Competent but repetitive racer / drama.
In terms of my knowledge of Japanese race based anime Initial D, or Tau man chi D for those in the know, it can be summed up succinctly by the word 'nothing'. There are, however, occasions where the natural order of the universe is dependant on watching a live action adaptation of something that promised to rival The Fast and the Furious in the vapidity stakes. Still, I should perhaps have expected more from directors Wai Keung 'Andy' Lau and Siu Fai 'Alan' Mak, responsible for the superb Infernal Affairs and its follow ups. Initial D turns out to be far more fun than you might credit, although the elements that make this a far better crafted film and involving story oddly wind up being it's own undoing.
Takumi Fujiwara (teeny bop 'sensation' Jay Chou, a lad who's fame seems contained entirely in Japan) is a bashful high school student who also happens to be something of a driving ninja, having taken over his alcoholic father Bunta (Anthony Wong)'s bean curd delivery route in a suspiciously well balanced Toyota Trueno GT-APEX AE86. Life continues at a sedate pace, working after school at Yuuichi Tachibana (Kenny Bee)'s petrol station and chumming around with Yuuichi's kid Itsuki (Chapman To), a wannabe racer hindered by an absence of talent but abundance of mouth. A promising relationship with the pretty Natsuki Mogi (Anne Suzuki, who you may remember from Returner) seems on the cards. Things drift to a different heading when the leaders of the top rival street racing gangs Ryousuke Takahashi and Takeshi Nakazato (the calm and collected Edison Chen and hotheaded Shawn Yue respectively, both returning to work with Lau and Mak from Infernal Affairs II) show up on their tour of Japan vying for friendly superiority.
After Nakazato rather rudely cuts up Fujiwara, who's minding his own business running his normal late night delivery route, Fujiwara decides to take him to school. Whipping past Nakazato with his superior power drifting ability and knowledge of the course, this starts the rival gangs searching for this mysterious racing king to challenge him for superiority. Mmm, smell the testosterone. Initially reluctant, he accedes to his father's request that he race if for no other reason than to save Itsuki's hide after he rather unwisely claims to be said racer. A few races later and it's all over bar the finger pointing and crying, everyone learning valuable lessons on friendship and their own character.
In the end it's the comparatively reasonable basis that Fujiwara can win these races that ends up hobbling the film - you'll soon become as intimately familiar with the downhill, winding mountain course on Mt. Akina as Fujiwara is. With the action soon becoming samey, it's left to the actors to spice things up by none of the leads have quite the explosive internal or external conflicts that would be needed to carry it over. That's not to say that they're not acting well, with Chen and Yue providing a firm base for the untested Chou to build on. Chou's almost lackadaisical attitude born of deep familiarity with the car and the road is certainly believable, if not especially dynamic. Most of the pep comes from a wildly mugging Chapman To, who soon becomes grating, and a no less wildly mugging Anthony Wong, who becomes a minor saving grace. You wouldn't think getting drunk and falling asleep could be elevated to an art form, but darned if he hasn't achieved it.
When Initial D is working, and it does have it's moments, it's not due to any of the forced competition with the brattish, leather clad antagonist rival racers. The most intriguing battles stem purely from the man, machine and tortuous road. That's not to say that when Fujiwara closes up on Nakazato it's not an exhilarating driving sequence, but a far more interesting one occurs between Nakazato and his inner monologue on a training run wondering if the reason Fujiwara can beat him on these roads is a reluctance to open up the true horsepower of his superior Skyline for the understandable fear on pancaking himself.
So, worth seeking out then? Nah. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the hardcore Initial D anime fans are outraged by the largely lighthearted, teenybopper star vehicle it's been turned into. While I'm not placed at all to comment on this, this doesn't stop me having a vastly uninformed opinion about it. To frustrate you however, I'm not going to tell it to you. Muw-ha-ha-ha. But for everyone else, I'd wager the vast bulk of people to whom Initial D means little to nothing? What of them? Worth the import fees and inconvenience? Is it? Is it?
Nah. It has it's strengths. While I wouldn't want to go so far out on the limb as to say it's an intelligent handling of the competitor / boy racer mindset, it's certainly a comparatively intelligent look compared to what we've grown accustomed to in the West. However, when the 'comparative' part of that refers to 2 Fast 2 Furious and Torque this damns it with praise so faint as to barely make it worth the bother of typing it. It's not a bad flick, and if you're as shallow as I am it's almost worth the bother just for the top-drawer gooning from Anthony Wong. In the final analysis though, it's a trifle too limited to recommend for anyone apart from die-hard racer fans to seek out.
For those amongst our number who either do not speak Cantonese or don't have an affinity for deciphering meaning from the context rather than content of words may want to hold off watching this until Tartan Asia or their Western distributor brethren pick this one up as the currently available subtitles are...unique, shall we say. At least I really hope that it's a mere typo when Itsuki frustratedly exclaims, "Now I want to eat people!" otherwise there's a whole cannibal sub-plot that I haven't picked up on. While it's more than possible to understand all that's going on, I fear fine details may be lost in the Bablefish-ed autotranslation.
Whether the Eastern star power both in front and behind the camera proves enough of a draw for it to be picked up for even a limited cinematic release in Blighty is another issue entirely, and the hypothetical increased accessibility would make it a far more tantalising prospect. But we don't deal in hypotheticals here at theOneliner. We deal in absolutes, and for the most part Initial D is absolutely average.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Siu Fai Mak
Anne Suzuki (Natsuki Mogi)
Edison Chen (Ryousuke Takahashi)
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Bunta Fujiwara)
Shawn Yue (Takeshi Nakazato)
Chapman To (Itsuki Tachibana)
Jordan Chan (Kyouichi Sudou)
Kenny Bee (Yuuichi Tachibana)