How to raise a JDM fan - The Impact and Legacy of Initial D
When I am asked as to why I have a strong preference for imports, I can name many reasons why. Maybe it's from my family’s connections to Nissans, from the Z31 my dad owned, to what served as our ex-family mover, and what also served as my shuttle to car gatherings for a while: the since-departed ‘Nismo’ Serena.
Then there’s the titular film series, Fast and Furious. Who didn’t grow up watching Paul Walker’s R34 GTR race through Miami’s streets, or Han’s Veilside RX7 ripping it through the Shibuya Crossing? If you were into cars as a child during the last decade, chances are: imports are what won you over. It’s what you dreamt about owning, seeing one in the flesh at an auto show or out on the road. The type of cars that dominated the kind of Hot Wheels you added to your collection overtime, to the posters you hung up on your bedroom wall.
Or due to my home city's proximity to the rising sun, with a large number of the cars I saw out on the roads growing up being imported Japanese models, it just seemed natural that my life involving cars, would revolve around the Japanese domestic market.
But there is also another thing that was instrumental in cementing my identity as ‘that random’- JDM fan.’ Specifically a manga/anime series about a young street racer called Takumi Fujiwara, and his ‘panda’ Black and White Toyota Corolla hatchback. When he was not delivering tofu to hotels , he was dominating the street racing circuit on Japan’s mountain passes.
And just last weekend, this series celebrated its twenty-sixth anniversary. Twenty-six years in fact, since its author Shuichi Shigeno published the first volume of the manga series. A manga series that ran from 1995-2013, with an anime adaptation aka six ‘Stages’ and two OVAs released from 1998 to 2014. It's also spawned numerous arcade racing games, multiple diecast releases, and arguably: it has been a major contribution to putting the art of drifting on the map; and marking up the value of every desirable JDM model from the 80s/90s.
I am of course talking about: Initial D. Ask any fan of Japanese imports or the tuner scene, chances are they’ll agree that this series had some influence in what led them to becoming the enthusiasts they are today. Like I personally can attest to. As far back as I can remember.
Let’s go back to ten or fifteen years ago, back when I was a child, during a weekly trip to the local Blockbuster (when physical movie rentals were still a thing). While my parents looked for movies to watch for the week, a VCD disc with images of a car with pop-up headlights, and an orange Nissan S14 Sivlia caught my eye.
Specifically, it was a VCD for First Stage, episode 23: “Downhill Battle’, aka Takumi Fujiwara vs Kenta Nakamura of the Redsuns on Mt. Myogi. Made famous for being one of the few rain touge battles, and the song used during the climax: “Night of Fire”.
I didn’t know what it was, let alone knew it was an anime series centered about cars. But since child-me would happily watch anything involving cars, I decided to rent it for that week. While it was only available in the local Canto-voice dub and the original Japanese audio, I couldn’t care less. Seeing animated Japanese tuners drifting onscreen was enough entertainment for me.
As a matter of fact, I never did know the entire story and the characters’ names as I binged watched every episode.
Eventually, my parents got me the entire 1st Stage VCD box set. A few episodes from Second Stage, the 3rd Stage movie also made their way. I kept rewatching these episodes back-to-back, even though I didn’t understand what the characters were saying. I found out a few years later that a ‘4th Stage’ existed, and added a few episodes from that series into my collection.
I only began getting fully vested in what Initial D was during Middle School: when I discovered episodes that were available with English subtitles, allowing me to understand the story of the series, the characters, and all of the mid-race commentaries. That allowed me to catch up to the 4th season, before the 5th Stage and Final Stage episodes of the anime went live.
I even watched some English dubbed episodes for fun. Not that they caught on for me, especially when a certain distributor and license holder decides to part ways with the all important Eurobeat songs; with some generic hip-hop tracks in their place (cough cough..TokyoPop).
I can imagine others discovered Initial D in similar ways. The memes involving Eurobeat, drifting, and everything in between have been very effective in helping spread awareness of the series.
And even though the series ended back in 2014, the series still has a strong fanbase worldwide, and many still discuss it to this day. Why is it so? Sure, Initial D was a long-running manga and anime series, but compared to others many remember from their childhood days: like Pokemon, Sailor Moon or Dragonball Z, Initial D doesn’t come to mind first as one of Japan’s most influential exports.
Ask the internet, and its easy to fall back on the endless memes that have surfaced ever since meme culture became a thing in the first place. There’s too many to remember off the top of my head, but any random user on YouTube or a meme sh*tposting channel should instantly associate Initial D with montages set to Eurobeat songs, or slapping on the Fujiwara Tofu Shop decals & panda black-and-white color scheme on literally anything.
Truth is though, Initial D is more than just funny things to laugh at and share on the interwebs.
For us car enthusiasts, its the attention to detail Shigeno took when it came to writing out each battle, the personalities of each driver, and more importantly, their cars. The Fast and the Furious films were instrumental in making modified cars look ‘cool’ on screen, but the more serious enthusiasts knew when Hollywood was stepping it a little too far on what a car was capable of.
