Fast Cars, Anime, and Eurobeat – This Week in Anime

Steve and Nicky put on their helmets for a high-octane discussion of Initial D, its successor MF Ghost, and the dark horse of the season, Ei Aoki‘s Overtake!

The anime discussed in this column are streaming via Crunchy Roll and HIDIVE.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

WARNING: “This Week in Anime” is performed by professional stunt drivers on a closed course. Do not attempt under any circumstances. Even if you are blasting Eurobeat on your stereo.

We get two series with similar premises airing in the same season every once in a blue moon. Sometimes, they act like two cars passing in the night, but other times, having two anime targeting the same niche can become a thrilling competition to see which anime could become the victor. Similar to our previous rap battle discussion, this season has not just one but two anime racing to become the #1 anime for today’s car lovers looking to fulfill their need for speed. This week, Steve and I will trade our hats to become race commentators. Steve, why don’t you go ahead and introduce our audience to the competition?

Before I caught myself, I was just about to announce them as if they were opposing wrestlers, not racers, which should let the audience know how little I know about motorsports. But I do know a thing or two about anime! And this season, we’ve got MF Ghost, the titillatingly named follow-up to the seminal Initial D, and Overtake!, a carboy drama directed by Ei Aoki. Gentlemen, start your engines! (if they still say that)

While we aren’t super car nerds, we know it would be wrong to talk about car racing anime without discussing the original 1998 speed sensation Initial D. Created at the peak of Japan’s underground street racing scene, Initial D is a testament to ’80s and ’90s car culture that would later integrate into the professional worlds portrayed in both MF Ghost and Overtake!. Not only did Initial D become popular among anime fans, but it was also able to dig its tires deep into the hearts of car fanatics worldwide for its cutting-edge look at Japan’s cars, music, and dangerous mountain roads. Spanning 48 manga volumes, over 80 episodes of anime, followed by movies, a live-action film, several re-animated compilations, and numerous video games,Initial D was crowned the all-time champion competitor.

It’s one of those series that has become so iconic—so memetic—it feels almost uncanny to go back and check out the original. But there is an undeniable spark between the hot-blooded street race rivalries and awkward computer graphics of the era. The show pulls you into the action, and the rough visual components become part of the charm. I mean, the conceit of the series revolves around an unassuming Toyota, so I suppose it’s appropriate that there’s more beneath the hood of Initial D than meets the eye.

Plus, if we learned anything from “Planet of the Bass” this year, the general public is hungry for Eurobeat again. The children yearn to run in the ’90s.
The Initial D series might be retired, but its legacy remains like the afterimage of Takumi’s panda-colored AE86 drifting down the mountainside at night. It was so influential the titular Toyota Trueno went from an affordable little engine that could to a highly sought-after collector’s item by wealthy drivers. A price uptick supposedly dubbed “The Tofu Tax” alludes to Takumi’s job as a tofu delivery driver for his family business. The Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno was also the favored car of Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya, who not only served as a consultant for the series but also rode a similar path from doing illegal races in the countryside to introducing drifting to pro motorists.
He’s kind of a big deal.

Appropriately, the Drift King also worked as a stunt coordinator on the most underrated The Fast and the Furious entry, Tokyo Drift. And the man isn’t credited here just for show, either. While it all flies (drives?) over my head, the attention to detail in Initial D is supposedly a grease monkey’s delight. I had a lot of fun reading impenetrably nerdy comments on Crunchy Roll from people who praised stuff like specific engine noises being accurate to the models used.
While much of the series remains dated, from the ’90s-tactic archetypes, the fanservice, the melodrama, and the polygon count on the cars, Initial D still stands as a technical marvel, being one of the first series to use CG to portray its star vehicles more accurately. Manga creator Shūichi Shigeno took models and traced over them to capture the different angles of each car. Later, the anime would follow suit by utilizing CG to feel closer to the drivers’ real movements. Also notable is that while various Eurobeat artists set the soundscape for the races, the revving heard throughout the original anime is also taken from real engines. I was impressed by the sound design in the original after watching the first compilation movie, which, while more modern, swapped out all the Eurobeat for standard J-rock that didn’t offer nearly the same adrenaline rush.

Blasphemy, imo. I can’t pretend I’m a diehard Initial D purist, but I can’t imagine hearing those vrooms over anything but hi-NRG goodness. And I think the CG works pretty well, too! Sure, it looks extra chintzy by today’s standards, but it gets the job done as a then-novel way of utilizing dynamic camera movement to capture the energy of the races.

