Friday, January 20, 2006

Initial D

the following is a work in progress and is always changing

There’s a heavy layer of liquefied rubber and the mechanical scents of a recent war of wills settling over Mount Akina in the Gunma Prefecture. A battle has just taken place here; the winner and loser are obvious if you listen for the cheers coming from the mountainside. The battle has been waged between a pair of highly tuned, expertly driven racecars. At the helm, seeking not only glory and fame amongst the throngs of fans in the galleries but also bragging rights with friends and other racers were a pair of highly skilled drivers. The legions of fans have come to see a display of horsepower and testosterone unmatched on many race tracks, let alone the streets surrounding their city. They have not left disappointed. They do not yet know it, but they have just witnessed what will be known as an epic battle; a turning point in the Gunma district. Goliath has been slain.

In more ways than one his blood runs into the gutters of Mt. Akina while David cruises freely toward home. He does not see himself as a victor, nor does he see himself as the gladiator, the idol, that he has just become to thousands of people the world over. He does not realize this for several reasons, but the primary explanation for his ignorance has to do with the fact that Takumi Fujiwara, our David in question, at the wheel of his father’s Toyota AE-86, is a hand drawn character in a Japanese Manga television series called Initial D.

Initial D is the story of Takumi Fujiwara, a high school kid living in Japan who delivers Tofu at 4 A.M. for his father's shop at the base of Mt. Akina. The town of Akina sits at the base of a huge mountain that doubles as a late night course for local racers in the Gunma Prefecture of Japan. A snake descending from a tree branch, the route is serpentine as it navigates the steep slope of Mt. Akina and finds its way into a small town of the same name resting at the base. Bunta, Takumi’s father and the proprietor of a small tofu shop, has the responsibility of supplying a hotel at the top of Mt. Akina with a daily dose of fresh tofu. Up all night making tofu and nursing an addiction to alcohol, Bunta is either unable, or no longer willing, to make the daily 4 o’clock A.M. drives necessary for keeping the hotel supplied. Consequently, Takumi has been enlisted by his father to deliver the tofu on Mt. Akina. As punishment for destroying a shipment of tofu, but also as a means of building valuable skills, Bunta places a cup of water in the car and tells Takumi that he cannot spill a single drop. In an effort to get home quickly and get more sleep before going to school, Takumi learns to drive more smoothly so as not to spill any water, while still arriving home sooner; getting another few hours shut eye prior to class.

There’s a rhythm to this mountain road that is hidden from most drivers, but obvious to those who choose to race along its circuitous path desperately seeking tenths of a second as they push harder and harder with every pass of the route. For a brief moment, perhaps only tenths of a second, a pitched wail of metal on metal is joined by a vicious red glow from the wheel wells of Iketani’s S14 Silvia. At the same moment, the tell-tale chorus of revs fills the air as engine and road speed are matched in a succession of downshifts aimed at controlling the Silvia and giving Iketani just enough grip to maintain pace in his juggernaut. With the S14 subdued, if only slightly, the vehicle’s mass transferred to the front tires and a tight corner now screaming for his attention, it is time. Instincts tell him that it is time to let the Silvia yaw sideways as though it were going to swap ends, ending his night early with an impact on the Armco barrier only a few feet to his left. But this is planned, intentional, and controlled. Now more sideways than before, his drift surgically executed, he is back in the throttle and counter-steering, seeking control over the chaos. He negotiates the bend by hugging the barrier -daring it to reach out and grab him- knowing that while this will never happen, it could. With tires squealing gleefully and his engine moaning a powerful passion for acceleration the Silvia exits the bend with only millimeters to spare before he allows the pavement eating beast to kick back to the right, settle into another drift and slide hungrily into the next corner. Driving with conviction, life shaped only by the Zen of commitment, that’s one hundred meters down five kilometers to go; the corners never stop.

(Teams: Under construction)
More advanced combatants, arriving from teams based in other prefectures in an effort to dethrone a growing champion, drive ever more advanced vehicles; the names of which are enough to invoke a sense of amazement, wonder and dread into the heart and soul of a racer familiar with the fabled equipment. For those who are not, detailed descriptions are provided by characters during each episode.

As a television series, and an animated one at that, we foolish expect little more than arcade style races from Initial D. Valuable knowledge, technical detail and real world driving technique are the furthest things from our minds as we delve into the most comprehensively created racing series, in possession of a plot, to ever grace a television screen. If attention is paid, and theory is studied, Initial D can present us with so much useful and truthful motor sport knowledge that a person could be feasibly supplied with enough information to make intelligent and colorful commentary on the driving techniques of actual, professional racers. As such, Initial D is one of those rare gems that entertains and educates in a manner that earns respect from legions of obsessed car junkies from around the world. The basis of the show makes it possible to regularly introduce new characters driving a wealth of legendary JDM sports cars. Arguably, the driver is nothing more than an extension of the car’s personality and the real stars of each episode are, in fact, the cars in question; not the drivers.