(Initial D, Chapter 543)
Initial D instead, went into great detail of the various mechanics behind cars, how they affected the performance, and ultimately, how they would impact each race as it happened. The commentary provided by the characters, as they analysed each racer’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately; the human factors of the person behind the wheel.
Anyone can make a race look exciting with fast cars, Initial D took it to the second stage (pun intended) and explored what motivates each racer to progress.
Initial D appealed to enthusiasts in a way that didn’t treat us like we didn’t know less about cars beyond their aesthetic appeal: rather than a bunch of special effects Hollywood typically applied to cars on screen, it treated readers and viewers with a degree of intelligence not common amongst other media at the time that featured cars. Rather than pander to audiences with supercars with action-packed, fictionalised stunts, you got to see various driving techniques at play. Combined with a focus on technical data and mechanics as you got to see each part and the driver’s action play a pivotal role to move the race forward, this was no regular show merely treating cars as just a way to move the plot along.
The advantages of drift techniques over standard grip techniques. Maximizing potential speed through corners by using roadside gutters to bypass the inertia limits of what the tires can allow. What happens when a single turbocharged RX7 FD3S goes up against one with twice as many turbos. The behaviors exhibited by a car with a supercharger versus forced induction tuning. How critical braking points can play a part in shaving off seconds off a time trial, or keeping pace with your opponent.
Or one of my personal favorites: observing how important downforce can be on a car with a lightweight rear end during an intense downhill touge race, the results by which can be very dramatic when said downforce on a FR chassis naturally prone to ovesteering, is taken away.
Rather, the cars and their drivers served as the plot itself. Getting to observe the personality of the character behind the wheel, how they plan strategies to overcome their opponents on the touge, makes every race ever more exciting to watch unfold. More so when it is a duel involving the protagonist himself, Takumi Fujiwara and his seemingly lesser AE86. Which, no matter how powerful the opponent, how skilled the driver of the rival car, the two always find a way to score a victory. Usually in ways you least expect it.
Knowing as we usually cheer for the underdogs as they rise from nothing into something, its easy to see why Fujiwara and his 86 have gained such a cult following; serving as the key representation for Initial D as a whole. We love rooting for the lesser ones, the shonen protagonists who are seemingly as a disadvantage with all odds against them. Yet somehow, they overcome those obstacles to the next stage.
We can’t also ignore the fact Initial D helped propel another form of media: Eurobeat. Just like peanut butter and jelly, no Initial D scene is complete without one of these tracks, which has spread to the driving soundtracks of many car stereos today. Apart from ‘Deja Vu’ and ‘Running in the 90s’ that have seen one too many uses in internet videos, you can’t deny that songs like ‘Beat of the Rising Sun’ give you that little bit more of ‘drive’; to literally drive harder and faster.
And you’d be surprised to learn that to this day, Eurobeat has not lost any bit of steam. Go to any auto parts store in Japan; chances are you will find Eurobeat compilation CDs still for sale among the audio shelves at an AutoBacs or gas station.
Adding to that, the Eurobeat genre has experienced a resurgence nowadays, that even artists from twenty years ago are coming up with remixes of their old songs, or giving them a complete refresh. Just look at Dave Rogers: one of the original pioneers of the genre, who’s YouTube channel features some of his remixes of fan favorite tracks, and lately has been uploading remasters of the very same songs that made him famous ten or twenty years ago.
While both the manga and anime series have since wrapped up, the impression Initial D has left on the car community, anime fans, and general internet users remains evident. And there are no signs so far that it will be leaving anyone’s minds anytime soon.
After all, think of how many artists out there still draw inspiration from his now concluded series? Plenty of artists I follow, much of whom I support on social media or through buying some of their merchandise, namely stickers to add to my vast collection (and growing moneypit), are still keeping the Initial D appreciation alive through their work. As mentioned during our feature on ‘Cars ‘N Anime San Diego’ during Otaku Month a while back, everyone - no matter how much they know about cars, knows about Initial D to some extent. Even if its something as basic as the ‘panda Trueno’ or the blue Nissan SilEighty driven by the Impact Blue girls, it instantly clicks within you on what the merchandise is inspired by.
Especially if it's a replica of a team sticker. You just have to have a piece that allows you to live a piece of the series in real life. Even if it's an Akina SpeedStars hood sticker on your Audi.
Even for content creators like myself, it's hard not to draw inspiration from manga panels or scenes from the animated series when it comes to figuring out how to stage a photoshoot, or what kind of automotive photos we want to pursue. Initial D had proven to be a regular point of reference when shooting rollers or shots of cars in motion. I usually think back to it when trying to capture the sense of speed of a car through winding corners.
