Initial D (Volume 1: Akina's Downhill Specialist) Review
Ah, Initial D... with this title, we come to TOKYOPOP's most controversial DVD release to date. Not due to any salacious content, obscene language, or gore-splashed mayhem, no; it's solely a matter of how the company chose to handle the Western release of this TV series, which has a small but very vocal fanbase. But before we get into all that, I'd better establish the basic concept.
Briefly put, Initial D is about some Japanese high school kids and their involvement in the world of 'drift racing' (i.e., knowing precisely how to slalom a race car at high speed down treacherous mountain roads in the middle of the night without ending up a smoking wreck at the bottom of the nearest ravine). The key protagonist is a guy named Takumi Fujiwara, who despite being the most laid-back kid you're ever likely to meet (in fact, he seems half-asleep most of the time) turns out by a random plot device to be the best drift racer in the area. His mates are considerably more geared (no pun intended) into the racing scene and can't fathom why Takumi isn't similarly fired up about it. Oh, and there's some side-plot concerning a love interest for our 'hero', but that's on the level of teen romance (with some potentially darker overtones). And there you have the show in a nutshell.
Having started life as a manga [Japanese comics] series back in 1996 (in fact, it's still running as a weekly serial in Young Magazine), Initial D made the jump into television fairly quickly, the first season of the animé version being broadcast on Japanese TV over the course of 1998... and then followed by the obligatory sequels (TV, OAV, and film). TOKYOPOP licensed the property for Western distribution and began releasing it on DVD in 3-episode bites in 2003.
So why the brouhaha from fans? Well, it's like this... the current state of animé distribution in North America is such that several companies have somehow got it into their heads that kids over there won't like (or perhaps won't 'get') Japanese animation unless these shows are heavily Westernised. So in an effort to appease what they consider to be a large untapped slice of the potential sales market, they make changes that inevitably offend the more dedicated fans of animé, who justifiably contend that there's no need to 'dumb down' these series. (A prominent example of this in recent years was FUNimation's retooling of Yu Yu Hakusho, although that was prompted by the fact that it was to be broadcast on American children's television.)
The odd thing about this case is that TOKYOPOP has never dropped the ball like this before. Up until their release of Initial D, the company had a fairly rock-solid reputation as being one that understood where fans of animé were coming from and wouldn't mess with the product. (They even call their line of English-language translated manga '100% Authentic Manga' because they take care to publish it right-to-left, etc.) Which is why it's puzzling to me how they could make the decision to take a niche (but popular) series and completely revamp it... both in their manga and on DVD.
Now before the otakus out there completely lose their cool, it's important to note that all of these bizarre changes to the animé are available as an alternate take of the episodes, and in fact the originals are all included on the same disc. So if you don't like what I'm about to tell you regarding TOKYOPOP's 'Tricked Out' version (the English dub), you can just pretend it doesn't exist and tell your DVD player to make tracks for the 'Classic' version instead.
I'll get to the meat of their modifications later in this write-up, but a quick run-down would include: 1, changing the names of all the key characters to sound more 'Western' (so Takumi becomes 'Tak', his pal Itsuki is now 'Iggy', his gal Natsumi 'Natalie'... you get the idea); 2, futzing about with core story elements, even when the result makes no sense whatsoever (Takumi learns how to handle those mountain hairpins because he spends 5 years delivering fresh tofu to restaurants/resorts/hotels at 4am - prior to the breakfast crush - but in the English version, 'Tak' is a pizza delivery boy... because you know everyone orders pizza at 4am!); 3, gutting the original Japanese techno soundtrack and replacing it with cheesy American songs and dubious sound effects; and 4, fiddling with the actual animation to create dodgy video dissolves and split-screen effects that weren't in the original (and no surprise, as they look awful).
So has TOKYOPOP shot itself in the foot here? To hear the loyal aficionados of Initial D tell the tale, the answer is yes. There are even online petitions out there trying to convince animé fans never to buy any more of the company's products, but this reeks of overreaction. After all, everyone makes mistakes now and then... and the unaltered version of the show is provided on each disc (even if it is a bit cheeky of TOKYOPOP to list the running time as 150 minutes when there is actually only 75 minutes of episodes in two competing formats). And to be honest, my personal opinion after watching these early instalments is that Initial D doesn't warrant this level of passion pro or con; it's a perfectly watchable show, but nothing stupendous or groundbreaking. Light, fluffy entertainment which will appeal to those into the racing scene or just blokes who like fast cars doesn't require these high levels of angst. Really.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
1: 'The Ultimate Tofu Store Drift'
At high school, we meet Takumi, his rabid-car-fanatic friend Itsuki, and (briefly) a girl named Natsuki whom Takumi seems to have had some past dealings with (and with whom Itsuki ludicrously believes he stands a chance). Itsuki's fixated upon the idea of buying a car and has hatched a plan to get a summer job to pay for it… but tries to rope Takumi in for half of the cost as well. Later we meet their shift manager at the petrol station, a schoolmate of theirs named Iketani… who apparently races on the side as part of the 'Akina Speed Stars' (Mt. Akina being the name of the nearby mountain on which they race). Naturally Itsuki is falling all over himself to get invited, while Takumi looks bored of the whole idea.
