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The rise and stall of motor racing anime

The history of motor racing is itself a history of the automobile industry. The dawn of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine in the late 1800s fired the starting pistol on competitive driving, and motor racing sprang up all over the globe. Yet there is a tendency – perhaps even an assumption – to equate motor racing with America and, in particular, Europe. But Japan is possessing of a rich history in motor racing, and its own unique car culture. This feature will delve into that love affair, how it played out in anime of the sixties, seventies and beyond, and explore why in contemporary anime, the pushbike has become more prevalent than the motor car.

A brief history of Japanese motor racing

Japan’s very first motor car was manufactured in 1902 using a gasoline engine brought back from the United States. The first entirely Japanese-made car followed in 1907 and, by 1914, Mitsubishi was manufacturing its very first model. Keen to capitalise on an important emerging market, the US began to manufacture cars in Japan, producing nearly 20,000 units a year by 1930. Industrialisation was snowballing by 1935 with sixteen companies producing cars domestically.

But even as early as the 1920s there was motor racing in Japan. Of course, there were no purpose-built racecourses at this time, so the ever-industrious Japanese improvised, using horse racing tracks and vacant lots as temporary sites. Petrol head Gunji Fujimoto was raised in Seattle but returned to his homeland in the twenties with the idea of creating the nation’s first motor racing circuit. The story goes that he persuaded Tokyu Corporation – a private railway operator and land developer – as well as the Hochi Shimbun newspaper to establish a federation to run this then-hypothetical racecourse. And so the famous Tamagawa Speedway was opened just outside of Tokyo in 1936. In its inaugural race, twenty-four cars competed, driven not by professionals but by amateur enthusiasts. Attendance figures are reported to be anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people, proving just how popular the sport had become. It’s interesting to note that the Honda car company got its start on this speedway, with company founder Soichiro Honda even crashing on the track.  

The rise of drifting and Initial D

A motor racing culture that dates back to the early twentieth century might come as a surprise to readers, with many no doubt associating Japanese car culture with drifting. That’s probably due in part to the 2006 movie Tokyo Drift, but drifting has been part of Japanese racing culture for more than half a century. Kunimitsu Takahashi got his start racing motorcycles, going on to become the first Japanese winner of a motorcycle Grand Prix in 1961. But the following year, he was seriously injured and switched to car racing in 1965. Having spent so much of his career racing motorbikes, Takahashi brought a distinctive driving style that resonated with Japanese street racers in the seventies. He may have been the forebear of drifting, but it was race car driver Keiichi Tsuchiya – the so-called ‘Drift King’ – who turned it into an underground phenomenon. That was due as much to his own driving style as to his role in the long-running Initial D series, in which he served as creative supervisor.

The art of drifting

The original Initial D manga was first penned and illustrated by Shuichi Shigeno in 1995 and centred on illegal Japanese street racing predominantly on mountain roads in the Kanto region. It spawned a massive anime franchise beginning in 1998 with new titles all the way up to 2016. For many young drivers of the time, motor racing had veered off the track onto real roads and it’s even been posited that the series was not only inspired by street racing, but was responsible for people getting involved in the subculture in an example of life imitating art imitating life.

The need for Speed Racer

Despite the early racing scene and the rise of drifting in the seventies and eighties, arguably the golden age of Japan’s motor racing industry was the sixties. This post-war period represented an era of economic, political and social growth for the country. This golden era can be seen reflected in the anime of the time and one of the most iconic and influential early anime was Mach GOGOGO, better known as Speed Racer.

The story was originally serialised in manga back in 1966 and was adapted into an anime a year later by Tatsunoko Productions. It served as a perfect time capsule of Japan in the sixties, representing its love of cars and racing, but also its technological prowess and animation skills. The visuals were simple, sure, but the races were bright, slick and kinetic, capturing all the energy of real motor racing, and if that didn’t sell viewers, the sound design certainly did. It’s ironic that neither Tatsuo Yoshida or Tsuyoshi Sasakawa, the anime’s writer/producer and director respectably, held a driver’s license.

While the series was ostensibly about car racing – the first episode sees protagonist Go borrow his dad’s super car, enter a race and win – the thematic focus was instead on overcoming challenges and dealing with revenge and honour, topics that crossed cultural boundaries. In fact, when the series was localised and aired in the States in 1967, many wrongly assumed it was an American produced cartoon. It’s hard to overstate the impact Speed Racer had during its original fifty-two-episode run, both on the domestic animation industry and over in America where it remains a cultural touchstone to this day. (Anyone remember the Wachowskis’ 2008 live action adaptation?)

