Initial D is a perfect example of how cultural cross-pollination is driving creativity in movies around the world: it’s a Hong Kong adaptation of a Japanese manga, popular in both countries and in the United States as well. It’s hard to get more multicultural than that, especially since the dominant theme of Initial D—a peculiar form of competitive driving called “drift racing”—ought to be instantly familiar to any nation that has roads and cars.
This is also far from the first time a manga has been adapted successfully into a movie outside of its home country. The most prominent example of that has to be Oldboy, of course, which Korean director Chan-wook Park reworked into one of the best films to come from that country. Initial D isn’t anywhere nearly as overwhelming as Oldboy (what could be?), but it’s a fun story that’s quick on its feet, and it puts American productions like The Fast and the Furious to shame. It’s actually interested in its characters as characters, not simply crash test dummies.
D gives us Takumi (Jay Chou), a dreamy and not-always-all-there high school kid whose nights and evenings are eaten up by him having to drive a tofu delivery route for his father (Anthony Wong, always excellent). This particular road takes up to two hours for most people to traverse, but Takumi has been driving it for so long in his dad’s Toyota AE86 Trueno that he can cover the whole trip—across Akina Mountain in the Gunma prefecture of Japan—in forty minutes flat. He knows how to make the AE86 go into controlled skids around insane hairpin turns that would give Indy 500 racers cold sweats. What’s best about this whole set of skills is that he has evolved it more or less against his will: he did it so that he could get through the tedium of the delivery route all the faster, not so that he could challenge the local street racing teams to eat his dust.
It’s only a matter of time before the local street racers get wind of him. They’re not even convinced it’s him at first, but rather his father—another longtime racing pro who retired from racing and settled for a quiet life of alcoholism and tofu-making when his wife left him. One of the pros, Nakazato (Shawn Yue), gets outrun on the Akina roads by Takumi during one of his delivery runs. Curious, he asks about this tofu-delivery car that managed to beat his own juiced-out vehicle, and discovers that neither father nor son are particularly interested in racing competitively. Takumi’s more interested in trying to get closer to his girlfriend than he is in owning the backroads of Gunma. And yet, there’s still a spark of racing vigor in the old man, one which has been passed to the son unconsciously, and soon he finds himself racing Nakazato and the others more competitively—and dangerously. This includes, among other things, pushing his car far too hard against a competitor (something which goes against Takumi’s best instincts about his own car anyway).
The manga, anime and theatrical movie have a devoted fanbase, and fans hate change even though it’s inevitable in any adaptation. Much of the original material revolves around precise technical details, such as how the engine sounds for the cars in the TV series were taken directly from their real-life counterparts—no mean feat given that the AE86 hasn’t been in production for years. Fans of the series were irked at how the show’s original music and audio were essentially ditched in the English-dubbed edition, and were worried a similar level of butchery would plague the live-action movie. I can’t count myself as a fan on that level, but for someone casually familiar with it I can say they did a more than decent job. The material doesn’t take itself terribly seriously at times, but when the cars his the road, everything else falls away and the movie works both as pure visceral entertainment and as an encapsulation of the “doing my best” sentiment that fuels so many manga aimed at young men.
An example of how liberties have been taken with the characters would be Itsuki (Chapman To), a spoiled kid whose father runs a gas station where Takumi himself also part-times. In the original story, he was a big mouth, but in the film, he’s hopeless, a braggart who augurs headfirst into a divider during his first serious race (and brings an SUV to the next one), and can’t even go into a turn at low speed without barfing. This leads, I must confess, to one of the funniest scenes in the film, where Takumi takes him for a spin against another driver and finds the poor kid still upchucking the next day. Takumi’s father was also not an alcoholic (or an abusive parent) in the original story, but ironically enough Wong’s such a good actor that his shtick with the character makes it work as an original.
The one thing the movie does indisputably well is look and sound great. Cinematographers talk all the time about how car commercials are the single most technically challenging variety of filmmaking around. Think about it: you’re trying to film something moving very fast and move in concert with it and keep it in focus and lit properly. They do all of this in Initial D, and a lot more: a great many of the night race scenes were either shot with occult lighting or during twilight (a/k/a “magic hour”); they look appropriately eerie and sleek. Sometimes digital effects come into play—as in a traveling shot that goes through two cars in quick succession—but they’re not overdone, and they help the movie instead of overriding it. The original Eurobeat score was abandoned in favor of rap and techno (another gripe), but the existing music is propulsive and appropriate, and isn’t distracting.
The most curious thing about Initial D is something that bugged me more than it probably should have. The film was shot in Japan, but with a predominantly Hong Kong cast (and in Cantonese), so it’s a little distracting to see everyone speaking Chinese—and employing many acting gestures that I’ve come to associate with Hong Kong cinema rather than Japanese moviemaking. (Ever notice how many Hong Kong actors like to gesture with a fist or pointed finger, in the manner of a silent movie star?) This probably sounds horribly nitpicky, but a) when you watch as many Asian movies as I do you become hyper-attuned to such matters, and b) if Initial D fans were complaining about something as esoteric as engine sounds, then I reserve the right to single this out. Over time, though, the basic drama and entertainment value of the movie eclipses all of these other issues.
I realize now that a great deal of what I’ve written here is about how the film stacks up against its source material. That’s probably impossible to avoid; the movie has been made to please a very hard-to-please audience. They got most of it right, though, and the best part is that people who weren’t along for the ride to begin with can also hop in.