‘80s anime about endurance bikes

More than a decade before the legendary Shuichi Shigeno (しげの 秀) created the Initial D manga in 1995, which led to the famous 1998 anime series, there was Baribari Densetsu (バリバリ伝説) also known as “Baribari Legend” or “Motorcycle Legend.” Baribari Densetsu was Shigeno’s first manga series, serialized way back in 1983. It was adapted into a 1986 anime OVA series by Studio Pierrot which was later cut into a 1987 movie to be shown alongside Aitsu to Lullaby: Suiyobi no Cinderella, another motoring anime. You definitely need to watch Baribari Densetsu if you’re into animation, Japanese motorcycles, ’80s retro, old-school endurance racing, or all of the above.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

Baribari Densetsu tackles the excitement of the youth’s motorcycle scene and dynamic yet dangerous lifestyle of touge (峠 or とうげ tōge, “mountain pass”) street racing in Japan. The characters must deal with high school drama, ranging from silly to grave, their own heightened emotions, and the nature of competition. Constantly at the forefront are ‘80s motorcycles and retro gear while foreboding concerns about safety loom in the background. By the way, “bari-bari” (バリバリ) is a Japanese sound effect that’s used for a wide variety of things — crunching, ripping, discordance, engine noises, etc.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

The 1987 movie may not seem like a high-budget production as it’s edited from an OVA series; the cuts are a bit abrupt and the pacing is awkward. It doesn’t delve into technical details like the manga or Initial D, and instead focuses on summarizing the drama and atmosphere. Unlike Initial D, a major part of Baribari Densetsu gets off mountain roads and onto the track. Even with the lack of gearhead jargon and elaboration, the distilled story remains compelling and the traditional animation is absolutely wonderful; it’s downright impressive during the riding scenes. Baribari Densetsu is all hand drawn and its “camera” direction is dynamically action-oriented.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

Viewers are treated to shots of working suspension, moving gauges, engine details, gear changes, throttle twisting, visible vibrations, cornering, and first person views. The backgrounds swiftly move across the screen as the riders weave, zoom, and dive. There’s even some drifting — directly inspired by the aggressive, sliding, daredevil riding that dirt-to-road racers like "Fast Freddie" Spencer became known for at the time. Despite its humor, it is not for the faint of heart as it gets deadly serious very quickly. There are depictions of misogynistic sexual violence, narrow misses, and horrific crashes. Baribari Densetsu is, after all, about motorcycle racing which is dangerous on its own but even more so on public roads. Shigeno also doesn't shy away from dealing with dark issues plaguing society and the characters in his work.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

Baribari Densetsu (1987) starts with the main character, Gun Koma (巨摩 郡) also known as "Gun Boy," on his iconic red Honda CB750F challenging a stranger’s Suzuki GSX750S Katana on the nearby mountain pass. Gun rides at the limit and ends up high siding. His opponent U-turns back, taunts Gun's accident, and calls him “a useless bastard” before disappearing. The memorable intro sequence then rolls, showing the sweaty Gun walking his crashed bike all the way down the mountain and through the city.

Gun meets Ai Ito (伊藤 歩惟) whose shallow fantasies romanticizing bōsōzoku gangs are rather satirical and informed by movies. Gun actually asks her at one point, “Are you an idiot?” Shortly after, Ai defends his motorcycle from a group of bullies and gets injured in the process. This makes Gun show more appreciation for her and they begin dating. We’re then introduced to female racer Miyuki Ichinose (一ノ瀬 美由紀), nicknamed "Mii," talking to her wealthy family’s head mechanic. He tells her to be careful riding her Honda VT250F on public roads, and she teases him saying, “If my body becomes ineligible to be a bride, have me okay?” which makes him spit out his drink. It alludes to how traditional gender roles still affect Miyuki despite her motorsport success; gender equality in Japan remains extremely low to this day.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

It is Miyuki who invites Gun and his buddy, Hiro Okita (沖田 比呂), to a track day at Tsukuba Circuit, lending Gun a bike and opening him up to the world of motorsport. Gun and Hiro later rescue her from a disturbing, classist, and misogynistic attack. Before even worse sexual violence is committed, she can tell that Gun is coming from the sound of his bike alone and he proceeds to beat the perpetrators up. Hiro then professes his love for Miyuki. 

The mysterious rider from the intro, revealed to be Hideyoshi Hijiri (聖 秀吉), transfers right into Gun’s class. The ensuing rivalry is fun to watch. During their sunrise rematch on the same mountain pass, yet another strange rider skillfully overtakes them both to their surprise. It turns out to be Miyuki on a TTF1 bike (illegally ridden on the street). She leaves them staring in awe, whilst thinking to herself how great it’d be if she could harness both their talents at Suzuka next summer.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

Miyuki recruits Gun, Hideyoshi, and Hiro into the Ichinose racing team for the Suzuka 4 Hours Endurance Race. They field two motorcycles; the lovebirds become co-riders while Gun and Hideyoshi must team up. We learn more about Hideyoshi's motivations, driven by family tragedy. The endurance race at Suzuka Circuit is awesome — not only the action but also the summer revelry and bustling pit activity. The rider changes between Hideyoshi and Gun are hilariously contentious; they literally punch and kick each other off their TTF3-spec Suzuki GSX-R400. Meanwhile, the “camera” darts around the motorcycles, following the racers from all angles with the sky changing color near sunset.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

While consistency is key in endurance racing, Gun and Hideyoshi's vastly different riding styles manage to complement each other. Gun is the demon — a high-risk “kamikaze novice” who blasts past opponents. Hideyoshi is the samurai — demonstrating precision and understanding as he chooses to maintain the machine’s integrity by limiting his performance to 80%. The crowd loves Gun’s riding, but the onsite veterans are the few in the whole venue who appreciate Hideyoshi’s strategy. The two racers learn to rely on each other in order to succeed, but it is Hideyoshi that really impresses the pros.

Before Initial D, Shigeno made Baribari Densetsu in the ‘80s, go watch it  image

Wayward street racers taking their competitive natures to the track creates great drama, tension, and opportunities for character development. Gun hones his skills while gaining respect, friends, and knowledge. Shigeno presents different aspects of street racing without being outright preachy, at least not in this movie. I won’t spoil it for you any further. I just wanted to convince you that Baribari Densetsu is worth watching for retro motorcycle fans. The anime is much easier to find online than the manga which was, rather unfortunately, never officially translated for English speakers (although there may be fan translations). The Baribari Densetsu movie is adrenaline-pumping, succinct, and impactful — to the point of haunting. Hope you enjoy it!