In Japan, Speed Racer is known as Mach Go Go Go, and the main character is known as Go Mifune. In Japan, the word “go” is the number five. So the Japanese title for the property has three meanings: the name of the car (the Mach 5), the name of the main character, and the English word “go.”
The property started out in the 1960s as a manga created by Tatsuo Yoshida. For the manga, Yoshida was inspired by the films Viva Las Vegas and Goldfinger. The design for the main character came from Elvis Presley’s race car driving image, and the Mach 5 was inspired by James Bond’s gadget-filled Aston Martin. Tatsunoko Productions produced a 52-episode anime series based on the manga, which ran from April 2, 1967 to March 31, 1968.
Trans-Lux, an American syndicator, acquired the English rights to the series. The main character was re-named Speed Racer, and this new character name was also used to name the show. This was a major editing and dubbing project, which was undertaken by producer Peter Fernandez. Fernandez also provided the voices for Speed Racer and Racer X.
To fit complicated plotlines into the already existing lip movements, Fernandez employed a frenetic pace for the dubbing, which became a signature of the Speed Racer anime. Unfortunately, this technique has also been parodied often in pop culture over the years.
The world of Speed Racer was inhabited by more than just the title character. He has a younger brother named Spritle, and Spritle has a pet chimpanzee named Chim-Chim. They get into a lot of mischief, and at times, can be rather annoying.
Speed’s father, Pops, is a former wrestler who has become a race car owner and builder. Speed’s mother (simply called Mom in the series), is a stay-at-home mother.
Speed Racer has a girlfriend named Trixie, and she often flies around in a helicopter while Speed is racing and gives him advice on the surroundings during a race. Sparky is a company mechanic and is also one of Speed’s friends.
Racer X is a recurring character, and it turns out he is Speed’s long-lost older brother, Rex Racer. Rex and Pops had a falling out years earlier, when Rex entered a race with a car Pops had built without Pops’ permission; Rex wrecked the car before he crossed the finish line. After that, Rex exiled himself from his family, started hiding behind a mask, and vowed to become the world’s best race car driver.
In 1993, an American company produced their own version of Speed Racer, called The New Adventures of Speed Racer, which was an attempt to cast the franchise in a contemporary style. This new version did not resonate with viewers, and the series only lasted for 13 episodes.
In 1997, a new Speed Racer series was produced in Japan, and a new version for the U.S. that was based off this series was produced by DiC in 2002. Speed Racer X aired during Nickelodeon’s short-lived action block called “Slam.” The series was discontinued after a few weeks, when Nickelodeon suddenly pulled all the “Slam” programs off the air.
A live-action movie was released in May 2008, and a new animated series (Speed Racer: The Next Generation, which focuses on the sons of Speed Racer) also debuted on the Nicktoons Network in May 2008. This new series only lasted for two seasons.
Speed Racer is an anime classic. The stories themselves are interesting to watch, and the viewer finds themselves rooting for Speed in each race that he enters. However, as the series goes on, some of the story premises become stranger and stranger. And I also have to say that I tend to enjoy the earlier episodes in the series more than I do the later episodes.
The one major weakness of the series is how the dubbing was done. The decision was made to have the voice actors talk rather quickly, so at times, it can be a little hard to understand what’s being said. Also, due to this method of dubbing, there are times that the series becomes unintentionally funny. FUNimation Entertainment, who has the North American license for the series at the time of this writing, has only released the original Japanese version in a very expensive box set. While I’m curious as about the original version of the series, I can’t justify the exorbitant price tag in order to watch the show in the original Japanese.
The last few episodes of the series also have animation issues with more prevalent appearances of re-used footage and still images. Writing-wise, some of the episodes near the end also use recycled storylines. Also, the final two episodes of Speed Racer are full of plot holes. While some of the plot holes were created by the American dub, a good portion of them were created by the original Japanese studio. These plot holes showed that the writer of the original Japanese episode didn’t take the time to think the story all the way through.
Speed Racer and Astro Boy were the first truly successful anime franchises in the United States. Over the years, Speed Racer has appeared in commercials, and the series has been referenced numerous times in pop culture. A live-action Speed Racer film was directed by The Wachowski brothers, and was released in 2008.
Even with some the series’ weaknesses near the end of its run, I would still recommend that viewers who are interested in learning more about classic anime should watch Speed Racer at least once in their lives.