Lost in Translation doesn’t normally touch upon anime and manga. Ganriki covers that field far better. In recent years, though, anime and manga have penetrated mainstream pop culture, leading to Western adaptations of works that have crossed the Pacific Ocean. Today, Lost in Translation looks at the 2008 film, Speed Racer.
Mach GoGoGo was created in 1966 by Tatsuo Yoshida and followed the exploits of Go Mifune, a young race car driver who helps his family keep his father’s designs from rivals. Go was inspired by Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas; his car, the Mach 5, was inspired by 007’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger. In 1967, Tatsunoko Productions adapted the manga as an anime series of the same name; a typical path for many manga titles. The anime was then picked up by Trans-Lux for airing as Speed Racer in the US.
Whether the name is Mach GoGoGo or Speed Racer, the characters remained consistent. Go/Speed is a young driver with a love of both racing and his family. His father, Daisuke/Pops, who built the Mach 5, went indie after being forced out of a corporation, keeping the designs for the car’s revolutionary engine for himself. Kurio/Spritle is Speed’s younger brother who, along with his pet chimp, Sanpei/Chim-Chim, gets into trouble by tagging along. Speed’s older brother, Kenichi/Rex, is estranged from Pops after a falling out, but reappears as The Masked Racer/Racer X to help Speed against his opponents. Speed’s girlfriend, Michi/Trixie, is also there to help, and bails him out as much as he does for her.
The series focused on action, especially racing, with gangsters and crooked corporate execs scheming to fix races, steal Pops’ designs, including the Mach 5, or just eliminate Speed himself. The anime lasted for 52 episodes, ending in 1968. The boom in specialty cable channels in the 90s saw the return of Speed Racer, with MTV, Cartoon Network, and the Speed Channel all airing the show. Fred Wolf, of Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, helmed a new series in 1993, lasting thirteen episodes. The original also became the basis of the Dexter’s Laboratory episode, “Mock 5”, and had the theme song sleepily sung by Tom Servo during a dull chase in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode, “Danger!! Death Ray“.
As with any series that has been influential and is permeating the pop culture subconcious, studios wanted to turn Speed Racer into a feature film. Warner Bros. optioned the rights to Speed Racer in 1992. It wasn’t until 2006, when the Wachowski siblings took the helm, did production start. The movie, also called Speed Racer, begins with Speed (played by Emile Hirsch) preparing for a race, then heading into a flashback of his much younger self in grade school losing focus from the Scantron test in favour of his brother Rex’s upcoming race. The young Speed (Nicholas Elia) then dashes out of class at the bell to meet Rex and convinces him to take him to the track.
The race itself, the Thunderbird, showcases Speed’s abilities. While all the other drivers try to catch up to him, Speed is keeping up with his brother’s track time, slowing off just enough to ensure that the time Rex, now deceased, put up remains the record. In the stands, Speed’s family – Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), Spritle (Paulie Litt) with Chim-Chim (“Kenzie” and Willie”) – watch with Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Racer Motors’s mechanic and Speed’s friend, Sparky (Kick Gurry). Speed and the Mach 5 come to the attention of E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), owner of Royalton Industries. Royalton wants Speed to race for him. After some thought, Speed turns down the offer, wanting to remain with Pops. Angered by the refusal, Royalton threatens to destroy Racer Motors through having his drivers target Speed on the race course and through legal filings of intellectual property infringement against Pops.
Royalton’s threats come through, leaving Speed out of the Grand Prix. At the darkest moment, two people arrive at the Racer home, Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) and Racer X (Matthew Fox), the Harbinger of Boom. Inspector Detector is part of the Criminal Investigation Bureua, investigating corporate crime, and needs Speed’s help to reveal the race fixing Royalton and other firms are behind. To that end, the Inspector wants Speed to race in the Casa Cristo 5000, a two continent rallye race, the one that claimed the life of Rex. The Casa Cristo 5000 is also the only way Speed has to enter the Grand Prix; the winner of the rallye gets an automatic invitation. Pops is against it, but Trixie helps Speed by taking him “skiing”. Speed and Racer X join Taejo Togokahn (Rain), teaming up to race.
Pops has other reasons to not want Speed in the Casa Cristo 5000 beyond the loss of Rex. Rallye racing is a far nastier form of the sport, with teams fielding illegal modifications on their cars. One team, featuring Snake Oiler as their top driver, bribes three other teams, the Flying Foxes, Semper Fi-ber, and Thor-Axine, to take out Team Togokahn. Speed and Racer X manage to avoid the dirty play, thanks to defensive modifications to the Mach 5, but Snake Oiler wins the first leg of the race.
Back at the Racer household, Spritle has caught wind of the deception and is watching the Casa Cristo 5000. Pops forces him to shut it off and go out to get some sun and exercise. When Pops has to leave on an errand, Spritle sneaks back inside. He’s caught when Pops returns almost immediately having forgotten something. To deflect punishment, Spritle points at Speed and the Mach 5 on TV. Pops and the Racer family catch up to Speed during the downtime between race legs. Speed explains what he’s doing and, while not happy, Pops calms down enough to go rebalance the Mach 5.
