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Initial D: The Little Comic That Could

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

The Hong Kong film industry has undergone a recession in recent years. As a result, the number of Hong Kong "event" films continues to decrease every year. While that may bad news for the industry in general, that also means that every "event" film in Hong Kong will come not only with heightened exposure, but heightened expectations as well. This year, the ultimate event film is not a Stephen Chow or Jackie Chan film, as it has been in the past. Instead, it's an adaptation of a little Japanese comic book named Initial D.

Initial D: Marketing Heaven

Initial D (referring to the word "drift," the primary racing technique used in the series) first arrived in comic form in 1996. Created by Shuichi Shigeno, it has since become a huge hit among teens and racing aficionados alike. In Japan, when the publishing time between each issue of a comic is about 2 months, it's a fairly impressive display of popularity when a manga such as Initial D is still printing at volume 31 and is going into its 7th year of publication.

However, the popularity of Initial D outside Asia ultimately came from its life as an anime (Japanese animation). Now in its 4th season with over 50 episodes, several OVAs (Original Video Animations), and an animated theatrical feature, the animated version of Initial D boasts an impressive mix of 2D animation for its everyday scenes and 3D animation for its racing scenes. The integration of 3D animation serves to take every frame of the racing scenes from the comics and brings them faithfully to life with a realism that 2D hand-drawn animation can't possibly achieve.

The popularity of the series also led to a merchandise marketing blitz, which includes toys and models of the cars featured in the series, and widely successful arcade games, several of which have been adapted for home gaming as well. Moreover, car company Toyota may be joining the Initial D craze. Their AE86 model (called a "Trueno" or a "Corolla") is prominently featured in the series as protagonist Takumi Fujiwara's car, and has long ceased production years ago. However, Toyota has considered reproducing the AE86 line in light of its popularity from Initial D and the resulting demand from used car markets around the world.

Initial D and the New Eurobeat Fever

Next to the game and the cars, the most successful aspect of Initial D can be found in the music. The anime series has always employed music from the Eurobeat genre produced by mega record company Avex Trax. Eurobeat, first known as Italian Disco, is a type of music made in Italy (thus Eurobeat) where the rhythm and beats are achieved using a synthesizer. Eurobeat found its popularity in Japan when hit Japanese artists such as Namie Amuro and Ayumi Hamasaki started singing and remixing songs in Eurobeat tradition. Featuring an endless assault of background synthesized music and bass, the Eurobeat music proved to be a perfect match for the fast-paced races of Initial D.

In fact, Dave Rodgers, one of the most well-known figures in the Eurobest genre, composed some of the biggest hit songs of the Initial D series. The music, which has since spawned 18 soundtrack albums, also brought a short-lived fad known as the Para Para Dance to the mainstream, spawning the dancing game Para Para Paradise. Unfortunately, it didn't have the longevity of Dance Dance Revolution, the granddaddy of all music games. With the success found in Initial D, it's no surprise that the name Initial D is now synonymous with the Eurobeat genre. Some fans may even be disappointed that Eurobeat got lost in the translation when the filmmakers adapted Initial D from an anime to live-action.

Initial D: Infernal Affairs in Japan?

First developed by legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, who left the project over creative differences, the film adaptation of Initial D is the follow-up from directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak to their Infernal Affairs trilogy, one of the most successful Hong Kong film series ever. Lau and Mak said during the casting process that they wanted to work with actors that they have worked with before to ensure a smoother filming process. As a result, Initial D features a cast that may cause people to suspect the film to be a rehash of Infernal Affairs, with actors Edison Chen, Anthony Wong, Shawn Yue, and Chapman To returning from the blockbuster film.

Taiwanese pop icon Jay Chou (in his acting debut) plays Takumi Fuijiwara, an 18-year old from Gunma Prefecture in Japan who delivers tofu every morning for his father Bunta (Anthony Wong). During his daily delivery, he unknowingly sharpens up his racing skills by speeding through notorious racing spot Mt. Akina, where some of Japan's greatest street racers venture for glory. One of these racers is the brilliant Ryousuke Takahashi (played by Edison Chen, the original choice to play Takumi), the leader of the Red Suns Racing Team whose strategies have beaten the best of the best. Takumi gains the attention of Ryousuke when he unwittingly beats Night Kids captain Takeshi Nakazato (Shawn Yue), and soon even professional racers like the arrogant Kyouichi Sudou (Jordan Chan) are looking to challenge Takumi. Along with the ride are Chapman To as Takumi's best friend Itsuki Tachibana and young Japanese actress Anne Suzuki as Takumi's love interest Natsuki Mogi.

Experiences and Expectations: The Potential of Initial D the Movie

Boasting a US$12 million budget (considered extremely high for a Hong Kong film) and a year-long production schedule, the live action adaptation of Initial D was filmed on location at Mt. Akina in Gunma Prefecture. Both expectations and doubts were high for the film. The trailers, shown as part of a long promotional campaign, seem to promise some exciting races. After all, the two directors are not strangers to car races: Andrew Lau directed Ekin Cheng "Chan Ho Nam" in The Legend of Speed (the film's Chinese title bills it as a "sequel" to Andy Lau's Full Throttle), while Alan Mak's A War Named Desire featured a thrilling car chase for its finale.

However, there have been some doubts, such as the directors' decision to place Chinese actors in roles of Japanese characters and the casting of Jay Chou, whose acting experience is next to nil. Regardless, the film is now the highest-grossing film at the 2005 Hong Kong box office, beating out Hollywood blockbuster giants such as Star Wars and War of the Worlds. Initial D also propelled Jay Chou to "more than just another pop star" status, and has possibly given Andrew Lau a chance at directing an American film starring Richard Gere. At this point, it's not a matter of if there will be a sequel to Initial D, but a matter of when.

In the end, there's so much to write about Initial D - the cars, the characters, the music, the locations, etc.. After all, its firm sense of reality is what attracted its popularity, and that's what makes Initial D such a multi-layered entity, despite the paper-thin plot. In fact, fans can actually visit the real Mt. Akina and relive the races themselves if they were to have the guts and the ability to avoid the law. For a fictional animated series to tread the thin line between fiction and reality so well, Initial D - and the automobile makers that allowed their cars to be shown being driven in such a dangerous (and illegal) fashion - deserves all the success it can get.

Published July 27, 2005

  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
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