First published in 1995, Initial D is a series that evokes a thumping Eurobeat track even to people who haven’t read a page of the original manga. Even after spending years out of print in English after Kodansha and Tokyopop broke off relations in 2009, the name of Shuichi Shigeno’s street racing manga, the basis of an endless anime and video game franchise, hasn’t vanished from memory. Now Kodansha is publishing the entire run of the manga digitally, taking readers back to a very specific era of fast times and fast cars.
My prior experience with the series is limited to a few dollars pumped into an Initial D 8 arcade machine across repeat visits to Chinatown Fair in New York City. My knowledge of cars is even more limited. But I still found myself pulled into the story of Tak Fujiwara and his life in a nowhere mountain town in Gunma Prefecture. The only excitement to be found on the mountain is racing, and after a series of misunderstandings Tak pulls up to the starting line in an “eight-six,” the colloquial name of the Toyota he uses for tofu deliveries. With a hot date on the line, Tak makes his unwilling debut in the world of downhill street racing.
The first volume offers only a few tastes of the action to come. Most of the space is used to establish the characters and build up hype for Tak’s confrontation with a rich and talented driver before ending on an obvious cliffhanger. Maybe it’s a side effect of basing a story around high-performance cars, but it’s surprising how much of the conflict involves class divisions and social backgrounds. Tak’s crappy job with his dad’s shop isn’t enough to reliably pay for a full tank of gas, let alone save up toward his own car. His wannabe racer friend isn’t much better with cash, and the manga’s love interest is apparently dating a much older man for money, a subplot that was risqué enough to be edited out of the Tokyopop translation but is unabridged in the new digital release. These teenagers are aware that they live in a world that reserves material pleasures for the gifted and the wealthy, and their struggle to maintain their dignity makes the races matter beyond bragging rights.
Initial D is a product of its time; as when any classic series is revived for publication, there will be a disconnect between veteran manga readers who were around for the peak of its popularity and the younger base that’s only seen the memes. The cars are drawn in exacting detail, but the rough character art may be an acquired taste. Sullen teens in baggy jeans all making the same slouching pose were the epitome of cool in the 90s, but as the years have gone by, the jeans have gotten tighter and even posture is improving. The target audience should come away pleased, but even manga fans who don’t think they’d enjoy a racing manga would do well to find out why a hatchback drifting through hairpin corners became such a cultural icon throughout a decade.
story and art: Shuichi Shigeno