While recent release Memoirs of a Geisha has generated considerable controversy by casting primarily Hong Kong (HK) and Chinese actors in Japanese roles, another 2005 release employing the same strategy has managed to slip beneath the PC police’s radar. Based on the popular racing Japanese anime of the same name, the live action Initial D arrives stateside on DVD hoping the audience will be more focused on the cars than the drivers.
I’m only casually acquainted with the anime, which has helped popularize drift racing, an initially Japanese but now international phenomenon in which racers wildly swing out the rear of their cars to whip around severe corners. I found the show to be an entertaining mix of colorful characters and high-speed action, but I can’t say the same for the movie. The cinematography is great, and there are several exciting racing sequences, but the human aspect is flat and tedious.
Unassuming teenager Takumi Fujiwara (Jay Chou) has developed into an accomplished drift racer by delivering his father (Anthony Wong) Bunta’s tofu on the winding roads of Mt. Akina in central Japan. His spoiled loudmouth friend Itsuki Tachibana (Chapman To) is leader of the local Speedstars racing team and dreams of becoming a pro, but for now the two work at his father (Kenny Bee) Yuuichi’s gas station. Both of their fathers, themselves racing veterans, hope their sons will give up this dangerous pastime. Takumi also hangs out with classmate Natsuki Mogi (Anne Suzuki), whose romantic feelings he is slow to recognize. The plot is set in motion by rival racing team leaders Takeshi Nakazato (Shawn Yue) and Ryosuke Takahashi (Edison Chen), who are vying for champion of the region and determined to best Takumi after learning of his prowess.
From what I could gather the film is generally faithful to the first several anime episodes, with a few minor changes. Most noticeably the Japanese Eurobeat soundtrack has been replaced with HK hiphop, which may bother some but I was indifferent. Itsuki spends more time trying to mooch money off Yuuichi than doing any actual working this version, and since he’s assumed the role of Speedstars leader the character of Iketani is absent. Ryosuke’s brother Keisuke has also been eliminated, his role partially covered by Takeshi.
Most of the leads are so low on testosterone and high on hairspray as to seem vaguely gay. Taiwanese musician Chou is either completely talentless or overacting like mad, because his Takumi is not merely easygoing and casually indifferent but nearly comatose. I think the reason Itsuki speaks so loudly is to keep him from falling asleep. Speaking of whom, unlike the often amusing goofball of the anime To’s Itsuki, sporting one of the worst haircuts in cinema history, is gratingly unfunny. Yue and Chen have little to do and do little with it. Suzuki certainly stands out, but more for being Japanese than her acting ability. Still, she’s probably the liveliest of the younger actors. A modicum of class is conferred by Bee and particularly veteran HK tough guy Wong, who at least don’t quite embarrass themselves. Wong plays Bunta as a raging alcoholic perpetually stumbling around or passed out, and reportedly was actually drunk throughout shooting. For HK movie fans this film is something of an Infernal Affairs reunion since Wong, To, Yue, Chen and director Andrew Lau are all veterans of that franchise.
If you’re wondering what language all these different nationalities speak, it’s Cantonese, meaning that Chou has to stumble through a foreign language and Suzuki is dubbed. The English dub isn’t bad but the film really cries out for a Japanese dub.
Fortunately for the film the stunt drivers turn in fantastic performances. The racing footage feels very real, as if we were watching an actual competition. If you miss the anime’s CGI there are a few brief and fairly convincing effects shots. Impressively, the film manages to make Takumi’s dumpy old AE86 (Corolla), of which Toyota built three especially for this film and Chou wrecked one, look sexy. By the film’s end I was raring to leap in my car and burn some rubber, but then I remembered I’m hours from the mountains and trying those moves in my car would probably send my insurance premium into Jupiter’s orbit.
In contrast to the exciting action the “humor” is invariably awful. To be fair Itsuki gets most of the laughs in the series with wild anime reactions that don’t really translate to live action, so To is in an unenviable position. The funniest moment is unintentional, coming when Natsuki has to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a violently choking Takumi and suddenly the romantic score swells as if it’s time to break out the tissues.
Although I got used to the cast after a while, it was still a jarring experience to watch this very unJapanese cast using Japanese names in a very Japanese setting. However, if a Japanese studio had made the film we’d probably still be stuck with a cast of minimally talented idols, and the action would likely suffer. It’s a shame Lau couldn’t get better performances from the cast, because this had the makings of a really fun film. He ought also to have spent more time on the sadly underdeveloped Bunta and Natsuki subplots, which could have provided some genuine drama.
The special features are numerous for an Asian film but largely unsatisfying. All you really need to watch is Making of Featurette, which covers the entire production including the casting, stunts, and story adaptation. The Behind the Scenes and Characters extras merely repeat footage seen there. The deleted scenes add a few seconds of little consequence, and the outtakes won’t mean much to non-Cantonese speakers since they are primarily flubbed lines. Also included are HK TV ads, a photo gallery full of poses for female fans, and brief highlights from promotional events in Shanghai and Tokyo.
If they can get over the few changes, fans of the anime should have a good time with Initial D. Undemanding fans may even love it. As for the general public, I can only suggest the film to drift racing fanatics. If you crave more such action, I would direct your attention to the upcoming Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift. Who says anime can’t change the world? Well, probably not the lousy acting.