Sunday, February 18, 2018

Unsafe At Any Frame Rate

Speeding full throttle straight towards the bottom of the barrel, Gattiger was one of Japan's clunkier cartoons, yet achieved inexplicable European success and even burned rubber across a few American UHF stations, confusing viewers for years via the miracle of home video tape. Cho Supercar Gattiger - yes, that's "Super Supercar Gattiger," for that extra bit of super - is a firey car wreck of a show, part of a mid-1970s auto-racing anime fad that crashed and burned almost instantly, leaving shows like Super Grand Prix, Rugen Kaiser, and Tobidase! Machine Flying Dragon in the impound lot. 

Gattiger hits the sweet spot where low-rent robot faddism and combination super-car absurdity combine, leaving a primary colored junkpile of nonsense built of parts rejected from five or ten better shows and super-glued together seemingly at random. A barely watchable parade of sawblade-equipped bugmobiles and machine-gun firing crab-cars bumping around endless, shoddily painted backgrounds, we yawn as legions of stupidly costumed off-brand Galactor thugs man their dork-vettes to be destroyed in masse by our super super car hero Gattiger, which, when combined into its super super-car configuration, looks like that stupid neighbor kid took five of your Hot Wheels and stuck them together with globs of Play-Doh. Usually combination mecha tries for some sort of combination effect that results in something new and exciting, but Gattiger is satisfied to turn five cars into one heavier, slower, less efficient and more cumbersome car. 

A cooperative endeavour of the Eiwa and Nippon Keizai advertising agencies, Cho Supercar Gattiger aired on Tokyo 12 (now TV Tokyo) from October 1977 until March '78. Created by Hitoshi Chiaki, Gattiger's animation was produced by Wako Productions – not the Osaka based Wako that manages comedians and singers, but Wako Pro, founded in 1965 in Nerima, Tokyo. Wako did a little subcontracting out to Tatsunoko and Sunrise but also carved out its own niche, animating the odd cut-paper version of Kazuo Umezu's Cat Eyed Boy, the Euro-insect champ Maya The Bee, one of the many Moomin anime shows, the South American adventure series Pepero The Andes Boy, super-cheap super robot Mechander Robo, Moribi Murano's charming dog comedy Bark! Bun Bun, and Dutch-German-Japanese ducksploitation extravaganza Alfred J. Kwak. Wako Pro is now called "Teleimage" and their modern business is managing old properties, not creating new ones. 

Wako Pro galaxy of super stars

Gattiger's mechanical design was by Design Office Mechaman, who'd also work on masterpieces like Voltes V and turkeys like Ginguiser. The Gattiger manga, because of course there was a manga tie-in, was by Eiji Imamichi and appeared in Terebi-kun. Imamachi drew lots of licensed character comics including the 80s Tetsujin 28, Ultra Seven, Ironking, Transformers, the Red Hawk Yamato (no, not the space battleship, the OTHER space battleship) and the Tsubaraya CB-craze curiosity Emergency Directive 10-4 · 10-10. 

demon motors needs a bailout

Super Supercar Gattiger's plot is confused, gas-huffing nonsense about a Demon Car Company which is run by the slightly more deranged, insanely mustached Henry Ford type Black Demon. Not content with being a filthy-rich zillionaire, he leverages his auto-making expertise into, what else, a bid for world conquest. To do this he needs the top secret super powerful solar powered combo-super-car invented by top science man Dr. Tabuchi. Well, wouldn't you know it, Demon winds up killing Dr. Tabuchi, leading Tabuchi's son Joe to swear eternal vengeance by means of the selfsame solar powered super-combo-5-in-1 Gattiger. Helpfully titled "Center Machine", "Left Machine", "Right Machine", and so forth, this rolling Pick-A-Part lot is driven by the Tiger Team crew of Sachiyo (girl), Kotomi (girl's kid brother), Ken (the big guy), and Hayami (quiet guy), who subsequently pop their five individual clutches and tell the world to eat their five individual dusts. 

our super super car heroes

As the worldwide auto-race battle heats up we learn Black Demon's second in command, Queen Demon, is actually Joe Tabuchi's mother and that Black Demon Mustache himself is Queen Demon's father, which makes him Joe's grandfather, and which also means every once in awhile Queen Demon puts on a Racer X mask and races incognito to help Joe Tabuchi, because that's what mothers do. In a series of nonsensical auto races through rugged, desolate, easily drawn territory, the Gattiger team races and wins against the Black Demon Auto Racing Team, with the fate of the world, or at least several lucrative endorsement contracts, in the balance. 

