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Initial D Fourth Stage – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Initial D Fourth Stage

 

Related: Initial D (series start)

Initial D Fifth Stage (sequel – included in review)

Initial D Final Stage (series conclusion – included in review)

Initial D Extra Stage 2 (side story)

Similar: Yowamushi Pedal

Fighting Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Racing Sports Action Drama

Length: 24 episodes (Fourth Stage), 14 episodes (Fifth Stage) & 4 episodes (Final Stage)

 

Positives:

  • More supporting backstory and drama.
  • More of the same great music.
  • Races are still intense.
  • Improved visuals over time and better dub acting.

Negatives:

  • Nothing new.

Note: This review contains mild, not-really-spoiling, spoilers from Initial D Third Stage.

After learning all that he can in his area, Takumi joins Ryosuke Takahashi’s elite team, Project D. Along with Keisuke and a full support crew, they seek to conquer Japan’s mountain tracks by issuing challenges and posting results online. As their reputation grows, so too does the desire to see them beaten.

Initial D as a whole is split into two halves. Stages 1-3 are domestic racing, Stages 4-Final are foreign tracks. If you watched the first half and felt you have had your fill of mountain racing, then feel free to stop, as Third Stage ends satisfactorily and the second half doesn’t bring anything new. Different, yes – more cars, different drivers, more backstory for the Takahashi brothers – but not new. That’s not to say it is worse in latter stages; the series maintains the same level of narrative and action quality.

However, if you do have a drive for more racing, then these seasons will please. Keisuke is as much a protagonist as Takumi now, for both are the driving aces of Project D, and Keisuke experiences his own arc of drama and romance. Ryosuke too has his arc in Fifth Stage, though I found it a tad empty – they didn’t delve deep enough, in my opinion.

Regarding races, Takumi’s development is focused on reading his opponents, learning their weakness rather than solely relying on his own strengths. Each driver brings new racing techniques and car specs for the spectators to analyse in detail on behalf of the audience.

My favourite part of this second half is the realistic approach to success. Hands aren’t held. Initial D doesn’t pretend that you can be the best driver, have a great personal life, and pursue other dreams at the same time. It knows that if you want to reach the top, sacrifices must be made. Every day you spend not driving is an extra day your opponents have on you. I love that there is no magical ‘you can have it all’ solution.

So, while these seasons don’t reinvent Initial D, they are more of a good thing for racing fans. The worst I can say is that Final Stage’s new character goes a little overboard with the mystique (they try to draw parallels to Takumi’s origin) and rubbish about auras, but that is a minor complaint to an otherwise great anime.

Art – High

Fourth Stage drops a little compared to the movie production of Third Stage, but Fifth and Final take it further until the CG is almost imperceptible.

Sound – High

Much improved acting in English – I would call it good now; however, Japanese is still preferable. Eurobeat is back for the music and it is excellent. First time I loved the OPs and EDs. Strangely, Final Stage lacks eurobeat during races.

Story – High

More Initial D. The team seeks new opponents to beat. Same quality as before.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: If Initial D’s previous seasons left you wanting more, then Fourth Stage and up should satisfy. If you have had enough, then Third Stage was a good conclusion.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great MusicRiveting Action

Negative: None

Initial D – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Initial D

 

Related: Initial D Second Stage (sequel – included in review)

Initial D Third Stage (further sequel – included in review)

Initial D Extra Stage (side story)

Initial D Battle Stage (remastered summary of key races)

Initial D Fourth Stage (even further sequel)

Similar: Yowamushi Pedal

Fighting Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Racing Sports Action Drama

Length: 26 episodes (First stage), 13 episodes (Second stage) & 1 hr. 54 min. movie (Third stage)

 

Positives:

  • Races are intense and varied.
  • Great attention to driving and car mechanics.
  • Shows love and respect for mountain racing culture.
  • Hype music.

Negatives:

  • Duckface art style is weird and CG shows age in First Stage.
  • Underwhelming romance side plot.
  • Tokyopop dub (see Sound section for details).

Initial D got me interested in cars and racing. That should tell you what I think of this anime, and while Initial D may not be as beginner friendly as the likes of Top Gear, it could be what sparks your interest as well.

While driving the mountain pass one night, Keisuke of the Akagi Red Suns encounters the ‘Ghost of Akina Mountain,’ an AE86 (Eight-Six) car that takes corners at seemingly impossible speeds, passing him with ease. Keisuke challenges the local team, Akina Speed Stars, in the hope of a rematch. Unfortunately, the Ghost isn’t a part of the team. Akina leader Iketani has his pride on the line to defend his turf. However, after seeing his opponents’ speed, he pushes it too far and crashes, totalling his car. He now seeks the 86.