Itsuki is boasting again. His devotion is clearly defined and his confidence in Takumi’s potential as a racer, ever since that first race anyway, is unwavering. No matter the opponent, no matter the challenge, he maintains his faith in a young man who possesses little belief in himself. Older and more experienced, Iketani regards the situation with cautious optimism. His own philosophy is clear: There is no honor lost in failure as long as one tries. Kenji, a member of the Akina Speedstars team, acts as a vessel for information on new challengers and a voice of consistent pessimism. Gathered together every day at the fuel station where Iketani and Itsuki find employment, the three friends discuss racing and driving technique with Takumi, each of them exhibiting a fervid passion for competition and automotive knowledge. Each of them, that is, except Takumi.

On a sunny afternoon in Akina, between filling cars with petrol, cleaning windshields and checking oil, Iketani helps Takumi understand the technical challenges of his next opponent on Mt. Akina’s downhill. His knowledge as a racer, combined with that of their station’s manager, is enough to make us question the outcome of Takumi’s next battle. They share laughter, amazement and unabashed emotion while daydreaming of possibilities and discussing the benefits and losses of all- and front-wheel drive, turbochargers, weight distribution, traction control, left foot braking and cars built with a racing pedigree. Friends without question, the group assesses the chances of success with knowledge built from an obsession with speed. Feeding off zeal, Iketani and his friends provide valuable details about the challenging racecar: Skyline, RX-7, Civic, Evolution or any of the myriad of cars seen in the series with aplomb. Given the manner by which the unique skills and techniques needed to push each racer to the limit and the inherent short falls of each are presented, we are blessed with such an abundance of valuable information it is hard to believe we’re watching a weekly cartoon serial and not a carefully compiled DVD from the world’s best automotive magazines.

It is midnight, but there’s a light on in the windows of Ryosuke Takahashi’s house. From outside the door of his room can be heard the light clicking of keystrokes. There’s a battle on the horizon, a war of speed and traction on one of the mountain roads in Gunma and there is so much work left undone. Undefeated in the mountains, at gymkhana or on the track, leader of the RedSuns racing team Ryosuke Takahashi gains immeasurable knowledge from the hours he spends in front of his computer. Ryosuke’s intense driving style and ability to calmly execute pin-point accurate drifts makes him the embodiment of the theory that knowledge is power. Days of research, careful analysis of his competition and elaborate computer models provide Ryosuke with the information he needs to properly tune and set up his Mazda FC for the unique challenges presented by each new opponent. So tuned are his own skills he is able to predict the outcome of Takumi’s battles as well. Ryosuke gives insight to the nuances of racing and the pitfalls inherent to a sport that depends on luck as much as it depends on raw talent and preparation.

Now in its Fourth iteration, Initial D …

Abstracts (opaque picture of each car in background. Insert within text in drop quote style):
• Known simply as Evo to its fans, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is one of the most electronically complex and mechanically sure-footed cars to roll off a production line. Sporting three liquid differentials, active yaw control and a power delivery system that puts any American muscle car to shame, the Evo is capable of slaughtering most of its competition by way of exceptional traction, precise driver control and an insane ability to change direction while under power.

• While not the most expensive or powerful car to roll off a Nissan production line, the R32, a.k.a. Skyline GT-R, is featured in Initial D as a difficult first opponent for Takumi. Sporting a brilliant all wheel drive platform and nearly 3.0-liters of turbocharged displacement, the R32 is an amazing piece of machinery designed to wage war on the twisting race circuits of Japan and Europe. A sinister and ominous character, the R-32 poses a legitimate challenge to Takumi, but the driver may be felled by an amazing maneuver in a sequence of corners known as the five hairpins.

• The Mazda RX-7 is a terrific sports car, especially when it is either an FC or FD driven by one of the Takaheshi brothers of the Redsuns team. As the human embodiment of their cars, the brothers epitomize two major facets of the racing community: Those who think and those who feel. While both brothers provide an exceptional challenge to Takumi, the older brother, Ryosuki, is a more successful and well-rounded racer than his younger sibling, Keisuke.

• Not normally seen as a high-performance sports car, the EG6 used by (driver name) of the Night Kids in 1st Stage and Type-R EK9 driven by both (drivers, team name) in 4th Stage are valid contenders for the heavily prepared AE-86 of Fujiwara. Front wheel drive cars present their drivers with unique challenges, but adept skills such as left foot braking and accurate power delivery can see them excel on many racing circuits. On the mountain roads, where drift is king, the Civics are pushed to the limit of grip driving and make a strong showing for boy racers who swear by the access to inexpensive performance.

• The cars are as varied as the people, but many drivers opt for the simplicity and reliability of the venerable Nissan Silvia. Based around a rear wheel drive chassis the Silvia is most commonly powered by a turbo charged, 2.0-liter in-line four. Easily maintained and modified, the Silvia is perfect for racers seeking inexpensive horsepower balanced with the easily driftable balance of the rear-wheel-drive Nissan.


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