I’ve driven a number of vehicles in my life. Some of them were high-end, but the ones that were the most thrilling to drive were the dilapidated ones.
Those who know me well know that cars and car ephemera are not something I really enjoy. It’s not as though I need to fundamentally understand the power output of my vehicle or what kind of tires will give me the best traction—I mean, most of the driving I did was either on city streets or on the interstate. However, I have to admit if you are a racing fanatic, this type of information is crucial. It can make or break you as an amateur racer and possibly cost you a contract as a professional. Thus, while I have little to no interest in cars I can see why people become caught up in them. This doesn’t preclude me from enjoying anime series about car racing, though, as some of those series have an excellent mix of technical talk and story elements. The Initial D Legend series was very much like this, but where the first two installments had a nice balance of both, the final installment, Initial D Legend 3 Mugen (新劇場版頭文字D Legend 3-夢現–) focused more on the plot and character development rather than the technical talk. It’s evident why this was so: the story was building up to the climatic race between the protagonist and a would-be rival. As such, it required the audience to not only get a better sense of how the characters, particularly the protagonist, changed over the course of the series, but also to develop an understanding of the mindset of the supporting cast. Added on top of this, a fair portion of the film was rather humorous. This played well into the tension the producers were building up to and added some depth to the characters. There were, however, some romantic scenes that detracted from the story in this installment, but not to the point it was frustrating. The real linchpin of the film was the final race, though. It was not only attention grabbing and nail biting, but also provided a wonderful adrenalin rush comparable to that seen in films with breathtaking car chase scenes.
One aspect an author or scriptwriter can have difficulty with is creating interesting characters to populate his or her world. It’s a skill like any other and can take time to hone. True, some authors and scriptwriters are better at this than others, but even they can create characters who are flat. This may be because it was an intentional act or the author or scriptwriter may not have been as interested in them in comparison to the other characters. Yet, when the uninteresting characters are the protagonists it can cause issues within the narrative. Akito Hyuga from the Code Geass: Akito the Exiled OVA (original video anime) series or Mikazuki Augus from Mobil Suit Gundam: Iron Blood Orphans come to mind as protagonists who had little in terms of personality and the respective series suffered from that—how can we become engaged with the story if the central characters have little to offer? However, other titles have managed to keep the narrative engaging through other methods such as interesting supporting characters or a story that’s engrossing.
It may seem this has little bearing on the Initial D Legend series, but truth be told I was worried about how the protagonist, Takumi Fujiwara, had little in the way of a personality in the first installment. As such, I felt the story would have to rely on a strong supporting cast and gripping narrative to keep viewers entertained. While this was the case to a degree in the first film of the series, over the course of the series there was a stark change in his personality. This was evident in the second film, but was far more prominent in Initial D Legend 3 Mugen. In fact, it was almost startling how much more Takumi felt like a person as opposed to a robot in this installment as compared to when the series started. One of the best examples of this came in the opening of the film when Takumi was racing in a Toyota AE85 Corolla Levin that belonged to his friend, Itsuki Takeuchi. What we saw here was Takumi musing about the speed and overall balance of the car, but it was not until the race was over and the two characters were talking that we received a better understanding of Takumi, insofar as what was plaguing him. By doing this in the opening of Initial D Legend 3 Mugen it set up an inner conflict to be resolved within the film, but also displayed how Takumi’s mindset had changed over the course of the series.
The film shined narratively because until that point it seemed as though Takumi was racing out of an obligation to his friends, not because he wanted to, but then he slowly developed an interest in the sport. Yet, this film was the first time it felt as though Takumi had complete agency over what he wanted to do and it can be summed up in one phrase: what comes after the next race? It was an interesting plot point and something viewers couldn’t answer. This led to one option, watching Takumi’s journey. That’s what made Initial D Legend 3 Mugen so tantalizingly entertaining. Some of the best stories are like this, watching a character discover something about him or herself, and this film was no different from those, so much so, almost every scene that revolved around a conversation was engaging in its own right. One that instantly comes to mind was between Takumi’s father, Bunta Fujiwara, and his friend, Yuichi Tachibana. What made this particular scene interesting was how Yuichi probed Bunta about Takumi’s driving skills, even insinuating Bunta had planned this from the moment Takumi first started delivering tofu. Of course, this calls into question exactly how much of Takumi’s interest in car racing was born from himself and how much came from external influences. However, it can be said the idea Bunta molded his son was fascinating to the point it made me wonder how many fathers mold their sons in their image—and now I have to question my own writing style because I was influenced by my father.
However, it wasn’t the fact the conversations were captivating that made those scenes fun to watch. The comedy in a handful of the scenes helped to further develop the characters as well as reinstill the tension inherent in the story to the audience. While some of it was certainly situational humor, there were conversation pieces that had a comedic bent to them. Throwing humor into the Initial D Legend series didn’t seem like a wise decision at first, yet it worked within the context of the story being presented to the audience. As such, though a small portion of the film, the humor helped break up the slower moments as well as provide the much-needed characterization of Takumi I mentioned above. The latter, the characterization, was probably more important than anything else in regards to the humor if only because, again, we developed a better sense of Takumi’s personality. It was summed up best in the second act when Takumi and Itsuki were talking about the climatic race. The conversation was based on a small misunderstanding in the subject and ultimately yielded two different conversations: Takumi musing about the race and Itsuki prodding Takumi about his love life. The way it was handled displayed the apathetic personality of Takumi while at the same time subtly developing him.
