When it comes to racing manga, Shuichi Shigeno's Initial D is likely considered to be the standard bearer. Debuting back in 1995 Shigeno recently ended the manga, totaling 46 volumes, just a couple of weeks ago, with a new movie as well as a "Final Stage" anime being made to finish the adaptation. What most people don't know, though, is that Initial D is Shigeno's second hit manga, as well as his second manga to get an anime adaptation. From 1983-1991 Shigeno did Bari Bari Densetsu, a manga about motorcycle racing that lasted 38 volumes, and in 1986 Studio Pierrot made a two-episode OVA based on parts of the manga. In 1987 Nippon Herald had Pierrot cut down the two 50-minute OVAs into a single 85-minute movie, and it's this movie version of the anime that ended up getting fansubbed. So there's only one question to ask: How was Shuichi Shigeno before making the Toyota AE86 Trueno an iconic car?
Gun Koma is a high school student who knows a thing or two about riding a motorcycle, and he uses his rough & fast skills in illegal street races on the Touge mountain road. One day, though, he's unable to defeat a newcomer & crashes during the race; the newcomer then berates him for being such a stupid rider. A few days later Gun sees the newcomer again... He's Hideyoshi Hijiri, a new transfer student from Osaka. As much as he wants to beat Hideyoshi, though, the two get paired together as a racing duo when Gun's friend Miyuki Ichinose, the daughter of the owner of a motorcycle racing team, decides to get the three of them, & Gun's best friend Hiro Okita, to form two pairs that will race in the upcoming 4-hour endurance race at Suzuka Raceway.
Having only read one volume of Initial D I can only compare so much, but Bari Bari Densetsu definitely has a different feel almost immediately. Aside from the focus being on motorcycles instead of drift racing there's also a bit of a strong high school, almost yankii, focus. The first half of the movie in particular focuses on the high school side of things, with the big climax being Miyuki being taken away by an old racing rival & then nearly getting raped, & it's up to Gun & Hiro, who really likes Miyuki, to save her. The second half is all about the race at Suzuki, but even here the racing isn't like Shigeno's later work. Drift racing is all about going down a course that has a separate beginning & end to it, and the illegal races have that feel, but the pro-level motorcycle racing is on a raceway that utilizes laps. Also, the endurance style results in the need of pairs, where one racer can swap with his/her partner & take a rest while the race goes on. It's honestly pretty cool & not a commonly-seen style of racing, which really makes this movie a bit of an original.
The motorcycle racing certainly doesn't take away from the character development, though, which is definitely there. Gun has a short fuse to him, which is partially the way he races (he's at his best when there's a visible opponent in front of him), and he's balanced out nicely by Ai Itou, who becomes Gun's girlfriend, whose simply innocence & cheerfulness confuses Gun at times & stops him cold. Hiro is a more traditional kind of shonen character who does what he feels is right & he's balanced nicely with Miyuki, the tomboy female rider. Hideyoshi, though, works as a great foil for Gun in that they're both stubborn as hell, with the main difference being that Hideyoshi has great riding sense while Gun has insane natural ability, making them the perfect racing duo. Though the Suzuka race is really well done, it's only because the characters are worth watching in action, and that's shown even during the race itself via some moments where characters suffer setbacks & have to push through them.
That said, this movie definitely can't hide the fact that this was originally two separately-produced episodes. The pre-Suzuka portions, with their focus on the characters & their non-racing lives, really contrasts with the Suzuka race, truly making this movie feel like two parts of a linking story rather than one overall story. Also, the production itself does have a slight "best of" feel to it, with some scenes, like the "saving Miyuki scene", feeling more like they were included simply because they were memorable scenes from the manga that just happened to be in chronological order rather than feel like a natural progression. For example, the second half starts in the winter with Miyuki telling everyone about the Suzuka race in the summer, which is then shortly followed by the day before the Suzuka race, with Hideyoshi mentioning the past six months of training he's been doing for the race. Hell, Ai gets a fair amount of focus in the first half, while she's little more than a member of the pit crew during the second half. In fact, even the shocker of an ending feels like it was included simply because it was an iconic scene from the manga & the anime staff simply wanted to include it for the end. To be fair, though, this does result in the story always moving &, aside from a slightly slow start, it never gets boring. Sure, those 15 minutes of footage that were cut from the OVAs in order to make this movie edit likely helped keep everything flowing more naturally, but as it is it still works fine enough as a feature-length movie.
The movie edit was directed by Osamu Uemura (Fire Tripper, Minna Agechau), who also worked on the original OVA version & keeps everything moving at a good pace; nothing ever rushes & nothing ever stands still. The music by Ichiro Nitta (Dallos, Area 88 [OVA]) isn't exactly memorable after you've finished watching the movie, but it definitely fits the 80s era that it was made in; it's never intrusive & even fits scenes just fine. Animation-wise the movie looks okay though not amazing, mainly due to its OVA roots, but there are numerous shots that are viewed through a first-person perspective that utilize really smooth & flowing environmental animation, with the backgrounds looking great. Those scenes definitely save the animation here, so an excellent job by art director Yoji Nakaza (A-Ko the Versus Blue, Vampire Princess Miyu [OVA]) & animation director Noboru Furuse (Goddamn, Initial D, Creamy Mami). The opening theme, "Shonen no Saigo no Natsu", & ending theme, "Slope ni Tenkaime", are both performed by Yoko Oginome (who also voices Ai), and both are fine J-Pop songs that work well enough, though the ending does sound a little odd after seeing the shocking ending.
Gun is voiced by Hideyuki Tanaka (Leo Aioria in Saint Seiya), who does a great job keeping Gun on the edge, always wanting to get into the race & push himself past his limits. Hideyoshi is voiced by Ryusei Nakao, whose odd pitch actually fits the Kansai-talking, short-statured, & easily-agitated nature of the character. Miyuki is voiced by Keiko Toda (Karala in Ideon, Kaoru in Dear Brother), whose voice fits the character's tomboy behavior perfectly. Hiro is voiced by Issei Futamata, who also pulls in a fine performance, though he isn't heard quite enough at times. Finally, with her lack of anime roles, Yoko Oginome's inclusion as Ai is definitely a celebrity role, but she does do a fine job with the character; it's probably for the best that Ai doesn't appear too often, then.
The movie edit of the Bari Bari Densetsu anime definitely gives off a "best of the manga" feel at numerous times, especially in the first half as well as the ending, but it still succeeds in showing off why Shuichi Shigeno is at his most successful when he does racing stories: He creates memorable characters & knows how to tell & show a thrilling race. The motorcycle racing element is a rare find in anime, all the more so with endurance-style pair racing, and if you're an Initial D fan who wants something similar yet different at the same time then definitely check this movie out. Even if you've never checked out a Shigeno work before this works great as a start, too. Don't think that once this series ended it was forgotten, though, as Gun does appear as a hidden character in one of the MotoGP games for Playstation 2, a perfect fit for the character. Personally, I'd never ride a motorcycle... But I certainly don't mind seeing others potentially crash & burn.