Cut to closing time. A chance dialogue between Iketani and his boss (the station owner) reveals that while the former's group think they're the fastest racers on the hill, there's actually someone better… and, would you believe, it's the guy who owns the local tofu delivery shop! With the groundwork thus laid, we see some 'uninvited guests' turn up on the very night that Iketani's team use for their weekly races. Apparently these are representatives of the 'Red Suns', a rival racing club that is rumoured to be the fastest in the prefecture. Despite this reputation, the Red Suns (led by Ryosuke and Keisuke Takahashi... a.k.a. 'the Rotary Brothers') suggest that they're not there for hardcore competition, just to make friends and improve their driving skills. (Yeah, right.)
And at last we come to the not-so-shocking revelation that while Takumi's dad (the owner of that tofu delivery shop) was indeed a notoriously good racer in his day, he doesn't do the deliveries himself anymore… for 5 years now it's been Takumi making the rounds on Mt. Akina! After the Red Suns predictably mop the floor with the second-rate Akina Speed Stars, later that same night Keisuke (apparently the second-strongest driver in the Red Suns) is completely outmanoeuvred by a mysterious white Eight-Six, setting the stage for a future confrontation...
2: 'Revenge! The Rumbling Turbo'
It's the morning after Keisuke's defeat, and Takumi's sleeping in until Natsuki phones up and asks to meet him in town. Apparently she wants to patch things up since the events of the previous year (no details as yet) and plans with him to undertake a nice drive out to the coast to have a picnic. Meanwhile, Iketani, obsessed by what his boss said about the fastest car on the mountain being over at the tofu delivery place, goes to check it out. He's disappointed to discover it's just a 10 year-old stock 'Eight-Six' (apparently car aficionado-speak for a Toyota Trueno), but this turns to surprise as he discovers Takumi hanging out at the shop. Even though the pieces are all there, Iketani doesn't put two and two together… and Itsuki is so excited by the news that his pal has access to an 'Eight-Six' (even if it is only supposed to be for work use) that no one realises the truth staring them in the face.
In his growing desperation to defend the honour of the Akina Speed Stars from the challengers, Iketani replaces the tyres on his car, upgrades the shocks, and practices continuously… but all to no avail, as he cannot improve upon his best time. After finally seeking out the owner of the tofu shop for advice, the older man (Bunta Fujiwara) flatly informs him that technique such as he requires cannot be taught but must instead be learned on one's own. Denying that he's the mysterious speed champion of Mt. Akina, Bunta sends Iktetani on his way… but is this a disaster in the making?
3: 'The Downhill Specialist Appears'
With Iketani temporarily out of the running, the Akina Speed Stars need to find a replacement quick if they're to stand any chance at all in Saturday's upcoming speed battle with the Red Suns… so Iketani predictably begs Bunta to act as his stand-in. Equally predictably, the older man refuses, saying he'd be out of place. What follows is a pleasant little episode which witnesses Iketani repeatedly trying to convince Bunta into attending the meet whilst – unbeknownst to him – Bunta tries to subtly manipulate his son into racing Keisuke at the upcoming challenge. Whilst the excitement builds and other racing teams from across the prefecture flock to the area to observe the competition, only one question is left unanswered… will the 'Ghost of Akina' surface to save the day?
OK, let's wade into this whole video duality issue when it comes to TOKYOPOP's Initial D. As I mentioned before, there are two versions of the episodes on disc: 'Classic' (the original picture as broadcast in Japan, but with full English subtitles available) and 'Tricked Out' (with 'enhanced' video and sign-only subtitles). When you first pop the DVD in the player, you're immediately presented with a splash screen done around a licence plate motif, offering a choice between the two formats before you even reach the main menu proper.
From an animation perspective, the two versions are by and large the same. They're both presented in the standard TV aspect ratio (4:3); both feature character designs which range from the merely average (Takumi, Keisuke, etc.) to the deliberately unattractive (for instance, Itsuki); and both suffer from a mix of quite ropey CGI graphics and hand-drawn animation that simply doesn't mesh as well as anyone might like... and in fact comes off feeling rather gimmicky. To be honest, if anything the computer-generated artwork (all restricted to the various models of street racing cars, all lovingly depicted in some detail by the production team) causes far more problems than it's worth, and ends up dragging the overall picture quality down with it. The scenes where the CGI cars are combined with the hand-animated frames witness the worst of the jaggies and rainbowing effects throughout the DVD.
