Initial D Review
'Live action' adaptations of previously-animated content always engender a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Even if the casting is superb, the performances laudable, and the script faithful to the spirit of the original material, there's always a little part of the viewer's mind that spends the entire film performing a running compare/contrast exercise to spot-check the production for both accuracy and authenticity. It's at least slightly surprising, then, that as a general rule we the audience (and amongst our numbers, many die-hard fans of the original animation) manage to enjoy these new film versions as much as we do.
While in the West such cinematic fare seems to be focused primarily on massive superhero blockbusters (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.), niche cult classics of the comics pantheon (Hellboy, Constatine, etc.) and retro cartoon nostalgia of the Scooby Doo variety, the far East has opened up the format to a broader spectrum of possibilities. This is of course due in no small part to the fact that in countries like Japan, the comic book format is merely another societally-acceptable mode of telling any tale under the sun. A manga series doesn't necessarily require superheroes, supernatural events, or even larger-than-life characters to succeed. And as animé often derives directly from a manga predecessor, Japanese 'cartoons' tend to follow the same model of openness to ideas that in the West would be considered far too 'mundane' to merit an animated feature. (Some of the most beloved and longest-running manga and animé series in Japan have as their focus a collection of relatively normal folk just trying to live normal lives and having the usual hard time of it.)
In light of this, it's not surprising that there's a great demand for live-action versions of popular animé over there, and these run the gamut from the truly weird and wacky (e.g. Sailor Moon) to more believable stories set in the present day (You're Under Arrest!, etc.). It's into this latter camp of contemporary storylines that the manga, animé, and live-action film versions of Initial D fall. In brief form, it's another 'local kid discovers to his surprise that he's actually quite good at something, is reluctantly forced to prove it to others, and meanwhile tries to get the girl of his dreams' kind-of-thing.
I know it's been a while, but back in 2004 I did a write-up of the first and second DVD volumes of the Initial D animé. So at the risk of coming across as somewhat brusque, I'm going to point those interested in the history of Initial D at those prior reviews and instead concentrate here on the live-action film as a stand-alone product rather than conduct a point-by-point comparison to Shuuichi Shigeno's manga or the subsequent animé series. (Although I will allow myself the occasional comparative comment here and there, of course.)
The story is fairly straightforward and follows much of the standard racing film formula that's been popularised (yet again) in recent years by Hollywood with productions like The Fast and the Furious. Takumi Fujiwara (played here by Taiwanese pop music star Jay Chou in his first starring role) seems to be just your average Joe… he's finishing off the last few years of school with no particular grand design in mind for his future, works a part-time job at the petrol station in town owned by the father of his best mate Itsuki Tachibana (performed with usual goofy comic relish by Chapman To), and feels too shy to voice his attraction to their mutual friend Natsuki Mogi (Anne Suzuki), though luckily for him she's more than happy to make the first move herself. However, Takumi has a secret: for the past 5 years he's been making the pre-dawn circuit of deliveries for his father's tofu shop.
This at first seems an unimportant detail; even Takumi considers his late-night drives along the treacherously serpentine roads of Mount Akina more of a chore than anything else, and the only reason he never told his friends about it is because up until not long before the action of the film begins, he had been too young to hold a driver's licence and so had been breaking the law on a nightly basis at his dad's behest). However it abruptly waxes in prominence as the film starts, what with Itsuki fancying himself something of a boy racer and a group of dedicated gearheads turning up in town with a mind towards challenging the local champion, having heard rumours of a gifted driver known only as the 'Ghost of Mount Akina'. Naturally Takumi doesn't put two and two together, but it's not long before Itsuki's dad Yuuichi (Kenny Bee) is reminiscing on 'the good old days' with his old comrade Bunta… none other than Takumi's dad, having long since retired from the racing scene to make a 'respectable' living running a tofu business.
If the plot wasn't predictable enough already, it certainly becomes so from this point onwards. The out-of-town practiced (and 'rich boy' stereotype) racers Ryousuke Takahashi (Edison Chen) of the 'Red Suns' and Takeshi Nakazato (Shawn Yue) of the 'Night Kids' ferret out the identity of the local racing god, and issue a challenge to Bunta, who through a combination of factors manages to convince Takumi to go defend the honour of Mount Akina against these upstarts. For his part, Takumi's not really fussed by all this 'racer talk'… he only even shows up because his dad promises to let him borrow the car for a date with Natsuki the next day. Of course, Itsuki's jaw hits the ground rolling when it becomes apparent that Takumi's intimate knowledge of these mountain switchbacks has given him an almost unearthly command over the subtle art of 'drift racing'. Cue a series of (suitably exciting) races between Takumi and his various challengers, a slightly muddled continuation of the romance between him and Natsuki, and a bit of background character development for Bunta and Itsuki and you pretty much have the film in the bag.
It probably goes without saying that when the announcement was made that Infernal Affairs veterans Felix Chong and Andrew Lau were being brought in to (respectively) direct and script the film of Initial D, there was a distinct vibe of excitement that rippled through the fanbase. So it was perhaps predictable that the pair brought some of their 'regulars' along with them for the ride. Most welcome of course is the ever-reliable Anthony Wong, who does a marvellous turn here as Bunta Fujiwara, bringing a lot more depth to the character than was conveyed by the animé. Naturally we have the recognisable faces of Edison Chen and Shawn Yue as Takumi's first serious competition… although neither character comes across as actually antagonistic, which is rare for a racing film. Chapman To is more or less type-cast in the role of Itsuki, but that's not to say he doesn't bring a certain charm to the role.
