11/17/2007

On the Straight and Narrow: Wangan Midnight 2-5

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Wangan Midnight is a car racing anime, and as such will probably elicit groans from the 'distinguished' anime-viewing crowd.

While seeing things go really fast tend to be something that is appealing to a lot of guys, the inherent ridiculousness of shows like Initial D, where cars are never pointed the same direction as the road and where people cruise around in 1st until they dramatically shift into 6th and blow people off the road (note: probably a dramatization), turns off a lot of people who perhaps would like real racing over some variant of the shonen-variety Underdog Hero Wins Again (except with cars).

And as much as I'm setting Wangan Midnight up to be something incredibly and completely different that blows people away, I won't lie in saying that if you don't like car shows, you are not going to like Wangan Midnight.

It still features an old 80's vaguely-sporty-car blowing away things with twice the horsepower, it still features ugly animation and awesome CG, and it still contains quite a few Racing Show cliches.

But it's a show of a largely different breed than Initial D, taking to the streets rather than the mountain passes, and it's in a way a show that could be considered a little more high-brow than Initial D. In that regard it's been a pleasing diversion from the usual mix of harem, romance and comedy, and I'm proud to report that I can still watch Manly (i.e. sports/action) Shows without having my head implode.

Wangan Midnight is something that's gotten next-to-no coverage outside of Moe Moe Rabu and the thread on AnimeSuki, so for the uninitiated, WM is a show about some guy Akio Asakura and his drives with a scrapped Fairlady Z he found in a junkyard. Additional 'rivals' that have been introduced include Tatsuya Shima, the calculating doctor who drives a Porcshe, Reina Akikawa, a model who's smitten with cars and her GT-R, and her photographer who's a classy guy driving, of all things, a Ferrari Testarossa.

Other token characters show up such as the Losers Who Lose, Akio's Friend, Akio's Other Friend, Akio's Teacher Who Has A Strange Interest in Him His Car, and a few likely important mechanics such as Jun Kitami, a legendary and infamous "tuner from hell". There are probably more to come, given the numerous amount of rivals in the popular Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade game (like the hilarious Gatchan) as well.

What's surprising about these characters and the feel of the show in general, is that while Akio is undoubtedly the male lead of sorts, the show doesn't have that "him (and a few friends) vs. the world" feel to it that Initial D had.

Rather, instead of revolving around Akio specifically, the story at this point seems to revolve more around the legend of the "Devil Z" he picked up. Akio happens to be the one that owns and drives it, but we spend as much time following Reina in her quest for knowledge about it, or listening to the backstory of the sister of the previous owner of the Z (who incidentally, has the voice of Matsuri of sola. The sister, not the Z.) or of Kitami, the previous tuner.

The largely disconnected world of Wangan street racing where people are mostly on their own in a quest for the Devil Z takes a bit of the focus away from solely Akio and prevents a wholly unrealistic feel of the anime. It's much more interesting learning about the mysterious backstory of a mystical, almost sentient machine rather than finding out just how the clever driver of the 80's Box beat the world this time.

Which, to be honest, doesn't happen a lot. Another refreshing thing about Wangan Midnight is the actual races themself.

First off is the fact that frequently more than two drivers square off in a race - Tatsuya and Reina are always seeking out the Z, and there are a few no-name hotshots who want a piece of the pie with any of them as well. The challenge of racing with three people are a lot higher, and allows for more exciting action.

As thus, the actual dynamics of the races themselves are quite different. While Initial D is largely planned racing on sparsely populated mountain roads, Wangan Midnight has spontaneous races that occur on the highway, a place always fraught with trucks and slow cars.

While the racing may seem boring and very straight-line-ish, it's similar to the much-maligned NASCAR in that there's a lot more to it than it seems. Yes, it's a lot of going very fast without a lot of turning, but there's a lot of skill involved here as well.

Instead of throwing the car around corners with precision, it's weaving through traffic while staying in control, or pushing the car without breaking it, or maybe just looking for the right time and place to pass. And so while it looks simple to do, there's a lot more thinking going on than just standing on the gas pedal and going fast.

This is evidenced in the fact that the drivers in WM aren't half as 'perfect' as they are in ID. Perhaps that latter statement is a stretch, but the fact is that even the most skilled drivers are prone to messing up big at times - not to mention the skill level of the amateurs and the wannabes.

As such Wangan Midnight has a good feel of being 'on the edge', as cars wobble a lot at high speeds when changing lanes, and it's not unheard of to see a wreck happen. In fact, pretty much everyone has smashed up or damaged their car in some way so far. Akio's planted the Devil Z in a barrier at least twice, Reina's spun two different cars, the classy photographer broke a belt in his car (which also led to a genius scene where he went up to two lovebirds in a car and asked for the girl's panties, which are apparently a good replacement for belts), and two nobodies in a GT-R got in a heavy wreck and nearly took out Akio and his teacher.

And while everyone's been able to walk away so far, the atmosphere of danger where anything can happen certainly seems possible in Wangan Midnight, and gives a level of realism to the characters. Car control is not something they've mastered (given the amount of times someone's broke hard to avoid a truck, swerved, and spun out) and I wouldn't expect them to.

Racing elements aside, Wangan Midnight's music lends a good amount to the atmosphere as well. While I was initially dissapointed by the fact that it wasn't the arcade game's excellent trance soundtrack, I found that the non-intrusive music worked just as well as the blasting Eurobeat of Initial D in getting that tense, high-energy mood down.

My major beef with Wangan Midnight would probably be that, like a lot of shonen anime out there, it suffers from a lack in animation quality. I'm not sure what it is - maybe it's all the money spent in car CG, but Wangan Midnight has that animation feel like it's a show from the 90s or 80s. The harem / visual novel shows I've watched have tended to at least be decent in quality, but for some reason most of the 'guy' shows I pick up are a bit behind the curve. Kaiji may just be a bizarre art style, but sports shows for some reason just aren't with the times.

Makes you wonder what a KyoAni racing show would be like (Lucky Star parody notwithstanding). Yeah, I went there.

It is still at its core a racing show, and as such may be a bit simplistic at times, but the mysterious backstory of the Devil Z and the people surrounding it keeps my interest as Wangan Midnight shapes up to be a refreshing rush of adrenaline injected into a diet of moe.

-CCY

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