And no, kids, let's not confuse Super Supercar Gattiger with the hero of Toei's 1975 short film Uchuu Enban Daisensou, or "Great Outer Space Flying Disc War", the proto-Grandizer film starring an outer space refugee who pilots a super robot known as Gattaiger. Because that would be silly. Sure, Uchuu Enban Daisensou is dopey robot nonsense, but at least it features a robot panther, a big-haired outer space Farrah Fawcett, and a mercifully short 20 minute run time. 

know your gattigers
Queen Demon and Eric share the same hairstylist

Our combo-super-car-super-Gattiger super story races to a furious climax as Black Demon general Eric murders his rival Queen Demon with radioactivity. Joe and the Tiger Team face off against Eric in a super car showdown that Eric loses, bringing justice to the galaxy of super-car auto racing. Stricken with the loss of both Eric and Queen Demon, Black Demon himself pilots the massive super attack... just kidding. Black Demon blows himself and his entire Demon Auto Company to smithereens. The end, drain the fluids, put the wheels up on blocks, throw a tarp over it, we're done. 

The show has a flat mid 70s look; you could easily be watching any number of boring Nippon Animation robot disasters (Blocker Gundan 4 Machine Blaster, Ginguiser) or clunky pre-Takahata Zuizo Eizo kidvid starring bears or woodchucks or raccoons or bluejays wearing hats and little ties. The animation is passable at best and that's a generous assessment. Lots of lugubrious male-vocalist songs exhort us to "hear our courage groan" and "get rid of the pain by stepping on the gas," while the audience looks at its watch and waits impatiently for another fuel shortage. 

So why are we even talking about this show? Sure,the show was a hit in Italy, a nation known for its enthusiastic disregard for auto safety, but why did San Francisco's Fuji-TV see fit to translate and subtitle Gattiger and broadcast it to an America that was clearly not ready? Why did the newly-minted Japanimation fans of that era roll tape on what must have, even back then, been seen as a fairly dopey show? How did it wind up tacked onto the end of a VHS of 1990's "Devilman : Evil Bird Sirene"? 

blatant false advertising for the Gattiger toy
To be perfectly frank, Gattiger exists in America for the same reason it existed in Japan – to sell toys. Takatoku produced a few versions of Gattiger rolling stock that must have seemed like a good bet for American retailers, as Fuji-TV's Gattiger broadcast includes a tremendously misleading ad for Gattiger toys and the address you can write down and hector your parents into driving you to. I found my Gattiger Center Machine at a comic shop in Massachusetts, which only goes to show you never know where these anime things are going to pop up next.  

still has that new super car smell

Sure, totally lame anime like Gattiger is always good for a chuckle, and the show is useful in keeping the anime conversation from getting too pretentious. Beyond that, in spite of its many design flaws, we can point to Super Super Car Gattiger as proof of the raw power of Japanese animation, that even the speed bumps and potholes of thin, derivative premises can't slow anime down.

-Dave Merrill

just one last look at that mustache

Sunday, January 28, 2018

looks like Lyrica

Sure, part of why my generation's nerds still obsess over classic Showa era (1926-1989) manga/anime is, of course, wanting to see the original versions of the shows we grew up watching, your Space Battleship Yamatos and your Gatchamans and your Macrosses. But what any reasonably diligent researcher discovers is that for every anime series exported to America, five or ten didn't make the trip. For every manga that we see in our local Barnes & Noble or Chapters, there are five hundred thousand million zillion that will never be localized. Because let's face it, there aren't enough trees in the world. 

Nostalgia notwithstanding, what keeps guys like me keeping on keeping on ranting about this stuff is that every time you turn around there's something new popping up to say "hey, look at me, you didn't even know I existed, here I am!" And that's what I'm ranting about today, Sanrio's Lyrica manga magazine. Yeah, you know, Sanrio, the Hello Kitty people. Sanrio, whose austere yet friendly graphics and cast of round-headed, simplistic characters pressed every button in every little girl brain from Albany to Buenos Aires, from Valdosta to Vladivostok. Although Sanrio head Shintaro Tsujii's first character Strawberry would debut in 1962, Sanrio mainstay Hello Kitty would arrive in 1974 to become the trademark of a company that already owned gift shops, restaurants, film production companies, and a US distribution headquarters. 

September 1976 is what we're talking about here, the next stage of Sanrio's world domination strategy, Lyrica's first issue. Best known today as the debut of Osamu Tezuka's Unico, Sanrio's Lyrica strategy wasn't just to crank out a first class manga mag full of Twinkle Little Stars candy ads and comics that would appeal to their core audience of girls 6-12, but to use that magazine as either a stepping stone towards, or a brick hurled through, the metaphorical window of the American comic book market. Hence Lyrica's extensive use of color printing and its Western-style left hand binding, which may be just as confusing to us as it no doubt was to Japanese audiences. 
art: Yuko Namura
"Time Jump" by Mami Komori

Wait, what? Flipped manga? Flipped manga published by the Japanese? In the 1970s? Yes sir, all part of Sanrio's attempt to slide into the American comics scene. Don't take my word for it, let Fred Patten tell you what happened. He was there. Long story short; Sanrio was determined to publish comics in America, in spite of the punch-drunk state of the American comic book industry at the time, and in spite of the total lack of a distribution deal or really anywhere to sell a fat, phone-book sized magazine that didn't fit on the comics rack at the drugstore and looked weird on the magazine rack next to Jack & Jill and Boy's Life. 

