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The ani­me se­ries Initial D is an im­por­tant cul­tur­al touch­stone in Japan. It por­trays a very real cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non that has been im­i­tat­ed and copied count­less times out­side of Japan, but its re­al­i­ties and the fac­tors that brought it about were of­ten over­looked.

Japanese bat­tle rac­ing was, in many ways, born out of ho­n­our and bore­dom. It re­flects Japan’s ob­ses­sion with ex­cep­tion­al­ism, as well as pro­vid­ing an out­let for young men who had time on their hands. But be­fore we get into the fac­tors that brought it about, we need to talk about the most fa­mous type of Japanese bat­tle rac­ing, and the one ex­plored in Initial D: the Tōge.

King of the Mountain

Tōge is the name for bat­tle rac­ing in Japan that in­volves a moun­tain pass. The prac­tice start­ed with lo­cal dri­vers who lived around these moun­tain pass­es, want­i­ng to test their cars against each oth­er. Its ori­gins are as sim­ple as ask­ing the ques­tion “Who can get down the moun­tain faster?” —  and then maybe “Who can get up the moun­tain faster?”

There are three main types of Tōge race, all of which ap­pear in some form in Initial D:

Cat and Mouse: Cars start bumper-to-bumper. If the lead car gets a good amount ahead, they win. If ei­ther spins out or crash­es, the oth­er car wins. If the two cars stay close by, the race is re-run with po­si­tions swapped. This is the kind of race we see al­most ex­clu­sive­ly in the lat­er sea­son of Initial D.

Grip Gambler: Typically takes place on roads wide enough for two cars to trav­el on. Cars start side by side; who­ev­er is the leader by the end of the road, wins. This type of race is used on the ear­ly Tōge races on the Akina Downhill, the home course of Takumi Fujiwara and the Akina Speed Stars.

Time Attack: Racers head down the course one at a time to race for the best time. This type of race is men­tioned on a few oc­ca­sions, but this type of race usu­al­ly takes place off-screen in the TV se­ries.

The first two type of Tōge can be run spon­ta­neous­ly. Random Tōge bat­tles are ini­ti­at­ed by us­ing your haz­ard flash­ers to sig­nal you wish to bat­tle. All types of Japanese street rac­ing are some­times mis­la­belled Tōge, but the word refers specif­i­cal­ly to the mountain-pass race.

Tōge is also of­ten mixed up with drift rac­ing. Whilst many Tōge races did uti­lize it, “drift­ing” came out of the type of roads and cours­es peo­ple raced on — the wind­ing moun­tain pass with many chal­leng­ing cor­ners. Often, a drift was a ne­ces­si­ty in get­ting around a bend, or rob­bing your op­po­nent of room to over­take on the tight roads. The mod­ern idea of “com­pet­i­tive drift­ing” is re­al­ly a vari­a­tion on a nec­es­sary skill to rac­ing a chal­leng­ing road with a pro­duc­tion car, and has lit­tle to do with real Tōge.

Tōge cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the Japanese rac­er be­cause of the dif­fi­cul­ty the moun­tain pass pre­sent­ed, as well as that the roads they took place on were out of the way enough to have light traf­fic at the times of day that races would be held. They are a real rac­ing enthusiast’s course; a tan­gle of hills and cor­ners that al­lows groups of rac­ers to test their met­tle against each oth­er.

The Racing Tribes

A big part of Initial D is the com­pet­ing rac­ing gangs, who fought to be the fastest on their home course — or on an­oth­er gang’s ter­ri­to­ry, to claim “own­er­ship” of it. The com­pe­ti­tion be­tween them is the heart of all the con­flicts and races in Initial D, and these gang ri­val­ries and iden­ti­ties were the gaso­line that fu­elled the real life bat­tle rac­ing phe­nom­e­non.

The very real in­spi­ra­tion for many of these gangs was the leg­endary Mid Night Club, formed in 1987, and whose name and street rac­ing ethos were used for the se­ries of rac­ing games by Rockstar San Diego.

The re­al­i­ty was that the club had strict rules for mem­ber­ship. Foremost, the car and dri­ver must be ca­pa­ble of 250 km/h, though over 300 km/h was not un­com­mon; this was most­ly to al­low mem­bers to out­run po­lice, who had a top speed lim­it due to 1977 Japanese leg­is­la­tion. You were an ap­pren­tice for a year, in which you had to at­tend all race meet­ings. If you were judged a dan­ger to oth­er mem­bers or oth­er mo­torists, you were re­moved from the club. A fully-fledged mem­ber of the gang’s car was re­port­ed­ly ca­pa­ble of 320 km/h Average Top Speed.