That night, ninja stalk Team Togokahn. Taejo is given a dose of a drug meant to dull his reflexes. A second ninja tries the same thing with Racer X, who is ready for such treachery. A third tries to inject Speed with the drug and is stopped when Spritle wakes up after falling out of bed. Speed tries to fight off the ninja, but the commotion wakes up the rest of the family. The worst thing anyone could do is try to hurt a member of the Racer family; Pops is a champion Greco-Roman wrestler and proceeds to show the ninja the error of his ways.
The second leg of the Casa Cristo 5000 has Team Togokahn trying to catch up to Snake Oiler. With Taejo still under the drug’s effects, a switch has been made. Trixie, wearing Taejo’s jumpsuit, has taken his place. The plan is to make a switch in a section not covered by cameras. However, Oiler’s boss, Cruncher Block, is also heading there to make sure that Team Togokahn fails to finish the race. Block gets the drop on the team, but Racer X manages to disarm the goon guarding him, starting a massive brawl. When the dust settles, Taejo is back in his car but Snake Oiler has once again taken the lead. With effort, Speed forces Oiler off the mountain road and Team Togokahn wins the race.
Taejo, though, renegs on his end of the bargain. He uses the increase in his father’s company to get a better price for selling his firm to Royalton. Speed is dejected and, once home, tries to burn out his anger on the Thunderbird track. Racer X arrives to speak with him and after a racing duel, resparks Speed’s love for the sport, despite the problems it has. Speed notices that Racer X’s driving style is familiar and asks if the masker racer is his brother. Racer X takes off his mask; Speed doesn’t recognize the face and the Harbinger of Boom says that Rex did die in the accident at Casa Cristo.
While trying to figure out what to do next, Taejo’s sister Horuko (Yu Nan) arrives to speak with Speed. She gives him Taejo’s invitation to the Grand Prix; the chit is a guarenteed place in the race for the bearer. With the invitation in hand, Speed and his family get the Mach 6 prepared in record time.
Speed starts in the last position at the starting line. Royalton places a bounty on Speed’s head; any driver who can remove him from the race will get one million dollars. Drivers try, but Speed is the better racer. He goes head to head with Royalton’s driver, Cannonball Taylor. Taylor uses an illegal spear hook to latch on to the Mach 6. Speed can’t detach his car from Taylor’s, but manages to angle both cars so that cameras can see the illegal device. Once the cars land again, the speed hook breaks away from Taylor’s car as it disintegrates. The Mach 6, though, stalls out. Speed listens to the car and works out how to get the engine to restart. He winds up back in last place, but he finds his zone and wins. Inspector Detector arrests Royalton. Speed finally gets to kiss Trixie under the flashing of thousands of cameras. And Racer X is revealed to be, indeed, Speed’s brother, having undergone plastic surgery to change his looks.
The Wachowskis’ film tried to recreate an animated series, and the movie shows it. In a Full Frontal Nerdity strip, Aaron Williams describes the trailer for Speed Racer as, “Like playing Gran Turismo 3 while wearing glasses made out of LSD-laced Gummi Bears.” Even the studio titles before the movie starts are in a 60s-style kaleidoscope of colour. The movie is far more animated than the original Mach GoGoGo. Speed Racer has been called a live-action anime, and for good reason.
Beyond just the visual style, the Wachowskis put effort into recreating the look and feel of the anime. The cast reflects the original appearance of the characters. Emile Hirsch has Speed’s pompador. John Goodman looks like Pops Racer, and Christina Ricci looks like trixie. The Mach 5 is exactly the way it is shown in the anime. Of special note, Paulie Litt as Spritle not only looks the part, but manages to take a potentially annoying role and make the character fun to watch while acting next to a chimpanzee. The costumes also reflect what the characters wore in the original series, with the exception of Racer X. The Harbinger of Boom’s costume is black instead of white, reflecting Racer X’s work from the shadows of the racing world. Adding to the look of the film is the soundtrack, which uses the original theme as a motif throughout the movie. Added touches include Speed posing in front of the Mach 5 just like in the original opening credits and the use of the original sounds effects of the Mach 5’s jacks.
The above is just surface, though. The Wachowskis also pulled ideas from the anime. The Casa Cristo 5000 race can be found in the first epsiode of the anime, not by name but by setting. Snake Oiler also appeared in the series as the second head of the Car Acrobats, a team that clashed with Speed. Pops’ wrestling also appeared in the anime. The Racer X background is much like it is in the original, with the difference being that Rex is presumed dead instead of missing. The plot would fit in with the series and takes its cues from the original.
The only problem the movie may have is that it goes a little over the top at times. Beyond that, the Speed Racer movie works hard to reflect its origins in both style and substance. Once the audience gets past the wall of bright colour, the movie has substance to match and brings in the themes of the original work – family, honour, and the love of sport despite its problems.