On the mythical mountain of Akina, a mysterious hoopty of a car rules the harrowing twists and turns of the mountain road. On the downhill, nobody can best this Toyota Trueno 86. It's a decent car, for sure--10 years ago. But somehow, this car passes brand new, tricked out, muscle cars with the greatest of ease. Maybe it's the car. More likely it's the skill of the driver behind the wheel: an unassuming high school student whose only care is not spilling a glass of water while delivering tofu for his father's store.
Initial D: First Stage, Part One is all about racing. More specifically, it's about drifting. If you have seen Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, then you have an idea about what this style of racing entails. Drivers race down a mountain road and when they approach a turn, they oversteer, and work their brakes causing their car to go into a controlled skid, allowing them to quickly maneuver corners.
Takumi drove his father's 86 five years before even receiving his license. He honed his skills on the mountain roads of Akina. His father, Bunta, was a legendary drift racer. In Takumi's little world, driving is mere afterthought. A chore. Bunta trained him to control the car by having him make deliveries while not spilling a glass of water placed on the console. Ever seen License to Drive where Corey Haim must pass his driver's test by not spilling Phillip Banks' cup of coffee? Same principle.
A rival team from another city challenges the local race team and Takumi's co-workers, the Akina Speed Stars. With the Speed Stars' best driver, Iketani, out of commission, they are a huge underdog to defend their home turf. As a last resort, they investigate who drives the mysterious 86 that rules the Akina roads. This leads them to Bunta. The Speed Stars beg him to race against their challengers. He accepts, but sends his disinterested son, Takumi, to the race instead hoping he will discover a passion.
Takumi is a prodigal driver and poses an immense challenge to the established racers on the drifting circuit. Initial D's story is a paint-by-numbers plotline that sets Takumi up as an unknowing uber racer that discovers his calling and bests some overconfident opponents. He gets a girl, he wins friends, he makes his father proud, everybody's happy. Nothing in this series is surprising or original, yet it still is fun to watch. You know, without any doubt, that Takumi is going to win. Yet you sit there mesmerized by the racing action and curious how Takumi will pull off the upset. Initial D knows its strengths and much of the show is spent behind the wheel.
None of the characters in Initial D stand out early on. It takes an inordinate amount of time for most of the characters become interesting. The lead, Takumi, is detached and really does not care about anything, much less about whether he wins or loses a silly car race. Near the end of the set, Takumi grows a little as he begins to care and even stands up for his friend, Itsuki. The potential exists for Takumi to develop into a character that viewers will like beyond seeing him drive a car really fast. Itsuki exists solely for comedic relief and he has his moments, but I would not have cared if he drove his car off the side of the mountain until the last episodes. Takumi's father, Bunta, is the easiest character to enjoy. He has a mysterious racing past as the "Ghost of Akina" and is portrayed as the Yoda of Drifting.
The characters may be bland, but the cars carry the show. Racing action makes up a significant portion of the show. In typical sports anime fashion, the race matchups tend to span across several episodes, but never get dull. Takumi's 86 stands as the perfect underdog. In a straight-line race, the 86 wouldn't stand a chance against the other souped up cars that appear in the show. The mountain roads, however, are far from straight lines. This 86, which is routinely laughed at as Takumi drives it to the race, quickly transitions from hoopty to legend. One character even copycats Takumi and buys his own 86--or what he thinks is an 86.
Initial D seems to be a car aficionado's dream anime. I wouldn't know because I know next to nothing about cars. I suspect, with all the auto jargon that is dropped in each episode and race action, that race fans will love this franchise. Even non-racing fans, such as myself, will find the story simple yet familiar, innocent, and easy to digest. Initial D: First Stage, Part One contains the 13 episodes of the the 26 episode first season. Be warned: if this set hooks you, Initial D is a huge franchise encompassing three television seasons, an ongoing manga series, a movie, and several OVA's.
Audio: This DVD set includes a Japanese Stereo track and a new English Dolby Digital 5.1 dub. The 5.1 mix is well done exhibiting great clarity and racing sounds from all directions. I watched the English dub throughout the entire series. It's a solid dub, but nothing remarkable. A new and, presumably, improved dub is wonderful, but using somewhat modern vernacular, such as "off the chain," in what is obviously a much older show creates a anachronistic mismatch between look and sound. Thankfully, the new dub script rarely resorted to newer slang. When viewers watch older shows such as Initial D, there is an expectation of dated slang. It's part of the allure, like the awesome soundtrack.
Video: This is anime series originally aired in 1998 and it looks even older. The video is presented in 4:3 full frame aspect ratio. The colors are relatively dull and the image has many instances of noticeable dot crawl and pixelization. Studio Gallop used CGI to generate a majority of the race action. Unfortunately, this CGI does not match the look of the cel animation and transitions between character shots and auto racing shots are jarring. The graphics have not aged well and look worse than an average Xbox 360 racing game. The cel art also looks awkward and unappealing. Who taught these artists how to draw mouths? Many of the characters have what appear to be bird beaks when they talk.
Extras: The typical FUNimation assembly line extras: trailers and textless opening and closing.
Final Thoughts: Initial D is a conundrum. By all accounts, I should have hated this show. I despise auto racing. I don't know anything about cars. The storyline is simplistic. None of the characters are particularly compelling or exhibit much depth. The artwork is unappealing and dated. Yet, with all of these negatives stacked against Initial D, I actually enjoyed watching the show. Yes, it is mired in motor technobabble, but you don't need to know anything about cars at all to get the drift. People enjoy a winner and they love underdogs even more. Watching the aloof Takumi handily defeat racers with supposedly superior cars is way more fun than it has any business being. Recommended.