Intial D, Aquarion, Speed Grapher, and more!
a semi-weekly column by Todd Douglass, Don Houston, John Sinnott, and Wen-Tsai
Hey kiddies! Well, the snow is melting and spring time seems to be upon us depending where you're located in relation to the equator that is. There is another quiet column this time around given the slow state of the industry and all. This week we take a look at titles such as Speed Grapher, Shuffle, Moon Phase, Blue Gender, and Aquarion. John also gives us a sneak peak at Initial D's Blu-ray release while WTK drops some bargains onto our laps!
One of the things that keeps anime fans coming back for more is the wildly creative shows that pop up every once in a while. Yeah, a lot of mecha and fan service shows seem virtually interchangeable, but programs like Paranoia Agent and Excel Saga are so different that they are hard to pigeon-hole. Another such show is Speed Grapher. Set in a dystopian future, the show tells a unique story filled with sex, violence, and corruption. An engaging and enticing show, this series goes beyond the typical mature anime program and has a very solid story with fully fleshed out characters and some true surprises.
The second volume of Shuffle settles down to a fairly common formula; putting the lead character Rin in different awkward situations and having he and his friends pull together to solve whatever problems may crop up. While it's a little disappointing that the program didn't accent the unique features that were present in volume one, this light comedy/harem show is still a lot of fun, especially for viewers who enjoy the genre.
Mecha are just cool. Yes, it's geeky to admit it, but the idea of a giant robot fighting some monster is just neat. The only problem is that it has been done so many times, in exactly the same manner, that the shows all start to run together after a while. To really get people interested in a new mecha show you have to have something more than uber-powerful robots. And that's where Aquarion fails. The show has some neat designs and some wonderful images, but plot wise it really doesn't bring anything new to the table.
Vampires are a common theme when it comes to anime and quite honestly it's easy to lose track of how many blood sucking shows have been released over the years. FUNimation's Moon Phase has proven to be popular for the publisher and the recently released boxed set is a great opportunity for anyone who missed it the first time around. Featuring a young girl and an unwitting photographer as its main characters, Moon Phase is decidedly different than the typical vampire tale. It's cute, funny, and serious all at the same time which creates a unique atmosphere which sets it apart from the others.
Keeping up with the FUNimation vampire theme, Black Blood Brothers recently received its second volume. In case you missed the first one this show features an apocalyptic world where vampires and humans must combat the Kowloon Children, who are basically vampire vampires. Old Blood Jiro and his brother are traveling together trying to reach a special place where they can supposedly live out in peace. In this world though peace is elusive and this installment introduces some old enemies who would love nothing more than to stop Jiro in his tracks.
When done right science fiction horror can be a lot of fun. FUNimation's recent addition to the Viridian Collection proves that fact. Blue Gender came out quite some time ago but it proves itself to be a classic and suspenseful series that deserves some time in your DVD player. Taking place in the future, giant bug-like things have evolved and threaten to destroy the entire human race. A ragtag pack of survivors lives on to fight but a cryogenically frozen patient from the past may hold the key to saving Earth's future. It's an intriguing tale that holds some realistic emotions which helps set it apart from other shows.
by John Sinnott
One of the most popular manga titles in Japan is Initial D, a car racing story that appeals to young and old readers alike. (According to the bonus features on this disc, the manga was named after the English term "starting from the D," a phrase I've never heard used.) As happens with many successful comics in Japan, this story was turned into an anime series. They didn't stop there though. There are scale models of the vehicles in the comic, clothing, remote controlled cars, a computer game and even a collectible card game. In 2005 the franchise was expanded in a way that few other manga comics have been: a live action movie was filmed. This film, entitled simply Initial D, has now been chosen by publisher Tai Seng to be their first Blu-ray release. The disc has a good though not reference image quality and an excellent sound design. A fast paced show, this is a good action movie that moves so fast you'll hardly notice the simplistic plot.
Takumi Fujiwara (Jay Chou) is the son of an ex-race car driver, Bunta (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). Having given up the raceway years ago, Bunta makes tofu for a living. When he's not working he's drinking or passed out on the floor, so Takumi finds himself having to deliver his father's product late at night to the customers. He's been doing this for five years, ever since he was 13, and has driven the twisting Mount Akina road so many times he could do it in his sleep. During these years he's honed his driving skills and can make it around the hairpin curves in nothing flat.
