The Wide World of Japanese Drift Racing: Initial D

Introduction

It all started from a dream, an Initial Dream…

Takumi stands in front of his car

When it comes to the series of Initial D, people have usually heard of the series, know its music, love it, or hate it. That’s the consensus of anime fans today when Initial D is brought up online or at the local anime convention. In this past decade, the series has had a second breath of life. It has achieved meme status on the Internet, forever sealing its fate as a popular series amongst the internet anime community. But there is a whole lot more to Initial D than people may wonder. Where did it begin, and what impact does it have on anime fandom? Who’s loved it for nearly 20 years and is willing to share their research, thoughts, and feelings on the series as a whole? As a person who just identified myself in answer to that last question, I’ll do my best to detail the legacy of Initial D.

In 2002, when I was in high school, all my knowledge of Initial D was from online sources. My first true exposure to the franchise was playing the Version 2 arcade at a local mall in Massachusetts the summer of 2003. Only a couple of months later, Initial D was produced into the manga and anime media by Tokyopop. I saved up my lawn care money to buy whatever I could of the series. In 2004, I discovered a new version of the arcade was out at a local amusement place in North Raleigh. I’d spend most of my weekends there just to play that game.

Since then, I’ve met one of my best friends through Initial D and played more of the arcade games in-person at conventions. There, I found more fans and raced against other players. I have my own Initial D arcade machine and still maintain that I’m nuts over anything with that name I can get my hands on. With the knowledge I possess all scrambling around in my brain, I’ll gladly indulge the reader with everything that I know. Seeing how this part of the article is in the comics/books section of GUG, I should start there, because that’s where the series started initially.

The Backstory

Initial D was created by mangaka Shuichi Shigeno in 1995 to fill in the Kodansha catalog between two other popular titles. Who would’ve known that Initial D would live longer than the series ending and continue to be popular in Japan and all other corners of the world? Its inspiration came from Shingeno’s involvement and fascination with touge and drift racing in the deep corners of the Japanese mountain streets.

Car drifts down the road

The drift and touge scene started in the 1980s and hit its peak throughout the 1990s and 2000s. At this time, Japanese youth with a license would dump money into affordable mid-grade Japanese vehicles. They then modified them to slide around the mountain passes within the Saitama, Gunma, Tochigi, Nagano, and other prefectures in the mountain areas of Japan. The birth of drifting came from two notable founders of the sport, Kunimitsu Takahashi and Keiichi Tsuchiya. With Takahashi being the founder of drifting, it would only be right to make Tsuchiya the king of drifting. He has proven his dominance in the sport he spent nearly his whole life perfecting.

Drifting was covered in automotive magazines like Option that would extensively detail the scene as it began to form. Away from the mountain passes into the bustling metropolis freeways like Tokyo, the underground wangan racing scene was another competitive racing environment beginning to grow. The manga series inspiration for wangan racing, Wangan Midnight, will be covered in a future article at some point.

 

Jeremy Clarkson of the famed Top Gear reporting on the drift culture in the 1990s.

A popular craze hitting the touge passes at night, and Shigeno itching to adapt his love for the drift scene to paper. This was the birth of Initial D. The mangaka has a pure love for motorsports, and before Initial D was adapted to anime, one of his earliest works was adapted into an OVA. Bari Bari Legend tells the tale of the youth motorcycle racing scene and how two rivals compete to get into the MotoGP circuit, giving everything they have in the last race of the series. After Bari Bari ended, the world of Initial D unfolded to the reader in 1995.

The Story

Manga pages featuring racing, drifting cars

The series revolves around high schooler Takumi Fujiwara, as he drives tofu for his father’s business up the fictional mountain of Akina in the early morning hours (based on Mt. Haruna in the Gunma Prefecture). Because Takumi has been running tofu in his father’s white Toyota Sprinter AE86 since he was in middle school, he has subconsciously developed his father’s talent as a touge racer. With the daily morning grind of driving up and down Akina pass, Takumi becomes better and better at drifting without fully realizing he is drifting.

Finding a way to get home as early as possible from his runs makes Takumi the fastest touge racer in Gunma. His skills aren’t tested or even used until he races a local racing team from Mt. Akagi. The team is run by the Takahashi brothers who call themselves the “Red Suns.” The siblings plan to take over multiple prefectures, making themselves out to be the most notorious racing team in Japan. From the first race with Red Suns driver Keisuke Takahashi, more and more racers within and outside the Gunma prefecture want a piece of Takumi’s skill.

The more Takumi races, the more he begins to understand the talent he didn’t know was a talent. The more he drives, the more he wants to race and get better, making him more dangerous on the passes, not only at Akina but in other parts of his prefecture. Takumi’s personality is not like the standard shonen male where the norm is strong pride, boisterous ego, and hotheaded temperament. Initial D‘s main character is quiet, reserved, and secluded. He seems to accurately reflect most Japanese males in real life, yet he has the god-like potential of a formidable opponent on the roads. It may connect with readers that they too have talent in things they don’t consider big deals.

