Initial D as an anime has changed a lot since its first season. It’s made the switch from cel to digital animation, updated its character designs with every Stage, and most importantly, mature as a sports anime.
There are two distinct parts in Initial D.
The first part (1st-3rd Stage) is constructed in a way that gradually introduces the viewer into the world of street racing. Takumi is introduced as an aimless boy who is clueless about cars, which is quickly turned on its head. The show carefully reveals that Takumi is in fact the mysterious AE86 driver setting record times in Akina downhill. The bait-and-switch is not at all a bogus attempt at misdirection as opposed to cleverly withholding information–it is still true that Takumi has little knowledge of street racing, despite the fact that he can achieve an unparalleled level of control with his car.
In his initial races, Takumi is dragged into races against his will, as he receives a crash course in the proud lifestyle of a street racer’s. The notion is alien to him at first, but he starts to warm to it as he faces more opponents. By 2nd Stage, he races against Team Emperor because he wants to, his budding sense of pride slighted. Then, after suffering a devastating engine blowout, he recovers after a bout of retraining with a new engine, and wins in a revenge match. Overall, what the first three Stages do is sell the conceit of street racing, with its sense of honor and pride.
It is important to note that Takumi is always the underdog prior to the formation of Project D–he is a wildcard whose skill with the AE86 (an unassuming car that’s already 10 years old at the start of the story) inspires indignation and disbelief to his opponents. Because of this, the main hook of Takumi’s races is pulling off incredible victories, outpacing cars that are much better in terms of performance. It is a series of David-and-Goliath stories.
As far as mentors go, Takumi’s father, Bunta, educates him in a purposely oblique way, but most of Takumi’s racing skills are homegrown on the street. Slowly, but surely, Takumi solidifies into a full-fledged street racer.
The second part of the show changes the playing field. Takumi joins Project D, gaining the tutelage of Ryousuke Takahashi and his vast resources. The AE86 is tuned and upgraded, becoming a legitimate contender in the mountain passes. Former rival Keisuke becomes his teammate, whose rivalry with Takumi is kindled gradually as a subplot, so much that a rematch inevitable in the future. Now recognized as a street racer, Takumi challenges different opponents in various prefectures. He is no longer the unproven underdog, but a tried-and-tested driver who is quickly building his own legend.
We already know that Takumi is very good; we’ve had more than thirty episodes to establish that fact. Therefore the focus shifts from a matter of possibility (“can he win?”) to skill (“how can he win?”). And as far as races go, the stakes are higher, the drivers are better, and the challenges are harder. As Takumi supports his natural genius with Ryousuke’s theory, his victories become more legitimate, installing a proper notion of sport over the spectacle.
There is also a noticeable change in characters’ attitudes towards Takumi. His opponents tend to treat him with more respect, seeing him as a capable street racer who should not be underestimated. His friends regard him less of a freak of nature than a wizard who goads his car to transcend its limitations. There’s much less condescension among his opponents, and the arrogant attitudes of some characters like Keisuke have dissipated entirely. Surprisingly enough, it’s Keisuke who receives a good amount of character development, as his defeat by Takumi in the first race of the story sets him on the right path to uncompromising self-improvement. While the setup of two teammates working hard to not lose to the other is nothing new, Keisuke’s temperament of hard work ethic and relentless theory contrasts nicely to Takumi’s mysterious genius.
Perhaps the final point I would like to bring up is Takumi’s romantic subplots. The first part of Initial D pays a great deal of attention to Natsuki, who enjoys a tenuous relationship with Takumi. I can’t describe it anything other than troubled, and Natsuki ultimately leaves for Tokyo with Takumi letting her go. Honestly it was a sad relationship that I never thought would progress because it was clear that the two characters lived in entirely different worlds, and that Natsuki had next to no personality.
In the second part though, a girl named Mika is introduced, and she draws a lot of parallels with Takumi, in the sense that she was covertly trained by her father to be extremely good in a sport, and it’s clear that they enjoy each other’s company. One could hope that Takumi would finally be the first street racer in the show to enjoy a successful romance, to break the cycle of painful, cringe-worthy storylines from everyone else.