The humor also provided one other benefit to the film and that was how it built up the tension of the main narrative, the race between Takumi and Ryosuke Takahashi. Consider, had the film been weighed down by the importance of this race throughout the first and second act, the film would have suffered. As an audience we understood the race was the crux of the Legend series as a whole—it’s the race that’s been alluded to since the first installment. As such, being reminded of it at every turn wasn’t all that important. Thus, using the scheduled race to propel some of the humor actually removed some of the anxiety throughout the film. For instance, following Bunta and Yuichi’s conversation, Bunta wanted to check the performance of his Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86. I really don’t want to go into detail about it because of just how amusing it was, so I will leave it up to your imagination until you have the chance to witness it.
If Initial D Legend 3 Mugen struggled, and it’s difficult to say it actually did, it was in the romantic beats interspersed throughout it. I want to point out here, it’s not as though romance was unwelcome in the film. However, the way it was handled and where those scenes were placed upset the pacing a bit. This was more of an issue with the first date between Takumi and Natsuki Mogi than their later dates or even the conversation between Takumi and Itsuki mentioned above. What made the romance feel out of place came more from how one didn’t expect it in the film. The series felt more like Takumi’s personal journey of honing his skills, realizing his potential, and taking his first steps towards independence. While I can understand the argument romance is a factor in the latter, it seemed less important for this particular story. Granted, those same romantic scenes provided Takumi a better understanding of why he raced and how little he knew about it. As such, it wasn’t as though the scenes were irrelevant, just misguided. I’m not sure if this was because the manga source material dealt with this in the same way or not. Either way, though, a little more planning by the production team for the romance scenes would have been welcome.
The pièce de résistance of the film, unsurprisingly, was the race between Takumi and Ryosuke. It’s difficult to discuss the race, not because of the outcome, but for how exciting and nerve wracking it was as well as the adrenaline rush one received while watching it. Thus, we have to address each factor individually. While it may seem the best place to start is with how exciting it was, the adrenaline rush was the foundation for the other two aspects of the race. It’s understandable why we would feel a rush of adrenaline as the contest involved two racers at their peak engaging in a high-speed race, but we have to consider it from a different perspective as well. Throughout Initial D Legend 3 Mugen we saw different perspectives about why this race was important. As such the audience was primed for an exhilarating race. On top of this, we knew Takumi was the best racer in Akina, the setting of Initial D, and Ryosuke was the best in Gunma Prefecture. Hence, with the priming, expectations, and buildup viewers were ready to be blown out of their seats.
To use an example from another film series, Mad Max, the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road made us excited to see the grand spectacle of the car chase scenes. While we certainly receive it in the first act of the film, after the first large chase the film lagged so it could present us with character and narrative development. But, the third film in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, did what Initial D Legend 3 Mugen did in terms of making the final chase exhilarating. It gave the audience the story beats in the first and second act, as well as a few satiating action scenes. Then, after the audience had been primed, the film went all out with an over-the-top car chase. Though the Initial D franchise and Mad Max series are in two vastly different genres, the mere fact all the story beats were presented first and then the race in Initial D Legend 3 Mugen presented last shows just how important the earlier buildup was for the purpose of creating an exciting climax.
The climax in Initial D Legend 3 Mugen was both exciting and nail biting because viewers were primed for it so by that point the adrenaline was coursing through their veins. But, in what way was it exciting and nail biting? This came from a few factors, but mostly in how Takumi wasn’t guaranteed a victory. It’s almost odd to say that because he’s the protagonist of the Initial D franchise, and as such we expect him to win every race. Yet, the audience was shown a number of times throughout the film series that Ryosuke was not only a competent racer, but also one who diligently studied his opponents as well as the courses he raced. Thus, during the race Ryosuke kept the gap between himself and Takumi so close we saw the pressure levied on Takumi. As such, it reinforced the idea that perhaps Takumi would lose. This was a different experience by comparison to the other races in the series because Takumi was still developing as a racer. However, here Takumi was far more confident in his abilities because he won all his previous races. Therefore, the thought of Takumi losing was intimidating. It was a great feeling especially when you’ve become invested in the story and characters. As such, when all was said and done the film, finale, and series as whole was exhausting in a pleasurable way—which is a difficult feat for a film to accomplish.
Initial D Legend 3 Mugen is all around a fantastic film. It had the right balance of story to racing and some humor interspersed to not only build up the tension but relieve it as needed. The romantic sections were the weakest aspect of the film, though. Yet, they were few and far between and ultimately added to Takumi’s character. Of course, as a series predicated on racing it was the final race that made the film. The excitement of watching Takumi and Ryosuke race was unparalleled and perhaps one of the best I’ve seen in any film—though possibly not as exhilarating as the first car chase in Mad Max: Fury Road. One small aside, I actually enjoy the Mugen attached to the film’s title. The characters Mu (夢) and Gen (現) invoke two different meanings in this combination: dreams, Mu, becoming reality, Gen, or a dream-like reality. Thus, it played into the narrative of Takumi’s question about what was beyond the race with Ryosuke. Hence, watching the film with that in mind added a whole different layer to the story in the film. Fans of the Initial D franchise will certainly enjoy this film, as will those who have seen the previous films in the series. However, even those who haven’t seen the previous films will enjoy it and I highly suggest watching it.