Make mine a motorcycle

The success of Speed Racer blazed the trail for a number of motor racing anime and manga through the seventies and eighties and into the nineties. Anime like Arrow Emblem Grand Prix no Taka from 1977, Yoroshiku Mechadock in 1984, F from 1988, Goddamn in 1990, a new modern take on Speed Racer in 1997 and, of course, Initial D. The latter largely kept motor racing anime alive through the noughties, with a few notable exceptions such as Madhouse’s 2009 film Redline, which took seven years to make. But by 2010, and with almost the sole exception of the Initial D franchise, motor racing anime had become a rare species. There were a few new shows, such as Next A-Class and Scan2Go, but they were more sci-fi focused and were largely used as promotional material. The cultural love affair with cars and motor racing, it seemed, was waning among young people.  

The joys of high school motorcycling

Alongside car orientated stories came manga and anime about motorcycles, but more prevalent than shows about racing, is the biker as archetype. The motorbike was a means of exploring or representing youth cultures, certain subcultures or outsiders. Owning a motorbike said a lot about a character, their values, outlooks and place in society. Think about all the bikers from manga and anime, be that Tetsuo and Kaneda from Akira, Onizuka from Great Teacher Onizuka, Mondo Oowada from Danganronpa, Kino from Kino’s Journey, or Celty from Durarara!!. In every instance, they’re outsiders, social pariahs or loners and not one of these examples are themselves an anime about motorcycle culture. There’s actually a lack of anime centred entirely around motorcycling in the modern era. Aside from a few OVAs, the only notable exception is Bakuon!! which followed a group of girls and their high school’s motorcycling club.

Pulling over for pushbikes

Japan may be one of the largest new producers and consumers of cars, but car ownership has reached its lowest point in some twenty years, while the number of people holding an active driver’s license has also dropped. That’s due to a combination of factors, especially in Tokyo where the city boasts an efficient public transport system. In major urban areas, traffic jams also make car ownership a less attractive prospect. Regulations, meanwhile, mean that prospective car owners are required to prove they have somewhere to park before they can even buy a car. Because land in Tokyo is so expensive, finding a residence with car parking isn’t easy and so ownership for city-dwellers isn’t always even feasible. The whole experience of transport is changing, with car sharing becoming popular in Tokyo and the rise of ride-hailing apps. As far as young people are concerned, the car just isn’t the status symbol it once was, with that role now filled by consumer goods such as smartphones.

Motorcycles, on the other hand, have always been synonymous with youth culture. But by their own rebellious reputation, they aren’t for everyone and so for some fifteen years, cycling anime has come to plug that gap. Cycling stories have existed in manga format for decades, but in terms of anime, the subgenre is a relatively recent affair. It began with the 2003 OVA Nasu: Summer in Andalusia, an adaption of an earlier manga about a cycling road race directed by Kitaro Kosaka, who served as animation supervisor on Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. It’s no secret that Hayao Miyazaki, himself a keen cyclist, persuaded Kosaka to helm the film which became the first ever anime to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival. This was followed in 2015 with the manga of Idaten Jump and Over Drive, both of which were adapted into anime in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Idaten Jump was all about the adrenaline-pumping pursuit of downhill mountain biking, although one which saw its cast of plucky characters lost in a different dimension looking for a way home. Over Drive was altogether more terrestrial and made history as the first TV sports anime entirely about road cycling. It follows its high school protagonist’s aim to become the first Japanese champion of the Tour de France.

Yowamushi Pedal to the metal

Undoubtedly the most well-known example is Yowamushi Pedal – the Initial D of cycling anime – which started life in manga form back in 2008 and has spawned a successful anime empire beginning in 2013. It was a series that had a huge impact in getting fans involved in cycling and, inspired by its success, series creator Wataru Watanabe created an Olympic level cycling team that hopes to compete in the 2020 Olympics. Three years later came Long Riders! – think Bakuon!! with push bikes – and then in 2017 Minami Kamakura High School Girls Cycling Club.

Whether coincidentally or not, the popularity of cycling anime coincided with a decline in car ownership and new driving licenses in Japan. Coupled with the technological and societal shifts, new motor racing anime and manga will likely become increasingly rare. Why would anime about motor racing be green lit for production for an audience that has largely lost interest? But motorcycles will continue to crop up, ridden by loners and outsiders, and there’ll likely be a lot more push bikes. But maybe it’s time for Speed Racer to return, or a new series entirely, albeit in a more modern form. An electric vehicle, perhaps, or one hailed by a ride sharing app? Who knows what’s round the next corner of that racetrack?

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