Speed Racer’s name matches his occupation, which goes it one better than any dentist named Dr. Stanley Smiley. The puzzlement, of course, is that he wears a “G” on his never-changed shirt and an “M” on his crash helmet, which we’ll owe to cultural confusion and lazy translation.
He’s as competent, loyal and true as a Boy Scout, and is so obsessed with car racing that you never see him doing anything else, not even eating or bowling or digging some new phonograph records.
In most cases, he doesn’t even sleep, despite the endless protests of his friends and family, who beg him to rest before a Big Race. But there’s good ol’ unflappable Speed, burning the midnight oil, turning a socket wrench underneath the car, his anime eyes wide with concentration. Either Speed is just simply supercharged and super pumped about tomorrow, or Speed’s on speed.
Living in a quasi-dream of a netherworld that is not quite Japan and not quite America, Speed is, quite literally, driven. It doesn’t seem to be the thrill of the race that motivates him, even though there are still thrills a-plenty that hold up surprisingly well (check out the DVD). You’ll be amazed at how powerfully these compelling stories still grip your heart and get your blood — uh — racing, even though you are no longer seven-years old.
Simply, Speed seems to be intensely focused, deeply stoic and fiercely determined, which is how we like our non-silly cartoon heroes. It’s his weighty one-dimensionalness that keeps us glued to his adventures. We learn from him that winning isn’t everything, or even the only thing – it’s how you get there and how many opportunities you are awarded to help others (aww!).
Of course, Speed has an exciting (though deadly) career, and perhaps if he were employed in the auto department of a Walmart or working Bay #3 of a Pep Boys, he wouldn’t be as enthused and more apt to snooze.
Even though his family is slightly dysfunctional, they are tremendously, almost alarmingly, supportive. There’s his crusty-but-lovable pop (Pops), who arrogantly and illogically leaves his cushy job with a large engineering firm in order to perfect his marvelous wonder car, the Mach 5.
Pops is a total fascist to his family, but they tolerate him because he’s got the engineering goods in his whacked-out head – the Mach 5 is their ticket to ride. Unlike, say, the 1989 Ford Escort, the Mach 5 comes standard with rotary swords for cutting trees (great for forest driving!), grip tires, an underwater oxygen chamber, special illumination, a periscope, and that all-important homing robot for sending for help when you are being held at gunpoint or kidnapped. No Sirius, though.
Pops almost “blows a gasket” when he first learns his son is racing in this precious super machine. However, Speed Racer and the Mach 5 take to each other like STP to an engine; once Pops sees the income the boy could net from winning tournaments, he quickly changes his warped mind. And this is years before NASCAR.
Moms Racer is the real curio. Her real name is most likely something like Carburatoretta. She’s a looker, a glamour-puss sashaying around in a tight pantsuit and a tiny apron with hearts sewn into them. Though the family is immersed in daily danger, she doesn’t seem to care about anything except serving oven-baked cookies. Call it her protection mechanism; most likely, this obsessive act is just her little way to suppress the horror of her own reality: her oldest son had run away from home and had never come back, her middle son (only 18) risks his life daily in a death machine, and her youngest is under age ten and under absolutely no adult supervision; he eats candy until his teeth rot and tends to stowaway on evildoer’s vehicles. P.S. — his most intimate friend is a clothed chimp.
There’s Trixie, of course, Speed’s look-alike girlfriend, who is rather accomplished for a pre-feminist gal pal. She can fly a plane and a maneuver a helicopter; she can also give a wicked karate chop when confronted with evil. However, she remains perky and upbeat throughout — her trademark is to giggle and wink, never letting us forget that, through it all, she’s still a female girl. Mysteriously, her blouse sports the letter “M,” like a scarlet letter. We’re left to wonder why.
Racer X (who is originally referred to as “The Masked Racer,” but the narrator drops that after one episode), is really Rex Racer (Speed’s older, somewhat-normal-named brother). Years before, Rex left home in a hissy fit after a wicked argument with Pops. Of course, this seems to be a rather lengthy period to hold a grudge against your entire family, but consider the source. Also, it deepens and sentimentalizes the plot lines, as Rex, under the mask and estranged, keeps a watchful eye out for his younger brother.
Ironically, Rex had moved on to become the world’s best racing car driver (imagine that “Most Likely To” in your high school yearbook!). He is known to have bad luck follow him in every race he enters (namely, other racers die!). However, he consistently stumps the media by wearing a mask and, even though it’s obvious to anyone with an intuition, he gives no information as to who he is and where he comes from (put this into context: there was no Internet and no Matt Drudge at this time).
Every time Racer X enters a scene, we are clued in – the narrator will remind us, “Unknown to Speed, this is his older brother, Rex, who ran away from home years ago.” We wonder if this announcement starts to wear on Rex every time he makes his entrance, yet it doesn’t seem to bruise his ego that he is always referred to in the context of his younger brother. Nevertheless, it must be a drag at parties.
The real star of the show, of course, is the theme song. You know it — you love it, but you probably didn’t realize that it was written in one afternoon and recorded in practically one take. The original Japanese version (the show was called Mach Go Go Go!) was an un-zippy, over-long, marching-band style tune, and it didn’t make the scene. The American team westernized it, and viola: one of the greatest theme songs in the history of our civilization. The jazzy closing credits, featuring a mind-blowing illustrative history of the automobile, with actual models driven by the show’s characters, is download-worthy. We’re still waiting for those damned flying cars, though.
The voiceover talent works overtime, and the overlapping of characters’ voices is both painfully obvious and pleasurably corny. Former child model and struggling actor Peter Fernandez found his niche dubbing Japanese entertainment for American audiences (Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Ultra Man, and several Godzilla flicks). Not only was he in charge of the entire U.S. translation/production of Speed Racer (trickier than it sounds), he was the voice of both Speed and Racer X. Corinne Orr was the voice of Trixie, Mom Racer and Spritel (Speed’s younger brother). You may also know her as the voice of Snuggle, the fabric softener bear. Voiceover vet Jack Grimes played Speed’s friend Sparky and Spritel’s simian friend Chim Chim.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the voiceover talent, the series will turn you as Japanese as it gets. Characters gasp in unison, or exclaim a long, drawn out expression of “ahhh’s,” “awww’s” and “oooooh’s!” Evildoers get punched, karate chopped and knocked out, but they never die. They say unlikely things such as “Unhand me!” and “Now’s our chance!” and “If you don’t make this jump, you’ll fall a thousand feet into the river. Good luck.” And all evildoers have New York accents – just like in real life.
Speed isn’t exactly the “demon on wheels” that the awesome song makes him out to be, but we’ll agree to look the other way. You’ll also wonder how the cast can wander around the Alps in the middle of a winter storm without a stitch of warm clothing. As well, Speed’s insistence on wearing an ascot is distracting, but there is a lot you can forgive here. The original animators were in love with American culture; you can see how it was absorbed and handed back to us so lovingly and with such care. It’s exactly as bad as you remember it, yet somehow better than bad.
Go, watch this DVD. Adventure’s waiting just ahead.
Also, check out Chassy’s racing flicks: The 24-Hour War and Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman.