The genre that would later be known as anime came to America in 1963 with the debut of the television version of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy. The black and white cartoon was about the adventures of a cute, heroic robot-boy and featured Tezuka's distinctive Disney-inspired characters. Astro Boy was an immediate success in the states and was followed by a handful of similar programs. But it wasn't until 1967 when the full-color adventures of a racecar driver named Speed hit the small screen that anime became mainstream in the U.S.
Where Tezuka had drawn on Walt Disney for inspiration, Speed Racer's creator Tatsuo Yoshida is said to have wanted to make a more realistic series, in the mold of Max Fleisher's Superman cartoons. Yoshida was aiming at an older audience, so he added more action, adventure and mystery while relegating cuteness to secondary characters for comic relief. Speed was to be a real kid, with real problems, facing a dangerous and sometimes indifferent world. This was a daring approach for a Japanese animation studio to adopt in the late 1960s.
For the uninitiated, Speed Racer is an 18-year-old who drives a futuristic car known as the Mach 5 that was designed and built by his father, Pops Racer. The Mach 5 features a host of high tech gadgets and gizmos that help Speed out of tight jams. Speed's primary motivation is to become a world-class driver. In order to do so, he enters all sorts of bizarre races, drives against an endless string of over-the-top, often criminal foes and in the process solves crimes, saves lives and generally comes off as a great guy. Speed is assisted in his daring adventures by his spunky girlfriend and sometime helicopter pilot Trixie, a wiz-kid mechanic named Sparky, his kid brother Spritle, Spritle's pet monkey, Chim Chim, his curmudgeonly father, Pops Racer and the enigmatic figure known only as Racer X.
Speed Racer's innovation doesn't stop with increased thematic maturity; it extends to the artistic and technical realms as well. The animation is rendered in bright, expressive colors. It features stunningly cinematic compositions, unexpected camera angles, brilliant lighting and finely crafted design. Though some of the shots are fairly static, there is an abundance of truly daring animations that explore what were then ground breaking techniques such as rotating objects and characters through 360 degrees, employing subtle blurs to indicate velocity and rendering complex items such as crowds and machines in full, vibrant motion. Speed Racer was well ahead of its time in terms of animation artistry, creating shots by hand that most modern animators rely upon computers to achieve. The characters, machinery and settings are all carefully composed and lovingly rendered into a unique and memorable mix that seems almost as fresh and vibrant today as it must have when the show was in its first run.
Speed Racer was re-dubbed in English for American audiences and without the extreme dedication and hard work of Peter Fernandez, the program might have gone unnoticed. Fernandez was responsible for the translation, direction and dubbing of Speed Racer into English. He also provided the voices for several of the main characters including Speed himself. Fernandez and his cast of voice actors really went the extra mile to sell their characters and the result is a highly entertaining and satisfying dub that was able to connect with American viewers. Like most boys in my generation, I used to literally run home from school in order to catch the adventures of Speed Racer. It's a testament to both the Japanese and American teams that the program is still able to inspire a sense of excitement and wonder nearly thirty-five years later.
About the DVD
The Speed Racer Limited Edition DVD is a serviceable, if somewhat disappointing release. On the one hand the transfer and sound are more than adequate, but the disc is lacking in substantial extras and contains only the first eleven episodes of the program. I would have liked to hear the original Japanese soundtracks for the shows, but only the American tracks are available on this disc.
The Great Plan, Parts 1 and 2 - After having plans for a new and improved Mach 5 rejected by his employer, Pops Racer quits in protest. Meanwhile, Speed enters the Grand Prix against Pop's wishes. As Speed prepares for the race, Pops is confronted by a rival racer and thug named Acey Ducey who vows to get the plans from Pops at any cost -- but Pops has slyly hidden his diagrams in the Mach 5's windshield using invisible ink. Will Acey Ducy discover the location of the hidden plans and defeat Speed in the Grand Prix? This debut episode of Speed Racer shows most of the program's trademark elements. The characters stray off model quite frequently and the animation is a little less confident than it would later become, but the creative team improved with each and every installment. This progression is especially apparent in these early shows.