product placement

Me? I got wise to this whole enterprise forty years after the fact, when a stack of Lyricas were rescued from a middle Georgia estate sale by the quick work of the proprietor of the Athens GA comic shop Bizarro Wuxtry. Over the past holiday season these Lyricas were divvied up between myself and actual comic book professionals, proving once again if you're ever anywhere near Athens, Bizarro Wuxtry is worth a stop, that's Bizarro Wuxtry, 225 College Ave, Athens GA. 

art: Mari Hizuki

Anyway, above and beyond Sanrio's territorial ambitions, Lyrica is an absolute shoujo manga gold mine. Top artists like Keiko "Toward The Terra" Takemiya, Hideko "Honey Honey" Mizuno, Ryoko Yamagishi, Minori Kimura, Mamio Komori, Izumi Yoko, Akemi "Silver Lions" Matsunae, Terumi "Pooky My Love" Otani, Seika "Posy Pile's Wonderful Day" Nakayama and a host of others brought their "A" game to this magazine, while Osamu Tezuka was in there keeping up with the younger generation and Shotaro Ishinomori's "Fantasy World Jun" expanded consciousnesses for a few issues. 

Shotaro Ishinomori's "Fantasy World Jun"

In Lyrica, science fiction mingled with romantic comedy, adaptations of Little Women followed otherworldly fantasy and heart-rending melodrama rubbed girly shoulders with do-it-yourself fashion tips and cozy wintertime recipes, all peppered throughout with ads for various Sanrio character goods ready for this week's allowance. 

Hideko Mizuno's "Legend"

Sure, Lyrica exemplfies that peak 70s shoujo style, a stylish assemblage of dinner-plate girl eyes, mounds of tousled Pre-Raphaelite girl hair, and long elephant-flared girl limbs sending billowing clouds of flower petals to drift lazily through the no doubt beautifully scented air. Lyrica is also a bittersweet reminder of what could have been, a messenger from that alternate universe where 70s America got fat chunks of Japanese girl comics alongside their Japanese boy robot cartoons and their gender-neutral Japanese autos and Japanese electronics. Imagine what the success of Lyrica would have meant! Not only would Japanese manga have had an American beachhead a good ten years ahead of schedule, but the sad retreat of American comics away from female readers would have been reversed long before Sailor Moon was even born, even. 

"Pooky My Love" by Terumi Otani

Noriko Kasuya

It's a lovely thought, but the harsh truth is that importing Japanese manga may not have even been part of the Sanrio masterplan. Lyrica's American branch secured stacks of work from a score of American comics veterans for their aborted launch, and as the thing never, you know, actually happened, what would have been the final editorial mix is left to speculation. 

furry comics were invented in Ancient Greece! art by Don Morgan

Only one piece of Sanrio's proposed Western Lyrica ever saw print; Don Morgan's elegant fantasy Metamorphoses, based on Ovid's epic narrative poem from ancient Greece. Metamorphoses was to be Shintaro Tsujii's own version of Fantasia, a highbrow showcase of awe-inspiring animation and stirring music. Unfortunately, the finished product was none of those things. Metamorphoses would premiere in a disastrous LA test screening and be recut and re-scored for a home video release as Winds Of Change, part of Sanrio's more successful foray into the then booming US home video market. 

Secrets Behind The Comics 

yet another Japanese iteration of "Little Women"

None of the other commissioned American Lyrica work has surfaced in the subsequent decades, tantalizing researchers such as myself, fascinated at the prospect of an American girls comic. At the time, romance comics were being cancelled left and right, the mystery books were mysteriously dying, and only Harvey Comics, with their parade of simplistic, obsessive-compulsive Richie Riches and Little Dots, was doing anything that approached Sanrio's cutesy minimalism. I believe - and history has proven me right on this one - I believe that when American comics readers are given Japanese manga delivered in an accurate and faithful presentation, they'll read the holy heck out of it. 

fashion fads for fall femmes
I forgot to wish you all a nice day. Now buy a lamp

Nevermind the American ambitions, Lyrica only lasted a few years in Japan. The stress of monthly color-manga deadlines saw fewer color and more text pieces. Eventually Lyrica would vanish in March of 1979, one more manga dream extinguished, one less place for Sanrio to advertise Hello Kitty lampshades and Patty & Jimmy chocolates. 

