Kodansha has released the final installment of the popular action comic Initial D in its August 6th edition of “Young Magazine” which hit store shelves at the end of July. For those of us in the United States who have followed Takumi Fujiwara’s story through the anime series via Netflix or Hulu, it matters little as we have not seen any new material in some time, but for readers of the comic, this marks the end of an epic 18 year run. Whether or not you are a fan, this is a series that has had a huge impact on car culture all over the world and so its passing is worthy of note.
If you have somehow managed to remain blissfully unaware of the world of Japanese comics, known as manga, some explanation is probably required. The first thing you need to know is that, unlike American comic books which are sold as individual books usually a just few dozen pages long, Japanese manga are huge blocks of recycled paper that appear to have more in common than a telephone book than they do a comic book. The pages are generally made of a grey newsprint that feels coarse under your fingers and the art, most of which is done in simple black and white, is easily smudged. Each publication has dozens of competing titles running in any given issue and only the most popular manage to work their way onto the cover or even into the foremost pages where they might, on occasion, be rewarded with a third color, red. Like the old fashioned American pulp fiction magazines of the 1930s and 40s, manga are mass marketed items that are cheap, quick to read and easily disposed of.
The Japanese marketplace is jam packed with manga and virtually every convenience store, train station kiosk and book seller has dozens of fresh titles on display each week. Their titles are almost always printed in bold fonts and garish colors to attract the eye and their covers are filled with risqué images intended to tempt young men into laying down their hard earned Yen. Although it is a little slicker than some of the competition, Kodansha’s “Young Magazine” is no different than the norm, really, perhaps a little thinner than most but offering a few more full color pages up front, pages on slick paper that usually feature photos of young “idols” with vulnerable expressions wearing skimpy swimsuits and showing surprising amounts of cleavage. Following these pages, in the back of the book, stories about sports, gangsters or the romantic entanglements of teens give the readers something only a touch more cerebral when they have exhausted the possibilities of those earlier pages. As I am not really a fan of Japanese manga anymore, and have never been a regular reader of this particular comic anyhow, it is hard for me to judge the quality or popularity of any of the series currently on offer; most seem unremarkable, but it is from these humble origins that Initial D arose, just one story in an already saturated marketplace.
That the series became a runaway hit and eventually an international phenomenon says something about the attention to detail involved in its creation. I say “creation” because unlike American comics, Japanese manga is not the sole work of one artist, but is instead the product of many combined talents. There is always the creator, the one who sits down and conceives the idea, determines the story line, exerts artistic control and manages the effort, but behind him or her are the artists, each a specialized part of the team, draftsmen to draw the buildings in the background, technical artists to ensure the accurate representation of the various vehicles in play, character artists to bring life to the people, letterers, inkers, shaders and probably dozens of other artists I have no idea about. The success or failure of the product ultimately depends upon each of these people, and it is safe to say that the artists involved with Initial D are all top notch.
To those of us who are auto enthusiasts, what makes Initial D special is the fact that the technical artists have got the cars right. We can look at a single panel and tell exactly the kinds of cars that are pitted against one another as they battle their way up or down a mountain road. Our eyes are drawn to the details and the way the cars are depicted in Initial D is usually spot-on as well, the suspension on one wheel squatting as the car’s weight shifts in a hard turn or the sweep of a tachometer frozen in time at the edge of a panel as we look over the driver’s shoulder and out through the windshield at the road rushing towards us. But Initial D is deeper than just that, it features characters that are more-or-less believable, guys who want to be heroes but who struggle with their own limitations, young men who suffer life’s trials both on and off the road. Moreover, the situations depicted are familiar to many of the kids who actually read the book, the reality of dead end jobs, life with drunken, abusive fathers, a girlfriend who has an “arrangement” with an older guy on the side, and all of the generally stupid, reckless things that guys will do in the pursuit of excitement. It is an unflinching look into a working class Japanese world that despite its harshness remains filled with an odd, forlorn sort of glory; something that few of us in the West ever get the chance to see.
Now, it has ended. To be certain there are plans for another movie and still another anime series to bring everything to a close, but the ending of the manga means the end of original creative work taking place with the characters. Looking back, I can see that Initial D was a product of its time. That special time in the mid 1990s when the great Japanese cars of the late 80s/early 90s were just beginning to outlive their usefulness to their original owners and were hitting the used market in ever increasing numbers. A time when the youth of Japan were really beginning to absorb the fact that no matter how well educated or hardworking they were that, thanks to the economic crash at the beginning of the decade, they would likely never be as successful or as wealthy as their parents. It spoke to those kids, drove countless numbers of them into the car hobby and gave them hope. Although it continues to draw new fans, I wonder if the reason that Initial D is ending has anything to do with the fact that so many of us who were young when it made its debut have now outgrown it. Still, it will always be a part of our youth and it’s fitting, I think, that it ends in the 8/6 edition. Its been a hell of a ride.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.