Sunday, September 28, 2003

Graphic Arts As Literature

Edits turn ‘Initial D’
anime into roadkill

Tokyopop, arguably the reigning king of manga publishers, has built its reputation on one simple slogan: "100 Percent Authentic Manga."

It's a pity that this policy doesn't extend to the company's anime releases as well.

Exhibit A? "Initial D." The stateside hype over Shuichi Shigeno's tale of a high school student's evolution from tofu shop delivery boy to legend of the night street-racing scene has slowly built for months, with translated graphic novels and the "Initial D" arcade game doing their share in drawing hordes of wannabe racers.

art For all the success the franchise has enjoyed so far, though, one move that Tokyopop made early in translating the "Initial D" manga rankled many people who had followed the series in its untranslated form: Many, but not all, of the characters' names were Americanized. For instance, main character Takumi became Tak; Takumi's friend, Itsuki, became Iggy; the leader of the Akina Speed Stars racing team, Iketani, became Cole; and Takumi's dad, Bunta, became ... Bunta.

Tokyopop argued that the changes were to present the series, in its manga and then-unreleased anime forms, to the widest possible audience. Fans of the unedited original work responded by crying, gnashing their teeth and bracing themselves for the day when the edited anime finally hit the small screen.

Well, that day has finally arrived with the release of the first U.S. DVD, "Initial D: Akina's Downhill Specialist" -- and the fears of hardcore fans have been realized.

Two flavors of the series are available on this disc: the "Classic" edition, which features the original Japanese-language soundtrack and most of the original content; and the "Tricked Out" edition, which features the English soundtrack and enhancements that are supposed to make the series more palatable to American audiences. The problem is that these enhancements steamroll many of the series' original strengths.

An example of how Tokyopop tries to raise the coolness factor of the series -- and fails miserably -- comes in the first episode, where Takumi's love interest, Natsuki, is waiting for someone to pick her up after school. The original scene features a simple piano tune playing in the background. The new version features a bass-pumpin', in-your-face rap piece that sounds like something you'd hear in a lowrider cruising between clubs on a Friday night.

The essence of what made the series so appealing to audiences on both sides of the Pacific -- seeing computer-animated cars racing around the roads of Mount Akina -- gets hacked to bits in the "enhanced" footage. Fancy editing techniques, thrown in seemingly at random -- split screens, blurring effects and bleached graphical filters chief among them -- come off as amateurish and detract from the racing action.

As for the new soundtrack, gone are the engine noises sampled from the actual cars that added a sense of realism to the series, as well as music that actually suited the mood for certain scenes -- quiet and jazzy for contemplative scenes, upbeat Super Eurobeat dance music for the high-energy scenes. In its place are generic engine whines and a horrid alternative rock/sanitized wannabe gangsta rap soundtrack that destroys many scenes' moods.

Sound effects and minor (but still important) lines of dialogue from the original version are eliminated in some areas because of this new music, and a poor sound mix sometimes muffles the lines that remain in other areas.

Speaking of the dialogue, all the young people use the same "high school cool" slang that was already outdated when English-dubbed "Sailor Moon" episodes used it years ago. A simple line like "I don't want to be rude, but who's the fastest team, or driver, on this mountain?" in the Japanese version, for instance, becomes "Now don't get your panties in a bunch, but we're here to find out who's the fastest team and who's the fastest driver on this mountain. We want the top dog."

Add in liberal doses of phrases like "major bankage," "spazzing" and "total hottie," and you, too, will be spazzing at the lame-o wordage within the first five minutes of the first episode.

"Fine," you say. "So I'll just watch the 'Classic' edition." This version is certainly the better of the two, but it also has an omission that may upset hardcore fans of the show. When the show first aired in Japan, controversy quickly formed over the fact that Natsuki's side job was as a teenage prostitute. All references to this side job have been glossed over in the English subtitles, leaving a less-than-accurate translation -- the man who picks her up after school suddenly becomes her father instead of her "sugar daddy," for instance.

Top off the whole package with the fact that there are only three episodes on the first DVD -- the box shows a running time of 150 minutes, which accounts for the two versions of the same episodes -- and it becomes very difficult to recommend this release to anyone except those people who have never seen this series before.

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