Welcome to MangoBot, a column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. Way before Speed Racer became fodder for one of the season's most highly anticipated blockbusters, it was a simple 60s-style Japanese cartoon. The original Speed Racer was a TV anime series called Mach GoGoGo, aired on Fuji TV—one of Japan's major television networks—in 1967 and 1968. Like many other sources of entertainment in Japan at the time, Go's determination and the superior technology of Mach 5 were symbolic of the country's rapid post-war recovery and the determination that drove it. While you're waiting to head to your multiplex to watch the Hollywood version tonight, let me take you back in time and show you a glimpse of the original.
The protagonist was a starry-eyed, two-dimensional protagonist named Go who wore white ankle-length pants and struck cool, determined poses while moving in simple staccato animation. His car was called Ma-ha Gogo, or Mach No. Five, and it did seemingly impossible things like jump through the air, grow super-grip tires on command, and slash obstacles with rotary swords. (The series title has a triple meaning—the name of the car, the name of the boy who drives it, and an exclamatory expression.)
Mach GoGoGo was an instant hit. The plots were easy to follow, the characters immediately likable. Neither writer/producer Tatsuo Yoshida or director Tsuyoshi Sasakawa were car enthusiasts—in fact, neither even had a drivers license. But it didn't really matter. The two knew how to craft a good story. The near-impossible challenges imposed on the protagonist by evildoers were the perfect setup for themes like revenge, competition, and honor to play out over and over again. In one series of early episodes (each story often spanned two or three), Go races against a mysterious, remote-controlled, robot-driven car that has been causing accidents. Go quickly gains a reputation as the mercenary hero who can fight superhuman nemeses that even the cops are helpless against, and inadvertently launches into a busy career of globe-hopping and car-racing.
Go is cool and collected, but the rest of the anime is chock full of humor and an ironic mix of strengths and weaknesses. The girlfriend, Trixie, might complain about her foot hurting, but then she'll parachute out of a burning airplane; the father, who created the Mach 5, is an engineering genius but a social goof; and his little brother who runs around in a candy-striped bodysuit with his monkey, often solves crimes way before the adults do.
The characters in the original Speed Racer are not atypical of Japanese anime. In fact, you see the repetition of these same types of characters to this day—the adventurous, disobedient young male hero, the feminine-yet-sassy girlfriend, the wise but slightly goofy father, and the unbearably cute extras.
The original series ran over 52 episodes. It kicked off in a prime spot, 7PM on Sunday nights—one of the few times when children and families in Japan gathered to watch TV. You can still rent the dubbed originals at certain video rentals stores, and on Netflix if you're lucky. An anime remake came out in the 90s and was aired in the US, but it's not quite the same thing.
On one level, the Wachowski brothers' new Speed Racer preserves a lot of the elements of the classic anime. The Mach 5's special features are derived from the original, and Go, or Speed, is pretty much the same dude—as are some of the other main characters. But the similarities end there. Of course, the obvious difference is that the Hollywood version is live action and features super CGI and cost a gazillion dollars more to produce.
But more importantly, the essence of storytelling is completely different. The Hollywood version is chock full of drama and emotions—the child who dreams about racing all day in school, the mother who encourages him to follow his dreams, the family's tragedy of the dead Rex Racer (Speed's older brother). There's all this buildup and tension. None of this in the original anime. The very first episode begins very abruptly: Go "borrows" his dad's super car and enters it in a race, and wins. There's a certain charm about that blunt simplicity that is increasingly hard to preserve as the prerequisites for a box office action movie become more elaborate.
So whether you come home from Speed Racer opening night feeling amazingly hyped up or strangely dissatisfied, try to watch at least one episode of the original anime sometime soon. It's worth the 30 minutes, if only to see how its creators applied antiquated animation to portray superfast, superhuman car racing.