Initial D (Volume 2: Challenge: Red Suns) Review
The first volume of Initial D left both the audience and characters hanging, with Iketani, Itsuki, and all the other drift racing aficionados of Mount Akina waiting with baited breath for the arrival of their white knight… the mysterious Eight-Six which represents the only hope of defending the honour of their club against the challenge posed by the Red Suns. I'll confess that even though I'm not particularly intrigued by the racing scene, it's hard to resist a cliffhanger like that and it wasn't too long before curiosity drove me to pop this second instalment in the DVD player.
With the three episodes on this disc, we finally get to see our protagonist go head-to-head with the competition, and it's reasonably satisfying car action; even if Takumi still looks more or less asleep at the wheel, at least his expert handling of the Toyota Trueno belies this… and of course his opponent (Keisuke) more than makes up for the former's emotional deficit with his aggressive and highly-focused driving. Some may quibble that this one race ends up occupying two-thirds of the material on this DVD, but you have to bear in mind that this includes a bit of character development (particularly during Takumi's beach date with Natsumi) and gobs of gearhead exposition regarding our hero's racing techniques.
That said, this series does feel very much as if it would benefit from having more episodes on each disc. Whether this is merely because the fast-paced action makes each episode feel that much shorter (the 'time flies when you're having fun' phenomenon) or because the way the story is presented makes one impatient to learn more about the key characters and where they are going, the fact remains that three episodes per volume just seems too little for Initial D. Alas, there's really no way to improve upon this figure due to the fact that there are two versions of each episode on the DVD, which eats up a lot of disc space.
An interesting development over the past year for fans of Hong Kong cinema has been the announcement of a live-action film version of Initial D. Although this was originally to be helmed by Tsui Hark (Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, A Chinese Ghost Story, etc.), he ended up abandoning the project due to disagreements with Media Asia Group over how it should be filmed. In the wake of this, the production company has brought in none other than the dynamic duo of director Andrew Lau and screenwriter Felix Chong (most famous for their excellent Infernal Affairs trilogy). This is promising news indeed, not only for TOKYOPOP's animé and manga properties, but for fans in general… while if Hollywood had got its hands on this storyline, we could expect another film in the tradition of The Fast and the Furious, with Lau/Chong onboard there's a good chance that Initial D will present an intelligent story rather than merely throwaway action fluff.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
4: 'Into the Battle!'
A perfect way to open the disc, this episode finally sees our man Takumi tool his Toyota Trueno up to the top of Mount Akina to face off with Keisuke of the Red Suns. There are plenty of good comic moments here, as of course Iketani was expecting not Fujiwara the younger but Takumi's dad to turn up for the race. Nor does Itsuki, at the end of his (admittedly already-short) tether, precisely demonstrate a lot of confidence in his mate, more or less telling Takumi off for wasting their time. But in the end Iketani makes a leap of faith and lets his friend get down to business… and not without result!
And so we come to the conclusion of the all-out race between Keisuke (in his souped-up, tricked-out, top-of-the-line RX7) and Takumi (in a ten year-old stock Toyota that's been used for tofu deliveries for most of that time). To the amazement of the spectators lining both sides of the winding mountain road all the way down to the finish line, Takumi really knows his stuff. Depite his car lacking the engine power of his opponent's, he almost effortlessly whittles away at Keisuke's advantage, until he is more or less on the latter's bumper. Then, in a breathless manoeuvre that seems to defy the laws of physics, he overtakes the RX7 on the inside of a particularly treacherous curve.
Naturally our hero wins the day, and - seeing as his only interest in this whole venture was getting that promised loan of the Eight-Six (with a full tank of petrol, no less!) for his date with Natsumi - drives straight home without bothering to stop. While he spends the following day at the beach with her (to the tune of a number of interesting revelations), speculation runs rampant amongst all of those who witnessed his success the night before. Who drove that black-and-white Trueno? Where have the Akina Speed Stars been hiding him all this time? How did he perform that amazing feat that allowed him to squeeze past Reisuke and seize victory?
