005. It's a long running series in Japan, but only the first 39 episodes made it to Region 1 comprising the first two series in their entirety. But, where Tokyopop released 3 episode volumes at a glacial pace, VDI are offering something much more attractive, multi disc boxsets. Extras cost more to be rated by the BBFC so they are dropped, but completely re-authoring the discs also is a significant expense, so what we have here is something of a first for budget anime. VDI offer the Tokyopop discs pretty much as is, albeit PAL instead of NTSC. That means the same slick menus, and all the same language options, and all at a ridiculously cheap price.
But… Initial D was originally something of a contentious issue, with Tokyopop's treatment of the property scandalising some fans. They wanted to market the manga and the show to a broad audience, thinking that the car races were more the point of the story than the character relationships. For the manga that meant significant edits to at least one character subplot, and the alteration of dialogue and character names to appeal to a more 'generic' fan base. With the anime, it was both worse and better at the same time. For the English dub, they reworked the anime completely, editing out some character moments, changing the soundtrack, and the opening and ending animations, and giving the race scenes an MTV pizzazz, resulting in quad screen, mirror effects, funky dissolves, photo negative effects and so on. The Japanese version is there as is, but that awkward character subplot is still there too, and that required some diplomatic alterations to the subtitle script. It is still possible to read between the lines though. Both versions are available on these discs, with each set of episodes on a separate layer. It's noticeable that the runtime of the English 'Tricked Out' Version is a couple of minutes shorter than the 'Classic' Version on each disc. It's ironic as the Initial D: Drift Racer movie got similar treatment when released in the West, with a new electronica dirge replacing the original music because it sounded 'kewler'.
It's that Cantonese movie that sparked my interest in Initial D, as I found that film to be surprisingly good given the premise. When I tracked down the edited Tokyopop manga volumes last year, I found that despite a quirky art style, the story was strong and the characters well written. Given the price of the anime boxset I didn't hesitate for too long.
Takumi Fujiwara is a high school student who lives with his dad near Mount Akina, and helps him run his tofu shop. His other part time job is with his best friend Itsuki at the local petrol station, and while Itsuki talks endlessly and fantasises about finally owning a car, Takumi remains hopelessly ill informed on the subject, setting himself up as the target of his friends' teasing. His friends don't know that while he may not know the terminology or the finer points of auto-mechanics, he's been driving for years for his dad, delivering tofu to the other side of Mount Akina in the early hours of the morning when the roads are empty. They're rarely empty on Akina though, as late night the mountain becomes the haven of street racers looking to test themselves against its hazardous hairpins and thrilling straights. Takumi has been driving so long that he's utterly bored with it, and can do Mount Akina in his sleep. Little does he know that the mountain road leads to his destiny.
The first volume of Initial D contains the first three discs of the series, 9 episodes in total.
Battle 01: Akina's Downhill Specialist
Act 1: The Ultimate Tofu Store Drift
High school is confusing at the best of times, so Takumi is understandably perplexed when Natsuki starts talking to him again. The cutest girl in school stopped hanging around him when he took a swing at her then boyfriend. Itsuki doesn't mind though, he's just surprised that Takumi knows someone as good looking as Natsuki. This is just a brief diversion from the normal state of affairs as the boys are back talking about cars. Itsuki wants one so he can be a part of the Akina Speed Stars, the local unofficial racing team that owns the road on Mt Akina. Working at his dad's petrol station with team leader Iketani, Itsuki has plenty of time to dream, but the Akina Speed Stars are about to be brought down to earth with a bang when a rival team shows up and challenges them. The Red Suns are led by brothers Ryousuke and Keisuke Takahashi, but even the least among them completely outclass the best of the Speed Stars. But there is a legend on Mount Akina, of a tofu delivery car that is the fastest thing ever on the winding roads. Keisuke may have been proud in his victory over the Speed Stars, but he wasn't expecting to be outclassed by a wimpy 86 Trueno, with a tofu shop decal on the side.
Act 2: Revenge! The Rumbling Turbo
Takumi is surprised to get a phone call from Natsuki. She wants to hang out with him again, and knowing he has a car, invites herself on a day out to the beach, not that Takumi's complaining. In the 'real' world however, things are getting tense. Keisuke Takahashi is becoming obsessed with the Trueno that burnt him up, while Iketani is seriously worried about the Akina Speed Stars looking stupid at the race meet on Saturday. He's heard about the demon 86 as well, and seeing one parked outside the Fujiwara Tofu shop, he gets the wrong end of the stick, and goes in to ask Takumi's father Bunta for advice. Three days before a race is the wrong time to be looking for remedial driving lessons, but Bunta takes pity on Iketani and promises to think about it. Of course it's Takumi who knows Akina like the back of his hand, but he'll need some convincing to take part in something as dull as a race.