It turns out the 86 is driven by Takumi, a high school kid, son of a racing legend, friend of Iketani’s, and a guy everyone swore had no interest in cars. Takumi inadvertently learnt to drift while transporting deliveries for his father’s tofu shop since the seventh grade. He has to deliver tofu on time and undamaged while driving at night when no police are out to catch an underage driver.

This is a great origin story. It has a good mystique to it, yet remains within the realm of plausibility. Having driven the same roads for years and used the most efficient racing lines, it makes absolute sense that Takumi would have mastery over his car and the road. He comes into the challenges with a natural instinct for racing, but no clue on the mechanics of cars – he doesn’t know why his technique is effective, he just knows it works. To top it all, he has this no-cares-given attitude that infuriates his best friend Itsuki, who can’t understand why the guy who cares least for the sport is the best among them. Takumi only agreed to race in exchange for time with the car on Sunday and a full tank to go on a date.

To counter Takumi’s dry sensibilities, Itsuki brings humour with his desperation to find a girl (despite his motto, “Street racers don’t need girlfriends!”) and his overblown reactions to the most minor of incidents (the duckface art helps in this regard). He becomes Takumi’s cheerleader, fancying himself as a great racer too one day.

As word spreads of the 86’s prowess, more drivers come to challenge him, often in disbelief that a young guy could be as good as his reputation. He meets all sorts of personalities from the proud to the arrogant to the douchebags. These varied opponents also bring a variety of challenges, which keeps the action from becoming stale. Against Keisuke, it’s a simple race; later, there’s an overtaking race; my favourite is the gum tape deathmatch, where the driver’s hand is attached to the wheel, restricting steer unless one is willing to break their wrist.

The passion for drift culture is evident from the outset. The creators put a lot of effort into detailing the cars, exploring the mechanics of drift, why people love it so much, and what it’s like to be behind the wheel on the mountain at midnight. And I would expect no less, as legendary Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya is an editorial supervisor for the anime. (Watch Itsuki’s actor unleash his inner anime character when Tsuchiya takes him out for a spin in his own 86.) In fact, Takumi’s driving life is based on Tsuchiya’s own – both learned doing deliveries, came from humble roots, and gained fame in mountain racing. It would be like having Michael Schumacher for an F-1 anime.

Initial D isn’t all racing, however. Between races, the plot takes the time to develop characters – the third challenge doesn’t start until halfway through First Stage. They could have easily doubled the number of races at the expense of characters if they so wished. Even with Takumi’s romance subplot not amounting to much in the long term, I am glad they gave the characters equal screen time to the cars. It does drag a little, though it isn’t anything serious. I actually grew more tired of the pessimism from Takumi’s friends each race. One would think that after seeing his talent, they would have a modicum of faith. Thankfully, Itsuki carries the optimism before long.

Initial D strikes a good balance between cars, characters, and mechanics. Even if you don’t know the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger, it doesn’t matter; Initial D gives you enough to work with to enjoy these intense races.

Art – Medium

Initial D’s distinctive style doesn’t look great by today’s standards. I still laugh over a decade later at the duckface character art, and the car CG is noticeable. That said, do bear with the art – the series is worth it – and it improves with each season. (I would give Third Stage a ‘High’ art rating.) The jump between First and Second Stage is significant.

Sound – High

The music is hype-inducing eurobeat and the acting is great in Japanese. For the English, however, you need to be aware of two different dubs. In Tokyopop’s dub, they not only supplied weak acting but also replaced all the music with garbage 90s teen rock and hip-hop. This is what an awful dub looks like. Thankfully, once Funimation acquired the license, they redid the whole show with the original music and better acting – still not as good as the original Japanese, but certainly watchable.

Story – High

The birth of a Drift King in Central Japan’s Gunma prefecture. Tense races, nice cars, and a love for drift. Worthy of the source material.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for petrolheads and those looking to get into cars. If you have no interest in cars, Initial D is unlikely to hold your attention, unlike Top Gear, which had mass appeal for three blokes being ambitious but rubbish.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great MusicRiveting Action

Negative: None

Redline – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Redline

 

Similar: Space Dandy

Initial D

 

Watched in: Japanese and English

Genre: Racing Action Sports Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 42 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Exquisite hand drawn art.
  • Sense of speed.
  • Heart-pounding action incorporated into racing.
  • Weird cast of characters.

