Review for Initial D Legend 1: Awakening
This is actually the third variation of this story that we are getting in the UK. That’s pretty impressive when it comes to adaptations of a Japanese manga, and not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing manga either. But there’s something about Initial D, the late nineties manga about the Japanese drift racing scene that draws its fans. Certainly it’s successful enough to warrant anime adaptations from 1999 all the way to the present day, in the form of series, OVAs and features.
The first dose of Initial D that we got in the UK wasn’t even Japanese. It was a Cantonese live action feature film adaptation of the manga that we got on DVD from Premier Asia, and it was pretty good. Certainly I had more fun with it than The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift which was doing the rounds the very same year. Then it was VDI who brought us the first series, or at least the first instalment. Like so many companies that merely dabble in anime, they turned out to be a one release wonder, bundling the first three Tokyopop DVDs in an Amaray fatpack, collecting the first nine episodes of 26 episode series. I didn’t rate the show particularly when I watched it, but through subsequent re-watches, I’ve started to warm to the show, and I now lament that it was never completed in the UK, instead going the way of other mayfly UK anime like Inuyasha, and Tetsujin 28.
MVM have committed to bringing us all three of the most recent Initial D Legends movies, which is a safer bet than promising us all 86 episodes of the four TV series plus four OVAs plus the first feature film, taking us from the 1st Stage to the 5th Stage. But the Initial D Legends movies re-animate the original story, covering Takumi Fujiwara’s rise from humble tofu delivery boy to legendary street racer. They cover the first three races in his career against the Takahashi brothers and Takeshi Nakazato, two of which I have already seen in that live action movie and the abortive series release.
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.
For when Keisuke Takahashi, hot rod driver of the Akagi Red Suns team get blown away one night on Mount Akina, by none other than a tofu delivery driver in a battered old Trueno 8-6, he becomes desperate to race him for real, to the point where the Red Suns challenge the local racers, the Akina Speed Stars. Only no-one in the Speed Stars knows who drives that 8-6.
The first Initial D Legend movie gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic NTSC transfer on this single layer disc (the film is only 64 minutes long). It’s a nice, progressive transfer as well, smooth and fluid, which makes the race sequences look even stronger when you play the disc on compatible equipment. What a difference fifteen years makes. No longer the clumsy amalgam of plasticky CG cars with 2D cel-animated characters, Initial D really looks the part in this feature film, with the vehicles brilliantly detailed and blending into their environment. Initial D was never the prettiest of manga when it came to the characters, and that downright ugly look carried through to the anime. This feature film retains that awkward design style, but tones it down a bit, softening the character designs to a more modern aesthetic. Where the film really shines is the character animation, which is rich and detailed, no longer the static budget saving animation of the series. There are a couple of problems apparent here, digital banding for one, and some aliasing and shimmer on fine line art detail, that might make the Blu-ray release the preferable option.
Both the movie and that first series were rather contentious, in that western distributors didn’t like the J-Rock music, so they replaced it with the kind techno-dirge that was in vogue back in the early 2000s. You actually had two versions of the anime series on the discs, one with weird digital effects, mirrors, negatives, and digital fades to ‘jazz up’ the race sequences as well. Thankfully that revisionist nonsense no longer happens with anime licences, the anime producers have the power now. You only get the original music on this anime, although I have to admit that it lacked the ‘Beasty Shout’ to really appeal to me.
You have the choice of DD 5.1 English and Japanese with translated subtitles and signs, locked to the appropriate track. While the music may be nondescript, the surround really does come alive to bring across the action of the race sequences. You’ll be hearing tyre squeal and engine roar from all of your speakers. One thing that I did miss was the rev limiter warning chime on the 8-6, which was memorable from the original series. The subtitles are timed accurately and free of typos, but Sentai Filmworks who authored this disc are veering towards fansub territory with their translations. They insist on the term ‘touge racing’ and stick a translation note on screen saying that it means ‘mountain racing’. What’s wrong with using ‘mountain racing’ in the subtitles?
The disc presents its content with static menus, a jacket picture, and a translated English credit reel after the film.
On the disc, you’ll find a short preview of the second movie, Initial D Legend 2: Racer. You’ll also find trailers for Girls und Panzer der Film, Gatchaman the Movie, Bodacious Space Pirate: Abyss of Hyperspace, and The Garden of Words.
I have a soft spot for the Initial D series, or rather those few episodes of it that I have seen. It’s an anime show that really appeals to petrol-heads, which surprisingly isn’t a genre often catered for in anime. Offhand, I can only think of this and You’re Under Arrest. It’s also a sports anime after a fashion, if you can call the illicit street racing scene a sport. Takumi Fujiwara is the unexpected underdog who comes from nowhere to turn the racing scene upside down. What makes it so entertaining is that he is so unlikely. He doesn’t take it seriously at first, just something that he picked up while making tofu deliveries, unknowingly egged on by his racer dad. His ignorance of the finer details of racing comes off as laconic insouciance when he turns out to be so good at it.
This first film really only establishes Takumi’s racing credentials. Mount Akina is a notorious street racer haunt, with the local team, the Speed Stars treating it as home turf. Naturally that invites other teams to come and show them up, and when it comes to the Akagi Red Suns, the Akina Speed Stars reputation doesn’t look like much. It’s when Keisuke Takahashi is practicing, learning the hilly route, that he’s utterly destroyed by the Trueno 8-6 masterfully drifting through the corners. If he had known it was a delivery boy on his route, his confidence would no doubt have evaporated. But when the Red Suns challenge the Speed Stars, it quickly becomes apparent that the Speed Stars are totally outclassed, so the film becomes about tracking down and recruiting that tofu delivery boy. The fact that Takumi is right under their collective noses makes the shock even funnier when they learn the truth.
While I do enjoy that first series, I do have to admit that for a show about fast cars, it is slow and deliberate. The story that is related here takes five episodes of that series, some two hours of screen time. The pace in the film is far more agreeable, and the short run time is ideal for what isn’t exactly a deep and complex storyline. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Having said all that, the first film does have to sacrifice something to make its runtime, and that is most of the extraneous character development. Itsuki for one goes from the comic relief to just plain obnoxious, and while they can’t cut down the romance with Natsuki too much (it is key to persuading Takumi to race), the darker aspects of Natsuki’s character are missing in this film.
This modern remake emphasises the action and speed of Initial D, and as such is a great deal of fun to watch. It’s fine working as a standalone story, but I think fans of the original manga and TV series will appreciate it more as a companion piece, as Initial D has brushed up a treat for the HD age.