published in Empire No.82, Sydney
Did you play with toy cars as soon as you could crawl as a toddler? Did you spend most of your primary school recreation drawing designs for hyper-hi-tech futuristic cars? Are you now an aging baby-boomer who drives a car imaging that you’re some super cool speedster? Then the DVD box-set release of Speed Racer may be for you. This reviewer didn’t spend his childhood with toy cars, and in fact doesn’t possess a driving license, so the quantum thrill many western baby-boomers feel when seeing images from this 1967 Japanese animated TV series is decidedly absent. However, there does remain some interesting features in this popular retro series. Speed – that’s his name – is the 18 year old son of a car racing family. Speed’s father Pops designed the Mach 5, but doesn’t want Speed to race because he lacks experience. (Obviously Pops never watched many episodes of the series, because Speed has plenty of experience indeed.) Speed’s nemesis is the mysterious Masked Racer X – Speed’s missing brother Ken as stated in every episode’s narration – with whom he eventually reunites. Produced by the Tatsunoko Studio in 1966 then sold to American syndication in 1967, Speed Racer – original title Mach Go!Go!Go! – is derived from Tatsuo Yoshida’s manga earlier in the 60s. The influence of American industrial design and consumer culture across the American Occupation (1945 – 1952) sowed the seeds for a peculiar fascination Japan held for the sparkling alien quality of all things western. As Japan surged forth with gradual technological growth to revitalise their economy throughout the 60s, they viewed all manner of gleaming futuristic enterprise not as escapist fantasy, but more as potential realisation. Speed Racer is nowhere near as futuristic or phantasmagorical as many other anime series exported to the US in the 60s (like Astro Boy, Kimba The White Lion, Princess Knight, The Amazing Three, Marine Boy, Prince Planet, Golden Bat, Gigantor, 8 Man, etc.). However the Mach 5 car driven by Speed exhibits an endearing mix of Japanese mechanical free-forming and puerile excitement in the superization of the normal racing car. Viewed today from a western perspective, the hysterical figuring of the car complete with its James Bond-like push-button transformative functions seems to appeal greatly to rev-heads precisely because of the fantastic unreality of its mechanics. But watching a whole series of the show can be a bit draining if your head isn’t revved up like the audience for Top Gear. Most of the episodes are two-part cliff-hangers – which involve a surprising frequency of actual cliff-hanging or cliff-crashing. The tension is forced, being strung out beyond the scenarios’ capacity, which leaves a slightly numbing feeling. In fact, after watching many episodes in a row, the series becomes almost abstract, as Speed continually is involved in, well, speeding. There’s always a race, and there’s always some stated compulsion to win, which in the end seems to lack any key purpose. This, then, might be the appeal of the series: speed freaks and rev-heads just like speeding, full-stop. Glory, heroics and moral lessons are churned throughout this US-dubbed series, but the images mostly respect the morbid thrill of driving fast and crashing spectacularly. Bright colours, naïve drawing, limited motion and skivvy-groovy cocktail music all add to the charm of this most western of the 60s anime series designed for the then-international market.