Negatives:

  • Plot misses a few opportunities for depth.

What a ride! Redline may just be the most exhilarating anime ever made. If you can imagine F-Zero meets Wacky Races you will have an idea of what Redline holds in store. It centres on a race known as Redline, where anything goes – missiles, harpoons, ramming, whatever you want, resulting in a hectic and riveting battle to the finish line.

We meet JP, the greatest Elvis impersonator, in the qualifier race Yellowline, and straight away the pedal is to the floor. Vehicles blitz through the desert, firing at each other, dust trails everywhere, engines roaring, tires screeching, and it is glorious. What drew me into the action is the sense of speed and acceleration. Rarely do racing games and films capture that feeling of a car accelerating at full power; in Redline, the cars are high tech, so it was more important than ever to nail this aspect. The artists couldn’t have done better. The rattling frames, tire distortion, slipstream, phenomenal – such attention to detail.

As the racing is hyperactive, so too is the world design in Redline. We have many alien races from ducks to dogs, and the cast is a collection of weirdoes – in the good way. JP keeps a switchblade on him at all times, expect it’s a comb for that sweet hairdo of his. Another guy grows stronger the more he cries. Then there’s the alien granny midget that runs the cigarette stand – she’s…crazy, mouth foaming, bipolar, rabies-infected kinda crazy. The crowds and the press are like a hive mind, all hyperactive, all desperate to watch races, in love with the crashes and worship the drivers. Every scene presents some eccentricity or another.

It is fortunate that the writers knew how to create lively characters, for they experience little in the way of development. How they are when you meet them is how they will be by the end, for the most part. Similarly, the narrative is light on drama. For example, during the Yellowline race, JP is forced to throw the race at the finish line as part of a deal with the mafia – same plan in Redline. However, though his match fixing history comes to light, the plot does nothing with it in terms of drama. JP is never challenged, never forced to face his actions.

Another instance. During Redline, the host planet sees the race as an invasion, for it takes place near military secrets (against the galactic treat), so they go to war with the race itself. And yes, the mixture of war and racing makes for thrilling action, but there is no drama behind it, no politics. I feel it wouldn’t have taken much to elevate the single-note conflict to multi-faceted drama.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Redline is still thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t hesitate to load it up when a friend asks to watch a good anime film. What Redline does right, and there is plenty of right, believe me, is perfect – the speed, the action, the energy. Watch Redline for those if nothing else.

Art – Very High

The team took seven years to produce Redline, and it shows. Smooth, hand drawn animation, full of life and vibrancy to match the action’s energy and pace. There is so much motion that one needs to watch each scene several times to notice the small details. I love the sense of speed, the use of motion tear when accelerating – the fact that the artists achieved this by hand blows my mind.

Sound – High

Like the art, the music gets your heart racing, pumped up as the cars flash across the screen to rock and techno. Engine sounds are perfect. The acting is good in either language – pick your preference.

Story – Medium

An exhilarating thrill ride in sci-fi racing. However, the overall plot is too straightforward, though without glaring flaws and is enjoyable.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for its artistic achievement and fast-paced excitement. Even with the simple story, Redline is engaging and kept me riveted to the end.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid AnimationRiveting ActionStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

The Legend of Korra – Review

Related: Avatar: The Last Airbender (prequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Korra, as a character and through her arc, displays a rare maturity in the face of conflict.
  • A series of villains made intriguing by their flaws and motivations.
  • Gorgeous art all-round.
  • Fight choreography at the top of its game. No yelling for power.
  • A varied supporting cast, each different from the next, each with proper personalities. Also, Varrick is the best.
  • Great references to the original series without resorting to info dumps. (Cabbage Corp.!)
  • Excellent voice work, infant characters’ most surprising.
  • The inclusion of sports, political structures, advances in technology, propaganda, public services, entertainment, and the like, makes for superb world building.
  • Doesn’t feel like a re-tread of Avatar.

Negatives:

  • One mistake at the end of season one (reminiscent of Avatar’s season four’s finale error).
  • It would have been nice to see more Fire Nation.

Note: This review contains implied spoilers from prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Outside of the new Star Wars film, nothing has as much pressure to live up to its prequel as The Legend of Korra, for me. As it happens, Korra is an exemplar of what a sequel should be. Nothing in Korra feels like a re-tread; the creators knew they couldn’t get away with a ‘Hollywood’ sequel cash-in.