6: 'A New Challenger'
Of course, the Rotary Brothers haven't been idle through all this. Ryousuke, the more analytical driver of the pair, quickly worked out how Takumi was seemingly able to push his car past the physical limitations of his tyres' grip strength (their ability to hold the road in a turn). However, Ryousuke isn't the only one who believes he can defeat Takumi with this inside knowledge… a new player in the form of Takeshi Nakazato (of yet another drift-racing club, the Night Kids) appears on the scene in a high-powered car of his own, a R32 Skyline. As it happens, Ryousuke and Takeshi have crossed treads before and each man is confident that only he can prevail against Takumi, but for different reasons: Ryousuke recognises that Takumi is an incredibly skilled driver, but feels that it is mostly his extreme familiarity with this particular stretch of road that gives him his edge… while Takeshi believes that in the end the driver doesn't matter as much as the vehicle, and that his vastly-superior R32 will blow the Eight-Six off the road.
Back at the ranch (so to speak), Iketani begs Takumi to take him for a ride down the mountain, demonstrating the skills that let him win against the RX7 the night before. Our lad still hasn't quite caught the racing bug yet, though, and says without much enthusiasm that he'll have to ask his dad. Of course, Bunta - who realises that Takumi views driving merely as something he's always 'had' to do (for work) - decides to encourage any interest his son might take in driving for the pleasure of it and lets him borrow the car. In another fine comic touch, the (former) best drift racer in the Akina Speed Stars, erm, passes out cold from panic after seeing Takumi deftly handle three hard mountain curves at impossible speeds.
The picture quality on this DVD is much the same as seen on the previous volume of Initial D, and there's not much point in reiterating the various video issues covered in that review, as you can read them there. Briefly put, while this TV series is a recent production and therefore a clean video master was available and there's nothing actually wrong with the DVD encode, a number of disappointments arise in the way the CGI elements have been merged with the hand-drawn cel work, the character designs are generally unattractive, and the 'Tricked Out' version of each episode takes various liberties with the original animation which really should not have been.
The audio was recorded in very respectable Dolby 5.1 for both the 'Classic' (original Japanese) soundtrack and the 'Tricked Out' English dub, and really shines during the race scenes. As mentioned last time, the voice acting is generally acceptable from either cast, but all of the completely bizarre changes to the script, sound effects, and music witnessed in the English dub are not, and pretty much eliminate that version from serious consideration.
Setting that aside for the moment, I would like to say that the show's theme music is definitely growing on me. The OP theme, 'Around the World', is particularly good… and curiously addictive after hearing it a few times. Odd. Both this and the ED theme, 'Rage Your Dream', are performed by the Japanese group Move. I haven't encountered their stuff before despite having watched a lot of animé, but their style is so distinctive that I'm sure I'll recognise it if I ever hear it again elsewhere.
The menus on this DVD, sporting a nicely-designed racing theme by Nightjar, follow the same model seen on the previous disc - so certainly no complaints there. However, somewhat surprising is the relative dearth of special features on this disc… particularly considering that the last volume didn't have all that many to begin with. This time around the actual extras are limited to just one entry: showroom #2, a series of static pages explaining a few of the drift racing terms the main characters blithely toss around during the course of the show. While certainly useful, this section doesn't quite disguise the fact that the only other offering under 'Extras' is an introduction to the Initial D card game… which is frankly quite risible by how obvious and forced a merchandising tie-in it is. (The two staffers who have been roped into playing a sample round of this CCG don't even appear to be having any fun!) There aren't even any previews of other TOKYOPOP releases this time around, I'm afraid.
I think it's safe to say that this second volume of Initial D promises good things to come for the series. Some of the things that it does right include: beginning to explore the character of Natsumi in greater detail; successfully - which is to say, believably - explaining how Takumi became such a hotshot driver without ever developing any serious interest in racing; and ramping up the overall dramatic tension not only due to the interest various other racing clubs are now taking in Mount Akina but also by the fact that Takumi himself is beginning to catch the bug himself. As long as this show avoids the 'opponent du jour' pitfall so common to this type of animé, I think it will become very interesting to watch.