This article is spoiler free. Some characterization items are discussed from later episodes, but specific plot lines are not discussed, as this piece more examines the setting of the series.
When one thinks back to the anime of the late 90s, many can come to mind. Cowboy Bebop, Rurouni Kenshin, Cardcaptor Sakura, One Piece, Yugioh, and of course, Pokémon. With the exception of Cowboy Bebop, these are all considered Shonen: animes targeted towards younger kids around the 6-13 range. Chances are, you were in this age range as these shows were coming out or were popular. You could catch these shows on the likes of Cartoon Network and Toonami if your parents let you stay up late enough (or of course, you snuck down to the TV as they were asleep). And like many of you that watched these shows, I too was obsessed. As a kid, I loved to collect Yugioh cards, and Pokémon: Fire Red dominated my GBA play time.
The most important thing these shows all share is a degree of out of reality fiction. One Piece details the happenings of old pirates with some magical twists, and Pokémon describes an adventure through a world with fantastic creatures. All of these shows are still heavily discussed today. Hell, some of these shows are still going (real talk, One Piece is going to outlive all of us) in one way or another in 2018. However, one show gets left in the dust whenever this era of shows gets brought up, or at the very least, doesn’t share common knowledge among people like Pokémon or Yugioh may: Initial D.
Perhaps the most 90s show of the 90s, Initial D didn’t quite take off with audiences like say Pokémon did, especially in the West. So what sets it apart? Initial D stands out from the rest of these shows with its setting. There are no electric mice, no Pharaoh spirits playing a hyper-simulated card game, and certainly no magical girls running around. Initial D simply takes place in Japan, in a modern (at the time) setting. 20 years later, we are able to glimpse back into that time period in perhaps the best preserved way possible.
Inspired by real life figures like Keiichi Tsuchiya, Initial D quite simply follows Takumi and his friends as they like to race their cars late Saturday nights down the touge of Mt. Akina, a fictionalized version of the real life Mt. Haruna. Taking cues from the real street racing scene in 1990s Japan, the advancing plot of Initial D revolves around Takumi and his friends getting challenged by other regional street racers, battling for reputation and territory. One only needs to glance at Initial D to almost perfectly grasp its setting.
Age Before Beauty
If you were to look back at the first few episodes of say Pokémon or One Piece, you would of course see dated animation. Computers were just barely aiding in the animation process at this time, as the technology was so new and expensive. As a result, many shows had to retain the drawn style of their era. For lack of better terms, this style was unrefined, especially by today’s standards. When viewing these early episodes, the animation can be laughed off at times, or even written off as something one would need to “get past” in order to enjoy it. But not Initial D. The animators of Initial D fully embraced the style of their era, and cranked it up to eleven. They couldn’t rely on computer enhancement for comparatively simplistically animated scenes, for the CG budget absolutely had to be dumped into the racing scenes. The result is that the occasional jitter or animation artifact can be picked out, especially during the relatively still dialogue scenes.
These are few and far between, as the animators were incredibly talented at their job, and the consistency shows. However, although these admittedly look bad by today’s standards, the CG’d racing scenes absolutely outclass any other anime series’ CG’d scenes from this era. While on a polygonal level basic, each car has a level of detail preserved, and the parts and features of the cars that helped define their era or style are present and recognizable, even highlighted. The attention to detail is unmatched, even for the CG looking “primitive” by today’s standards.
On more personal notes, each character of Initial D is drawn distinctly, and conveys mannerisms in a unique way. The viewer feels the personality of each character through their animation. Not only does the drawing and art style match the era, but so does the world Takumi and his friends race in. There was no forward thinking here, like the holographic technology and Matrix-esque fashion sense of Yugioh. A character in Initial D uses a computer to simulate race courses on a machine one could find in a Japanese office at that day. No more advanced tech needed here.
Characters are also dressed how young people in 90s Japan dressed. Outside of school uniforms, the guys wear pants and either t-shirts or collared shirts, the ladies, either spaghetti strapped or crop tops plus short skirts. And of course, New Balance sneakers to go all around. Shop signs of the towns are basic, but occasionally strike out with neon lights if new or successful enough. Smoking culture is ever present, but begins to show the trend of young people moving away from the habit. Even down to the songs on the radio matching something one would hear during that time. Initial D captures the people and the 90s Japanese landscape.
Speaking of the radio, if you know nothing else about Initial D, you have probably heard or at least know of the absolutely sublime soundtrack used in the show. Classic tracks like Deja Vu and Running In The 90s can be found in plenty of memes and webms today, usually involving some degree of mad drifting by some car or even cats. The Eurobeat themed soundtrack is the perfect background to the events of the show, providing a level of intensity for the races that quite simply wouldn’t be there if not for the soundtrack.