But what if Lyrica had prospered in the West? Would we have spent the 80s and 90s surrounded by the anime and manga Europe and Asia enjoyed? Would decades of fan proselytizing, anime club meetups and comic-con video room screenings all have been rendered superfluous by the success of one magazine? Probably not. Let's face it; for all Sanrio's multimedia efforts, the end result was mere memories of magic unicorns and nihilistic rams rammed into the impressionable brains of America's children. Children who grew up surrounded by Hello Kitty and Tuxedo Sam and Kerokerokeroppi and My Melody, who were sometimes mildly obsessed with the weird cartoons their babysitters rented, children who grew to adulthood yet never knew how close they got to a Hello Kitty-powered shoujo manga magazine on their very own newsstands.

-Dave Merrill

Keiko Takemiya says 'the end'

Sunday, December 10, 2017

happy holidays from Let's Anime

Hey gang, I meant to get another Let's Anime done before the end of the year, and then Life stepped in and my end-of-year free time is not so free any more. So I want to take a minute and thank you all for visiting Let's Anime, and wish you all the very best for the holiday season and for the new year!

It's been a great year for classic anime fans - you can read Leiji Matsumoto's Queen Emeraldas manga and wallow in tons of Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro and other Shigeru Mizuki manga, all now in English. You can enjoy (?) Charge Man Ken on DVD from Discotek.  You can watch Ideon and  Xabungle on Hidive, and you can finally catch up with Space Battleship Yamato 2199 - or Star Blazers 2199 if you prefer - on Funimation and Crunchyroll's streaming services. And the new year promises Go Nagai's Devilman manga, Leiji Matsumoto's Captain Harlock manga, and a host of other classic titles becoming available here in the West. It's tough to keep up with everything!

As for me, I have a slew of projects ongoing for 2018, some here, some at our Stupid Comics home Mister Kitty dot Org, and some happening maybe at a convention or a venue near you. 

my first event for 2018
I'm looking forward to the new year and new/old anime and manga to enjoy, and I hope to see you somewhere along the way! And hey, if you haven't visited the Let's Anime Facebook page, why not check it out today?

Stay well, be careful driving in the snow, and we'll see you in 2018!

-Dave Merrill

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Ten Years Of Let's Anime??

Jeez, have I really been doing this for ten years? A solid decade of writing about classic Japanese animation here at this whatchamacallit, this blog thing? Rambling on about goofy cartoons from before many of us were even born? Wallowing in nostalgia for long-gone broadcast frequencies, dead video formats and the underpaid, labor-intensive cel animation of yesteryear, while at the same time steadfastly refusing to pretend the past was some kind of amazing golden age? Yes. Yes I have. 

pure '80s zine editing skills on display

How did this all get started? Well, I've always been self-publishing one thing or another. In school I printed my own comics using the library photocopier. I appointed myself editor of our anime club's newsletter and made sure it appeared regularly and had something in it. When the first anime club was replaced with another, there I was, slapping another zine together, this one less about meeting times and more about Mazinger Z's weapons systems. That's how Let's Anime started, 12 print issues between 1991 and 1999, laid out with glue stick and X-acto knife, printed at Office Depot, folded by hand,  and stapled with a saddle stapler sent to me by a future con chair

surviving Let's Anime print zines in varying stages of decomposition
As the century closed I was too busy running an anime con and getting married to think about print zines, and anyway, everything was going online, right? In the oughts I thought about a print collection of that Let's Anime zine. Upon review, however, it became obvious much of it was ephemeral – reviews of forgettable cartoons, listings for dead zines, addresses for defunct clubs, and ads for conventions that by this time were beyond my help one way or another. Distilling usable material would be a chore. Why not start from scratch?

At the time, my regular outlet for anime journalism was Mike Toole's Anime Jump, and it had just foundered on the rocks of software intransigence and real-life-career responsibilities. I was left with nowhere to talk about my cartoon faves. Meanwhile, the world of anime blogging was expanding with dozens of bloggers using various platforms to expound their own anime worldviews. So I axed myself, why not just imitate the cool computer kids and start Let's Anime as my own anime blog? And so I did. 

Freed from the responsibility of representing a club and the medium of Japanese animation as a whole, the new Let's Anime could concentrate on my own interests, which is to say "classic Japanese animation", anime from 1960-1990. Sure, we've seen the definition of "vintage" or "classic" creep ever forwards along with the inexorable march of time, but I'm sticking with those three decades. Those who wish to see me write about something else are advised to send me their preferred topic and be prepared to pay my current rate, available upon request. 