While computer graphics have improved over the years, animation techniques such as camera usage, direction, movement, and acceleration have remained the same. Fancy shaders and physics engines don’t do darn a thing if skilled animators aren’t putting any “weight” into a scene. That’s why neither the 2014 Legends series nor MF Ghost feel like they have much of an impact. The animation on them is too floaty and “slow.” Plus, even bad CG can be covered by good story pacing.

I also felt 100% validated enjoying the original anime’s look and feel when I checked out director Shin Misawa and discovered that his recent credits include, and I quote, “golf course design” in Birdie Wing. That’s possibly the most important golf course design credit in all anime.

But in our ever-repeating present, we are all too familiar with disappointing sequels to groundbreaking classics, and as much as MF Ghost tries to echo the legacy of Initial D, it can’t quite keep up.

MF Ghost utterly fails to follow up on what makes Initial D charming. Initial D cruises as an underdog story and features many real mountainous locations popular with drifters, or touge roads as they are called. MF Ghost takes place in the near future, when electric vehicles have largely replaced traditional cars. It follows Kanata, a rookie motorist and graduate from a top racing school in England. MF Ghost doesn’t carry the same street cred or coolness factor as Initial D.

That’s the biggest head-scratcher for me. Why would you do away with street racing for legally sanctioned street racing? If it’s legal, it’s nowhere near as cool. Kanata also hardly has anything going on as a character. It’s not like Takumi was particularly complicated either, but it was funny to see the fruits of his father turning him into an unwitting drift savant. I guess Kanata is supposed to feel more like a fish out of water. Whatever it is, it’s undercooked.

Takumi was kind of broody and relatable in that he was anti-social and largely unaware of the world in that ’90s teenage way. I would describe him as a protagonist with anti-charisma. Kanata seems like a nice kid, but we don’t learn much about him other than his desire to find his father, which highlights the lack of interiority the drivers in MF Ghost have. Rarely are you able to get a sense of Kanata’s feelings, and most of the first race was commentary by bystanders that mostly amounted to inside baseball, a classic crime of “Tell and Don’t Show,” making the whole thing incredibly sluggish.

Furthermore, the added commentary didn’t make the races any more intelligible to me. The paradox of motorsport is that it is simultaneously easy to understand—the fastest car wins—yet also so laden with technology, technicalities, and rules as to be nearly impenetrable to an outsider like me. Both Initial D and MF Ghost are written with an expert’s perspective in mind, and I don’t think that’s in itself a bad thing, but I felt out of the loop on Ghost.

Yet, I had no problem with Initial D. I felt it tried hard to introduce its audience to some rules by making Takumi a complete alien to the whole appeal. MF Ghost, as a direct sequel, expects its audience to be already deeply familiar with not only cars but most of the characters and events of Initial D, making it very ill-suited as a starting line for people who missed out on the original. Even if I were to try and view MF Ghost as its own thing, its story and characters didn’t drive me enough to want to continue watching. The drama is very shallow, and the plot lacks any stakes. Also, the central female character is a piece of eye candy whose only role is to fawn over the MC-kun, which is a sign that the writing hasn’t matured much since the ’90s.

I don’t think every series needs to be for newcomers. Still, the best sports anime succeeds through a combination of high sportsmanship and the more universal qualities of traditional storytelling. It doesn’t have to be super complex, but there does need to be an emotional grounding for the cool feats.
At least if you want to appeal to a more general audience, I do not doubt that MF Ghost is full of treats for the real motorheads out there. Maybe they want to watch incredible anime races and couldn’t care less who’s behind the wheel. Even if that’s the case, though, I still can’t imagine Ghost delivering better than D already has.

However, I’d prefer a racing anime that stars a guy who can’t tell a carburetor from a crankshaft and whose main drifting experience is with a Joycon stick.

Overtake! surprised me because it’s pretty much the opposite of MF Ghost. It introduces itself using the characters first and has all the set-up of a traditional drama; only the workplace happens to be on a race track.

It’s such a funny contrast. Overtake!‘s premiere is rich with personality, backstory, and conflict for its leading players. Meanwhile, MF Ghost devotes more time to characterizing the car than any of the humans.

It’s oddly low-key, with the characters acting all professional, but the lack of danger was replaced with a deep sense of awe and passion that I found equally thrilling. Plus, the presentation is just much better. I like the softness of manga artist Takako Shimura‘s character designs, and Ei Aoki has always had a touch for atmosphere and human drama, even in his more action-heavy works like Re:CREATORS and Fate/Zero.

I’m not going to tiptoe around it: this is my shit. It’s a down-to-earth drama about people processing their regrets, dressed up as an underdog story about a small-time F4 team. I didn’t even know F4 was a thing before watching this! But now I care about it, thanks to these boys.

