Initial D: More Than Just the Drifting Memes

If you are a meme connoisseur like I am, then chances are you have run into the drifting Eurobeat memes that has been circulating around the internet.

Main characteristics are as follows: a clip of something drifting accompanied by a genre of catchy fast-paced disco music called Eurobeat. ‘Something’ here can refer to virtually anything in any given scenario: trash bins during a torrential rainstorm, high school kids on a slippery floor, a cyclist on a busy metropolitan road, or even a commercial jumbo jet on a wet tarmac. The accompanying beats are also just as memorable; they are fast (averaging over 150 beats per minute), intense in a merry way, and peppered with heavy synthesizer riffs.

The drifting, the crazy Italian disco beats, and the meme itself point towards an anime that aired from late 90s to early 2010s titled Initial D. The anime itself is an adaptation of a manga of the same name created by Shuichi Shigeno that ran from 1995–2013. It follows the story of tofu deliveryboy Takumi Fujiwara and his evolution into an accomplished Touge (mountain pass) racer with his Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT Apex AE86 hatchback. The anime made heavy use of Eurobeat songs in its racing sequences (dubbed in-anime as ‘battles’), which led to the internet adopting it as an anything-drifting-anywhere meme.

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Like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, I encountered the memes first, then the anime. Watching beat cars drifting in the unlikeliest of places with “Deja Vu” playing in the background was a blast back then, and surprisingly still has the same kick even today. Even four years later after I watched my first Initial D meme, the videos still manage to squeeze an impressed chuckle out of me.

So much so, that recently I asked myself: what if there’s a lot more to Initial D than the drifting with Eurobeat memes? Will I find something more in the anime that started it all?

The answer to that: I did. And here are what I found.

The Story (and sub-plots)

As I’ve said earlier, Initial D’s story follows Takumi Fujiwara’s journey into becoming a legendary Touge racer using his family’s (or rather, his dad’s) Toyota AE86. Right off the bat, this premise seemed like your usual underdog story found in shonen anime: the comparatively weak protagonist sets on an established goal armed with a do-or-die attitude and the power of friendship. We can see this type of storytelling in some of the most popular shonen manga such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and more recently in My Hero Academia.

But turns out, Takumi’s tale came with a twist. Instead of being weak at the start, Takumi turned out to be a prodigy of his craft. And instead of being a strong-willed individual that needs to reiterate his ultimate dream in every episode he’s in, Takumi started as a distant and aloof high school student with simple, little-to-none aspirations. He didn’t want to become an accomplished Touge racer at first. Hell, he didn’t even like driving in the early episodes. Rather than comparing Takumi to the likes of Goku or Naruto, I believe our tofu boy is a lot more comparable to Saitama of One Punch Man. They are both seinen manga, after all.

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Takumi in Stage One…

And that’s the main question of Initial D’s first three seasons (or ‘stages’ as they are called): can someone be extraordinarily good at something they don’t like doing? Apparently Shuichi Shigeno’s answer to that question is yes, and it would appear that they can grew to like that thing that they didn’t like before.

While the main story of Takumi finding his calling in Touge is quite compelling in of itself, I found Initial D’s side stories to be one of the reasons I stayed to watch the anime in its entirety. The first three stages in particular are the strongest when it comes to sub-plots, though I also found strong points in stages Four and Five.

… and now Takumi in Stage Five.

Stage One is lighthearted with comedic interactions between Takumi, his best friend Itsuki Takeuchi, his senior Koichiro Iketani, and Iketani’s friend Kenji. Despite so, it does have some dramatic impact with themes of friendship, brotherhood, and the one that hit me most, love. Indeed, stage one genuinely surprised me with that romantic side story that tackled the problems of insecurity and anxiety that can happen in a romantic relationship. Damn.

Turns out that’s just the tip of the iceberg, if the rest of the stages are any indication. Stage Two showed me the supportive and compassionate side of the usually stoic Bunta Fujiwara with his son Takumi, stage Three explored the relationship hurdles between Takumi and his girlfriend Natsuki Mogi, and stages Four and Five fleshed out Takumi’s former rivals Keisuke and Ryosuke Takahashi. Not to mention Takumi’s best friend Itsuki also had his share of compelling stories in stages Two and Four. Speaking of which…

The Characters

I have briefly touched on the interesting characters that live in the drifting world of Initial D. Obviously there is Takumi, who is not your typical anime protagonist. His character development throughout the series is one to look out for: from an unambitious teenager to a competitive street racer. The anime took its time peeling out the layers that made Takumi develop a liking towards Touge racing and its many complexities. The story of the anime also allows for Takumi’s humane, non-racing traits to shine through such as his loyalty towards his friends and his strong sense of integrity despite his nonchalant demeanor. It’s not that Touge racing changed Takumi completely, it’s that it allowed these dormant qualities of his to shine through in an engaging coming-of-age story.