Anime writing as a whole seems overserved with Gundam and Dragonball articles, with examinations of the works of Oshii, Tomino, and Miyazaki, overrun with Naruto recaps, and all covered with a thin, greasy layer of video game clickbait. There's a serious lack of coverage of underserved-in-the-West titles like Candy Candy or Cyborg 009, silence on Toei's 1960s and 70s films, and a disturbing absence of hype about my personal favorite Prince Planet. Well, that's what I'm interested in covering here at Let's Anime, and like Joseph Campbell says, I gotta follow my bliss, even if my bliss is off somewhere by itself staring at a guy playing the Super Jetter theme on ukulele

What has the Let's Anime experience been like for me? It's been a never-ending, always-upward-trending learning curve, that's what. Sure, researching forgotten TV cartoons is a given, but I've also had to figure out how to use the tools of blogging itself. After ten years of writing Let's Anime I've moved through four different PCs, three scanners, and more monitors than I care to remember. I've learned to screen-capture from every digital and analog video format; CED, Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, AVI, Quicktime, VCDs, DVDs, you name it. I've struggled to learn the ins and outs of blogging platforms and what fonts look best, and of course once I figure everything out, invariably they go and change everything. I've shot photos of giant Gundams in Japan and tiny Gundams at home.

photo credit: me

 I survived the great Photobucket outage, I battled DMCA takedown notices, and I've pushed my Japanese language skills wayyyy out of their comfort zone. I've cracked the spines of countless manga volumes, little Keibunsha Daihyakka books, Roman Albums, This Is Animations, and back issues of The Anime, Animage, My Anime, Out, and Fan Road beyond any hope of repair. But that's OK, that's what they're for. 

Researching Giant Gorg, Honey Honey, Starzan S, Ranpou, and others meant that hours spent entering kanji into YouTube searches were never wasted, and that our rare visits to Nakano Broadway became archaeological digs. I've found classic anime worming its way into every bit of the North American landscape; VHS of MIC's Little Women in thrift stores, Captain Future cutlery sets and Prowes Sanshiro masks in antique malls, Gatchaman vehicles sold as five-and-dime novelty gliders, and firsthand evidence of Candy Candy, Goldorak and Albator still resonating with Quebeckers. What else is out there waiting for me? 

Another benefit of Let's Anime has been the nature of blogging itself. Not only will these posts reach an audience thousands of times larger than the largest print run of any zine I ever published – and with much less effort, as anyone who ever hand-collated, stapled, folded and mailed hundreds of zines will attest – but these Let's Anime columns continue to reach audiences years after their initial publication. I can write about, say, Gigantor in 2008 and get readers and responses years later. That's the kind of impact rarely seen in print. And what's more, when I make an error (not "if" but "when"), not only will one of my sharp-eyed readers catch it, but I can correct it almost instantly. Let me tell you something, the world of print anime fanzines was filled with rumors and bad translations and wishful thinking interpretations, and in the past those errors would just lie there on the page misleading fans for years. Well, not any more. Mostly. 

Let's Anime has turned strangers into friends, reconnected me with friends once lost, and given me stories of the complex anime fandom that existed in North America before I even knew there was such a thing. I've been able to print articles by my special pals Ed Hill, Steve Harrison, and my most very special pal of all, Shaindle Minuk. I've learned about fandom events that I could have participated in but foolishly ignored, or that I missed because I was busy doing something else on the other side of that particular convention, and every time I think I have a handle on what was going on at any particular time, along comes something new to burst my mental bubble. 

And being an internet thing of bits and bytes, it's easy for us to run the numbers and see exactly where the eyeballs are going when they go to Let's Anime. In terms of views, the most popular articles are "Top Ten Least Essential OVA Of The 80s", "Under The Western Influence," "The Cyborg 009 Story", the Jack And The Witch column "Into The Machine", various Prince Planet columns, "Space Battleship Yamato For Dummies", "Holy God This Ultraman Manga Is Freaking Me Out," and "Cosplay Time Forgot." But when you look at the number of comments, the data changes slightly – top commented posts include highly viewed articles like "Western Influence" and "Into The Machine", but some less-viewed posts generated disproportionately large discussions, like my Mystery Of Mamo review, the "Anime On CBN" post, and an early article that was more or less an examination of a one-part 1987 "Japanimation" piece that appeared in a local San Francisco news magazine. Figuring out what will catch the public's fickle eye is always tricky, more art than science, and rather than waste time trying to ride that merry-go-round, I'd rather just write about what interests me and let the clicks fall where they may. 

straight to hellhound liner 0011, boys

What are my personal fave Let's Anime columns? Writing about the demented kid-flick Hellhound Liner 0011 was a blast. Finding other shellshocked 0011 survivors? A definite bonus. I'll never stop telling people to check out Flying Phantom Ship or Prefectural Earth Defense Force or Jack And The Witch or Little Norse Prince or Urusei Yatsura – Beautiful Dreamer or Metropolis. I got to stand up for flawed space opera Lensman; if I hadn't worked on that piece I'd never have seen those great Hiroshi Manabe illustrations. Let's Anime gave me the excuse to track down Variety's Cleopatra review and find those American newspaper ads for Galaxy Express and Warriors Of The Wind. The EDC and Anime Hasshin pieces reconnected me with friends and showed everyone how influential they were in that anime fan era. The two-part features on TCJ and MIC were a great excuse to dig into shows that popped up on our TV and vanished again, leaving millions of Americans wondering if Honey Honey's cat ever coughed up that gemstone. Writing about Captain Future got me reading those Captain Future novels and by golly, those are some pulpy, dopey fun. The Mystery Of Mamo review, the Ask Dr. Hell advice column, the Megazone 23 reviews, the Kazuo Umezu Ultraman manga piece, even that Knack article all saw light first on Anime Jump, and it was a treat revisiting and putting more gloss on those pieces. And the fandom columns like "Dawn Of The Dorks," the fanzine pieces, and the paradigm-blasting 80s cosplay article, filled with first-hand reports of the confused early days of fandom, always serve as inspiration and/or warning. 