It leans much heavier on the side of being an “inspirational” sports story than one of hot-blooded competition, with most of the conflict stemming from the interpersonal aspects and the logistics of running a race team, stuff that is normally considered more small-scale and mundane. Still, it’s got its engine in the right place.

The F4 stuff is more a vehicle (I’ve been waiting to drop that pun) for the character narratives than a pure racing show. So viewers going into this with more of an Initial D/MF Ghost frame of mind might be put off by how much of the story is about boys being sad.

There’s definitely more focus on boys. This leads me to believe I am much more the target audience for Overtake! than MF Ghost, with how many modern character-focused sports series cater to young women.

And as a car noob, I got a lot more out of Overtake! than I did out of the Initial D universe. From episode one, Overtake! is obviously written with people like me in mind, as it takes time to explain basic concepts about automobiles and competitions without getting too deep. Perfect example: during one race, they explain the concept of a slipstream, which shows up later when our hero uses the technique against his rival. In other words, the author gives us information that ends up being relevant to resolving the episode’s conflict, making me feel like I was rewarded for learning that information. It’s brilliant writing!

Contrast that with MF Ghost, which mentions slipstreams early on but doesn’t explain them or make them relevant to the rest of that episode’s narrative.
We also mentioned how pro racing isn’t as attractive as its riskier underground cousin, street racing, but I think Overtake! passes by portraying the races as almost graceful. There’s something very rhythmic about how cars dance around each other on the track, weaving back and forth while their engines hum in unison.

The show may have a dearth of Eurobeat, but it does have Ei Aoki. The dude’s a great director and tends to pick great projects. Outside their vehicles, the character art is full of personality, too.

Off the track, the show putters along with pleasant little character moments, trying to endear you to the cast just as much as the sport. The episodes fly by with good company.

Not to keep ragging on MF Ghost, but its comparatively stiff character designs don’t favor its human component.

Compare that with how round, expressive, and friendly these fellas are.

Yeah, having compared the new Initial D movie by SANZIGEN and Linden Films, I don’t think Shigeno’s art style adapts well to the digital age. The transfer to the old anime is pretty rough, but the switch to digital in the more modern renditions lacks what makes his rough characters feel charming. Compare Takumi’s first rival here; it’s less crude but in a way that removes the sense of stylism in the process. MF Ghost has even less detail to work with. While I love Felix Film‘s rendition of Aharen-san, they haven’t done a whole ton of high-profile stuff compared to TROYCA, which has done Re:CREATORS, Bloom Into You, and all three seasons of Idolish 7.

The old Initial D also lets its characters look goofier. You gotta allow fellas to be dudes sometimes.

The best stylistic quirk I saw out of MF Ghost belongs to the subtitlers, who made the brilliantly hilarious decision to render spoken English in a different, serifed font.

I genuinely think that’s a clever way of handling subs when multiple languages are spoken. It has no bearing on the competition in this column, but I just wanted to shout that out.

That said, we’ve pretty much run our course, so let’s get to the results!
First, I think it’s clear that we vibed better with Overtake! over MF Ghost as people who are more into characters than cars. Still, we also felt that MF Ghost flat-tires as a successor to one of the most monumental motor racing anime of all time, Initial D.

Initial D certainly has the nostalgia factor going for it, but even discounting that, it committed to its confluence of incongruous styles with confidence. I believe that’s what made it so iconic. MF Ghost lacks that same degree of ambition, so it may as well have stayed neutral.

Meanwhile, Overtake! is a dark horse contender for the strongest work of the season. Do not overlook it.

I also think that Initial D is just very “of its time,” and that can’t be recreated in the modern-day. Much of the appeal draws deeply from the roots of its era. Street racing and car modification saw a huge crackdown in the late 90s, and many would leave the scene, moving on to becoming pros or only using legitimate courses. Comparing it to either series feels like apples to oranges; there’s no replacement. Besides, animating cars well is probably one of the hardest things you can do, even with modern CG; it’s no wonder we get so few car anime.

However, I hope this gets people to give the rookie Overtake! a chance. It might be in a league of its own compared to other racing anime we’ve seen in the past, but it’s very revved about its subject matter in a way I think most people could enjoy regardless of whether a viewer is new or old to the sport of racing.

And on a final reflective note, let us not forget how deeply intertwined racing and anime have been for decades. We probably wouldn’t be here talking about these shows without the headway that Speed Racer made, especially for American audiences. That’s why we trapped his soul in this ancient talisman, so that he may watch over Initial D, MF Ghost, Overtake!, and all other anime for all eternity. Praise be to Speed.

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