Initial D: An Anime for Gearheads

Initial D wallpaper

Can Initial D Teach Me Driving Skills?

One of my first encounters with Initial D was with one of the arcade machines that made it over to the US. I think I’d heard of it before described as an anime about racing, but I think when I saw the game I had a chicken-or-egg moment wondering if this game had a whole anime based on it. 

Others may have first been exposed solely through internet memes involving ‘Running in the 90s’, a song popularized by the Initial D anime. Many fans found it the good ol’ fashioned way, by stumbling upon VHS tapes and recommending the series to their friends in person and over the earliest of early internet forums. However you found it, Initial D is a high-octane thrill ride, and largely regarded as THE street-racing anime.

Takumi Fujiwara: Fastest Driver to Deliver Tofu

The story largely follows Takumi Fujiwara, a gas station attendant and delivery boy for a tofu shop as he strives to become the fastest street racer in the Kanto region. His father, Bunta Fujiwara, was also a notable street racer back in his time, and his son has almost inadvertently followed in his footsteps over five years of making deliveries for his father.

Takumi makes tofu deliveries by driving the family’s aging Toyota Sprinter Trueno, or AE86, and has built up enough driving skills that he regularly surpasses drivers with more recent cars. Takumi has driven over Mt. Akina enough times that he’s one of the best drivers in Gunma Prefecture at the run, unbeknownst to his best friend and street racing enthusiast Itsuki Takeuchi. Takumi and Itsuki are invited to a practice run for the Akina SpeedStars, the leader of which, Iketani Koichiro, works at the same gas station as Takumi and Itsuki.

During the practice the Speedstars are challenged to a race by the Akagi RedSuns, led by Ryosuke and Keisuke Takahashi. They also practice on the mountain passes in Gunma Prefecture, and are looking to assert their dominance by a practice race that night, and a real one later on.

During the initial practice runs, the SpeedStars lose pretty badly, and fear the worst for the actual race days later. Later that night, Keisuke is overtaken and outdriven on the way home by a mysterious AE86, which both groups trace back to Takumi’s dad Bunta. The SpeedStars beg Bunta to race for them after Iketani injures himself during practice. Bunta considers this but doesn’t confirm either way. Later, Takumi asks his father to borrow the car for a date, but Bunta says he can only if he races against the RedSuns. 

At the last minute, the AE86 appears and Takumi shocks the crowd by not being Bunta. Takumi defeats Keisuke using a highly advanced and dangerous maneuver, establishing the SpeedStars as a force to be reckoned with. This sets off every other street racing group to try to defeat Takumi and the SpeedStars, and establishes the general plot for the rest of the series.

Eventually Keisuke and Ryosuke, along with Takumi, form Project D. They, along with a couple personal mechanics and other members of the Akagi RedSuns, are an elite racing group that takes a more proactive approach to racing by seeking out opponents and courses to train on. This takes the story out of Gunma Prefecture and into the rest of Japan.

The manga was serialized from 1995 to 2013 and has about 48 different volumes comprising 719 individual chapters. The anime adaptation was divided into releases known as ‘Stages’, which function almost like seasons. 

The anime and manga western releases were handled by TOKYOPOP, which proved to be somewhat disastrous. In addition to many of the names being westernized (Takumi became ‘Tak’, Itsuki became ‘Iggy’ and Keisuke Takahashi became ‘K.T.’ among others), the detail in which the car mechanics were described proved to be tricky to translate. Certain concepts like turbocharger functions and engine displacement, even car schematics were incorrectly defined and reprinted. The mistranslations extended to the street slang characters used, and certain aspects such as the depiction of sexual relationships between characters were downright censored.

The initial run of Initial D (Referred to as ‘First Stage’ by fans) ran for 26 episodes, and Initial D Second Stage ran for 13. Initial D Third Stage was released as a feature-length animated movie in 2001. This may cause some confusion for viewers like me, who went looking for the third season and saw that the show went immediately from season 2 to season 4.

The four-episode Initial D Final Stage was released in 2014, and shortly after a three-part Initial D film series was released designed to summarize the early events of the anime/manga but with updated CGI effects than those available in 1998.

There have been a few spin-offs as well, released as Initial D Extra Stage and Initial D Battle Stage. The Extra Stages are OVAs that are largely side stories, one focusing on the all-female racing team Impact Blue and their preparations between the Second and Third Stages, and another focusing on a date between two characters. Mako Sato and Sayuki are friends who make up Impact Blue, with Mako being the driver and Sayuki acting as a navigator and co-pilot. While Sayuki develops a crush on Takumi during the course of the series, Extra Stage 2 focuses on a date between Mako and Iketani.