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As with fic­tion­al groups like the Akina Speed Stars, mem­ber­ship was de­not­ed by a white stick­er on the car fea­tur­ing the Mid Night Club’s spi­ral logo. While not Tōge rac­ers, the Mid Night Club were high­way rac­ers, and led to the for­ma­tion of a lot of oth­er rac­ing gangs all across the world. The mix­ing of fic­tion and fact has led to the Mid Night Club be­ing mythol­o­gized, with that mythol­o­gy and im­age be­com­ing an in­spi­ra­tion for the American street rac­ing cul­ture of the 2000s.

The oth­er un­for­tu­nate re­al­i­ty is that the Mid Night Club was dis­band­ed in 1999, due to a traf­fic ac­ci­dent that killed two ri­val rac­ing gang mem­bers and in­jured 8, in­clud­ing 6 reg­u­lar mo­torists.

The Right Place, The Right Time

By the time the Mid Night Club had dis­band­ed, Japan had also changed in ways that made street-racing in­creas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult. Battle rac­ing re­al­ly is a prod­uct of the late 1980s and 1990s, with a per­fect storm of fac­tors.

People had cars that were rel­a­tive­ly in­ex­pen­sive, pow­er­ful and ma­noeu­vrable due to Japan’s large do­mes­tic au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. This led to these “do­mes­tic sports cars” be­ing in the reach of many young peo­ple in their late teens and ear­ly 20s, giv­ing rise to the cul­ture of bat­tle rac­ing. It’s akin to how skate­board­ing cul­ture erupt­ed in the late 70s; it’s a com­bi­na­tion of a man-made play­ground and a bunch of bored kids.

Domestically pro­duced cars, as well as be­ing so much cheap­er and bet­ter suit­ed to the roads, were also a point of Japanese pride. By the late 80s and ear­ly 90s, Japan had built it­self up into a man­u­fac­tur­ing and tech­no­log­i­cal pow­er known for its qual­i­ty. Japanese prod­ucts had made a big cul­tur­al im­pact on the Western world, and this ex­tend­ed to Japanese car man­u­fac­tur­ers.

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The 90s was the era Japan re­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed its de­sign phi­los­o­phy and tech­nol­o­gy from that of the USA and Europe; their fo­cus was on light­ness, per­for­mance, and han­dling. Whereas US made cars were still made for com­fort or straight line speed, cars like the Nissan Skyline, the Toyota MR2 and the fa­mous Toyota Sprinter Trueno, part of the AE86 fam­i­ly re­ferred to so much in the show. The mountain-pass down­hill is to Japanese bat­tle rac­ing what the quarter-mile drag race is to mus­cle cars.

Battle rac­ing can be seen as be­ing as in­flu­en­tial as skate­board­ing was to the al­ter­na­tive cul­ture of the USA in the 90s. Street rac­ing had ex­ist­ed be­fore in Japan, but it had nev­er been so wide­spread be­fore, or been cod­i­fied into a cul­ture.

It also helped that the street rac­ers were far ahead of the po­lice in terms of speed and han­dling, a fact Japanese traf­fic en­force­ment would be­gin to rec­ti­fy by the late 1990s. The dan­ger­ous re­al­i­ty of the prac­tice, as demon­strat­ed by the Mid Night Club in­ci­dent, cou­pled with an in­creased fo­cus on en­force­ment, was the real fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for Japanese Battle Racing, and by ex­ten­sion, Tōge.

Initial D: The Legend of the Eight Six

Why did the Initial D man­ga and ani­me put the Toyota AE86 gen­er­a­tion centre-stage? Well, the car has a spe­cial place in the hearts of Japanese car en­thu­si­asts as an ex­cel­lent car of its time; it was one of the first to em­body this new spir­it of af­ford­able per­for­mance. In many ways, Initial D’s AE86 is the em­bod­i­ment of Japanese Battle Racing’s spir­it — its per­for­mance is based on tun­ing and light­ness, rather than raw pow­er. It’s very much a modder’s car, and its lack of an Anti-lock Braking System puts em­pha­sis on the skill of the dri­ver. It’s the idea that the su­pe­ri­or dri­ver, not the su­pe­ri­or car, mat­ters in a dif­fi­cult moun­tain race.

The re­al­i­ty of most bat­tle rac­ing of that era was of kids us­ing their cars or their parent’s cars for ad-hoc races. The re­al­i­ty of that era fits the spir­it of Initial D more than you would first ex­pect for an ani­me se­ries that is of­ten re­duced to a se­ries of memes, or dis­tilled into its more repet­i­tive tropes. Under the hood is a real sto­ry of eco­nom­ics, en­gi­neer­ing, loose en­force­ment, and so­cial change that cre­at­ed a unique mo­ment in time; a mo­ment we see end­less­ly re­turned to in video games and less­er im­i­ta­tors like the em­bar­rass­ing Tokyo Drift. But its most faith­ful adap­ta­tion to fic­tion still, rather sur­pris­ing­ly, re­mains Initial D.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.