Some may question why the list of Chong/Lau veterans ends there and have suggested that the motivations behind casting Jay Chou and Anne Suzuki were more crassly commercial than anything else. Whilst I understand the scepticism, there probably isn't a more suitable 'starter' role for Chou than this; Takumi is by nature an incredibly laid-back character, so it's not a role that would overtax the singer/songwriter's acting ability. And as for Anne Suzuki, while she hasn't been in a great number of films, she has turned in respectable performances in the ones she has done (most notably Returner and Hana and Alice, although many animé fans will recall her fondly as the voice of James Ray Steam in Steamboy or Miku in Pocket Monsters).
And I know I said I wouldn't focus on a direct animé-to-film comparison, but indulge me for one paragraph. I've heard a lot of people badmouth this live-action version of Initial D for not being faithful enough to the animé, but I personally disagree. While it's true there have been certain (relatively minor) changes to the layout, these have all to my mind resulted in a marked improvement to the development of the core characters. For example, in the film the owner of the petrol station where Takumi and Itsuki works also happens to be Itsuki's dad, which allows for several father/son scenes to be scripted which round out Itsuki's character better than was done in the animé (and at the same time provide for an interesting parallel for the relationship between Bunta and Takumi). The actual plot is amazingly (almost slavishly) faithful to the original, somehow managing to condense a large number of animé episodes down into 109 minutes of running time and telling a self-contained story in the process. And while many have grumbled that the film doesn't use the same signature visual style found in the animé, I myself marvelled at how realistically 'drift racing' was portrayed with actual cars rather than lines on cel sheets coupled with CGI. Some of the stunt driving in this film is simply incredible, and while naturally Andrew Lau doesn't hesitate to use CGI to make certain 'impossible' camera shots work, the overall effect is jaw-dropping. Where at times during watching the animé I found the racing sequences to be a bit humdrum, that certainly wasn't my impression of them here in the film.
The video quality on this 2-disc DVD release is supremely satisfying, which comes as little surprise as Initial D is presented here in gorgeous 16:9 anamorphic, the film pretty much on its own on the first dual-layer (DVD-9) disc and therefore having plenty of elbow room for a good encode. The second 'bonus' disc is all special features, but as there's only about an hour of extra material there, it's been placed on a single-layer DVD-5 and the video doesn't suffer as a result. With any racing film, crisp portrayal of the heavy action scenes is paramount, and this DVD gets the job done with suitable panache. Also, despite quite a few of the scenes occurring at night (after all, using public roads for drift racing is illegal, so they're hardly likely to race during the day!), the contrast levels hold up quite well and the blacks are really deep.
This release proclaims itself proudly as the 'DTS Version' and I certainly wish I could comment on how lovely that soundtrack is. However my equipment isn't up to the task, so I'll confine myself to reassuring readers that the included Dolby Digital 5.1 and EX soundtracks (in Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively) sound great nevertheless. While the rear soundstage takes a bit of a backseat (no pun intended) during the dialogue-driven bits of the film, it shifts into high gear (oh, alright, I did that one on purpose) during every one of the racing segments. It's got a great deal of bass response and I even liked the funky score. Oh, and subtitles are of course provided in traditional Cantonese, Mandarin, and (mercifully) English.
Menus & Extras
OK, so the disc menus aren't all that exciting. The main menu has a small window with some video clips running in it, and the Chapters menu is fully animated with a sound loop, but the Setup one is just a static, silent screen. The only other option (besides, of course, playing the film) on disc 1 is to watch the theatrical trailer (in reality, 3 different versions of same, the first being 1 minute long and the last two clocking in at 2 minutes in length each… the middle one being by far the most effective).
Disc 2 piles on a generous helping of special features, including a fun-to-watch behind the scenes featurette (about 16 minutes long, split into 7 parts), 7 individual character segments (each running about 2 minutes in length and gathering together sound bites regarding from cast and crew regarding one of the principal cast), a rather substantial making of feature (about 20 minutes long), 1 not-very-essential deleted scene, about 5 minutes worth of outtakes, 3 variants of the TV spot (15 sec, 30 sec, and 60 sec), a 3-minute slideshow-style photo gallery presented in a very lively manner, and some footage regarding how the film was promoted in both Japan (3 min) and Shanghai (10 min). Even though the subtitles on this disc are only available in Chinese, there's plenty here to enjoy simply from a visual standpoint.
Admittedly, Initial D isn't going to win any awards for groundbreaking cinema, but it certainly succeeds on two different fronts: 1, it's a good little racing-genre film in its own right and can certainly hold its own against productions like The Fast and the Furious; and 2, as a live-action adaptation of a popular animé series, it really shines. I've always been a bit sceptical of how well certain animé might translate to live-action, but in this case I needn't have worried. (Of course, a film about drift racing is a lot easier to produce than one about space opera or fantasy, I suppose!) The picture and sound on this release are excellent and the extras are no slouch either.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:56:07