The Initial D Battle Stages are usually compilations of race scenes from the previous Stage, but also include some races that were in the manga but didn’t make it to the anime adaptation.

Initial D anime still

The Initial D Live-Action Adaptation and the Search for a Sequel

The show even had a live-action film adaptation released in 2005. The movie was a joint production between Hong Kong and Japan, and covers the first major storyline between Takumi and the Red Suns, the street racing gang that challenges Takumi and the Akina Speedstars in the first couple of episodes of the anime.

Despite some changes to the story, the film did fairly well, and a sequel has been rumored since about 2006. Most sources cite issues with locking down and scheduling actors, crew safety, and getting locations, but in 2014 there were a series of social media posts between the director of the first movie Andrew Lau and star Jay Chou that seemed to imply they were willing and ready to begin filming. This happened among rumors of possible co-stars, and seemed to indicate that the sequel was in the works. 

But for two years after nothing seemed to happen until 2018 when Andrew Lau rejoined Media Asia, the production company partially responsible for the original Initial D adaptation, and announced that he was looking into a variety of different projects, including Initial D 2. But again, there’s been no concrete news since this announcement. 

Running in the 90s Is the Number One Bop on Mount Akina

When fans of the series think about it, if their first thought isn’t about how the technical accuracy of the show taught them actual things about cars, it’s probably about the Eurobeat soundtrack. 

Eurobeat refers to a specific kind of high-energy dance music popularized in European discotheques in the mid to late 80s and even early 90s. The music in Initial D is a particular genre of Eurobeat known as Italo Disco, which as one may imagine refers to music that was popular in dance clubs in Italy. ‘Running in the 90s’ was performed by Italian singer Maurizio De Jorio, and many of his other songs were included in Initial D, sometimes credited as Marko Polo (‘Stop Your Self Control’), Max Coveri (‘Running in the 90s’, ‘Golden Age’), and even Edo Boys (‘No One Sleep in Tokyo’).

‘Running in the 90s’ is largely misunderstood to be THE Initial D song, and is put in the background of many an internet video underscore whatever action may be taking place, and heighten the irony thereof.

This and songs like Deja Vu were used extensively during Initial D’s racing segments. When these songs were released on soundtracks, they proved to be very popular, selling about 1.9 million units. The use of these songs cemented the aesthetic of Initial D, and now whenever anyone hears ‘Deja Vu’ they immediately associate it with the shifting and drifting action of Initial D

When the series was released in the west by TOKYOPOP, not only were many aspects of the show westernized, but also the music. The Eurobeat tracks that fans so closely associated with the series were replaced by hip-hop tracks performed by TOKYOPOP’s in-house musician and CEO at the time. Fans were not amused, and TOKYOPOP eventually apologized for the changes and vowed to release a completely untouched version (Except for subtitles). 


Drive Virtual Mountain Passes in the Initial D Arcade Stages

Not only was there an Initial D Arcade game, known as Initial D Arcade Stage, but there were nine different versions. Each arcade cabinet version included different racers and different tracks to match the anime and manga as they progressed.

Some updates would include physics updates and occasionally new modes, but most offered the same set of challenges. The Initial D arcade cabinet also offered players special magnetized cards that they could use to save their progress and play on different cabinets with their cars and tune-ups. There’s also a next-gen arcade cabinet planned for release, and Initial D: The Arcade underwent beta testing in Akihabara July 23 and 24.

There were three Initial D releases for personal consoles as well. Initial D Special Stage was released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 and was based on the second version of the arcade cabinet. Initial D Street Stage was released for the Playstation Portable, and Initial D Extreme Stage was released for Playstation 3 and was based on the fourth version of the arcade game. 

In addition to being a look at the mostly unexplored subculture of Japanese street racing, the Initial D anime did something that very few animated shows were daring to do in the 90s by using CGI on top of 2D backgrounds. 

For context, the Initial D anime released in 1998, and the computer-generated Toy Story had released only three years earlier, so the technology was still very new. The task of making the CG cars look at least passable on top of the 2D backgrounds and characters was tough, and compared to today’s animation, it’s arguable whether the animators pulled it off. 

But it’s also arguable that this gives the anime a certain charm and adds to the overall aesthetic that the updated film lost in trying to make it better. Regardless of opinion on the anime, Initial D is a hugely influential franchise, not only for the animation it inspired but the subject matter it dealt with. 

There weren’t many attempts to explore specific subcultures like the Japanese street-racing scene before Initial D, and by bringing to light the ways it operates and the information about the cars involved opened up that world to new people. 

(c) Shuichi Shigeno / KODANSHA
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