After passing a street racer on the mountain road one night, Takumi finds himself the talk of the town. Everyone wants to see him race again, even though he doesn't want to. Was it a fluke that his father's old Toyota AE86 actually beat a souped up GTR? Pressured by his father to race, Takumi finds out that he's a much better driver than anyone suspected, and creates a whole new set of troubles for himself.
This was a fun and light movie in the same vein as Fast and Furious. I haven't seen the anime or read the manga, so I can't comment on how close it is to the other versions of the story, but this film was fun, concentrating on fast races and a lot of kinetic motion to make up for the rather thin plot. It was also surprisingly funny, with Chapman To nearly stealing the show with his hilarious portrayal of Itsuki, Takumi's best friend and a wanna-be racer who just has no clue. The only part of the film that didn't work well was the romantic subplot between Takumi and the attractive Natsuki (Anne Suzuki.) This was the only thing that seemed to slow the film down and this plot line was left dangling, presumably to be tied up in a sequel.
Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou does a surprisingly good job as Takumi, a shy introvert with a fierce competitive streak. He plays his role with a calm almost bored demeanor that makes Takumi seem unsure of what he wants and also very competent behind the wheel.
This is a race movie though, and the real stars are the fast moving cars. Happily, the action scenes are impressive and very dynamic and really drive the film (no pun intended.) Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak did an excellent job of creating the races, making them look very exciting and even though the same stretch of road is raced over again and again, it never gets dull or monotonous. The use a lot of fancy camera work to bring this off, including some very effective split screen scenes, but in never seems too stylized or flashy. Some of the more impressive shots include one that dives inside of the Toyota AE86's engine and shows the pistons pounding away and the constant explosions that turn the wheels. There were also shots where the 'camera' started on the hood, pulled back through the passenger's compartment and then through the car that was following. The lightning fast cuts served to built up the tension and make the whole film seem to speed along. While, as I mentioned, the plot was a bit simplistic, what they lack in substance they more than make up with style.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded disc presents the film with its original
aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it looks pretty good overall. There are
many scenes that are very sharp with tight lines and all the detail that
we've come to expect from HD releases. Even the smoke coming off
the wheels as they skidded around hairpin curves was well defined and lacking
any blocking or other defects. Unfortunately that's not always the
case. Sometimes the picture is soft and not as well defined.
Luckily these instances are fairly rare. The colors are solid throughout
and the blacks are nice and inky. On the digital side of things the
disc looks pretty good. There is some banding in a few places, mainly
when going from light to dark in the same scene. Aliasing and other
common defects aren't noticeable; however there is a touch of edge enhancement
in several places. Not a reference quality disc, but not a bad one
There are a good number of audio options included with this disc. I viewed the film with the Cantonese lossless PCM 5.1 track, and spot checked the Cantonese, Mandarin, and English DD 5.1 tracks. They all sounded very good, but the PCM track was a joy. It was a full and open sounding track that put viewers right in the driver's seat. The race scenes were especially impressive with the sounds of reving engines panning across the screen and from front to back making the viewer seem like they are in the passenger's seat. If you enjoy active, immersive audio tracks you should give this disc a spin. There weren't any dropouts or other audio defects.
There are optional subtitles in English as well as Traditional and Simplified Chinese.
This disc ports over most of the bonus items from the SD release of the film, leaving off only a photo gallery and a text piece. It would have been nice to have included these, but I can't get too upset about such a minor omission. Unfortunately all the bonus material is in SD.
The bonus times start out with 16-minute behind-the-scenes featurette which is mainly a bit of fluff, but it also shows them filming some of the car stunts, and includes interviews with the star and directors.
There are also two minute video biographies of the main characters, comparing them with the manga version and having the directors and actors talk briefly about the roles.
The 20-minute making-of featurette covers much of the same footage as the behind-the-scenes extra but there are enough differences to make this worth watching. There are also nine minutes worth of deleted scenes, five minutes worth of outtakes, 13-minutes worth of highlights of the promotions they used to advertise the film, and a series of theatrical and TV spots. A very good selection of bonus features.
This film was incredibly popular in Asia, and it's easy to see why. The high octane, fast paced film has a lot of action and sympathetic characters that are easy to root for. Even though the plot is pretty simple, the film has some impressive race scenes and a lot of enjoyable comic relief. This BD has excellent sound and a solid, though not terribly impressive picture quality with a nice set of bonus features. It is an easy disc to recommend.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.
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