I saw a few episodes of the anime Initial D when I found a used copy at Hollywood Video for $5. But it was the second disc, so I missed out on the beginning of the story. Now I've got Volumes 1 and 3 of the manga from the library, and I don't totally remember, but I think the anime filled in more or less for the book I couldn't find.
It’s about a teenager named Tak who lives in a suburb where the only thing to do is race dangerously up and down the local mountain at night. All Tak’s friends are into it, but he doesn’t know anything about cars, and couldn’t care less about racing. Tak’s nerdy best friend, a racer-wannabe, don’t understand why.
The reason why is that Tak’s father, the retired Best Street Racer Ever, now runs a tofu shop and forces Tak to drive up the mountain to make tofu deliveries in the wee hours of every morning. In fact, he’s been doing this for six years, since Tak was twelve. In the process, he’s been subtly guiding Tak in the art of becoming a great driver, and Tak, in an effort to finish the chore faster and keep the drive interesting, has mastered mountain racing and expert drifting techniques without even realizing it. He also doesn’t realize that the old Trueno Eight-Six he takes for granted (the equivalent of a sporty-style mid-1980s Corolla) is a pretty decent street racer.
Naturally, the local street racers soon discover that the driver of the unassuming Eight-Six is awesome, and Tak is pressed into service to defend the local racing “team” against hotshot challengers from neighboring regions. At first, Tak doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, but all the racing soon awakens his competitive streak.
There’s also a cute girl at school who likes him, but she seems to have some kind of mysterious sugar daddy.
Initial D has a lot of cool elements. The underdog racer in the easily underestimated car echoes the feel of the races in Herbie movies. The protagonist with impossibly perfect skill is admittedly an anime staple, but always a fun one. The twist that he’s so used to doing it that he’s bored with it is a cool angle. Okay, so that's nothing new either. Shut up.
If you’re not into cars or racing, though, it’s probably not worth it. Initial D is fun, but it’s also hilariously repetitive. Those of you familiar with manga realize that book-bound volumes are made up of smaller chapters, each of which represent one installment of the monthly series in which the story originally appeared. To give you an idea how much detail is lavished on the races, consider this: Volume 3 opens immediately with a race downhill (so far all the races have been down the same mountain). This one race lasts three or four chapters. If you were reading this in a monthly manga magazine, four months would go by for one race. It makes me glad I’m reading it in collected format or the read would be amazingly unsatisfying. Even in book form, this is one slow-paced story.
After a while, the races are all kind of the same, too. Different things happen in them, but they all boil down to this:
Rival racer: Ha! An Eight-Six? It’ll never beat my [more advanced car]! Oh my gosh, it’s catching up! But how? Look at that drifting! He’s cutting so close to the edge! He’s maintaining full speed around corners! But—that’s impossible! Nobody can drive like that! Who is this guy? No! I won’t be beaten by an Eight-Six!
[Rival racer gets beaten by the Eight-Six.]
Now imagine that took eighty pages and you get an idea of what it’s like to read Initial D. If that’s your cup of tea, you’re in good shape. I know that cup of tea is indeed one that I enjoy, although I do wish the pace of the actual storytelling was a bit more urgent. If you prefer coffee, now you know to look elsewhere.
The other downside is that the art in Initial D is quite ugly. I don’t care for the style, but I suppose in a male-targeted, male-centered series like this, there’s no point cultivating an attractive art style only to make all the men look effeminate. The cars look quite good, but they could be better, and the illustrated movement lacks the kinetic dynamism of, say, the car chases in Gunsmith Cats, even taking into account the more nuanced driving of Initial D versus Gunsmith Cats’ brand of violent and spectacular stunts.
The anime replicates the strengths and weaknesses of the manga precisely. Interesting character, cool racing, slow pace, ugly. In the anime, there are two brands of ugly: the hand-drawn art and the jarring, dated computer graphics used for the races. However, the computer graphics do convey the excitement of speed and movement better than the manga.