Challenge of the Masked Racer, Parts 1 and 2 - The enigmatic Racer X comes to town to enter the big race and finding the challenge too much to resist, Speed enters as well. When Pops finds out about Speed's plans he hits the roof and recounts the sorry tale of Speed's older brother, Rex. When Rex was a teenager he joined a race against Pops' wishes. On the verge of victory, Rex lost control of the car and crashed. Unscathed, Rex confronted Pops with his desire to become a world-class racer but this lead to a falling out, and Rex left home forever. Will Speed follow in Rex's footsteps, causing Pops to lose another son to the lure of the track?
The Secret Engine, Parts 1 and 2 - While taking the Mach 5 out for a test drive, Speed encounters a crotchety old man and his broken-down Model T. Speed helps the man fix the car and the two become friends. As they dine at the old man's home, the Model T is stolen from his driveway. Speed soon learns that the Model T used to belong to the man's father, renowned criminal Light Fingers Clepto. Meanwhile, an escaped convict and his gang are revealed to be systematically stealing and dismantling similar Model Ts. What are the criminals searching for and will Speed be able to solve the mystery and recover his new friend's car?
The Race Against the Mammoth Car, Parts 1 and 2 - Speed and Trixie enter the No Limit World Race, a rally-style competition in which any kind of vehicle is allowed. To their astonishment, one of the entries is a massive vehicle measuring no less than 200 meters long, half semi-truck and half locomotive. Before the race begins, the police search every car. They've gotten a tip that one of the drivers may be smuggling $50 million in gold in his car. Is the Mammoth Car involved in the gold heist? Can the Mach 5 best the modern monstrosity and win the race?
The Most Dangerous Race, Parts 1, 2 and 3 - Speed encounters Snake Oiler and his Car Acrobatic Team who challenge him in the upcoming Alpine Race. The Car Acrobatic Team have specially modified cars that can do things even the Mach 5 isn't capable of. With Pops' help Speed modifies the Mach 5 to add new capabilities, but before the modifications can be completed, Pops collapses from exhaustion. Speed finishes the changes on his own and the race starts. Will the Mach 5 be able to endure the harsh alpine conditions? Will Snake Oiler prove himself the better racer? Will Pops recover in time to help Speed survive the most dangerous race? This final episode is the most innovative of the eleven, featuring striking and daring animations. Unfortunately, the plot leaves a little to be desired. It could have probably benefited by being only two parts long.
The video in this release seems to be a port of the earlier laserdisc transfer. The images are quite crisp and clear with no appreciable compression artifacts, no edge enhancement and very good color saturation/contrast. The source elements do show some signs of wear in the form of light scratches, some pinholes and a fair amount of fading that manifests itself as a subtle color shift toward yellow. These problems are quite minor, though, and shouldn't deter you from buying the disc.
The Dolby 2.0 English mono audio track is about what you'd expect from a '60s TV show. The dynamic range is fairly limited, but it seems substantially free from clipping, hiss and other bothersome flaws. The dialogue, music and sound effects are nicely mixed and balanced, consistently clear and understandable.
The Speed Racer Limited Edition DVD comes in a cool keep case with a rubberized cover. The rubber is a molded surface with raised tire tread and an attractive Speed Racer logo. It's heavy, smooth and really cool.
There aren't many extras on this disc but what is there is worth checking out. All the extra content comes in the form of text screens, with the exception of a brief video clip from a '90s version of Speed Racer. There's some interesting information on the Japanese studio that originated the show, the American dubbing team, the American theme song and the Mach 5's special equipment. There's also an amusing Villains Gallery and a slide show of Speed Racer merchandise.
Speed Racer is an established classic and one of the progenitors of the anime genre. This release is a welcome addition to the collections of fans of the show and general anime aficionados. Though I would have liked to see a release featuring all of the episodes, the Japanese language tracks and more substantial extras, this is a good start and should satisfy most fans' cravings, at least in the short term. I give it a rating of Highly Recommended.