And that's before we even factor in the changes made for the 'Tricked Out' version, which employs various bits of video frippery that look like they've been created by a teenager faffing about with his first copy of Adobe Premiere. Apparently the car race scenes just weren't deemed exciting enough for the American audience, because they've been chopped up into bite-size chunks doled out in split-screen fashion and punctuated with nasty dissolves which apparently see pixellation as a virtue of some sort rather than a vice. It goes without saying that this is not how you'll want to be viewing this programme.
On the bright side, as long as you're viewing the DVD on 'Classic', you will get the benefit of seeing the unadulterated intro and end-credits sequences, with full Japanese text intact and no distracting English overlays (precisely as they were originally broadcast). And the subtitles are clear and legible throughout, using the usual different colour coding to distinguish, say, song lyrics from spoken dialogue.
As with the video, the audio comes in two different varieties as well. First let's address the one you'll want to listen to. (No, really... just trust me on this one.) 'Classic' is the original Japanese-language recording (and in a welcome turn of events, presented in a fairly robust Dolby 5.1). Both the opening and closing theme tunes for this show have a very distinct style, the latter rendered a bit more interesting in that the closing animation sequence has animation intercut with live-action video featuring the members of the Japanese band performing the song. The feel of the music lies somewhere in that unlikely Bermuda Triangle between techno, pop and rap, but suits the racing action of the show reasonably well. Further, the dialogue is crisp and clear without any problems whatsoever, and background music and sound effects seem particularly well-chosen. The voice acting is solid but there don't seem to be any standout performances.
Now for the bad news… the 'Tricked Out' version. This isn't, as you might be forgiven for assuming, just the English dub version of the same audio tracks. No, we're dealing with more than the usual fairly-innocuous modifications to dialogue here. As hinted at earlier, someone on the North American production team thought it would be 'cool' to also: 1, completely gut the original Japanese OP and ED songs and replace them with some exceptionally-bland English-language dreck instead; 2, splice rather intrusive music tracks over the original background sounds/music of various scenes (and usually at such a ramped-up volume level that character dialogue gets muddied in the process); and 3, rename most of the key characters in order to make them sound more 'Western'. The only good news here is that the English dub has generally decent voice acting and is also recorded in Dolby 5.1.
Speaking of which, regardless of whether you choose Japanese or English, the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack takes good advantage of the surround speakers. There's a fair amount of action thrown to the rear speakers (mostly for atmospheric noises, but still) and the left/right directionality is noticeable during the race scenes. I debated knocking points off the total audio score for all the messing about TOKYOPOP did with the 'Tricked Out' version, but this hardly seems fair since the original audio is also provided on this DVD, so the high score stands.
The menus on this disc are nicely-executed and themed around (what else?) a racing motif; for instance, the 'Setup' menu has the controls for audio, video, and subtitles rigged into a dashboard graphic with each set of options taking the place of the speedometer, accelerometer, etc. Menu access times are fast and there is a brief transition sequence linking the main menu (which is animated and features a looping soundtrack) to the sub-menus (which are static, silent pages). Although these are not quite up to their usual incredibly high standard (for which see Real Bout High School, etc.), Nightjar has done a very competent job with the menu design yet again.
Under 'Extras', there are a limited number of special features available and these aren't the most inspiring fare: out-takes (just under 2 minutes of various flubbed lines from the English dub version, but unfortunately none of these 'bloopers' are even vaguely amusing… well, save the very last one, I guess) and something called showroom #1 (which offers a set of 5 'profiles' of some of the racing cars from the show, with technical specs for flavour… but unless you're a gearhead – which I confess I'm not – then this isn't going to be very interesting to you). Beyond this, all that's left is a trailers section with ads for TOKYOPOP's '100% Authentic Manga' line, GTO, and Real Bout High School.
Initial D is a likeable enough series and at this early stage of the game could go almost anywhere. This open potential is appealing, but from these first three episodes there's not a lot to differentiate this show (in setting, plot, character, or execution) from a broad range of similar animated fare. Even though the audio is rock-solid, the picture quality (thanks to the intermixing of CGI elements) is merely OK. Coupling this with the dearth of on-disc extras and the general dog's breakfast TOKYOPOP made of this particular release (at least as far as die-hard fans are concerned) means that it's not a DVD I'd advise you to rush out and buy.