scene from lost 1970s stop-motion C/FO fan film epic

After ten years I'm amazed at how much classic anime is still out there for me to enjoy and find out more about. I'm still stunned at the length and breadth of fandom here in the Western Hemisphere and how far back we can find anime fans doing their anime fan thing. And I'm still getting a kick out of digging this stuff up and writing about it and sharing it here so that you can get a kick out of it too. Thank you, gentle reader, for letting me yammer on about this stuff for ten years, and stick around, because there's more to come!

-Dave Merrill

Saturday, October 14, 2017

speeding into fifty

SUMMER, 1970s: The suburban neighborhood is full of active children. Baseball, Big Wheels, yellow metal Tonka dump trucks, plastic army men, Barbies and GI Joes create a carnival of playtime - until 2:30 in the afternoon, that is. That’s when the yards clear of children, when kids up and down the street vanish into houses. It may be your house or that of some family you’ve never met. Just come on in and sprawl in front of the wood-paneled console television and start spinning that UHF dial and working the rabbit ears, because it’s two-thirty: time for Speed Racer.

Speed Racer! Pioneer in children’s action cartoons, arguably the most popular anime ever released in America, touchstone of a generation’s obsession with fast cars and gadgets, wellspring of two hemisphere’s worth of sequels and merchandise and big-budget Hollywood films and speeding tickets for millions of grownup kids. It’s been fifty years since Speed and Trixie and Spritle and Chim Chim first came racing down the track. Fifty years! Yet the series is still a pop culture icon, not just in the anime-fan world, but anywhere kids watched cartoons and occasionally got behind the wheel of the safely-parked family car and made ‘vroom vroom’ noises.

Japanese animation studio Tatsunoko Productions’ first TV show, the Astro Boy-esque Space Ace, missed international success by inches. Studio head Tatsuo Yoshida produced their next series in color and shifted the concept away from cherubic Osamu Tezuka-style space kids, skewing older, creating a slightly more mature show. Mixing motor sports with everything else the mid 1960s had to offer – spies, rock and roll, robots, rockets, beehive hairdos, gals in clamdiggers flying helicopters, and a hero who raced in white pants and loafers, always ready to leap out of the drivers seat to help a damsel in distress or battle a secret plot to take over the world, Yoshida’s concept became 1967’s Mach Go Go Go. A success for Tatsunoko in Japan and the first in a long line of popular cartoons including Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Casshan, Time Bokan, Honeybee Hutch, The Brave Frog and Macross, Mach Go Go Go would put the studio at the forefront of television animation for decades.

Elvis in Speed Racer cosplay, Toshiro Mifune as "Pops" Racer
In the mid 1960s Japan’s nascent anime industry was just shifting into color with Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor (Kimba The White Lion) and Japan Tele-Cartoons/Terebi Doga’s Kaitei Shonen Marine (Marine Boy) leading a pack of magical schoolgirls, rainbow android teams, golden skull-faced demons, Prince Planets, Asteroid Masks, and Pirate Princes through cartoon fantasies. At the same time Japan’s motorsports industry was becoming more and more popular. The postwar middle class, encouraged by Japan’s revitalized economy and the vast national infrastructure spending on roads and highways, had the income for cars and the need for speed. The first Japanese Grand Prix was held in 1963 and the Suzuka Circuit and the Mt. Fuji track (opened in 1966) were arenas where champions of Toyota, Honda, Hino Motors, Mazda, and Nissan battled each other to the finish line, cheered on by fans who enjoyed racing films starring Elvis, Frankie & Annette, and even hometown favorite Toshiro Mifune in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. The glamour, excitement, and international intrigue made auto racing the perfect hook for an animated television series.

Shonen Book's Speed Racer manga
Tatsuo Yoshida was a veteran manga artist whose work straddled the line between the cartoony Tezuka school and the grittier gekiga scene. His last great manga series, Mach Go Go Go, would appear in Shueisha’s Shonen Book from June ‘66 until May of 1968 and would break both speed records and the boundaries of televison cartoons. Assisted by his brothers Kenji Yoshida and Ippei Kuri, the Tatsunoko studio would create entire new worlds of well-designed adventure for TV anime. In Mach Go Go Go, Mechanical design was highlighted for the first time as beautifully illustrated machines took center stage, and the action revolved not around magic children, robots, or superhero space aliens, but about the mysterious world of grown-ups – families, jobs, cars, police, criminals, teams of motorcycle-riding Native American bandits, and monster cars controlled by computers competing in high stakes auto racing. Hey, it could happen.

