By John C. Alsedek:
Here he comes
Here comes Speed Racer
He’s a demon on wheels
He’s a demon, and he’s gonna be chasin’ after someone.
If you did a YouTube search for "Speed Racer" right now, you’d likely get results for the theme song, some episodes of the classic anime series, a couple of clips from the 2008 live-action movie . . . and then some titles like "Speed Racer is a Sociopath," "Proof Speed Racer is a Sociopath," and "More Proof Speed Racer is a Sociopath"; all of which are hilarious because, while they’re edited to make the titular character look like he’s laughing hysterically while he blithely forces all his opposing drivers to crash, it didn’t take a lot of editing to get that effect. Oh, the joys of pre-1970s cartoons!
Speed Racer was an early anime series that originally aired on Fuji TV from April 1967 until March 1968, running for a total of 52 episodes. In Japan, it was known as Mach GoGoGo, adapted for television from a manga (Japanese print comic) that had been created by one of the pioneers of anime, Tatsuo Yoshida. It was partly inspired by a previous Yoshida manga, Pilot Ace, but also by a pair of popular American films: the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas and the third Sean Connery James Bond film, Goldfinger. Yoshida gave his aspiring young racer, Go Mifune (named in honor of the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune), an Elvis-inspired look (right down to his black pompadour) and a car loaded with gadgets in the vein of Bond’s Aston-Martin DB5.
As Mach GoGoGo was delighting Japanese audiences in the spring of 1967, it was being prepared to run in U.S. syndication (via distributor Trans-Lux) during the summer of the same year. The U.S. made some significant departures from the original show, most of which were name changes necessary for an English-language audience. The show’s title became Speed Racer, which was also the new name for the main character. The letter ‘M’ on the hood of Speed’s car, which had previously stood for "Mahh-go" (the car’s Japanese name), now was for "Mach 5." The members of Speed’s extended family got name changes as well: Go’s father, Daisuke, became Pops Racer, his mother, Aya, became Mom Racer, his younger brother, Kurio, became Spritle, his girlfriend, Michi, became Trixie, and so on.
The American adaptation effort was spearheaded by voice actor Peter Fernandez, who not only wrote the English-language scripts and directed the dubbing but was also heavily involved in re-editing the 52 episodes of Mach GoGoGo to work better for American audiences. A prime example of this is the title sequence and theme song; the theme uses a reworked variation of the original melody, while the titles focus more on racetrack action than the "driving in the most remote places in the world" shots of the original. Oh, and as if he wasn’t busy enough, Fernandez supplied the voices of Speed and the mysterious masked Racer X (otherwise known as Speed’s long-lost older brother, Rex Racer).
Speed Racer was a major hit in U.S. syndication, running regularly from ’67 until at least the late 1970s. I know it was one of my faves because it was such chaotic fun: car races with endless numbers of crashes and explosions; a rogue’s gallery of ridiculously enjoyable villains such as Captain Terror and Snake Oiler of the Car Acrobatic Team; and, of course, the super-cool Racer X and his car, the Shooting Star. Younger children might have been especially entertained by the antics of Speed’s kid brother Spritle and Spritle’s pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim, who wore matching red overalls and beanies as they were constantly stowing away in the trunk of the Mach 5.
And pre-teen girls would have found themselves with a terrific proto-feminist role model in Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie, who kicked butt every bit as much as Speed—plus flew a helicopter!
Since the original Speed Racer, there have been a couple of reboots/reimaginings. The New Adventures of Speed Racer had a 13-episode run on American TV in 1993, with a visual style that looked more like Transformers than the original anime series. Mach GoGoGo: Restart was more in keeping with the source material, premiering on TV Tokyo in January 1997 and running until September of the same year. Mach GoGoGo: Restart was adapted for English-language broadcast by DIC Entertainment Corporation and released as Speed Racer X in 2002; just 13 episodes had aired before it was pulled due to a lawsuit between DIC and the California-based Speed Racer Enterprises, which had all U.S. rights to the Speed Racer franchise at the time.
But for me, the Speed Racer reimagining that totally captured the spirit of the original anime was ironically the live-action 2008 film by the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame), which starred Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, and Susan Sarandon. While it was a box office bomb and critically panned at the time, this iteration of Speed Racer has gained a cult following in recent years and has been recognized by many online critics as a misunderstood masterpiece due to its imaginative, stunning visuals. There was talk of a sequel around 2009 and sporadically since then (the most recent was a tweet from Hirsch in 2018 stating that the script was finished). But if this ends up being the last Speed Racer project, it was one heck of a way to go out.
Peter Fernandez was instrumental in shaping Speed Racer for American television, but that was just one credit in the career of one of voice acting’s more prolific and influential figures. We’ll be talking about Fernandez and his voiceover "Wrecking Crew" next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.