Takumi Fujiwara is an aloof, spacey high school student, who helps out at his family’s tofu restaurant by doing delivery runs in his dad’s old Toyota AE86 in the dead of night. Despite working as a gas station attendant in his spare time during the day with his car-obsessed friends, he doesn’t know the first thing about cars. However, this is soon set to change as Takumi is thrust into the world of street-racing when he unintentionally outperforms aspiring driver Koichiro Iketani, a member of the racing team the Red Suns, during a delivery run, causing Koichiro to seek revenge on the unaware Takumi.
Although a well known and rather ubiquitous part of Japanese culture, there are surprisingly few anime based around downhill street-racing, with the most popular, perhaps by default, being Initial D. Starting off as a manga in 1995, it was quickly picked up for adaptation by Studio Gallop, best known now for the ever-continuing Yu-Gi-Oh! Franchise, and Studio Comet, starting in 1998 and going on for several seasons, finally coming to an end in 2014. However, in the same year the TV series concluded, we got the initial entry in a movie trilogy, Initial D Legend 1: Awakening, a remake which aimed to give the first in the series a new coat of paint, courtesy of LIDENFILMS and SANZIGEN.
Of course, if you’re watching an anime like Initial D, it’s very likely you’re here for one thing and one thing only, and that is the racing, and in that regard, Awakening totally hits the mark. Genuinely exhilarating and exciting to watch, the downhill racing sequences are easily the highlight of the film, combining a fantastic bunch of insert songs from a variety of J-Rock bands including CLUTCHO, Backdraft Smiths and The Valves, along with pretty impressive animation, aided by some top-notch direction from Masamitsu Hidaka. CGI cars in anime can generally be hit or miss, with some looking decent, and others looking downright poor, but given the subject matter here, it should come as no surprise that a lot of effort was put into making the cars look as good as they can. All are based on real-life models, with the centrepiece being a Toyota AE86, which has been lovingly rendered, all the way down to the interior, and looking at pictures, they got it spot-on, which is bound to please the more car-savvy people in the audience. Although I don’t normally comment on something like this, the pièce de résistance in all the racing scenes is definitely the sound design. The sound effects are something else and then some, and the beefier the sound system you have, the better. If you’re watching this, make sure you have the volume cranked way up; you won’t regret it.
Even though I was a pretty huge fan of the driving, it’s all the parts in between that let this first Initial D movie down. For a start, the story is incredibly basic and threadbare, majorly lacking in any real kind of stakes. The climactic race at the end is a friendly between the two competing teams, and there’s nothing on the line besides pride. Although intense enough as it is, having something riding on the race would have further amplified the tension in these scenes. Given this is film one of three, however, I can be a bit more forgiving, as I think it is laying the groundwork for the further entries to build upon – or at least, that’s what I’m hoping for.
The character side of things isn’t really that much better, with everyone pretty much being defined entirely by their interest in cars and racing and given no further depth. This is really down to the overly short 60 minute running time, which leaves little in the way of slack to better flesh out these characters. The protagonist, Takumi, is the one that suffers the most because of this, as he doesn’t even have an interest in cars to fall back on, making him an absurdly dull character that I found hard to get attached to. But even Takumi looks great compared to his love interest, who is only there to act as his sole motivator to race in the climax and nothing more, having zero characterisation. The romance as a whole is very lazily handled, being the most trite and groan-worthy part of the film. Much like the story, I hope this is something that can be expanded upon in later entries.
Being dubbed by Sentai Filmworks, whose back catalogue is woefully hit or miss, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Initial D’s English voice track, but thankfully it is on the better end of their work. Fans of the original run of the show will be pleased to know that the majority of the dub cast return to reprise their roles, including Joel McDonald (Baccano!, Joker Game, Sekirei), Brina Palencia (Blue Exorcist: Kyoto Saga, Beck, My Hero Academia) and the legendary Michael J. Tatum (Black Butler, Spice and Wolf, Steins;Gate). As previously mentioned, the film features a prominent J-Rock soundtrack, replacing the iconic eurobeat sound, which could potentially upset some fans, but I personally loved, backed up by a solid score by Akio Dobashi.
There are definitely thrills to be found within Initial D Legend 1: Awakening, but it can’t help but be constantly held back by lacklustre characters and an overly simplistic story.