The title of the series itself is a three-way pun: “go” can be a signifier indicating a vehicle (for instance, Captain Harlock’s spaceship referred to as “Arukaadia-go”), as well as Japanese for the number “five”, and the name of the main character, Go Mifune. You can also throw in the English definition for extra credit. So maybe it’s a four-way pun. Go figure.

Broadcasting trade publication ad for Speed Racer

Bringing the series to America was the task of Peter Fernandez and his crew of veteran voice talent; he’d just finished dubbing the seminal super-robot Gigantor (Tetsujin-28) for Trans-Lux and the Oxy-Gum-chewing Marine Boy for Seven Arts. With his background in radio drama he’d been working steadily to satisfy America’s drive-ins and UHF television stations with imported Italian space operas, Mexican monster epics, Westerns of mixed European heritage, and Japanese rubber-suit kaiju dramas. His rapid-fire line direction and the melodic tones of co-star Corinne “Trixie” Orr, along with Jack Grimes and Jack Curtis handling mysterious older brothers, helpful mechanics, and Inspector Detectors, helped fix Speed Racer firmly in our preadolescent subconscious.

two of the fine stations bringing you Speed Racer
As a syndicated television cartoon Speed Racer ran for years on Turner’s WTBS, which in the early days was known as WTCG while airing another Fernandez dub known as Ultraman. Occasionally the station would feature an on-camera Ted Turner earning his reputation as “Captain Outrageous.” Other stations like “Philly 57” (home of Star Blazers and Force Five) helped make Speed Racer a must-see for the afterschool set. As a non-network series Speed Racer was exempt from the standards and practices that kept guns, knives, conflict, and entertainment away from the Saturday morning cartoons of the Big Three networks. This incurred the condemnation of Action For Children’s Television, a consumer watchdog group who described Speed Racer as an “animated monstrosity” featuring the “ultimate in crime, evil characters, cruelty, and destruction” that nevertheless was being inflicted upon our nation’s children “five days per week in afternoon slots when children are the least supervised and the most available.” To which I say, right on.

There isn’t another show from that era – American OR Japanese – that inspires such fond memories and devotion. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget the rampage of the Car With A Brain, the cycle acrobatics of the Motorcycle Apaches, the cubist-masked terrorists hijacking airliners with boobytrapped headphones, or the top-hatted petulance of The Car Hater. The race against Laser Tanks, menacing gangs of lady assassins, stolen gem-bearing pineapples or the trials of the Supersonic Car were all branded in our memories with Mach 5 tire marks. We were touched by the melancholy tragedy of Rex Racer – separated from his family by pride and arrogance, yet never far from Speed’s side, always there to lend a hand. The Racer X plot point of a long lost family member who wears a mask and shows up to save the hero in the nick of time would return in the character of Red Impulse in Gatchaman. What kid – heck, what adult - didn’t want a car that could jump over obstacles, drive under water, cut down trees, and never needed a fill-up or an emissions test? No kid, that’s who.

Fifty-two episodes of Speed Racer were produced, many of them two-part stories, a rarity at the time for animated series. The international success of Mach Go Go Go would inspire Tatsunoko to market other works to a worldwide audience; HONEYBEE HUTCH and THE BRAVE FROG would be shown throughout the world and GATCHAMAN would become a hit in America under the title BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, going on to be released in English on four separate versions. Tatsunoko’s 1982 super space romance MACROSS would be another international hit that inspired sequels and imitations alike.

Fine role models for the youth of the world
Other Japanese anime studios would try to capture the Mach Go Go Go magic with their own racing series – the cheesy 70s mechasploitation fantasy Gattiger The Combo-Car featured a transforming combination car versus the Demon Auto Company while Hawk Of The Grand Prix did a thematic 180 and strove for racing realism, though it did feature a mysterious masked racing mentor. Fly, Machine Hiriyu was a 1978 Toei/Tatsunoko coproduction that took a goofy Time Bokan tack. The 80s saw Yoroshiku Mechadock and F! highlight plucky young go-getters racing for the checkered flag, and the late 1990s brought anime in line with modern tricked out spoiler-equipped drift-style street-racing culture in the series Initial D.

