Shuichi Shigeno’s Japan-based street-racing series Initial D began in the mid-’90s and took nearly two decades to complete. The original manga soon took anime form, and was even adapted into video games and live-action film. The franchise is a significant contributor to Japanese car culture, yet works especially well for introducing non-gearheads around the globe to the world of automotive excitement.
This post originally appeared on June 06, 2016.
Spoilers for early parts of Initial D follow.
The story takes place in the mountains of Japan, and is told through the eyes of Takumi Fujiwara. As an only son, Takumi was forced to help out the family tofu business by his single father Bunta, who has him make late-night tofu deliveries, since long before even being old enough to drive. These errands are done in the middle of the night on the winding, mountainous roads of Gunma when traffic is at its lightest.
But Takumi’s no car guy. He hates the chore of driving. Stubborn yet obedient, he tries to get these deliveries over with as quickly as possible. To avoid damage to the tofu, Bunta makes him drive with a cup of water in the dashboard cupholder every night, which Takumi must keep from spilling while transporting cargo, no matter the weather.
This illegal underage driving is kept a secret, even from Takumi’s high-school friends, who happen to be big car geeks. They are soon excited to learn that the Fujiwara family car is no ordinary Toyota, but a lightly-modified AE86. They try to get the uninterested Takumi involved in street racing, which reveals (and tests) more of his uncanny driving skills, and Takumi soon starts to reconsider whether driving really is as boring as he thought.
As the series progresses, each new race teaches Takumi (and the viewer) a new strategy or aspect of performance driving. These lessons are sometimes exaggerated to serve the story, yet remain grounded in reality. During these races, the viewer is exposed to the drivers’ inner monologues as well as the insights offered by supporting characters watching from the galleries. By the time the race is over, the viewer has a full understanding of how and why the victor won.
Yet even with all this racing, the series keeps its focus away from horsepower, dwelling instead on driver technique. Powerful engines are rendered irrelevant by these mountain roads, which require light weight, good handling, but most of all: finesse.
And that’s part of what makes the series so relatable. It doesn’t matter what you drive. What matters is that you always continue to work on your technique. Whatever your experience, there’s always a higher level of precision to reach for.
Initial D has a little something for everyone. Fans new to car culture can absorb the same lessons that Takumi does, while seasoned gearheads can enjoy some of the other cool bits.
For example, the anime takes great care in providing detailed depictions of real cars and how they move, using both traditional techniques as well as 3D animation. Every vehicle seems to have a real-world counterpart, even background ones, and the animators never resort to drawing some unidentifiable cartoon car. If you know what you’re looking at, there are cameos to enjoy, both expected and unexpected.
And it wouldn’t be Initial D without drifting. Is it just for style? Is it the fastest way to get through the hairpin? Whatever the reason, it makes for great eye candy. Almost every episode finds some excuse to get sideways.