Manga Madness: Initial D (2005)

Poster for Initial D, featuring Jay Chou as Takumi Fujiwara, leaning out of the window of his Toyota Trueno AE86

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Set in the world of illegal Japanese street racing, Initial D tells the story of young driver Takumi Fujiwara (played here by Jay Chou), who unwittingly becomes a legend amongst the racers of his local Akina mountain pass for the skill he demonstrates delivering tofu from his father’s shop. Originally beginning serialisation in 1995, Shuichi Shigeno’s manga series ended as recently as 2013, after 48 collected tankobon volumes. In that time, the series has spawned a long-running anime television series, movies, OVAs and video games, become somewhat of a classic sports manga, potentially influenced the western Fast and Furious franchise (the third instalment, Tokyo Drift, focuses on the driving style used by many of the racers in Initial D), and single-handedly boosted the resale value of the Toyota Trueno AE86, the 80s model driven by the manga’s protagonist. Unfortunately, it also generated a live action movie adaptation.

Made all the way back in 2005 and still awaiting a sequel its director insists will happen (with any luck, it won’t), the Hong Kong-made live action Initial D takes the original story and asks the question: “but what if it was bad?”

The first pitfall the film falls into is one that is exceedingly common in the world of manga adaptations: it makes the futile attempt to cram far too much into a feature-length runtime. In under two hours, Initial D tries to race through all the major plot points of the anime series’ first three seasons. This leaves no room for any of them to be properly developed, so many plotlines lead nowhere, and not one has any impact.

In large part because of the rush to get through the overcrowded plot, there is no time to properly develop the characters. A number of key players (Iketani, Keisuke) have been cut entirely – luckily for them, as those that remain are barely recognisable. Takumi’s best friend Itsuki (Chapman To) is no longer the shy car-geek that despairs over his hopelessness with girls, but a juvenile delinquent and a creep that looks up schoolgirls’ skirts and presumptuously drives a female co-worker to a love hotel. He’s still the comic relief, but he is no longer anything more now he has been stripped of the humanity that made audiences care for him in the show. Similarly, Takumi’s father Bunta (Anthony Chau-Sang Wong), a mysterious but caring parent in the source material, is reduced to a creepy, abusive drunk who beats his son and yet somehow is still made out to be a hero at the end of the movie when he fixes up the busted 86 in time for Takumi’s final race.

One of the subplots that suffers significantly from the condensing of the story is the one concerning Takumi’s sort-of girlfriend, Natsuki Mogi (Anne Suzuki), who is found to be engaging in compensated dating with an older man. In the anime, we have more time with Natsuki, allowing us to get to know her and understand her perspective. The movie has none of this, and ends her story before her reconciliation and amicable split from Takumi. From the way her story is presented, it’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers want us to agree with Itsuki when he disparagingly calls the film’s only significant female character a “whore.”

But perhaps most damaging to the film as a whole is its depiction of Takumi himself. Whereas others have had their personalities changed dramatically, in Takumi’s case it has been removed entirely with nothing put in its place. He’s so bland that it is impossible to care for him or become remotely engaged in his journey or the various races in which he takes part.

Sadly, this only scratches the surface of what is wrong with this terrible film.

In an attempt to make a Fast and Furious-type Exciting Car Movie™, but on a fraction of the budget, the film overcompensates by trying too hard to look cool, and ends up looking like a cheap music video. Every garish technique in the book is present here: lines of dialogue are repeated in voiceover as Takumi recalls them in his mind (often immediately after the line has just been spoken); freeze frames are shoehorned in where they surely do not belong; and the dodgy slow motion is not reserved for just the action scenes. There are multiple letterbox shots of once racer’s eyes as he watches Takumi overtake him, and in one scene the filmmakers make the inexplicable decision to show the action in split screen – at one point showing four different shots at once, making it very difficult to follow the action. The over-use of these techniques brings attention to the unsubtle direction at the expense of the story and ends up making the film look incredibly amateur.

It seems that the filmmakers are using all these distracting effects in a last-ditch attempt to make it exciting for the viewers, because the reality is we can’t get invested in the races or the off-track drama because there is no reason for us to care for characters this bland or downright unlikeable. This is made achingly obvious in the build-up to a race between Itsuki and Nakazano (Shawn Yue) early in the film. The camera cuts between excessive close-ups of the racers and spectators looking tense, but none of that tension is passed on to the audience because the outcome of the race doesn’t matter to us; we barely know either participant.

The racing action itself isn’t bad, but neither can it begin to compare with Hollywood in terms of spectacle or thrill. There’s some questionable CGI during one accident, but then again, as anime fans would know, would it really be Initial D without it?

It’s incredibly frustrating that the production decided to be so faithful in the reproduction of settings and cars and yet eliminate essentially everything that made the original story fun and engaging. Either the movie’s production design team had skills lightyears ahead of all their colleagues, or those calling the shots had a serious case of messed up priorities; for all the characters butchered and plotlines ruined, the live action Initial D decides to keep the anime’s commitment to including the cringiest hip-hop songs, though its iconic Eurobeat race music is sadly missing.

Terribly written and poorly made, this live action Initial D is so amateur it’s hard to believe it’s not an unofficial fan movie. Avoid.

Initial D is available now on DVD.