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"Initial D Second Stage" Hits the Brakes, Not the Gas Pedal

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Sorry. Dozed off there for a moment. Let’s make this quick before I pass out again.

Initial D: Second Stage may collect the best and most interesting batch of episodes in this intensely soporific series, but don’t mistake “best” for “good” or “interesting” for “attention-holding”; this second season of the teenage racing show is just as perversely intent on putting its viewers into a catatonic stupor as the other seasons have been.

But the plot arcs in this set of stories do bend in intriguing directions, as the main character, the teenaged amateur racing sensation Takumi, begins to feel pressure from two different directions. The first comes from his rising reputation as a skilled driver, and his own burgeoning sense that it’s a reputation worth defending. Of course, Takumi being Takumi, he can’t actually come out and say or even deliberately act on this desire. Instead, he just gets a little wilder and a little more undisciplined; he goes behind his father’s back to try souping up his rattle-trap race car; he loses a little of his cool while racing, and shows increasing signs of panic and frustration. It’s a daring way of dramatizing his inner conflict—the conflict between his diffidence and his pride—and it’s not hard to respect a series for taking such a low-key approach. That still doesn’t make it a lot of fun to watch, though, even after Takumi (let us all gasp in unison) loses a race.

Juicier, but less satisfying, is his conflict with Naksuki. She’s the girl who has been transparently sweet on him, but whose affections he has been either too shy or too insecure to really return. But he finally demonstrates his feelings when he starts getting anonymous poison-pen letters describing her habit of riding around with a rich guy in a Mercedes. This could be neatly melodramatic—who is sending these letters, and why? But again, Takumi being Takumi, he can’t actually talk about this or do anything about it, so he just passive-aggressively freezes Natsuki out of his life. Again, this is a somewhat daring approach, and to a lot of teenagers it may feel very familiar. But when the main character emotionally locks down instead of acting out, it means there isn’t going to a lot of incident to keep things going.

This is going to be a really weird comparison to make, but it’s inescapable: With its repressed, interiorized protagonist and oblique approach to drama, Initial D feels like nothing so much as one of those 1990s Merchant-Ivory adaptations of a Famous Novel: The Bostonians; A Room with a View; Howard’s End; or The Remains of the Day. There is something very Henry James-ish about the way Takumi seems to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole the more complicated his life becomes, and one can imagine an intricate (though rather mannered) novelization of the series that fully explicates the rococo knots he ties himself into as he wonders about Natsuki, about racing, and about himself.

But cinema is not really the right medium for that kind of thing—just as novels aren’t the right medium for Michael Bay mayhem. To see what I mean, just take a sidelong glance at The Remains of the Day and reflect on how even the great Anthony Hopkins cannot adequately convey the real nature of the self-deluding old fusspot who narrates the Ishiguro novel. You also have only to look at the average Merchant-Ivory production to realize what a snorefest such movies turn out to be when they are attempted.

I can’t recommend Initial D, even to that vanishingly small subset of viewers who appreciate both racing movies and Novels of the Mind. But if you do happen to find yourself in possession of this series, you will better survive it—or will be better able to stay awake—if you understand that this is exactly what you’re getting yourself into.

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