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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Initial D

by Jason Thompson,

Episode LXVI: Initial D

Shūichi Shigeno's Initial D, Japan's most popular auto racing manga, has been running in Young Magazine since 1995. It's up to 43 volumes as of this summer, and it's been adapted into zilllions (zillions is a scientific number) of video games, CCGs, an anime series on Hulu and a live-action film. When the anime episodes have titles like "The Never-Ending Battle" and "The Endless Challenge," they aren't kidding.

Tokyopop started translating Initial D way back in 2002, and before they went out of business, they managed to release 33 volumes…or was it 34? According to Wilma Jandoc on Otaku Ohana, Initial D volume 34 listed for an impressive $999.99 on used book sites, but I haven't seen a copy myself. Still, that's still a lot of manga. Tokyopop changed the covers to car-racing images instead of the character art used for the original Japanese covers. IMHO, the new covers were a good idea (gotta show people what the manga is about); on the other hand, only God knows why they changed the character names into Americanized equivalents. Anyone reading a manga right-to-left isn't going to have a hard time with a girl named "Natsuki" instead of "Natalie." According to Wikipedia, they made the changes to match their release of the anime, going after the licensing/merchandising money.

But beneath all the merch and shiny cars, Initial D is a simple story. It starts in rural Japan, in a small town in Gunma Prefecture, where our hero Takumi ("Tak") goes to school and works at the gas station. Since they're stuck in the boonies, the local teens entertain themselves by racing up and down the steep mountain roads of Mt. Akina, drifting around turns and hugging the guardrails. ("We're in the sticks, man. Racing that mountain is the only thing to do out here.") Everyone loves it except Tak. While his friends talk and talk and talk about tire types and rotary engines and what car they want to buy, Tak doesn't know what they're talking about and doesn't care. "A car's a car. It's got four wheels and runs, right?"

But beneath his bored exterior, Tak has a secret: he's an awesome driver, he just doesn't realize it. His old man Bunta, who runs a tofu shop, was once Mt. Akina's fastest racer, and even today he can pull a cigarette out of his pocket, light it and take a drag in the middle of a high-speed drift. (It's particularly impressive since he never opens his eyes.) Bunta has sneakily trained his son to follow in his footsteps by forcing him to make tofu deliveries up and down the mountain every night, and after seven years of delivering tofu on the winding mountain roads (he started driving at age 11), Tak has developed so much racing instinct he doesn't NEED to know anything about cars!!! It's like how in The Drops of God the hero, Shizuku, has never actually tasted wine before, but he turns out to be a natural wine-taster because of his incredible sense of taste and smell. As a plot device, this is genius, of course; a hero who doesn't know how good he is is automatically more sympathetic, and helps the reader fantasize that maybe they, too, would be a superstar wine-tasting auto racer if they actually tried it. (I guess by this logic the most unsympathetic possible protagonist would be a know-it-all with lots of book-learning but no actual talent.) But you can't hide your light under a bushel and all that, and so pretty soon, Tak's friends figure out that he's actually an unbelievable speed demon. When the local racing team, the Akina Speed Stars, is challenged by out-of-town racers, the Speed Stars must beg Tak to join them to save Mt. Akina's honor!!
Once Tak gets behind the wheel and accepts his destiny, Initial D is almost all racing, all the time. Initial D is an action manga, and while there are character arcs and subplots (like a flirtation between Tak and his classmate Natsuki/Natalie), they all feel like they're just intermissions between the hundreds of pages of race scenes. But if you don't like auto racing, why would you even be reading this manga? The focus is on touge ("mountain pass") racing, with an emphasis on drifting, probably inspired by "Drift King" Keiichi Tsuchiya. Tsuchiya, like Tak, was famous for driving a Toyota AE86, an old 1983 type of Toyota Corolla. The thrill of downhill drift racing is that, since gravity's doing most of the acceleration, a low-powered car like the AE86 can hold its own against faster, higher-horsepower challengers. And since they're racing illegally on public roads (although strangely, the cops never seem to show up), there's always the danger of crashing off a cliff or into an oncoming car, although these things happen less often than you'd expect. (I do wish there were more crashes. Would it just be too absurd to have people plummeting to a fiery death, Speed Racer style, in ever chapter?) The racing scenes aim for realism, more or less: a difference of a few centimeters, a quick shift of the gears, the position of the tires, means the difference between victory and defeat. The chassis of the AE86 hides secret power, due partly to Bunta's modifications to the car, but mostly to Tak's reflexes and apparently total lack of fear of death.

The cast of characters includes various battle/sports manga archetypes. There's Iggy, the pathetically funny wanna-be. Cole, the good guy who tries hard but just isn't as talented as our hero. K.T. and Ry, the handsome and popular Takahashi Bros., who start out as Tak's enemies but become allies. Tak's dad Bunta, and his old racing buddy who runs the gas station, smoke lots of cigarettes and give wise advice to the clueless young pups. (It's no suprise that Initial D's oyaji are so cool; Shūichi Shigeno was almost 40 when he started drawing it.) There are a handful of female racers, but as you'd expect from a manga which ran in a magazine that always has bikini models on the covers, they're mostly used as love interests for the guys (note the title of chapter 41, "Girls and Cars Only Mix on the Covers of Magazines"). Still, there's almost no sex or fanservice, and even less in the English edition, since Tokyopop censored the brief sex scenes.