The Legend of Korra starts seventy years after the events of Avatar, during a time of peace, as Korra, the new Avatar, moves to Republic City (think UN capitol in a 1940s Shanghai inspired setting with added zeppelins and Model-T Fords) to learn airbending from Master Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, when she arrives, the city isn’t as peaceful as it appears, for the triad gangs torment the lower echelons of the city and the ‘Equalist’ faction of humans seek to eliminate all bending from the world. Because of their power, some benders have gained higher status, looking down on non-benders. Masked leader Amon and his Equalists begin to capture benders; Amon claims he can remove their power permanently. Korra must stop him.

Like Avatar before it, Korra isn’t this basic plot. It is layered with a half-dozen plotlines woven together to create a deep and compelling narrative. While worrying about Amon, Korra has to deal with politicians trying to seize power in tragedy, master her final element of air, compete as a pro-bender (boxing with the elements in teams of three to push opponents out of the ring, backed by a great commentator) behind Tenzin’s back, shoulder Avatar responsibilities, and have a social life.

Even with this many plotlines, the narrative never feels overstuffed where each plotline tries to choke the others out. I never grew tired of a plotline because there was always another to step-up when one needed a break. I couldn’t find, and believe me I tried, any padding. Even action scenes, the most common source of padding in kids’ entertainment, are the perfect length. There is no power yelling for five episodes, no twenty-episode fights ended with a trump card that should have been used at the start, and the choreography is phenomenal – it has spoiled me. Spoiled! Korra is an intense, close-knit experience with the right amount of quiet moments to pour emotion into the narrative.

At its core, Korra is about characters. From the main to the supporting cast, every character is well thought out and has a purpose in the world. I don’t know where to begin. Aang’s hilarious grandchildren (“Those maggots will bow to me!”)? The aged original cast? The new Team Avatar with Mako’s Batarang eyebrows, Bolin’s humour and innocence, and Asami’s confidence? The other descendants? There’s too many to cover. I could write a review for each individual character, so high is their quality of design. No one feels like a quest-giver NPC waiting for the protagonist to turn up to complete the NPC’s purpose. You get the sense that they all lead lives that don’t revolve around Korra.

In my Avatar review, I mentioned Aang as the weakest (yet still great) of the core characters because of his over-dorkiness in season one and righteous personality (not my favourite). Korra however, is my favourite here, followed closely by Varrick the eccentric inventor and businessman – think Ton Stark if he was completely mad. What I liked most about Korra is her strength and maturity. She doesn’t accept something because a teacher said so. She questions everything, forging her own path. Even when down, she doesn’t whine about how unfair the world is; she whines about how weak she is, how it’s her fault and not someone else’s. And then there is her season-four story arc (no spoilers, don’t worry); I never expected a kids’ show to have the capacity to go this dark. Love it.

There is little to complain about in Korra. As mentioned above, season one’s finale mistake for convenience was a bother. I know they made the decision under the assumption that Korra would only last one season, but still, nothing wrong with leaving a little damage. My biggest disappointment is the lack of Fire Nation. We get hints at, but never see, the state of the Fire Nation, and what few characters make an appearance don’t get much screen time. All that said, no complaint against Korra affected my larger enjoyment, just like in Avatar. Anything I consider “bad” about Korra is only bad by comparison to the rest of the show – the sort of bad that wouldn’t even have time for mention in a lesser art piece due to bigger issues.

Korra is how a sequel should be done. We still have the group of friends with loyalty, infighting, fear, jealousy, love, and the animal companion, but it’s different focus, advancements in society, tournament element, ordinary jobs, big city with a criminal underbelly, politicians, a different kind of enemy, and close-knit conflict, makes for a new and fresh experience. I had high hopes for The Legend of Korra, and I was not disappointed.

Art – Very High

Vibrant action sequences, fluid animation, hand-painted style backgrounds of high detail, and excellent character design. Even the use of CG blends in well. Improved the mouth animations from the first series. (I still can’t un-see the LFR for mouths in Avatar.)

Sound – Very High

The music has advanced with the new technology, using tunes for the era that inspired the Shanghai style setting. Jazz infused with Chinese touches are coupled with more traditional tracks of strings, flutes, and xylophones. Excellent voice work featuring lighter accents this time around.

Story – Very High

A tale of hardships, overcoming trauma, treachery, corruption, and loyalty. Every character is fully realised, filled with subtleties and depth rarely found in programming aimed at children.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: The Legend of Korra is a must watch adventure. This was a real page-turner; I did nothing but the essentials to survive while watching from start to finish.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHilariousPhenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.