The insane Eurobeat isn’t just the only notable part of the show’s music. The comparatively calmer tracks, used when a piece of big plot drops in dialogue, are in one word funky, and the music to convey emotions or thoughts of the characters outside of the main racing events are simplistic but convey so much. When characters think about love, a lighthearted and tranquil track plays. And although not directly related to the soundtrack in the terminology of music, the show also makes use of ambient sounds that add so much to the setting. At night on the Akagi pass, cicadas can be heard when the engines aren’t blaring. And when enjoying a relaxing day at the beach or lakeside, the soft breeze of leaves heard in the background. Little touches like these add so much to the show.
The masterful use of audio in all channels and forms is perhaps one of the most notable things about Initial D. Which is why it’s a shame when looking at New Initial D, a movie series started in 2014 that remakes the events of the first season of the original show, the soundtrack is notably absent, and although the CG and animation is pretty, it feels soulless by comparison.
Real Issues For A Real Time
While Initial D is Shonen, as previously mentioned, it is perhaps the most “grown up” Shonen out of all of the aforementioned shows. While certainly some of the tropes of Shonen are present, like the skilled protagonist and of course the core message of the show, all of the characters are flawed in some way, some more a lot than others. They don’t always make the perfect decisions about life, having to face the real consequences of their actions. For example, Takumi’s temper or indecision occasionally gets to him, and he lashes out. He makes mistakes just like all humans do. Also of note, the situations of several characters are a lot more complex than your average Shonen character.
The main character Takumi is the best first example for this. He lives with his dad, Bunta, and that’s that. Much like actual situations of people living in a single parent household, it’s not a massive deal, it’s just the way things are and people manage their situation the best they can. Takumi’s mother is never brought up, and is notably absent. As a result, Takumi has to help Bunta with his tofu shop, and the relationship is occasionally strained as Bunta has to deal with Takumi’s teenage attitude that having another parent’s perspective around to solve may help. Itsuki, Takumi’s best friend, occasionally comes off as comic relief, is naive to a fault, and has bouts of recklessness that can endanger himself and/or his friends. Finally, Natsuki, Takumi’s love interest, has perhaps the most adult themed situation in the show, and possibly in all of Shonen anime from this era. She partakes in an “Enjo-kosai” a Japanese term that describes “compensated dating” or a “transactional relationship”, outside of her potential relationship with Takumi.
All of these issues serve to ground and humanize these fictional characters, as well as allowing the audience to relate to the characters, better aiding the illusion of them being real people. It is infinitely easier to relate to Takumi’s parental situation as a real person then say Yugi’s necklace having a spirit trapped in it that takes over his personality. I’m sure some of you reading this grew up in a single parent household, or had a friend that might have. Just like I’m sure some of you all have that friend who is naive for their age, and occasionally annoying, but you couldn’t imagine life without. And while Natsuki’s situation is comparatively rarer from the other two, this issue was not absent from the era, and is certainly not entirely absent today. True or not rumors may have flown around your school about a particular girl with older men, or liked to be in the company of men, and that’s exactly her issue in the show. These are all real issues that real people have to deal with, and a lot of these are absent from other Shonen series.
Initial D isn’t afraid to mention or deal with more “natural” adolescent situations either. Many of the characters express a degree of “senioritis”, a phase young adults go through in their last section of high school, where they are just kind of burnt out and not certain what they may want to do with life. It also explores what’s best put as “coming of age banter”. In one scene taking place in the men’s locker room, a character brags about “training” and allegedly hooking up with a girl that the other characters know. This angers another character to the point of violence to settle an argument.
Sexualization and discovering love is also discussed. In some anime, women are sexualized to varying degrees, yet in Initial D, Takumi is sexualized in a way by Natsuki. Real girls feel attracted to men much in the way it is stereotypically portrayed for men to be attracted to women, and the male characters in the show reciprocate the same feelings on occasion. While many other works regardless of medium gloss over this fact, Initial D understands these are all facts of life, and life isn’t a perfect fantasy world for people to have their fun in. Takumi also, in large part, does not know how to deal with his budding relationship with Natsuki, and becomes conflicted and confused when the rumors about her catch up to him. His dad is somewhat absent in terms of offering advice, whether about racing or life, believing it best for Takumi to figure it out for himself although he does occasionally bant with Takumi over his girl situation.
Initial D isn’t scared. While racing is of course the crux of the show and is still the centerpiece, it still takes the time to show the audience that it’s alright to be flawed. It’s alright to make mistakes, that you’re not perfect like other characters across various series might be. While a lot of shows demonstrate the fun to be had in a fantasy world, Initial D shows its audience that you can have fun in the real world.
In elementary school, you may have done an activity that involved taking an object representative of the time, and burying it in a container for someone to dig up 100 years later to find out what life was like way back when. While it’s unrealistic the object will ever be dug up, the lesson taught that preservation of the time is important.
Initial D is no different. The show demonstrates how people felt, what they were like, issues that were common for the time (some still prevalent today), what they did, and how they dealt with life. Initial D is a work of its culture, and because of that, it provides an almost perfectly preserved insight into life just twenty years ago.