There’s no denying the cultural significance of the art form known as anime. An explanation on its history or impact (coming from me) would be rife with inaccuracies, so let’s just say that I’m very well aware of its influence. Save for some old Speed Racer cartoons that I saw with my dad over 25 years ago, my anime experience has been just about zero. With the world falling somehow further to hell and the coldest months creeping upon us once again, it figures it’s the best time to try something new that can be enjoyed indoors. After getting this article idea from my dear friend Shawn, I opened the question to Twitter to help me find the best anime to take in for my first exploration.
There were some fantastic ideas, and depending on my experiences here I’ll certainly consider more of them in the future, but there was one specific anime I couldn’t pass up. Editor Ben (and seconded by many others) suggested Initial D, a street racing anime I actually had heard of before. I’ve never seen the shows but I had played the arcade racing game back in high school. More to the point the whole thing is available on my Hulu account so while my King of the Hill binge retrospective would have to take a bit of a pause, we were off and running in no time.
Initial D tells the story of a group of teenage friends who work at a gas station by day and by night take their inexpensive street cars up and down mountains in unsanctioned drift racing competitions. There’s a bunch of little car gangs that face off in 1 on 1 racing battles that have both the charm and cheesy characteristics of a 80’s American ski rivalry movie. So much so that I at first thought Initial D was made in the 1980’s, when in reality it was the late 90’s. Still, cheesy interactions aside, the sport itself is presented in a positive way. It seems that high speed downhill street racing isn’t viewed as a society evil…it’s actually revered in the communities all across Japan. I would think in an American equivalent there’d be some police element that was trying to narc on the street party, but this appears to be a point of civic pride which I found wonderful. This wasn’t the only cultural misunderstanding on my end however: let’s talk about the characters.
Let’s be clear, all of my binge watching was with the Funimation Dubbed version, so please forgive me if I watched this the wrong way and ruined my understanding of this story from the beginning. Anyway, I found the main characters surprisingly engaging. The tall, handsome, and adorably aloof Takumi, who is unaware of his talents as maybe the best drift racer in all of Japan, is a fairly neat premise when mirrored by his racing “expert” overly excitable, shit-driving best friend Itsuki. With a show centered around fast cars aimed at teen boys there’s of course the notion of cute girls (some even as racers themselves) but the specifics of Takumi’s love interest raised some alarms. This girl, Natsuki, is captivated by Takumi’s attitude and slowly introduced history, but she’s got a pretty full plate as it is. Ok, so she’s got this…”Papa,” an older rich fella who’s apparently nothing more than a sugar daddy. Yeah, alright, I think all the kids in this story are at least 18 but this girl is still in high school….is the concept of compensated dating not as frowned upon in the land of the rising sun? I couldn’t get over how secondary her seeing this guy was, like a matter of fact instead of a dark secret. Again, she seems more interested in Takumi, but her sugar daddy thing is never even really a conflict. And more to that point, there was PLENTY of time to talk about it…
My biggest issue with Initial D was the pacing of the story. The drama and development moves slower than a game of Indian Cricket. I consulted with my anime guides and apparently this is standard for anime that’s been adapted from manga. Single downhill races can span across multiple episodes with every single corner and straight romanced with monologue after monologue from drivers, onlookers, allies, and rivals. This is “telling rather than showing” in the worst conceivable way….and yet I still found the stories to be engaging. Even when the outcomes of the races are generally understood from the beginning, the journey to get there can still be rewarding, both with interesting music and some unique flavor to the driving moments. The existentialism works at its best here, as nothing else really matters but the drive, and motives are never to be questioned.
Verdict: Initial D (season 1 from Hulu) is a surprisingly engaging program despite its barebones premise. The hip music is kinda cheesy flexed with the seriousness that the characters take street racing, but that ends up being its charm. And hell, even my wife seemed to enjoy the story for most of the binge. As a American race fan I can only imagine how much these racing kids could have benefitted from a dirt modified race track like I get to experience over here…or the even more fantastical alternative universe that a cartoon made in the US could have sparked a sub culture of dirt track racing in Japan as this one has done for us. As a complete n00b to anime, the subject matter of fast cars and attractive young people was enough to hold my attention and also encourage me to press on into future seasons. I don’t think this will propel me into the greater anime stratosphere, but for a slim percentage of real world, identifiable, and exciting stories, I think I’ve found a new medium to enjoy them.
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