Tak is kind of a strange hero; instead of fiery and passionate, he's cool to the point that you suspect he's on medication. He's always walking around sleepy-looking with his eyes half-closed, except for one time when he punched this guy who was running his mouth off in the boys' locker room, bragging about having sex with Natsuki. (Natsuki has a bit of a past, which leads to tension in her developing relationship with Tak; in one subplot which Tokyopop partially censored from the English edition, we discover that she was sleeping with an older businessman for money.) As the story goes on, Tak gradually transforms from a mellow teen who doesn't have any real goals, to someone who's serious about racing. Gradually over the course of the story, his buried emotion comes out, and YOU see that he's really got desires, but 99% of the time, he still looks like he's been shot full of novocaine and can't make facial expressions.

One reason Tak seems so cool is because Shigeno's artwork itself is so toned-down. In fact, except for the humor characters like Iggy, everyone looks almost emotionless, like wooden boards with faces painted on them. One of my friends who reads American comics said Initial D had art "like an underground comic," referring to artists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns, who also have high-contrast B&W penwork and stiff, stylized characters. The resemblance to American underground comics is coincidental, but Initial D is a world apart from the smiley, shiny look of lots of newer manga, including racing manga like Takeshi Okamoto's Quadrifoglio 2. And that's fine: the stiff, slightly rough look of Initial D helps keep it real. I'm sure lots of photo reference was used for the driving scenes, but they still have a rugged look, with cars roaring down the roads beneath massive jagged sound effects going GWOHHHHHH GYAAAA GWAAAA. (This manga would have been such a pain to publish for a company like Viz that reletters the sound effects…) When they drive, they drive so fast we don't see much except the cars, some blurry nighttime mountain backgrounds, and occasionally the faces of the drivers. Faces and cars; in the longer races, it's nothing but this for hundreds of pages. Since the drivers are hidden inside their cars while they're driving, drawing exciting auto racing scenes is a challenge in a way that drawing martial arts scenes or sports scenes isn't. Unusually for manga, Shigeno resorts to the occasional narration text box to explain what's going on ("Tak was at the brink. His nerves were worn thin, and he was about to crack…")

I can't mention Initial D without mentioning that the setting is cool. Mt. Akina is a blue-collar rural area, where many of the characters can't even come up with the cash for gas. Poor rural people who live far from Tokyo aren't often the heroes of manga, and there's a revenge-of-the-underdog satisfaction in watching Tak beat pimped-out, new, expensive cars with his old AE86. (Although Shigeno obviously loves a sweet ride as well, judging by how much time the characters spend talking about fancy cars.) Bunta and his buddy, who lived in Akina all their lives, seemingly spend all their time reminiscing about old days and talking about the kids' races. (On one page there's a footnote: "These old guys have no lives.") The heroes aren't dreaming of hitting the big time as professional racers in Tokyo, either. "The professional racing life is not for me," says Ry. "It's complicated, full of infighting and backstabbing. Once big money gets involved, racing gets corrupt. I race for the thrill of the street." They just want the thrill, the honor, the adventure…going from town to town, trying out new courses, conquering one mountain after another.

"But if you don't like auto racing, why would you even be reading this manga?" I asked earlier. Well, actually, I don't like auto racing, but I like Initial D. To be honest, I wouldn't take a second look at this story if it was something like a TV show or a novel series. But as a manga, I'm impressed by its ability to keep coming up with new and exciting races (despite reusing the same cars and the same courses), by its effective oldschool storytelling, and by the author's ability to convey complicated auto racing info in a fairly entertaining way. It's a manga about a specialist subject (auto racing) that manages to interest someone like me who normally wouldn't be interested. I'm sure it's also meant to appeal to auto racing fans, and I know that there are lots of manga fans who like it because they also like racing, but I have to wonder, in America, how many auto racing fans would pick up a manga? It's the same problem with sports manga, or any manga about a specialist subject. Is this manga going to appeal to BOTH racing fans and manga readers, or does it ONLY appeal to a small Venn diagram of racing fans who are also manga readers?

Speaking for myself, I think it's good enough to appeal to both racing fans and manga fans. It's a real bread-and-butter manga that moves very slowly and repeats itself, like a long-running TV series or newspaper strip, but does what it does and does it well. That said, how much Initial D you can read straight through in one sitting may depend on how much you like racing. I can get my racing fix from it, and I enjoy the offroad scenes where they aren't talking about car specs, but there's only so many ways someone can pass someone on a winding mountain road. (Or is that like me reading a fighting manga and saying "there's only so many ways someone can punch someone"? BLASPHEMY!!!) 43+ volumes is probably too long for any American company to release in print, but if someone was looking for a manga to release cheaply in a digital format, they could do worse than a license rescue of Initial D. Could it turn racing fans into manga fans? Or will it always just be easier to watch the anime and play the video games?

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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