Akagi – Review

Japanese Title: Touhai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai

 

Similar: Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

One Outs

 

Genre: Gambling Sports Thriller

Watched in: Japanese

Length: 26 episodes.

 

Positives:

  • The music, character reactions, and inner thoughts combine to build good tension.
  • Comprehensive strategy alongside in-depth analysis of mahjong.
  • Interesting lead character with a sense of cunning, ruthlessness and insanity.

Negatives:

  • Limited in scope.
  • Art style may put you off.
  • Akagi’s origin story lacks realism.
  • Slow finale.

Akagi loves his mahjong like Yugi loves his children’s card games. In fact, the entire underground seems to love mahjong a whole lot. Mahjong is what makes the Yakuza go round; it takes lives, passes around exuberant amounts of money, induces insanity – it is lifeblood.

Mahjong, for the uninitiated, is a Chinese four-player game similar to most card games where the objective is to make pairs or straights of different tiles, only with more suits and pieces. You have a large hand of hidden tiles and the first to have it full of pairs and/or straights, wins the game. The key to the game is being able to read your opponent’s hand based on what they take and throw into the pond (the discard piles in the middle), and their reaction to each play. Think of it as poker, only requiring more skill and the game pieces matter.

Akagi is a thirteen-year-old mahjong prodigy who stumbles into the underground scene of gambling and obsessive mahjong playing – any conflict between gangs in this world is resolved through a round of mahjong. After a spectacular first night of play, Akagi is roped in to play for the Yakuza against various expert players. What makes Akagi stand out from the rest is that he is utterly insane. Not in the sense of a raving lunatic, no, he is fearless, thrilled by risking it all for the game – fingers, limbs and even life are gambling tokens. The more he has on the line, the greater the excitement for him. He’s an interesting character in the way he thinks, strategises and tortures his opponents through mental warfare. My only gripe with him is how he becomes professional. I don’t believe for one moment that he would be a genius at the game after five minutes of having the rules explained. They should have instead lied about him being a novice, in my opinion; it wouldn’t have made a difference to anything outside of that unconvincing origin.

As an anime, Akagi is as dramatic as they get. Every tile drawn, every play, every thought is overdramatized to the nth degree. Everyone does act as though mahjong is the creator and bringer of destruction, the answer to life, the secret to the universe. Is this a good thing? Well, think of what any sport anime would be like if they didn’t pile on the dramatic. It wouldn’t be interesting to watch, now would it? You have to like that intrinsic anime over-the-top style…and mahjong. Each game is narrated through a combination of the players’ and spectators’ thoughts and the recount of a narrator – at times it does slow to a crawl as you have to listen to every passing thought. The last few episodes are most guilty of this. They could have cut about four episodes’ worth of mindless rambling throughout the show.

Ninety-five percent of the screen time passes either playing or talking about the game. And that’s where Akagi’s major flaw lies. Normally, in a sport anime, plotlines surrounding the main narrative, therefore even if the sport isn’t your cup of tea, the overall package can hold your interest. Here, it’s nothing but mahjong, so you better love it. Yes, there are other interesting characters, most notably the opponents, ranging from the manic to the blind – each competes to see who is the most dramatic. I swear to you, winning is second to being dramatic. The strategies of each are interesting and varied, with different conditions versus each new opponent. I especially like how cheating is a part of the game, another tool for the utility belt.

Unfortunately, you will cringe in disbelief at times when luck of the draw attains a win. While it is true that luck is a part of any game in real life, here they claim that the luck was created or even ‘destined.’ It doesn’t happen often, but enough for you to notice. On the flip side, chance-heavy wins are illustrated well – i.e. it goes into the habits and psychology of characters to explain everything, even which of two pieces they would discard based on the sort of person they are.

Akagi is a good anime; however, I can only recommend it to those who enjoy and understand mahjong.

Art – Medium

The art will garner widely conflicting opinions; you will either love it or hate it – somewhere in between is improbable. Akagi looks like a woodpecker with that nose of his, the style angular and unique.

Sound – Medium

The music is good, adding to the tension and drama, and rather surprisingly, the opening theme isn’t too bad. Avoid the ending theme, however.

Story – High

Limited to mahjong matches, each one with higher stakes than the last, yet good with what it encompasses.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for the lovers of mahjong and insane competition. Though I rate Akagi highly, I expect this anime to be of niche interest.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Strategic

Negative:

Terrible Start