Saturday Morning: Speed Racer - VIDEOS
"Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer. He's a demon on wheels." -- The beginning lyrics to the theme song of Speed Racer.
In this week's installment of 'Saturday Morning' we take a break from our regularly scheduled coverage to talk about a cartoon near and dear to many readers' hearts. A cartoon that, while not the first anime to reach the shores of America of the 60s, it was certainly the most influential.
Even though it was never part on any official network schedule, Speed Racer was on somewhere at sometime during the era of Saturday morning cartoons. And, why wouldn't it be? It had everything that a child hopped up on sugar-coated, chocolate-filled cereal could want: action, drama, comedy, mysterious heroes, villains, gadgets, cars, and a boy and his chimp. It also featured animated characters with more natural characteristics than those previously seen on American television. Plus, it had a kick-ass theme song that dug into your brain.
Much has been written on the history of Speed Racer since it premiered over four decades ago. However, with the new Speed Racer live-action film now in theaters, it's a good time to revisit the origins of Speed, Trixie, Pops, Racer X, and the rest of the players. So, if you have your Mach 5 model kit in front of you, let's Go, Go, Go!
Speed Racer, known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo, was the creation of Tatsuo Yoshida, one of the pioneers of anime and, along with brothers Kenji and Toyoharu, founder of Tatsunoko Productions. Starting out as a magna, the process to transfer Tatsuo's idea about the adventures of Go Mifune (known to us as Speed Racer) into animated form took some time to establish. Before beginning their own production they worked at the Toei film studios, which was one of the largest in Japan at the time. That job would be short-lived, but give them the skills to start up the animation end of their production studio.
Their first offering would be a black-and-white series entitled Space Ace (or Uchuu Ace in Japan). Ace ran for 52 episodes on one of Japan's largest television networks and, according to resources, did okay, but didn't really garner the success the brothers wanted. In addition, Ace just didn't have the muscle to make it into any of the foreign markets where some of the big money was made. This was something that competing Mushi Studios had done previously with Astro Boy, and other studios had done with Gigantor and 8th Man.
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Mach GoGoGo was different. From the start, Mach was directly influenced by American culture and the brothers Yoshida's love for it. According to a recent feature on NPR's Morning Edition, the character designs for Speed came directly from Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, complete with pompadour and neckerchief, while the gadget-filled Mach 5 was inspired from the James Bond film Goldfinger -- both popular films in Japan during that time. The style of animation was different as well. Rather than going for the more cartoony style of other shows like Astro Boy, Mach's characters had more life-like dimensions and movements like those seen in the Hanna-Barbera series Johnny Quest.
It was also in color, and bright color at that, despite the series being a bit dark at times. It was also quite detailed. There was a direct correlation to the seven buttons on the dashboard of the Mach 5 and a particular gadget or device for each. This was uncommon to American cartoons during the 60s (and beyond). If you ever watch an episode of Space Ghost you can see him press the buttons on his wristbands for a number of beams and rays.
Mach was also different for one other reason -- it was about cars. Well, it was really about a boy and his car, but automobiles played a very important role in the series. It didn't hurt that the Mach 5 was one of the most sleekly designed autos ever to grace an animated show. The other vehicles where no slouches either, especially the one driven by the mysterious Racer X.
All of these combined elements catapulted Mach GoGoGo to mega-hit status when it premiered on Fuji TV in April 1967. In a short period of time everything from Mach 5 model kits to red neckerchiefs and helmets with the letter 'M' emblazoned on their front were for sale in Japan. It was this success that encouraged the Yoshida brothers to mark Mach to foreign markets. That's where Peter Fernandez entered the picture.
Peter Fernandez worked for Trans-Lux Television, who bought the rights to Mach in 1967. Having previously worked on the Westernized versions of Astro Boy and Gigantor in 1963 and 1964, Fernandez was given nearly carte blanche to do what needed to be done to air Mach GoGoGo in the American market. The first thing he did was to change the name of the series to Speed Racer. After that he hired three additional voice actors -- Jack Grimes, Connie Orr, and Jack Curtis -- to supply the voices of Sparky, Chim-Chim, Mom Racer, Pops, and many others. Fernandez himself took on the challenge of voicing the two most important characters on the show: Speed Racer and his brother Rex (Racer X) Racer.
He then went about editing the shows for American broadcast. As the original shows were quite violent for Saturday morning and weekday afternoon fare, Fernandez went about removing some of the darker and more sinister scenes. He also had to come up with names for the anime villains who were always trying to knock Race off the track. According to an recent interview on NPR, Fernandez said the names and the voices of the Americanized villains would come from what they looked like. For example, one of the characters was quite large and looked like he could crunch blocks. Hence, he became known as Cruncher Block.
Then there was the theme song. The original arrangement to Mach GoGoGo had a Western movie feel to it, something like you would hear at the beginning of The Magnificent Seven. When it came to America the melody stayed the same but the arrangement moved into more of a surf-rock motif. The change made the theme song so infectious that many can sing the lyrics from memory even today.
Despite all of the changes Speed Racer became a hit for kids and adults alike when it made its North American premiere. All 52 episodes of the original Japanese run were aired in syndication until its original run ended in 1968. After that, many people thought Racer would just go down into history as another 60s cartoon. Yet, it had legs. In 1969, Trans-Lux sold the show to Alan Enterprises, which aired the series in syndication until it sold the it to Color Systems Technology. Color Systems ran the series until its bankruptcy in 1986. After that it was picked up by General Electric and, in 1989, it was acquired by, of all companies, Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video.
Eventually, the series was sold to one John Rocknowski, who formed Speed Racer Enterprises in the early 90s. Rocknowski took advantage of the acquisition to create The New Adventures of Speed Racer. The series, which was much darker in tone than the original, only aired for 13 episodes before being dropped. All was not lost, though, as Cartoon Network began to run the original series in its daily schedule. A few years ago, Lionsgate Entertainment acquired the DVD rights to Speed Racer and produced a five-volume release that became a huge seller. Just recently, Lionsgate, in connection with Nickelodeon and SRE, premiered a new series -- Speed Racer: The Next Generation -- featuring the son of the original Speed.
Meanwhile, Tatsunoko Productions didn't sit on their laurels after selling the foreign rights to Mach GoGoGo. In fact, several more of their creations were brought over for U.S. consumption. Some of those include Gatchaman, which became known as Battle of the Planets, Macross, which became integrated into the Robotech series, and Samurai Pizza Cats. Tatsunoko Productions still exists today, most recently producing the superhero series Karas.
While the new Speed Racer movie is getting lukewarm reviews, it will hopefully give parents a chance to share their memories of the original series with their children and bring in a whole new set of fans to a memorable cartoon.
Next time on 'Saturday Morning' we get back into the swing of things with a look at the 1969-70 season.