American kids raised on daily doses of Speed Racer grew up and moved through life with the show as a cultural signifier; as Dark Horse Comics manga editor (and occasional Speed Racer cosplayer) Carl Horn says in the documentary Otaku Unite, “…any standup comedian in the country can do a joke about Speed Racer, and people are going to get it.” In the 1980s MTV worked Speed Racer into the late night camp-value timeslot, eager to entertain nostalgic Generation Xers (while at the same time avoiding the shame of actually, you know, showing music videos). The Austin folk foursome Two Nice Girls served up a acoustic version of the theme song with slightly changed lyrics, while soon-to-be legendary producer Steve Albini and his industro-punk outfit Big Black delivered a punch-press paean to Speed’s cooler brother on their“Racer X” EP

Sometimes Speed is a little unsure of the adventure waiting just ahead

Meanwhile a steady stream of licensed material including buttons, posters, color comic books, T-shirts, and one of the earliest home video releases of an anime series (on double-bill VHS tapes shared with Trans-Lux’s Mighty Hercules) put Speed Racer on the shelves of kitsch boutiques and retro-themed college dorms across America alongside fellow deities Gumby and Felix the Cat.

Now Comics' licensed Speed Racer comics & merchandise delivery service

As the 1990s dawned Streamline Pictures packaged “The Car Hater” and “The Mammoth Car” on home video as “Speed Racer The Movie”, with a slight assist from Alpha Team’s techno club hit remix of the Speed Racer theme song. Yes, “Alpha Team”, named after the rival racing outfit seen in episodes 3 and 4, “Challenge Of The Masked Racer.”

Your Clinton-era lifestyle can be filled with Speed Racer; screen-printed club shirts, fake vintage tin signs, magnets, bumper stickers, belt buckles, bendy figures, a McFarlane Toys Mach 5 scaled to fit figures of Speed, Trixie, Spritle and Chim Chim, and slot car racers of the Mach 5 and Racer X’s Shooting Star can ensure no waking moment is untouched by Speed and Trixie. The five-volume DVD set from Lion’s Gate came packaged with steering wheels, diecast cars, and license plate holders, and those not content to merely watch could throw the Speed Racer Playstation game into their PSX and race against all comers.

Speed Racer returned to the Turner media empire as their Cartoon Network programmed the show for five solid years, inaugurated by a marathon spiced with a Dexter’s Laboratory spoof. Speed, Trixie, and the Mach 5 appeared in ads for Volkswagen and Geico car insurance. You could pony up a few hundred grand and drive away in your own custom street-legal Mach 5, based around a Corvette chassis and complete with buzz-saw blades. On exactly which street are those legal? Saturday Night Live’s “TV Funhouse” combined Speed and celebrity culture in “Go George Clooney”. And two pop culture worlds collided as the Speed Channel, home of America’s prospering NASCAR culture, began programming Speed Racer in between Peter Fonda biker films and coverage of nitro-burning funny cars. As long as America continues her automotive love affair, Speed Racer will have a home on our televisions.

the mysterious "Racer D"

Outfits on both sides of the Pacific have attempted to revive the franchise as a new animated series. Murakami-Wolf’s 1990s production of The New Adventures Of Speed Racer, a lackluster sequel starring feeble adulterations of our heroes and their super-car, lasted only 13 episodes. Tatsunoko’s own 1997 re-imagining of the Mach GoGo Go concept had edgy 90s character designs and a time-travel storyline that went where no autosports enthusiast had gone before. Dubbed by DIC and shown on an abortive Nickelodeon action-cartoon timeslot as Speed Racer X, it didn’t make it through the first time trials.

Speed Racer VW GTI ad 

Remakes and reinvisionings came and went but it was 2008 before a Speed Racer remake firmly gripped the public imagination. Fresh from the Matrix trilogy and their anarcho-fantasy V For Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings threw their computer-generated weight behind a Warners/Village Roadshow feature adaptation of Speed Racer. The film starred Christina “Monster” Ricci as Trixie, Emile Hirsch as Speed, Matthew Fox from “Lost” as Racer X and Tinseltown veterans like Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Richard “SHAFT” Roundtree. A near-psychedelic hybrid between live-action overacting and wild CGI environments, Speed Racer was a film audiences weren’t really ready for. 

Speed Racer screen-printed club shirt - racing helmet and/or fedora not included

Though a critical favorite in some circles, the movie underperformed at the box office – but this didn’t stop Hollywood from continuing to produce money-losing anime adaptations like Astro Boy and Dragonball Evolution and the recent Ghost In The Shell. Hot on the heels of Speed Racer’s release was a new Nicktoons animated show and a tidal wave of Speed Racer merchandise that continues to this day. And soon, along with your toy Mach 5s, your t-shirts, and your DVD and Blu-Ray sets you’ll be able to purchase the entire series on Blu-Ray packaged inside Speed Racer’s head

Bring Me The Head Of Speed Racer

That’s the world we live in, filled with Speed Racer merchandise enjoyed by two and three generations of Speed Racer fans, yet sadly lacking a real-life Race Around The World.  Will Speed Racer find it difficult to thrill in a world of electric cars, boxy SUVs, and traffic calming zones? Or will the innate desire of every child to race towards adventures waiting just ahead keep Speed Racer in the winner's circle?  And seriously, will Speed ever find out Racer X is his older brother? Because it's really obvious, Speed.

-Dave Merrill

A version of this article previously appeared in Otaku USA magazine.