29 July 2003 | stp43
Speed Racer The Ultimate Anime Race
Arguably the greatest of all anime shows, Speed Racer is by far the best combination of the varied qualities of anime - goofy humor, nerve-packed action, and superior character interplay. Many fans' introduction to anime was in viewing of this show in 1970s syndication.
The original version, titled Mach Go! Go! Go!, reflects the greater violence of Japanese anime, violence toned down for the US broadcast of the show but still at times unnerving. Peter Fernandez and Trans-Lux were given the task of "Anglicanizing" Mach Go! Go! Go! and succeeded perhaps beyond their own expectations; the show remains fresh and engaging even as the passage of time has displayed some of the anarchic racing practices portrayed in each episode.
The show betrays some of the Gerry Anderson influences common to anime, influences even better shown by Battle Of The Planets' Thunderbirds-meets-Captain-Scarlet copycatting. The presence of the chimp Chim-Chim as pet for Spritle is a direct copy of the chimp used in Anderson's first Supermarionation show, Supercar, which served as something of a template for Speed Racer overall.
The Racer family is as tightly knit as any family, headed by patriarch, ace motorsports engineer Lionel "Pops" Racer, his loving wife - never named in the show beyond Mom - and his two sons, Greg James "Speed" Racer and toddler Spridle. Pops, however, has an older son, Kenneth Rexford Racer, known as Rex. Years earlier Rex was entered in a major race against Pops' wishes and crashed heavily in winning; a furious Pops refused to let Rex race until he was older, but Rex refused to be pigeonholed and ran out on the family to become a racing champion; he has never been seen again by the family.
This estrangement of Rex from his family, while not part of the show's pilot two-part episode, is nonetheless the real starting point for the series. Pops fears that his second-eldest son Speed will meet the same fate as Rex, but Speed is determined to race, and Pops reluctantly acquiesced to his son's passion. Speed is a special racer, and this draws the wrath of unscrupulous types determined to see that he never becomes a champion. The intervention of these unscrupulous types brings to the fore the mysterious Racer X, aka The Masked Racer - in reality Rex, in disguise, fearing that knowledge of his identity will bring the wrath of his enemies to his family and especially the gifted younger brother he's never known. There is a special chemistry between Racer X and Speed, a chemistry driven by Speed's budding curiousity about Racer X's true identity, and budding suspicion that Racer X is his long-lost brother.
The show gets off to a good start in the first two cliffhanger episodes as well as the two-part "The Secret Engine," but by far the most popular and best episodes are the two that reach the show to its apex - the rousing Mob/racing actioner "Race Against The Mammoth Car" and the show's only three-part episode, the genuinely scary "The Most Dangerous Race."
The Mammoth Car, highlighted by a sharply distinctive echoing whine as well as unforgettable music cue, is a 600-foot-long train-like monster owned by an infamous mobster who is suspected of stealing millions of bars of gold, a theft that Speed and his spunky girlfriend Patricia "Trixie" Shimura get swept into in the course of racing the Mammoth Car.
The Most Dangerous Race is the Great Alpine Race, a race through mountains that becomes even more dangerous when heavy rains collapse weak overhangs and force racers to try a dangerous jump over chasms. Spritle has given Speed a small Mexican doll as a good luck charm, and this leads to the most genuinely terrifying moment of animation - when Speed slides into the chasm, the soundtrack fades into an echo, and we see nothing but tire marks, some debris from destroyed racecars, and finally the small good luck charm half-buried in the mud, seemingly dead - and Speed nowhere to be found. Never has a cliffhanger more effectively frightened a viewer more than this indelible image.
Though the show could never reach the emotional height of these two episodes, excellent stories followed in the harrowing revenge tale "Race For Revenge," and follow-up stories; as the show proceeded stories switched to one-part episodes instead of the two-part cliffhangers used most often but never lost their punch of superb character interplay ("Man On The Lam," "The Car Hater," and "Most Dangerous Race's" one-part late-series sequel are the best of the one-parters), goofy charm (most of the villain names are straight out of Dick Tracy central casting), and the revved-up power of the show's signature mode of transportation, the Mach Five, which went from the enriching Bimmer-esque hum of the first 11 episodes to a pre-1995 NASCAR-flavored growl for "Race For Revenge" to the unsatisfying mixture of high-pitched whine and cheesy growl of the show's balance.
It is this combination that makes Speed Racer a race winner and champion of all time in anime.