Go, Speed Racer!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s a demon and he’s gonna be chasing after, well, someone.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Forget the 2008 monstrosity that was Speed Racer the film. Forget it even if this slop of a movie did have an opening weekend that grossed over $18 mil and went on to earn well over $80 million in merchandise tie-ins. You can forget all of that snap and dazzle because no matter how much noise they made with the film, it would still be dwarfed by that which inspired it all: the original TV show. Which, when it hit the American airwaves in 1967, gave many of us our first glimpse into the world of Japanese anime. By blowing our minds.
“In the old days …,” begins Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay, and Conflict on the Expo Floor. He pauses. “And it’s hard to remember this with Marvel Comics being such a high-glitz blockbuster machine — but their cartoons were essentially just comic books moved in front of a camera. Then this shit came from Japan and …” He trails off with a hand wave that says “explosion.”
… they were way more epic than what Hanna-Barbera was feeding me. I was hooked on that early anime …
— Bob Calhoun, film critic and author
It’s not like America hadn’t seen cartoons, though. We were well steeped in them and had been for awhile, joining a global fan base that could boast just about everybody, including, curiously enough, fascist dictator Adolf Hitler, whose penchant for Disney cartoons is one of history’s strangest bits of ephemera.
But Japanese anime, or animation, was a whole different kind of animal, with complex story lines, mysteries, murder and a whole raft of Westernized Japanese characters that occupied some weird cultural nether zone. All animated in full manga tradition, featuring constant and continual peril along with shockingly overacted and pat endings that rolled you comfortably into the next show — which, like the last one, would be some kind of cross between a James Bond and an Elvis flick. Indeed, these were early influences of the show’s designers.
By the end of its worldwide run, Speed Racer the movie had grossed $94 million — but it cost $120 million. It’s considered one of the worst flops of all time.
It was the biggest wave in a 1960s cartoon flood that also included Gigantor, Marine Boy, Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. If the big budget behind the completely horrible film is any evidence, the producers were counting on high-intensity nostalgia from Americans of a certain age. Since that fondness for the original show persists, and there are continued attempts to reboot it for TV, and to roll out video games, toys and other assorted merchandising.
Because? Because It was and is a monster — and we haven’t even started talking about the chimp sidekick named Chim Chim or the car itself, the Mach 5, a car that could drive underwater and had expandable circular saws in the front and springs underneath so it could jump. That’s right: jump.
“I was way too young when I first saw them to know or even care that they were from Japan,” says Calhoun. “But I could still tell that they were way more epic than what Hanna-Barbera was feeding me. I was hooked on that early anime, and it drove my sister nuts.”
Or as Pilar Newton-Katz (full disclosure: my sister), an animator and frequent presenter at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, says, “Even if the women’s roles were less developed than I would have liked, that was consistent with the time. The reality of it is, there’s been none more badass.”
How much so? This much so.