Act 3. The Downhill Specialist Appears
Iketani got a little too desperate and drove his beloved Nissan Silvia into a guardrail. Now he's begging Bunta to drive on Saturday night, although Bunta feels his high-octane days are behind him. Still he tells Iketani that there is a 50% chance that the 86 will race on Saturday. When Takumi comes in and asks to borrow the Trueno for a date the following Sunday, that chance becomes a veritable certainty. But trouble lies ahead for both the Speed Stars and the Red Suns, as there is a new team in town, the Night Kids, and they have designs on Akina's reputation themselves.
Battle 02: Challenge: Red Suns
Act 4. Into the Battle!
Everyone is waiting for the 86 to arrive, Keisuke to avenge his defeat of the previous week, and Iketani to prevent the reputation of the Speed Stars from being ground into dust. No one is expecting Takumi to be at the wheel. That moment of shock past, the race begins, and it initially looks as if Keisuke's FD will walk it, with 200 more horsepower and being specifically set up for mountain conditions. But it soon becomes apparent that while Keisuke pulls away on the straights, Takumi eats up that lead on the corners. It's just a matter of getting past.
Act 5. Dogfight!
The final five hairpins of Akina are coming up, and Takumi will have to break the laws of physics to get past Keisuke. It's a stunning move that has the Takahashi brothers scratching their heads in befuddlement. But big brother Ryousuke is more determined than ever to race against the 86. Takumi isn't bothered either way, as he's got a date with Natsuki to think about, although Natsuki is being strangely evasive. Iketani wants Takumi on the team, and Itsuki vows to recruit his best friend to the Speed Stars, as long as he gets in too.
Act 6. A New Challenger
Takumi may have won the last race, but he's still hardly the most gregarious of victors. Still, it must be having something of an effect, as all of a sudden he's explaining his driving style to his friends. Iketani sees the chance to quickly learn Takumi's technique, and he asks him for a demo drive around Mt Akina. Meanwhile, it looks as if someone else is looking for Takumi's scalp. Takeshi Nakazato of the Night Kids is in town with his 32, and he's got sheer power and 4WD grip to pit against Takumi's drift style.
Battle 03: Challenge: Night Kids
Act 7. A Racer's Pride
Everyone's out on an errand, and Itsuki is left alone at the petrol station. Which is when Nakazato pulls up looking to challenge Takumi. Itsuki, proud of his best friend, and caught up in the moment, picks up the gauntlet. He doesn't realise that Takumi has proved what he wanted to, and has no desire to race again. Itsuki may be in trouble and he steels himself to do some serious grovelling. But racing is in Takumi's blood, whether he realises it or not, and as race day approaches, he's having second thoughts.
Act 8. Time's Almost Up!
The race between Nakazato and Takumi is drawing a massive crowd, far larger than that for Takumi's race with Keisuke. Everyone wants to see what will happen when the ultimate drift technique competes with the sheer power and 4WD grip of Nakazato's 32. But Takumi hasn't shown up. With Itsuki prepared to grovel and beg forgiveness, Iketani races to the Fujiwara tofu shop to find Takumi and convince him to race. But that isn't the problem, For once Takumi actually wants to race. It's just that Bunta has taken the car and left him in the lurch.
Act 9. Battle to the Limit
The race begins, and in a last minute change of plans, Ryousuke Takahashi joins the pursuit, wanting to get a better look at Takumi's technique from the best possible seat in the house. But Takumi has got problems. Not only is Nakazato pulling away, but his father has changed the settings on the 86 to give him more of an edge, but that means developing a new style in the middle of a race. Can Takumi adapt?
The 4:3 transfer isn't going to win any awards for elegance, with the show's age coming through quite clearly in the somewhat faded palette, minor print damage and grain, and horrible cine-wobble with each scene change. The character designs take a whole lot of getting used to. They may be faithful to the manga, and look unlike any other anime out there, but there's something a little freakish about them. Back in 1998, this was one of the first serial anime series to combine CGI and traditional 2D cel animation. It doesn't bother trying to hide the seams. Instead the race sequences look like they're demos of old Playstation games. Actually, while the car physics are minimal, the race sequences are put together well, and manage to hold the interest. Where the animation falls down completely is in the 2D CG interfaces, where the CG cars and the characters are on screen at the same time. What's surprising is that given the age of the show, and the somewhat experimental animation technique, it just about still works in 2008.
As mentioned, the English version is a Tricked Out edit. Cue plenty of Generation Pop special effects during the races, quad screen, split screen, mirror image, negative and funky dissolves. While in the Japanese version you can tell what the cars are doing, and marvel at some of the manoeuvres being attempted, you can see sod all in the English version.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and Japanese with optional translated subtitles and signs. Pretty impressive for a budget anime release. This is a show that can make use of surround effects, and the 5.1 is put to good use here, with the race sequences sounding awesome.