Two boys stand next to their cars

Takahashi brothers with their Mazda RX7’s

The types of racers Takumi encounters, such as his first opponent Keisuke Takahashi, are people with driving talent and popularity in the scene. Women love him, and men want to be like him. Takumi shuts down Keisuke by beating him not just in a race but in his pride. This makes Keisuke grow up and humble himself to be a better driver than Takumi.

Keisuke’s older brother, Ryosuke, is smart and calculative. Ryosuke realizes the full potential Takumi himself doesn’t notice. Later in the manga, Takumi joins forces with Ryosuke, and Ryosuke becomes both his coach and mentor. The more Takumi races, the more he influences other characters to be better people in the long run.

Despite Takumi winning race after race in the manga, it was only a matter of time before he lost. I consider this one particular race a loss because the fault fell on the vehicle and not the driver, though the truth is the opposite. The driver neglected to understand his vehicle. In the race between Takumi and Kyoichi Sudo from Team Emperor, Takumi blows the engine of his beloved Toyota AE86. Being a racer means knowing all the ins and outs of your vehicle. The young man’s natural talent exceeded the capabilities the AE86 could offer.

A challenger tells Takumi he will beat him in a race to show him respect

Kyoichi vs. Takumi

Up to that point, Takumi relied on the car. He believed it was enough to beat anyone the way it was, but any racer would tell you that they don’t pour money into their vehicles for nothing. Other racers will spend anything to have the best car, in order to be the best racer on the track. That’s just what you gotta do to get an edge. Takumi gets a better engine in his AE86 and wins his rematch against Sodo, in which the car continues to train Takumi to become an even better racer. With this race, his legendary status grows beyond his area in Japan.

In terms of other characters in the series, Takumi has his high school friend Itsuki, who idolizes Takumi and wishes he could be as good as him. Despite being the comic relief character, he’s Takumi’s support and good friend. Takumi also has his co-workers and local street racing group, the Akina Speed Stars. This group consists of Iketani and Kenji. They adopt Takumi into the group to make their name more appealing to other races, though Takumi couldn’t care less about having that kind of title.

He has a couple of love interests, including his classmate Natsuki, and towards the end of the series, he dates Mika. Romantic interest occurs for Iketani and Itsuki as well. It never feels like Takumi finds love and leaves his friends out to (almost) dry.

A middle-aged man smokes a cigarette

His father Bunta is the only direct family Takumi interacts with. In his younger years, Bunta was the touge king of the Gunma area. The older I get, the more I like and relate to Bunta. The older man is a hard-nosed, tofu-making, chain-smoking drift master. At first glance, both Takumi and Bunta seem to be distant as any typical teenage/father relationship kind of is. Bunta cares for Takumi’s growth, though, and does everything he can so that his son can succeed, not only on the roads but in life.

Bunta's profile. He is age 43 and a former racer. Likes tobacco and the sound of cars. Doesn't like tofu or large cars. He can sleep while drifting

Bunta’s skills as a drift racer are so precise that he can whip out and light a cigarette in the middle of a hairpin curve! He’s always down to scare his friend in the passenger seat, pulling off stunts just for the fun of it! Bunta knows his AE86 backward and forwards. He gradually gets Takumi to realize cars’ true potential with minor tuning every race to give his son an edge. However, he won’t tell Takumi what he did to the car. He lets his son figure that out on his own, which he does during the middle of a race.

The Western Publication of Initial D

Two stacks of Initial D manga volumes side by side

In terms of the manga distribution in the states, only the first 33 of the 48 total volumes were released by then-bankrupt-now-back-somehow Tokyopop. The reason behind the cancellation of the manga in America is due to Kodansha pulling its entire catalog from Tokyopop to release, which was one of the key factors that played into the anime crash of the late 2000s, and the demise of Borders bookstores.

For years, the Initial D physical releases in the United States were easy to pick up at brick-and-mortar used bookstores and online. It’s only recently that near entire collections go for hundreds on eBay. I’m glad I have what I do, and I don’t plan to let go of those at any point. However, if someone wanted to read all of Initial D, a subscription to Comixology makes their digital volumes free for readers. If you have Amazon Prime, you can read them for free through the Kindle app.

I hope this article has helped newcomers learn more about Initial D and given others the kick in the pants they need to start the series. If either of those are the case, then I’ve done my job well enough. If you’re not a car person, this series will get you into them if you give it a chance. After all, it is full of detailed notations on car terminology and in-depth explanations regarding driving styles and mechanical detail. So hop in the passenger seat with Initial D, and enjoy the ride!

In my next article, I will discuss the forgotten (though not for me) history of the Initial D arcade scene!

Dustin Kopplin

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