Speed Racer says hi to the fans.


Original Medium: TV animation
Produced by: Tatsunoko Productions
First appeared: 1967
Creator: Tatsuo Yoshida
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From its earliest days, animation has no more been an exclusively American thing, than film-making itself. By the 1960s, animated properties from Japan (referred to as animé, a word borrowed from French), such as Astro Boy, Tobor the 8th Man, and …

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Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero, were starting to make inroads on American TV. An early one, reaching these shores on September 23, 1967, was Speed Racer, a series about a racing hero, like Tom Slick or Motormouse & Autocat only not intended to be as funny.

The show's title in Japan was Mach GoGoGo, also sometimes transliterated as Mahha go go go. It was about young Go Mifune, whose passion was to be the world's greatest racecar driver. He represented his family business, Mifune Motors, by driving the car Mach 5 (not coincidentally, "go" is the Japanese word for "five"), which was built by his father, referred to as "Pops". Writer Tatsuo Yoshida, who created the series, cited two U.S. sources of inspiration — Elvis Presley's character Lucky Jackson, the racecar driver in Viva Las Vegas; and the James Bond movies, which featured gimmicked cars full of weapons and other handy devices. Mach 5 was bristling with gimmicks to make it leap over obstacles, drive underwater, disguise itself undetectably, and even sprout wings for gliding fairly lengthy distances. When American distributor Trans-Lux (Mighty Hercules, Felix the Cat) brought it across the Pacific, very soon after it began, Go Mifune was re-named Speed Racer.

Other members of the Racer (or Mifune) family were series regulars. Speed's younger brother, nicknamed Spritle, would mischievously hide in Mach 5's trunk, with his pet chimpanzee, Chim-Chim; and their presence would sometimes prove handy when Speed got into trouble. Speed's older brother, Rex, was, unknown to the others, Racer X, a masked rival in many competitions. In most versions, Rex was self-exiled from the family following an accident which wrecked the first racecar Pops built; while in others, the family thought he'd been killed in the accident. When Speed finally discovered Racer X's true identity, TV Guide listed it among television's most memorable moments. Another regular was Trixie, heiress of the rival Shimura family, who was in love with Speed. She'd fly over race courses in her helicopter, and warn Speed of upcoming dangers.

Voices in the American Speed Racer included Peter Fernandez (also heard in Courage the Cowardly Dog and Gigantor) as both Speed and Racer X; Jack Curtis (also heard in Marine Boy and Kimba the White Lion) as Pops; and Corinne Orr (also heard in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and PB&J Otter) as Trixie.

In addition to the inevitable manga, Speed was adapted into American comic books. Now Comics (Real Ghostbusters, Green Hornet) did several series starring either Speed or Racer X, including a crossover with Ninja High School, between 1987 and '94. Wildstorm (WildC.A.T.S., Red Sonja), which started as part of Image Comics but was later acquired by DC, licensed the property starting in 1999.

Also, it appeared on American television in later series. The New Adventures of Speed Racer (1993) did Speed in American style, but lasted only 13 episodes. Speed Racer X, by DiC Enterprises (Captain Planet, Kissyfur), appeared on Nickelodeon (Jimmy Neutron, Rugrats) in 2002, but collapsed after only 34 of a projected 52 episodes aired, in a combination of production and legal difficulties. Speed Racer: The Next Generation is started in 2008, featuring the son of the original Speed Racer.

Speed has also had some impact on unconnected U.S. animation. Family Guy, Dexter's Lab, Fairly Oddparents and others have found fodder for parody in its style of breathlessly fast dialog, with what sounds like nervous laughter appended to many lines.

And a generation or more after its original broadcast, Warner Bros. Pictures (Steel, Catwoman) turned it into a live-action, feature-length film, released May 29, 2008. Emile Hirsch (who has appeared on Sabrina the Teenage Witch's TV show) played the title role, with Christina Ricci (Wednesday in the 1991 Addams Family feature) as Trixie. From there, the future is wide open.


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Text ©2008-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Tatsunoko Productions.