Again, the Tricked Out version is a heinous abomination. The dub takes the cast into the Valley, with a plethora of 'dudes' and 'bros'. The character names are simplified for Western ears, and the dialogue vanishes beneath the music. Incidentally, If you listen to the English version, all you get is hip-hop, specially commissioned tunes for the dub, but totally ineffective. Admittedly the Japanese music is also an acquired taste, with a hefty emphasis on Eurobeat tunes, but the variety and imagination means that your ears aren't left bleeding at the sameness of it all. The biggest crime has to be the cars. Originally, the creators of the anime went and painstakingly recorded the specific engine notes for each of the cars in the show. It's an amazing attention to detail that shows the love gone into the series. Along comes the English dub and replaces it all with a generic vroom vroom noise.
A Scanavo case that makes it easy to remove the discs! I never thought I'd see the day. But, two discs overlapping on the main panel, with one on the facing panel makes me curious as to why such a thick box was needed. It's twice the thickness of a normal case.
Ten years ago, Initial D was big, attracting a large fan base with its ongoing story and more adult storylines. It's your typical teenage rites of passage story, with a disaffected and disillusioned hero finding himself and his path in life by excelling at a somewhat illicit and cliquish peer activity. Just as Beck sees a teen uplifted through rock and roll, Takumi has his driving skills to empower him. With such a simple storyline accessible by a large demographic, it's no surprise that four series, several OVA episodes and films were commissioned. In the US, fans eagerly awaited the show's arrival, only to spit tacks at Tokyopop for their handling of the franchise, and the aftershocks can still be felt on message boards today. Initial D comes to the UK in 2008, and in many respects, it's missed the boat. The furore over the god awful dub turns out to be a storm in a teacup, as when all is said and done, you get both versions on the discs, so that you can choose for yourself.
More problematic is the age of the show. It certainly looks its ten years, if not a few years more, and the faithfulness to the manga in the character designs takes a whole lot of getting used to. Initial D will never be the most attractive of anime, and indeed even 9 episodes in; there were moments of graphical ineptness that had me cringing. But faithfulness to the manga is crippling in a far more fundamental way. The Initial D anime is pretty much a scene for scene retelling of the manga, with a little too much filler. It wasn't filler in the manga of course, as there is only so much you can do to portray an overtaking manoeuvre in 4 panels of artwork. There would invariably be a convoluted and technical explanation from one of the participants or observers. It's a degree of technical accuracy and passion that makes the manga still stand out today. But when animation can show you that same move at 24 frames a second with pinpoint accuracy and attention to detail, you don't really need the commentary anymore. But you get it in the anime anyway, and unfortunately James Allen, not Murray Walker, delivers it. The anime slows right down to a glacial pace, with whole episodes of just waiting around, talking, recaps and flashbacks. The most telling indictment is that the live action film, which covers the same ground as the anime, managed to tell more story, and develop the characters to a greater degree in under two hours, than the anime has thus far managed in 4 hours and 9 episodes.
Characterisation is a little thin too, with everyone's world revolving around street racing, with people speaking of little else and fantasizing about cars twenty-four seven. Piggish little Itsuki is most obviously the comic relief, but everyone else is defined by their attitudes on the racecourse. You have arrogant drivers, methodical, flamboyant and of course instinctive as in Takumi. It's Takumi who is the most rounded though, as he's initially uninterested in the street-racing scene, and indeed he's the stand out character in that he actually has the possibility of a social life, with a girl. Unfortunately Natsuki is the least developed of the characters thus far. She's a high school girl who has a sugar daddy, the implication being that she's getting paid in return for sexual favours. That little bombshell is practically avoided in the English version, while the original version just leaves it hanging, with her being playful and fun around Takumi, and apparently unaffected by her secret life, except to just evade the odd awkward question. What could be a tantalising characterisation is given short shrift in these nine episodes, and I'd have rather the story concentrated more on her relationship with Takumi than on Itsuki's personal problems getting a car.
But despite the weak presentation, the story is still a solid if unimpressive one. These nine episodes lay a strong foundation, and it's down to the subsequent episodes to build on them. It may look horrible, but Initial D has a good deal of potential to it. What makes Initial D attractive is the price. £13 for three discs of average anime is cheap enough to justify taking a chance, and with the second three-disc collection available for preorder at some vendors for as little as five pounds, it's hardly the riskiest of investments. Some of the character moments are strong, and the race sequences certainly get the blood pumping, and when all is said and done, it's still infinitely more satisfying than The Fast and The Furious. The only drawback is how padded out it is. But the price is cheap and cheerful, and the disc specs will suit the average picky anime fan. If you're looking for a little retro anime, Initial D is well worth a punt.