4 September 2004 | BrianDanaCamp
Road racing anime series is surprisingly gripping
"Initial D: First Stage," which first aired in Japan in 1998, is a consistently exciting and compelling anime series based on Shuichi Shigeno's popular manga (comic book) about downhill mountain road racing in Japan's Gunma Prefecture. The protagonist is high school boy Takumi who, unbeknownst to his classmates and buddies at the gas station where he works, has been honing his downhill driving skills for the past five years by speeding up and down Mt. Akina making early morning deliveries for his father's tofu shop. When Takumi just matter-of-factly beats an area road racing star on an impromptu downhill race, he finds himself thrust, somewhat reluctantly, into the world of "touge" (mountain) racing and the various teams from neighboring mountains. His close buddies, Iketani and Itsuki, who are tied to the local Akina Speed Stars, are stunned to learn of Takumi's secret skills and are somewhat infuriated by his nonchalant attitude. Takumi's single father, once a downhill champ himself, has made a point of nurturing this attitude by guiding his son, not by example or instruction, but by letting him find his own way.
Once the secret is out, as quick as you can say, "Draw!," Takumi finds himself challenged by an increasingly sophisticated group of rivals and also finds himself attracting the attentions of Natsuki, a girl at school who has secretly been involved in a bit of "subsidized dating" with an older man. Much attention in this series is paid to the characters, their development, and their sometimes turbulent interaction with each other. We care for these kids because, quite simply, they're believable human beings.
The look of the series draws closely on that of the manga with somewhat simple, almost cartoonish (but surprisingly effective) design for the characters, created in 2-D animation, contrasting noticeably with the technically detailed look of the cars and races, which are recreated with 3-D CGI for the anime. While the integration of 2-D and 3-D is somewhat awkward in the early episodes, it improves greatly as the series progresses. The character design gets better also, with more detailed, expressive facial features becoming quite evident by the fifth volume in the series (eps. 16-18).
The races are edited and designed with great skill and thought. These sequences are genuinely exciting even to those of us who never followed any kind of auto racing outside of "Speed Racer" and action movie car chases. And, besides, the technical aspects of this form of racing, particularly the all-important practice of "drifting," are adequately spelled out for novices--to the point where the series might even be called educational.
The music track deserves singling out for its lively collection of pulsating, catchy songs in the "Eurobeat" style popular in Japan (a mix of rock, hip hop, and techno). The songs come into play in the opening and closing credit sequences and during the racing sequences (where they work perfectly). The instrumental tracks during the quieter scenes are expertly done as well. (Warning: the English dubbed tracks on the U.S. DVD releases have completely new music soundtracks. Stick with the "Classic" version option.)
As anime series go, at least for fans in the U.S., this one is quite unlike any other this reviewer has come across in the U.S. (after a decade of reviewing anime) and has proved to be among the most rewarding. This review covers the first season (First Stage), which was followed by a second series (Second Stage), a movie (Third Stage), and yet a third series (Fourth Stage). There are also video games based on the series. Let's hope it all continues.