Initial D - Stage 1

Right up front, I have a confession to make: for the vast majority of my life, I have lived in Indianapolis. Home of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing", you can't live in the area too long without getting interested in some peripheral way in auto sports. I've been to the Indy 500 a few times and listened regularly to radio broadcasts of races (since television coverage is blacked out in much of the state). I'm not an auto enthusiast by any stretch. I can't tell a gasket from a piston. But I do enjoy the excitement of racing, even if my experience is only with guys running in an oval a few hundred times in the middle of the midwestern United States.

But Initial D is about a very different style of racing--street racing, and downhill racing in particular--that I know nothing about. We don't have downhill racing here; in fact, if you find a hill large enough to race down in the state of Indiana, let me know. There are actually many other factors that should turn me off to Initial D: bizarre character designs, an overabundance of gearhead details, less than superb CG animation, and a Eurotrash dance soundtrack.

It's a wonder, looking at all the factors against it, that I should like Initial D. But, in fact, I love it. I haven't been this addicted to a show in some time.

The lead of Initial D is Takumi, an 18-year-old who works at a local gas station. He has no ambitions, no big dreams...the most that he's ever really done is deliver tofu every night for his dad's little shop. But that drive home every early morning on Mount Akina for the last five years has made Tak into quite an expert driver. Trying to get home as quickly as possible to fall into bed, he's learned the art of drifting, a technique that allows a driver to continue running at high velocity through sharp turns. He doesn't think much of it, frankly; to him, it's a means to the end of getting some shut-eye.

That perspective changes when his friend, the lovable but clueless racer wannabe Itsumi, tries to get him involved in the scene on the Mount Akina run. As the series progresses, Takumi goes from an almost unwilling participant to a young man excited about racing. With his instinctive understanding of a car's feel and strengths, Takumi is able to shock the downhill community by squashing his opponents in his Eight-Six, an under appreciated car that in his hands is able to defeat more popular and powerful vehicles. Takumi's challenged, though, when he starts racing off the course he's run for the whole of his driving life. There's also the matter of Natsuki, a sweet girl that really seems to like Tak...though she's also in a darkly mysterious relationship with an older man. As Stage 1 (which is the official name for season one) unfolds, Takumi's simple life is going to get very complicated very quickly.

From the very start of Initial D, there are things that may annoy the casual audience, and most of them are in the show's visuals. First, the characters look plain weird, with lips that almost don't seem attached to their faces and heads that sometimes look they were drawn separately from the torsos. Surprisingly enough, this is actually an extremely faithful rendition of the manga's character design. At first, it's downright weird, but as you watch long enough, the designs don't really matter much. (And manga fans will be pleased by the adaptation of the entire show--after reading 7 volumes, I'm impressed with how well it all follows.)

Second (and this one will bother the most people) is the integration of CG cars into the mix. In most of the racing shots, computer generated cars take over the action. As the show was released a few years back in Japan, these just don't look very good. Anybody who's played Doom 3 on a top-end machine will have seen their home computer spewing out better graphics. The CG cars lack detail, even license plates, which is disturbing. The tofu signs from the side of the Eight-Six disappear. As the show progresses, the CG does get better. However, I would have preferred it had the show just gone with hand-drawn animation for the whole thing.

This may sound like I hated the look of Initial D, which is not true. It's actually pretty well animated, with a more realistic palate than the hypercolor images I keep seeing in modern anime. It's television quality animation, but enjoyable for that.

The story itself is where the show shines. Initial D could easily have become another "race of the week" show with each new competitor introduced and then decimated. But Initial D takes time to set up both its characters and its races. Races usually take up about an episode and a half, and yet they aren't boring or stretched out too long due to the importance of the characters and their reactions. For my dislike of the CGI mentioned above, the races were consistently exciting and fun to watch.

