Once during a driver’s education lesson in high school, the student driver cars for my school were next to each other at a red light. My instructor tried to get the other car to drag race with us, but alas, the other driver didn’t hear him.
Sometimes I feel Japanese men, particularly if they’re in their forties or fifties, are a bit too fond of their cars—almost to the point where they treat their cars better than people. I’ve had run-ins with a few over the years and it’s never a pleasant experience. However, I am willing to admit I can, to a certain degree, understand why they love them so much, as they put a lot of time, effort, and money into improving their cars. Unfortunately, I will most likely never understand the mystique of any sort of car racing. Yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t find the premise interesting for an anime, manga, or film series. No, I’m not speaking of the Fast and the Furious film franchise, but rather the Initial D franchise.
Initial D is no small franchise with eighteen years in syndication with Kodansha’s Young Magazine, six anime series, an OVA (original video anime) series, and a handful of films, both animated and live-action. But because I hardly find car racing and drifting all that interesting, I’ve never invested much time in the franchise. Yet, when a set of new Initial D films, Initial D Legend, began in late 2014, I was drawn to the first installment, Initial D Legend 1 Kakusei (新劇場版頭文字D Legend 1-覚醒–). It’s really a shame it took me so long to dip my toe into the franchise because Initial D Legend 1 was a surprisingly fun and well paced film. There were also some fantastic visuals and music choices that added to the experience, but what I found interesting was how well the driving skills of the main character were revealed.
Some of the best fictional franchises aren’t successful because they have a captivating narrative, wonderful characters, interesting philosophical point, or what have you, but are just fun and mindless entertainment. One of the best examples of this I can think of is the 2013 film Pacific Rim. It’s not necessarily the best piece of fiction, but it’s incredibly fun to watch. The same holds true for many films about cars and Initial D Legend 1 is not far off the mark in this regard.
At its core, Initial D Legend 1 is about the racing technique of drifting in the fictional mountain town of Akina. As I have already stated, car racing is a pastime I don’t find all that appealing, yet there is a certain allure to drifting. There have been a handful of other films that use drifting as method of conveying a story. However, I’ve never found them to be all that engaging. Initial D Legend 1 mitigated this by dividing the story between the daily lives of the protagonist, Takumi Fujiwara, the local racing team, the Akina Speed Stars, and street racing. None of the individuals in the story are overly grandiose, but still the strength of the film lies in the fact all the characters are just people living their lives and, with the Speed Stars, enjoying their hobby.
Surprisingly, this really helped create a wonderful pace and set the events of the story up perfectly. In fact, the film opens quite well with the antagonist, if he can really be called an antagonist, Keisuke Takahashi unintentionally racing a local and losing. From that point we understand what his goals are: to find and beat that person in a race. Yet, the very next scene cuts to Takumi and a friend at school basically living their day-to-day lives. This gap within the first few minutes of Initial D Legend 1 is outstanding as it not only helped set the stakes for one of the characters, but also showed that these folks are no more than average people living out their lives. While some people might think having to watch the characters living out their daily lives would probably be tiresome, the dialog is always focused on car ephemera, racing, and Keisuke. Thus, while the scenes of their daily lives are heavy in world building, they segue nicely into the more action-packed races.
Action packed may be an overstatement, but the racing and driving through the mountain roads of Akina are definitely fun to watch. Considering the characters are skilled drivers, it’s exciting to see them race at top speeds through the twists and turns of the roads. This is achieved partially by drifting—a technique drivers use to keep their top speed when going through a curve. The inner monologs of the different characters are fun to listen to as well. Some of the rest of the excitement of watching the races relates to the driving techniques, car performance, and other things. Additionally, while I may not be adept in racing terminology, the writing in Initial D Legend 1 made it relatively easy for people like me to remain engaged with the events unfolding during the races. What’s more, the characters don’t have a natural talent for racing, but rather their skill comes from a combination of their many hours of practice and the money they spend on improving their cars.
Though the narrative made the races exciting, one can’t deny the visuals and music resulted in the viewing experience being far better. For example, there are some remarkable shots of cars drifting into a corner from a very low angle, which I feel would be very difficult to capture with real drivers, not to mention the shots of a cup filled with water never spilling when going though a drift. Much of the excitement comes from the drifting, but as stated by two minor characters, drifting is just a performance. Yes, the strength of Initial D Legend 1 lies with the visuals of drifting, but the visuals alone don’t make for an exciting story. Perspectives from inside the different cars also made the races feel much more lively as well. These include shots of Keisuke looking in his rearview mirror or even Takumi looking out at all of the spectators during his first race. These sorts of shots helped break up the monotony of just seeing cars racing and made the film much more entertaining.
The music cues also did a fantastic job of making the races exhilarating. The production team hired the musical talents of four Japanese rock bands, the Backdraft Smiths, Clutcho, the Valves, and Gekko Green, and they all add a nice touch to different parts of the races. For example, in the race between Takumi and Keisuke, a good portion of the background music is the Backdraft Smiths’ single Candle Flames. Combined with the visuals, the song not only adds to the tension of the race, but also, for lack of better words, really gets the blood pumping. It’s the same with the other songs, and despite Initial D Legend 1 not being high film, the music made it an even more exceptionally fun film.
However, though all the visuals, music cues, and narrative choices were well crafted, what had me the most interested was how Takumi’s driving skills were slowly revealed to the surrounding characters. It’s very suspenseful seeing the information slowly being made known, but as viewers we do receive a small taste of it early in the film. Because of this, at times it can be easy to forget the other characters don’t realize what Takumi is capable of. It’s very meta and a slightly voyeuristic method of storytelling, but it’s also not one to which I’m opposed. Thus, when, why, and how Takumi’s driving skills were revealed to the Speed Stars added to the story of Initial D Legend 1 and it was just plain fun to see the shock on their faces when it was.
Initial D Legend 1 Kakusei is definitely a fun film for all people to enjoy. It is a bit short—roughly an hour—but it’s the perfect length for the story the producers wanted to tell. Watching much of the day-to-day activates of the characters may seem dull to some, but it helped to build the world surrounding the characters, and while I did have some qualms about those sections involving an unneeded love story, it’s insignificant to the overall story and not worth diving into great detail about. The races are exciting as well, not just in the visuals, but also in the music and inner monologs of the characters. There was some street racing vernacular interspersed throughout the film that some people may not be familiar with, but there is enough explanation of the terms so they don’t become overwhelming. Initial D Legend 1 Kakusei is definitely a film both car buffs and non-car buffs can enjoy, but I do worry the series as a whole may break down into the same sort of races in the subsequent films. But I won’t know if this is true or not until the second film is released or if I read the manga series. Either way, this installment is an enjoyable film for all demographics.