Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: Initial D Final Stage

Last year, I reviewed the much anticipated, but extremely disappointing Initial D: Fifth Stage. It was disappointing because the animation was iffy, and the creators tried to cram hundreds of chapters of Shuichi Shigeno's work into 14 episodes. As mentioned in my earlier review, the final race between Initial D's main protagonist, Fujiwara Takumi, and his theoretical half brother, Shinji Inui, would take place as a final four episode arc. Here is what happens when the final 100 or so chapters gets crammed into four episodes.

Initial D: Fifth Stage ended with Takumi's teammate, Takahashi Keisuke and his FD3S Mazda RX-7, victorious in his race against team Sidewinder's Hojo Go and his NA1 Honda NSX. Final Stage picks up with the final race in the Initial D series: Takumi in his AE86 hatchback versus 15 year-old prodigy, Inui Shinji in his AE86 coupe. This is not the first AE86 versus AE86 race to occur in Initial D, but what makes this race different is that Shinji resembles Takumi at the very beginning of the series: apprehensive about racing and driving purely based on intuition and years of home course experience.

This race seems completely unfair at first. Takumi's AE86 is basically a race car, with its Group A
spec 20 valve 4A-GEU racing engine, full roll cage, and racing tuned suspension. Shinji's AE86 on the other hand is still sporting the standard 16 valve 4A-GEU engine (heavily tuned though), bolt on roll bars, and tuned suspension. Based on the specs of both cars, and Takumi's experience, he should have wiped the floor with Shinji and his AE86. But just as everyone thought Takumi would have gotten his ass handed to him by his numerous opponents with more powerful cars and experience, Takumi still manages win after win thanks to his experience on his home course. With years of experience driving the local mountain roads with his mother, Shinji manages to give Takumi a run for his money, and even causes Takumi to struggle to keep up throughout the first part of the course.

What this race really boils down to are the differences between Shinji and Takumi, not their cars. At first, Shinji did not want to participate in the race versus Takumi and Project D at all. While roaming through the spectator galleries, Shinji encounters the two women who form the racing team Impact Blue, driver Sato Mako and navigator Sayuki (whom Takumi met and defeated in the first season of Initial D). After listening to how passionate Mako and Sayuki were about racing, Shinji decided to race so he could, in his own words, be a "hero" and impress his friends as well as Mako and Sayuki. During the actual race, while Takumi is struggling to keep up, Shinji becomes overconfident and lets Takumi pass part way through the race. Shinji sees his gesture as innocent, wanting merely to watch Takumi drive from behind and see his "wings." Instead, Shinji's overconfidence spurs Takumi to drive even harder and faster, causing Shinji to panic and have to resort to bumping Takumi's car to maintain his driving line and retake the lead.

Takumi and Shinji trade positions a few more before times approaching the final section of the race. This is where we learn in a flash back that Project D leader Takahashi Ryosuke had intentionally re-tuned the engine in Takumi's AE86 for better low end torque, giving a more consistent power delivery. This meant Takumi was able to change gears at around 9,000 rpm instead of at 11,000 rpm like when his car was first equipped with its racing engine. Takumi is also informed that while he can shift past 10,000 rpm, the engine is not making a lot of additional power, and prolonged use of the higher rev range of the engine will strain the engine. Considering the timing of the flashback, it became obvious Takumi saw no other option put to push his engine to ragged edge in order to get in front of Shinji. Using his "blind attack" technique (where Takumi shuts off his headlights to confuse his opponent), Takumi is able to surprise Shinji and squeeze next to Shinji, throwing Shinji off his line. With Takumi now about half a car length ahead and in a position to overtake at the last corner, Takumi turns his lights back on to see his tachometer approaching 13,000 rpm. His engine blows, spewing oil all over the place. The wheels in Takumi's AE86 lock up, causing him to spin and forcing Shinji to spin out as well. Rather than letting the car keep spinning, Takumi waits for the car to turn 180 degrees, disengages the clutch, and lets the car roll backwards into the finish line. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Takumi wins his final race.

Watching Final Stage sort of reminded me of the good old days of Initial D, where the average race lasted three to four episodes. As expected, the art work did not change at all since Fifth Stage, since the animation team did not change. On the other hand, the storyboard team seemed to do a much better job of incorporating that last few chapters of the manga into the four episodes that make of Final Stage. Perhaps they were given more leeway since they only needed to compress 100 or so chapters into four episodes, rather than attempting to compress over 600 chapters into 14 episodes. Either way, Takumi and Shinji's race felt much more complete than the races in Fifth Stage.

Whereas the manga ended with Project D disbanding and Keisuke getting offers from professional racing teams, the Final Stage team was clearly given some leeway into changing some final material to the end of Initial D. Rather than scrapping the AE86 like in the manga, Takumi offers to use his income to repair his beloved car little by little until it runs again. Also, instead of just Keisuke getting professional race offers, Takumi also gets them as well. There is one final scene that is clearly added as complete fan service though. While Takumi is doing his nightly tofu delivery in his father's Subaru WRX STI Type R, he encounters a brand new Toyota GT86. As the two cars drive past one another, things go into slow motion as Takumi stares at the passing GT86. I suppose this was added, not just to help Toyota advertise the car, but to imply that the spirit of the AE86 is alive in its spiritual successor.

Overall, I had a lot more fun watching Final Stage than I did Fifth Stage. It may have only been four episodes long, but the nostalgia factor, especially the last episode, made it worth watching. Unfortunately, you cannot simply skip Fifth Stage and jump right into Final Stage (unless you have already read the manga), so you will have to suffer through Fifth Stage in order to understand what is going on with Final Stage. It would have been nice if the art team made some improvements, but I honestly did not expect it. There are also a few plot points left hanging at the end as well. For example, "Bunta's last favor," which is mentioned in Fifth Stage, is never revealed. If you can get over these details, you will enjoy the end of a series that has been on going for nearly 20 years.

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