But then there’s other characters that also experience character development, which is one of the reasons I rate Initial D highly. While not as poignant as, say, Violet Evergarden, to see other Initial D characters experience growth parallel to Takumi was quite fascinating.

My main example here is Keisuke Takahashi, who was “re-branded” as Initial D’s deuteragonist starting stage Four. During his first appearances in stage One, Keisuke appeared as a rich, pompous kid with a great sense of pride which gave him an antagonistic vibe to Takumi’s simplicity. His older brother Ryosuke was his exact opposite, acting calmer and more calculated compared to Keisuke’s brash and hot-headed personality. Still, you’d expect them to become Takumi’s arch-rivals as the series went on, maybe culminating in an epic three-way showdown in the anime’s grand finale.

But nope, both of them pulled a Zuko and became Takumi’s allies at stage Four. And as Keisuke came into the fray, one thing became clear to me: Keisuke’s loud and determined personality also suits him as a deuteragonist alongside Takumi. As demonstrated in stage Four, both tackle a common goal differently: Keisuke with his passion, Takumi with his poise. Their night-and-day personalities work just as good together as against each other, so why not make them friendly rivals instead?

That’s not to say that Keisuke’s character stagnanated at an always fiery state throughout the series. Matter of fact, his growth already started in stage One when he first met — and raced — Takumi. In his admiration towards Takumi, Keisuke learned to control his temper and improve on his already rock-solid racing skills. It all culminated in Stage Four when the story’s hurdles affected Keisuke the most; and thanks to his already developed maturity throughout the series, he was able to get past them or at least learn more from them than he would have in the earlier stages. Stage Four also allowed us into glimpses of his other non-racing traits like Takumi. For instance, it was revealed that he has no room for romance despite being approachable and that he’s grown far from a troubled past, even in stage One.

Also, it’s easy to conclude there’s that classic shonen friend-rivalry going on between the Takumi and Keisuke. There’s always the driven light-haired guy and their cool dark-haired counterpart. In Naruto, there’s Naruto and Sasuke. In Jojo, it’s Polnareff-Jotaro and Giorno-Bucciarati. And now in Initial D, there’s Keisuke and Takumi.

Ah, but this is a ‘characters’ section, not a ‘Keisuke’ section, isn’t it? Fret not, for I will go into Initial D’s tertiary protagonist, Ryosuke Takahashi.

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Ryosuke can be easily classified into the ‘brains’ section of Initial D characters. He utilized his technical knowledge of racing and cars to guide both Keisuke and Takumi towards victory. This is apparent not only from stage Four, but also from the previous stages whenever he appeared. He’s almost like an omniscient narrator that knows what happens in a battle, how it happened, and why it happened. Most of the anime’s technical automotive terms came from his mouth. However, that’s not to say that he’s all talk and no walk; he’s easily one of the best drivers in the anime, bested only by Takumi.

Like Keisuke, Ryosuke non-racing traits also came to light in Initial D’s later stages. He, too, has a troubled past, though I’d say it’s more ‘tragic’ than ‘troubled’. He has his own demons like Keisuke, and it’s the way the dealt with those skeletons in his closet that made his character all the more interesting. But even without the ‘tragic past’ debacle, Ryosuke’s intelligence is still enough to make him an interesting character. It’s not treated as a crutch that Keisuke and Takumi rely on all the time, since Ryosuke himself also acknowledges that their opponents are sometimes beyond his calculations. When it comes to variables that he can control however, he leaves none of it to chance. And even after all that he still shows regard to his subordinates, far from an antisocial-intellectual character archetype.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that these three characters attract changes to other characters through their actions. Takumi for example, stimulates change in Itsuki, Iketani, and Natsuki. Both Keisuke and Ryosuke also invokes growth in other characters they encounter, though the list is not as extensive as Takumi’s.

I suppose that’s the charm of a seinen manga centered around and only around Touge racing. Since no one gets beaten to a pulp (or God forbid, killed) in Initial D, we get to see other characters change and grow after an encounter with the protagonist. We see them mature even if it’s just a little bit, and let’s face it, we are all suckers for character development in our anime.

The Battles

Let me just put this out there: Initial D is not afraid to make its battles technical. All sorts of automotive terms such as oversteer, understeer, torque, FF, FR, AWD, 4WD, turbocharge, and those like them will be thrown around during the anime’s battles.

While it might seem that it will definitely appeal to car buffs with extensive knowledge on car terminology, it can also become a turn-off: as technical as Initial D is, it’s still heightened realism. Meaning, while Initial D is grounded in presentation, there are times when the anime is unrealistic or exaggerated in execution. For example, one of my car buff friends told me there’s no way an AE86 would be able to keep up — much less overtake — a Nissan Skyline GTR. It’s like being a gun nut and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando: yes the M60 machine gun fires a lot of bullets, but no it doesn’t fire THAT many bullets.

