Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Series Review: Initial D Fifth Stage

Image courtesy of Initial D World Forums
Though Initial D is not the only car related anime out there, I have always considered it to be the quintessential car racing anime for people interested in Japanese cars, tuning, and drifting. In fact, without any exposure to Initial D, I might not have been as interested in cars as I am today, especially aftermarket tuning. While a lot of the stuff that happens in Initial D is far from accurate, it was this show that drove me to study more about the way cars with different drivetrain layouts react in different situations. I really do owe quite a bit of my knowledge to Initial D's inaccuracies.

Initial D has been around for about 18 years now, primarily in manga form. As an anime, Initial D has so far been divided into four seasons, a movie, two additional side movies, and two clip shows that chronicle all of the races from the first three seasons and movie. Initial D Fifth Stage is the fourth, and final season of the Initial D anime series, which coincides with the final few chapters Initial D author Shuichi Shigeno has written. Fifth Stage takes you through the final expeditionary races of Project.D, the racing team main character Fujiwara Takumi has joined to become a better racer. This final expedition takes Project.D to the Kanagawa region Japan, facing off against what is supposed to be Project.D's toughest series of opponents yet.

Does Fifth Stage live up to its predecessors, offering both compelling story and gripping racing?

Image courtesy of Otaku Pulse
Initial D Fourth Stage ended over seven years ago. In those seven years, one would expect things such as the animation, story, sound mixing, and overall production quality to increase. What I want to do is look at specific elements of Fifth Stage and compare them to the past Initial D seasons and Third Stage movie.

The first topic I want to discuss is the 3-D animation. From what I can tell, the 3-D animation in Fifth Stage has become a bit brighter than the animation from Fourth Stage. Overall though, the quality of the animation has not changed very much between the two season. I find this to be a good thing as the 3-D animation in Fourth Stage was actually quite good. I still believe that the Third Stage movie had the best 3-D animation of the whole series, but considering that Third Stage was meant to be a theatrical release, it was to be expected to look better compared to its TV counterparts.

Takumi in Fifth Stage, courtesy of http://randomc.net

Takumi in Fourth Stage, courtesy of Initial D World Forums
What I cannot say has improved, or even stayed the same for that matter, is the 2-D animation. With things such as cartoons, one would expect the 2-D artwork to get better with time. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with Initial D Fifth Stage. Look at the two screen shots that I provide to the left. The picture on top is of the main character, Takumi, in Fifth Stage. The picture below is is of Takumi from Fourth Stage. Though the picture from Fifth Stage looks more colorful and shiny, it feels too cold and artificial. In a sense, it is too cartoon like. Looking at the bottom picture of Takumi from Fourth Stage, the 2-D artwork feels a lot warmer and a bit more life like, especially without the random shiny spots on Takumi's face. This seems to be a trait carried throughout the entire season with all of the characters. It also might just be me, but the quality of how the characters are drawn seems to have gotten worse instead of better in Fifth Stage. While the characters do not quite look First Stage awkward (First Stage was created in the mid 90s after all), they definitely do not seem to be drawn as well as in Fourth Stage or the Third Stage movie. Of course, many have also said that Shuichi Shigeno's work has gotten noticeably lazy as time progressed, which may have resulted in the less than impressive artwork in Fifth Stage. Then again, if you had drawn the same thing for over 18 years, I am sure you would start getting lazy about it too.

Inital D Fifth Stage is supposed to cover manga chapters 425 up to, but not including, Takumi's final race in Kanagawa, which beings at chapter 600 something, I think (yes, there is a lot of Initial D). Though each chapter is not exactly long, Fifth Stage was supposed to cover a huge chunk of the Initial D source material. Because of the scope of what Fifth Stage was supposed to cover, I had originally thought that Fifth Stage would be covered in the 24 to 26 episode format we saw in First Stage and Fourth Stage. I was incredibly surprised, and disappointed, to learn that Fifth Stage was only going to be 14 episodes long. This meant that a large portion of the story that takes place in 175+ chapters in the manga would likely be left on the cutting room floor. As expected, Fifth Stage ended up being focused primarily about the races against Project.D's Kanagawa opponents. While the races are fun to watch and do make up a majority of the manga content, I missed a lot of the story driven character development that made First Stage so much fun to watch. Even Fourth Stage, with its heavy racing content, still had some story driven moments that were great fun to watch.


Keisuke's FD RX-7, courtesy of Initial D World Forums
The physics in Initial D were already pretty hard to believe in some cases. Tire wear and grip seems increase or decrease at the most convenient times in favor of the main characters. In some instances, cars have the magic capability to teleport through corners. Takumi's luck also never seems to run out, magically spawning woodland creatures running across roads or causing an opponent to keel over and vomit mid-race.  Fifth Stage took the silliness to a whole new level with drivers magically sprouting neon colored auras when they focus, and Takumi's AE86 growing angel wings when being viewed by an opposing racer. Initial D has slowly become the Dragonball Z of racing anime. At least one five minute race did not turn into 20 to 30 something episodes.

Long story short, Initial D Fifth Stage is amusing to watch for the racing, but little else. Overall, it is a gigantic disappointment. Hardcore Initial D fans will probably want to watch it to catch up on the story if reading the manga is not an option. If you are just starting to get into Initial D, do not start with Fifth Stage, as it could potentially turn you off to the rest of the series.

Recent news about Initial D has revealed that manga chapter 719 will be the final chapter of Initial D ever. Since Fifth Stage ended before Shuichi Shigeno could finish drawing the manga chapters depicting Takumi's final race, the final race will supposedly be animated in a series called Final Stage. A new Initial D movie for theatrical release is also supposedly in the works for release summer of next year. The below video is the announcement of Final Stage and the new movie, as well as a short clip from the movie.


From the short clip played in the announcement, it looks like the new movie is going to be a retelling of Initial D starting from First Stage. Animation also looks to be done completely in 2-D, rather than in the 2-D/3-D combo we have all become accustomed to throughout Initial D's life span. It also looks like the artists who did the 2-D artwork for First Stage have been given the job of animating the new movie, but with vastly improved artistry and technique.

The new movie definitely looks to be promising, but I am mostly concerned with what Final Stage will include besides Takumi's final race. As of this posting, chapter 719 will have already debuted and from what I am hearing around the internet, the ending is quite disappointing, but open for interpretation. I am hoping that Shuichi Shigeno just got lazy with drawing Initial D, but has given the animation and storyboard teams of Fifth Stage / Final Stage some creative freedom to expand on the ending in Final Stage. It would seem a lot of Initial D fans want to see a rematch between Takumi and his Project.D teammate, Keisuke, or an official race between Takumi and his father.