(Initial D, Chapter 200)
One of those people happens to be a content creator I have been following for awhile now, Albo Agunday(@albo_media, formerly the 'Drift Hunter') who runs his own YouTube channel documenting his personal journey and adventures within the car culture of Japan. Not only has some of his most popular docu-vlogs on his channel consisted of real-life drives to visit the mountain passes featured in the series, but at one point, he happened to meet a man by the name of Jun Fujinoki. A very special Jun Fujinoki in fact, as come to find out, Jun’s grandfather was the owner of a tofu shop in Gunma, with his grandson serving as a delivery driver in the store’s silver Subaru Impreza. And as he learned, this very tofu store would serve as the main source of inspiration for Shugeno when he was conducting background research on the Japanese car scene for his manga all those years ago.
Not to mention that with many of the locations and mountain passes existing in the real world, no car enthusiast trip to Japan is complete without making the drive to at least one of these spots. If you don’t fancy trying to do a Mt. Akina [Haruna] run in a tiny compact car, there are options through car rental agencies/services that aim to serve car enthusiasts in mind. Fun2Drive notably, based in Mt. Fuji, does driving tours of the Hakone Turnpike and other roads in the area that were featured prominently in ‘Fifth Stage’.
And yes, you can choose to do a spirited drive in a model you might have gotten a taste for through the series.
And if you ever find yourself in the Gunma prefecture, every fan of Initial D has to make a stop by D'Z Garage Racing Cafe. Picture a roadside cafe, car collection, merchandise selection; even a menu consisting of 'panda' curry rice; with Fujiwara Tofu Shop/Redsuns/Night Kids themed pudding cups serving as dessert, all inspired by the series.
The fandom Initial D has cultivated around the world can be seen in no better place than where I am. It is one of Hong Kong’s well kept secrets, and to compliment it? There is even an ‘Initial D car club’, made up of owners of cars that have been featured in the manga and anime episodes.
Many of whom have made their cars into picture-perfect or identical replicas of them: down to Japanese market wheels and accessories, team decals, and other parts to match the specification of the character's from the comics and anime series. Much of which are out of production and take some initiative on various auction websites or parts channels to source.
And if you thought the appreciation from local fans couldn't stretch further, think again. There is even a replica of the Fujiwara Tofu store located in San Tin (just next to Yuen Long, across from Shenzhen Bay) that has been a must-go photo stop for any car enthusiast here. Next to the original storefront preserved in the Ikaho Toy, Doll, and Car Museum in Gunma, this is the closest you will get to the real thing.
Even better, you can take photos with your vehicle of choice parked out front: whether it be a car, bike, truck; anything with wheels honestly. Most weekends it tends to be open for the public to visit; with guest appearances by local HK cosplayers serving as the ‘manager’ that weekend and as model opportunities for those wanting a special photo out-front.
And we cannot ignore Hong Kong cinema’s take on Initial D: the live-action film released in 2005 starring Taiwanese popstar Jay Chou as the titular Takumi Fujiwara. Though some directions the film decided to take has divided the fandom, me included. Combining Itsuki and Iketani into one character (played by local comedian Chapman To) designated as the leader of the ‘Akina Speedstars’ did seem off. Same goes for making Bunta (played by local cinema legend Anthony Wong) from a tofu store owner into an abusive, alcoholic womanizer.
Or rewriting Team Emperor as a bunch of Bosozoku gangsters with ‘Dekotora’ car carriers. Anything to make the movie appealing to audiences beyond a bunch of Japanese car enthusiasts I guess.
No matter your take on the film, you cannot deny the mark it has left. It’s probably one of the reasons why Initial D is close to many HK locals’ hearts and Cantonese-speaking car enthusiasts. Many have aspired to own a Hachi-Roku based on seeing the story of Takumi rise up to become a racing legend, or thanks to multiple meme threads on HKGolden and the like, ‘want a GTR to become a racing legend.’
The movie’s theme songs, written exclusively for the film and also sung by Jay Chou, remain on repeat for myself too. ‘All the Way North’ [ 一路向北] and ‘Drifting’ [飄移] are some of my favorite songs for times I need to reflect, think, or just reminisce about the times past.
(Personal Note: Jay Chou’s live rendition is superior in my opinion)
While the Initial D series has long been signed off, there's no doubt its influence will still linger on, and won't be going away anytime soon. Shigeno hasn't even stopped at continuing to pen car-focused manga comics, with his current project being 'MF Ghost'. Eagle-eyed readers should be able to notice it is still taking place within the same universe as the events that took place in the preceding Initial D series, with subtle hints left here and there.
(MF Ghost, Chapter 11)
So if you’re reading this, and only just learning about Initial D through my random blog feature, what are you waiting for? Watch one episode from the First Stage series, then read a few chapters from the manga, or do it in reverse order. Listen to some Eurobeat songs (in pure form, not on a meme compilation), and some of m.o.v.e’s greatest hits, all of which served as the OPs for each series before their retirement.
Point being, if you never have delved into this very influential anime and manga who’s fandom has been instrumental in popularising the Japanese car scene as it is today, there is no perfect time to start getting into it, than right now.
And not just because of internet memes. I'll say it once, I will say it again. Initial D is far more than that.
Additional Photography Credits
Edwin Chan (@regolith_photography)