“Speed Racer” careens into theaters Friday, dragging with it a $120 million budget, the bruised reputation of directors the Wachowski brothers - whose careers need a shot of nitro after the flameouts of the last two “Matrix” debacles - and the summer hopes of a movie industry desperately in need of a few winners.
Back in the `60s and `70s, though, few could imagine that Hollywood would ever pin hopes on a live-action take on what then seemed to be strange, disturbingly violent Japanese cartoons that were totally at odds with American sensibilities. “Speed Racer” 1.0 - like its contemporaries “Gigantor,” “Astro Boy,” and “Kimba the White Lion” - was imported into the U.S. in the `60s through the wonders of syndication and an apparent need to fill afternoon airwaves with something other than Mike Douglas, old movies and teary soaps. Filler, thy name is “Speed Racer.”
Long before such land-of-the-rising-sun concepts as sushi, karaoke and Optimus Prime had filtered their way into the American psyche, this first wave of Japanese animation - the Normandy Invasion of what would become the multi-million dollar business known as anime - was rather unnerving. This animation stood in stark, wide-eyed contrast to the lushness of Walt Disney’s artistry, the wackiness of duck season-wabbit season Warner Bros.’ anarchy, the modernist touch of Jay “Rocky & Bullwinkle” Ward’s tomfoolery, and the friendly camaraderie of the Hanna-Barbera animal stable (Yogi and Boo Boo, Quickdraw and Baba Looey, and, my favorite, Lippy the Lion and his depressed, dyspeptic hyena sidekick, Hardy Har Har).
“Speed Racer” and his ilk were something different. With their fixed expressions, stiff movements and penchant for violence - can’t remember if it was “Astro Boy” or another of them but a pilot’s headphones outfitted with skull-piercing blades sticks in the memory - the Japanese imports were a shock to the system and seemingly as alien as those new Toyotas and Datsuns popping up on every street.
So, if the Wachowskis’ vision is half as impressive as “Iron Man,” the big-screen vision of a prototypical American superhero, there’s going to be increased interest in what they based it all on: those odd Japanese cartoons from an earlier era. Here’s a guide to the four big ones.
ASTRO BOY (1963-64)
This is the one that started it all. Based on a 1950s comic book by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” was the first Japanese cartoon to be seen widely in the U.S.
And the plot’s back story is arguably the darkest. It’s the 21st century and robotics engineer Dr. Boynton is bereft after the death of his son in a car accident. So he creates a robot in his son’s image but, distraught that the replicant can’t replace the real thing, sells him into slavery at a robot circus, where he’s held under the cruel thumb of ringmaster Cacciatore. The boy, dubbed Astro Boy, is freed by a robots-rights activist, Dr. Elefun, who teaches the kid how to be a crimefighter and all-around conqueror of evil.
“Astro Boy” remains my favorite of the early Japanese imports, partly because it’s the first and partly because of the warped stories. Absoluteanime.com and astroboy.tv give rundowns on some of them, whether it’s 46 wrestling robots linking to become a mega-centipede or Astro Boy, sister Astro Girl and Elefun being flung 70,000 years into the future.
Updated versions of the tale were seen in 1980 and 2004.
DVDs available: “Astro Boy: Ultra Collectors Edition, Set 1,” “Astro Boy: Ultra Collectors Edition, Set 2.”
Gigantor, a giant robot controlled by a boy, has roots that go back to the `50s when Tokyo artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama came up with the story for a Japanese boys’ magazine. That was subsequently turned into a TV show, “Tetsujin 28-Go” (Iron Man 28).
American producer Fred Ladd liked the concept, obtained the rights for the American market, revamped the series for an English-speaking audience (the boy was renamed Jimmy Sparks) and called it “Gigantor.”
While the “Speed Racer” theme has become ubiquitous - who can’t joyously sing along to “Go, Speed Racer! Go, Speed Racer! Go, Speed Racer, Go!”? - the “Gigantor” theme has a funkier edge and a deeper sense of menace: “Bigger than big, taller than tall, quicker than quick, stronger than strong, ready to fight for what’s right, against wrong.” Of course, when I was young, I thought the line was “ready to fight for what’s right or what’s wrong,” which may have made Gigantor a more interesting personality though it also turned him into a big, metal bully. My bad.
DVDs available: “Gigantor, Boxed Set 1, Episodes 1-26”; “Gigantor, Boxed Set 2, Episodes 27-52.”
SPEED RACER (1967-68)
Originally created by Japanese comic-book artist Tatsuo Yoshida, “Speed Racer” chronicled the adventures of race-car driver Speed (real name: Go Mifune, hence the “M” on his helmet), his girlfriend Trixie, his car Mach 5 and his nemesis, Racer X. The series, originally titled “Mach Go Go Go,” was slightly altered for the American market by director Peter Fernandez who, according to Entertainment Weekly, “toned down the violence ... and added that naggingly catchy theme song.”
Though only 53 episodes were created, they continued to be syndicated through the `70s and `80s. As the kids weaned on “Speed Racer” grew up, the cartoon’s imagery - from T-shirts to music (an L.A. new-wave band took the name of Racer X) - began to pop up in that ironic, can-you-believe-we-used-to-watch-that? way.
Today, “Speed Racer’s” continuing popularity is seen as a precursor to the more widespread appreciation for Japanese animation (anime) and manga (Japanese graphic novels). It remains to be seen if the Wachowskis can magnify it yet again into a global, summer-movie blockbuster.
DVDs available: “Speed Racer Episodes 1-11”; “Speed Racer Episodes 12-23”; “Speed Racer 3 Episodes 24-36”; “Speed Racer Vol. 4”; “Speed Racer Vol. 5”
KIMBA THE WHITE LION (1966-67)
Like “Astro Boy,” “Kimba the White Lion” was created by Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka (the character first appeared in a comic-art novel) and, as with his earlier work, there were political elements at play here as well, though they didn’t always translate to the episodes seen in the West.
Orphaned after his king-of-the-jungle dad Caesar is slain by hunters and his mom captured, cub Kimba has to step up to become the leader of all animals. The problem is that he likes what he’s seen of how humans organize themselves and wants to re-organize the animal kingdom to make prey and predator equal; this doesn’t sit too well with some. As absoluteanime.com observes, “even the friendlier carnivores point out that he is basically asking them to starve to death.”
Stripped of many of the complexities that gave the original vision of “Kimba” some heft, what hit the air in the States in the `60s didn’t seem particularly intriguing. Kimba just seemed like a do-gooder without Speed Racer’s hot car or Astro Boy’s futuristic technology. But it reportedly was Japan’s first color animated show.
DVDs available: “Kimba the White Lion Ultra DVD Box Set”; “Kimba the White Lion, Vol. 1-4 from Cartoon Classics”