In a strange turn of events, I also found myself learning a lot about cars and racing during the show. Although there are quite a few details about different cars and styles, it's presented in such a way that it's fascinating. The various car types, with their steering, handling, and breaking peculiarities, make a difference. But to Initial D's credit, it never falls into the trap of Takumi having to figure out the trick of the week in order to win. He does have to understand his competitors, but we never feel like it's formulaic.

Meanwhile, I like that though the show revolves around cars and racing, there are significant plots underneath. Takumi's friends are not just filler characters; they are a vital part of the show. Itsumi in particular is not only great comic relief but also a welcome connection for those of us who really don't understand racing. The romantic tones are there, but they aren't overdone. Granted, a trip to a water park in episode 20 gets a little more into the fan service than necessary, but the characters and their relationships progress at a believable pace. Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the reality of it all. So many shows just make you suspend disbelief too often, even ones set in the everyday. It's nice to have a great series grounded in the real world.

You can find fault with Stage 1 in a few places. They aren't showstoppers, but they can draw you out of the experience. For one, where are the cops? You can't tell me that illegal and potentially dangerous racing can happen at 10:00pm every Saturday night in the same place and the police not investigate.

Second, the show uses enjo kosai as a plot device without really dealing with its ramifications. Enjo kosai translates as "assisted dating", but what it really amounts to something akin to prostitution. It typically involves a much older man who pays a young woman, usually between 14-18, to go out with him. It's consensual for both parties, and it can amount to anything from a simple walk in the park to intimate favors, negotiated for cash. Because of the unusually low age of consent in Japan, this isn't all that rare, unfortunately. Initial D shows us this as part of a minor plot device, but it's just that. Without the background or the seriousness of the problem at hand, it can be misunderstood...and it's a little creepy if you do understand it. It doesn't derail the show, but it makes it a little less than perfect.

Finally, the ending of the show is fantastic, yet not perfect. Many plot strands are left hanging for another season. Although the show is about racing, the romantic threads aren't resolved in any meaningful way. Though I have to say I'm very excited to watch the next season, a bit more wrap-up would have been nice.

Be prepared: Initial D is a show that invites you to watch mass quantities of episodes at once. Although not all the episodes have cliffhanger endings, the show is done so well and leaves the viewer dangling often enough that you want to just keep going through it. Although I am comforted to know that Tokyopop, the American distributor of the show, is releasing a DVD set of the first 15 episodes bundled together, their release schedule has been atrocious. Their DVDs only have three episodes on a disc, and it's simply not enough, especially when you hit one of those "wait and see" endings. A show like this cries out for box sets; at least Tokyopop is belatedly doing the right thing.

Where Tokyopop has not done the right thing is in respecting the audience. In its original incarnation, the show featured Japanese variations on European pop dance tracks. Frankly, it's a style of music I just don't like. However, the way it's integrated into the show is so good that I know a few of the songs by heart now! Tokyopop did leave the unaltered Japanese language version on the discs, which is much appreciated.

However, the dub track is another story. The dub version of the show includes changed character names, more profanity, "hip" dialogue, and a hard rock soundtrack that often completely changes the tone of the show. And that's the only dub track you get...if you're a dub fan and want to hear the original soundtrack or the original names, you're out of luck. If you like dubs, Toykopop also thinks you'll like the "Tricked Out" version of the show, which supposedly makes the show more exciting by introducing amateurish fades, dissolves, split-screens, and such to the races. I was only able to watch a few minutes of this version before getting utterly disgusted. So keep in mind that my rating is only for the original version, which dub fans cannot unfortunately enjoy.

Initial D was a huge hit in Japan, where it has spawned two more series and a film. From my limited knowledge, it hasn't picked up a big audience here, which is too bad. My score is a little lower than I personally feel just because there are some minor problems. But don't let that stop you if Initial D interests you at all. It's simply the best show I've seen in a long time.

Initial D Stage 1 -- profanity, mild violence, dangerous/illegal street racing, indirect references to underage prostitution -- A-