On the other hand, it’s also easy for non-car enthusiast to be overwhelmed with the anime’s technicality. At first it’s pretty bearable, but as the anime goes on the technical terms will become more involved. The battles stopped being a drift-meme fest (remember ‘KANSEI DORIFTO!?’) and started being a serious battleground of wits and car mastery. It’s like being a non-gun nut and watching John Wick Chapter 2: yes that’s an assault rifle, but what’s that about an ion-bonded bolt carrier and Trijicon AccuPoint with one-six magnification?

So what do I, as a non-car enthusiast, have to say?

I like it.

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Can’t say I love it because I don’t understand enough of it to fall in love with it, but it drew my admiration at the very least. I must say that Initial D knew well its target audience and dared to go ham on its car-related terminology. It doubled down on its rich automotive lore and refrained from streamlining its phrasing for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. I for one interpreted this move as treating its viewers as those capable of keeping up with everything the anime threw at them, a move that I appreciate.

That’s not to say that the battles are over-methodical borefests either. Each of the battles become progressively harder as Takumi (and later Keisuke) grew in skill, and winning them is always a feat to behold regardless of their skill level. It can be quite formulaic at first: rival pulled first, Eurobeat came on, Takumi made a surprise comeback, the winner is decided. But as the series went on, the anime made a lot of changes to the battles’ variables: different unfamiliar stages, vastly superior cars, vastly superior drivers, or even all those three at once.

We all know the end results most of the time, so that’s why we rely on the nitty-gritty details of the battles. This where the anime delivers all the time, as there’s always that sense of dread and unpredictability every time a battle is engaged between the protagonists and their rivals. The stages, regardless of production company, always made sure that every important detail in a battle is well-conveyed to the audience despite animation limitations. There’s always sufficient build-up leading to a deciding moment in a battle, and when that moment arrives, it was executed in the most heart-stopping way possible.

It might be confusing at first with all the technicality galore, but when all those elements come together, it sure made for a truly exhilarating display of street racing like never before.

And of course, the Music

Oh, and did I mention Eurobeat?

Prior to Initial D, I knew of precisely three Eurobeat tracks: “Deja Vu” by Dave Rodgers, “Running in the 90s” by Max Coveri, and “Gas Gas Gas” by Manuel Karamori.

After Initial D, I added 11 more tracks to my playlist.

Eurobeat and Initial D fits like peanut butter and jelly. Don’t believe me? The newer Initial D Legend series dropped them in favor of J-rock tracks, and as a result fans reacted less positively to the ‘remastered’ Initial D series.

It’s just that Eurobeat’s energetic and intense melody fits so well with Initial D’s thrilling battles. Not just the rhythms, but also some of the tracks’ lyrics that spoke about fast cars and the bliss that comes with achieving that full usage of the speedometer. It became an inseparable part of Initial D itself it their shared niche target audience and unique appeal.

Part of this is due to the memes, but even without any prior knowledge of that, Initial D viewers know what to expect when Eurobeat came on: something exciting is around the corner. Something is about to happen, whether it was Takumi overtaking his opponents in the most ri-donk-ulous way possible (“No One Sleep in Tokyo” by Edo Boys) or his opponent doing the same to him (“Crazy For Love” by Dusty). Quite simply, they greatly enhance the battles they are featured in. Eurobeat in Initial D worked the same way as You Say Run in My Hero Academia or Il Vento d’Oro in Jojo Part 5 in the sense that when you hear them, that’s when things get real.

And guess what? Eurobeat came on in every Initial D battle. From there you can guess how many times things got real in the anime.

Besides, Eurobeat is one of my motivations of pushing through Initial D. I wanted to find out when does my Eurobeat track pop up in the anime’s many battles. Not just battles, but also standout moments involving the legendary AE86 (“Gas Gas Gas”). Every single time I hear those signature synthesizer riffs in the anime, I lean my ear in to find out if it’s the one that I recognize. If I recognize it, it’ll hype me up by tenfold. If I didn’t, I’ll still know I’m in for a good time.

As my search for my three Eurobeat tracks went on, that’s when I discovered more banger Eurobeat tracks to add to my collection. Sometimes it’s due to the battles they feature in (“Heartbeat” by Nathalie), but other times it’s also due to them catching my ears the second they came on (“Looka Bomba” by Go2) which led me to whipping up my Shazam app.

Bottom line, I never thought I’ll love Eurobeat more after viewing Initial D in its entirety, and yet here I am.

Side note, Wataru Akiyama. He was present in the two times my all-time favorite Eurobeat tracks came on. Just shows how important of a character he is in the anime.

***

So that’s that, my essay on why Initial D is a LOT more than the drifting memes you’d normally found in the internet. There’s the more-than-meets-the-eye story, the compelling characters, the high-octane battles, and the uniquely fabulous soundtrack. Not saying that every anime fan out there should give it a try since it’s an acquired taste, but to those interested, I’ll say this: you are in for an experience like no other.

I write about what I like. I like video games, movies, and a little bit of anime.

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