I was looking into my brother’s anime DVD collection recently because, well, I’ve been looking for something to watch. I know I can just Netflix and chill and all that; that would be fine. However, I was just itching to try out some classic anime I’ve missed. I happened to come across an anime I actually did see but I only caught the tail end of its run. The anime in question is Initial D. Specifically, I watched a few episodes of Initial D: Fourth Stage when it was broadcast on Animax. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stomach the dubbing because, for some strange reason, Animax Philippines thought it would be a good idea to dub it in Tagalog! I don’t care if they got some bigshot local actress like Angel Locsin to play one of the characters. Tagalog dubbed animes just sound weird to me.
Anyway, over the next few weeks, I did watch all of the first season of Initial D, which is called First Stage. I still haven’t gotten beyond that yet but Second Stage and beyond can wait. What I’ll be reviewing this time is the First Stage of Initial D in its entirety.
Initial D: First Stage basically focuses on perpetually bored Takumi Fujiwara. On the surface, he seems like a very meek and mild-mannered teenager who works part time at a gas station with his best friend, Itsuki, who dreams of becoming a street racer and joining the Akina Speedstars. When a rival racing team, the Akagi Red Suns, challenge the Akina Speedstars, the Speedstar’s defacto leader is injured during a practice run, they turn to a legendary racer who drives an Toyota Sprinter Trueno, AKA an AE86, who supposedly defeated (by accident) the #2 driver of the Akagi Red Suns. While they suspected the driver to be Takumi’s father. Unbeknownst to everyone, it was Takumi who was driving the AE86 that night and he’s even amassed a vast amount of experience driving the Akina track. This launches Takumi into the world of street racing and Initial D.
If that summary comes off as very long winded, well, that’s because I’m kinda mirroring the pace of the first 1/3 of First Stage! The entire premise of Initial D takes a whole 5 episodes to cover it! That’s rather ironic, especially when you consider Initial D is about racing wherein speed is paramount! They do use the time to try to build up the suspense so the payoff of seeing a bored Takumi and his supposedly dumpy AE86 beat a skilled driver manning a turbo charged race car like the FD3S. While I will admit I wanted things to move at a much brisker pace at the start, the anime does start to get a whole lot better once they get over that speed bump.
After the first race, the story does move along but it does seem to fall under the “monster of the week” formula. After defeating the Keisuke Takahashi, who’s the #2 racer of the Akagi Red Suns, more racers come out of the woodwork to try to challenge Takumi. Most of the time, it’s always going to be someone who’s a skilled driver and a much more powerful performance vehicle than the underdog’s underpowered AE86. It’s definitely a whole lot of fun and intense even though both foes actually aren’t face to face when they do each battle. This is mostly done through more of an inner monologue from the drivers as well as the excited observations from the spectators.
I don’t know much about cars or racing for that matter. This is why I do appreciate a lot of the racing jargon and gobbledygook they spout throughout the races. I call them that because that’s how they sound like when I first watched the races. They do try to explain things like proper racing line as well as inertial drift. I get the general gist of it all but I still can’t wrap my head around how it all works. Maybe I’m just a dummy because it took me a long while to fully understand Takumi’s technique of sinking his wheels into the rain gutters and using them to hook the AE86 more securely to the road like a train using a train track. It’s not like the explanation wasn’t clear; I just couldn’t really visualize how it would work in real life. Wouldn’t doing that cause the underside of the car to scrape badly or cause the tires to rip? Then again, what do I know?
I do have to talk about the characters or, more specifically, the character designs. It took me a while to really get used to the art style of Initial D. Most of the human characters have somewhat simple angles, which is so much unlike traditional anime character designs. There are a few exceptions, like Ryosuke Fujiwara, but they mostly look pretty flat. It’s kind of bad but it does give Initial D a very distinct look and you can tell if a character comes from the show or not. They do make up for it a bit with some wacky personalities, even though these personalities do feel a little trite. While I never particularly hated any one character, I couldn’t really say who my favorite is. If a gun were pointed to my head and I had to choose, I guess it would probably be Bunta, Takumi’s father because of how nonchalant he behaves but, underneath it all, it does seem like he has a plan to mold his son into the best street racer there is.
I believe Initial D is one of the first animes which tried to utilize 3D animation as much as possible… and it shows! While I would say the driving sequences are riveting and the 3D animators did an impressive job getting a lot of the physics look real, the cars look like they came from an early PlayStation 2 game! The car models definitely look terrible by today’s standards. Although they physics of the cars are great, some of the traditional 2D animation looks like they took some shortcuts during the racing scenes. There are more than just a few times when a car would race pass spectators and you can clearly see the people watching are just still images. It’s laughable but it kind of adds to the charm of the show for me.
However limited the animation can be, Initial D more than makes up for this with one of the best soundtracks and most unique music style directions ever. Instead of using a traditional J-Pop or a rocking soundtrack, they decided to use Eurobeat disco tracks during the races. This is something which shouldn’t work… but it does! I will even say the pulse-pounding Eurobeat tracks even heighten the viewing experience of the races! I guess it helps they’re just super fast and energetic. After watching a few episodes, I even went online to find a few of the Eurobeat songs from the anime! I personally love Don’t Stop the Music, Heartbeat, Remember Me and No One Sleeps in Tokyo. If I ever learn how to drive, I’m definitely going to make sure I have a few Eurobeat tracks downloaded and ready to play on the radio!
While I wholeheartedly enjoyed Initial D: First Stage, I know a lot of anime lovers who won’t be able to get over how old it looks. To them, I say they should give it a chance. Once they get over the extremely slow start, Initial D’s charm does shine through. I know there’s a new series of films which does focus on the events of First Stage and it has improve animation as well as 3D models. I have yet to find and watch them myself. However, I don’t think the new films have the Eurobeat sound which does elevate the racing scenes in First Stage. For that alone, it’s worth the watch because of how unique an experience it delivers.
Have you seen Initial D: First Stage? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!