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‘Speed Racer’: drawing on an anime legend

by Patrick Macias

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As “Speed Racer” went into production, elder brother Tatsuo stepped forward as the show’s main visual designer. Kuri, the youngest of the three, meanwhile became the series’ main producer and came up with ideas for story lines and sequence. He also personally directed many episodes of the series, including the classic “Trick Race” (1968), which raised the body count for TV animation as dozens of cars crashed and burned, along with their drivers. While still aimed at young children, the show’s action, both on the race track and off, helped move Japanese anime from being mere kid’s stuff into a mode of adrenaline-fueled adventure.

While car accidents added a dash of danger and realism, Kuri insists, “We intentionally tried to make a show that was peaceful and not violent. For instance, there is no evil organization that the heroes have to fight. There are villains, of course, sometimes with guns, but they never kill anyone. Still, we heard some complaints later that ‘Speed Racer’ was considered a little too violent in the USA.”

Indeed, consumer watchdog group Action For Children’s Television described Kuri’s brainchild as an “animated monstrosity” that offered viewers the “ultimate in crime, evil characters, cruelty, and destruction.”

“But in Japan, it was actually conservative and not violent at all,” insists Kuri. “The hard part was that we needed to have the show be popular in Japan first in order to sell it to America. Facing that dilemma, we tried to compromise and make something that was simply feel-good entertainment. We had a big intention to sell it to America right from the beginning.”

“Speed Racer” became a smash hit soon after its debut on U.S. television in 1967, paving the way for eventual syndication around the world. Since then, the 52-episode series has seldom left the airwaves. Over the decades, its memorable characters have been featured in commercials for Volkswagon cars and Geico auto insurance, and have inspired merchandise including video games, action figures and, of course, toy cars. Racer X became the name of an industrial punk-rock band in the U.S.; actor Eric Stoltz sports a “Speed Racer” T-shirt in “Pulp Fiction.” “Speed Racer” became more than anime; it became a part of global pop culture.

But as Kuri points out, “At the beginning of the syndication, ‘Speed Racer’ didn’t bring in much of a profit. I’m sorry to say that the middle man on the Japanese side of the deal was kind of sloppy about his work.”

In fact, Kuri and Tatsunoko Pro. have seen little profit from the worldwide success of “Speed Racer,” and they received no tribute from the new movie beyond a mention in the credits. Yet Kuri considers success its own reward.

“We had such low expectations,” he says. “After all, ‘Speed’ was a Japanese-created work, and America already had giant animation studios like Disney; the scale of what we were doing was so small by comparison. Still, the show broke through the wall to America, which was a huge deal for us, and it was continually on the air. On those terms, it was a major success.”

Ironically, “Speed Racer” was never as beloved in its country of origin as it was abroad, and the show’s international fame has always baffled animation fans in Japan.

Kuri has his own theory about the difference in reception to the series: “I think the timing may have been one of the reasons why ‘Speed’ became so popular in the West. The U.S. had become a happy and prosperous nation after winning World War II, but all that began to change during the Vietnam era. The family unit started collapsing. People began protesting and criticizing their own government. But at that time, ‘Speed Racer’ was still reflecting the image of the good old days.”

Tatsunoko Pro. could have easily stayed afloat by churning out more adventures of “Speed Racer” and the gang for their now-global audience. But instead, Kuri and his brothers decided to take their family-owned company — and Japanese animation with it — in new directions.

“Then as now, the model for making a new anime was often simply to adapt an existing manga,” he says. “But I believed we should create new and original works just for television. That was one of the main goals we had at Tatsunoko.”

The success of “Speed Racer” paved the way for more classic Tatsunoko Pro. animation to come in the ’70s. Another of the studio’s hits, “Casshern,” became a feature film in Japan in 2004. A CGI adaptation of “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” (aka “Battle of the Planets”) is being developed by Imagi Animation Studios for a 2009 release through Warner Brothers. And currently, cult director Takashi Miike is filming “Yatterman,” which will be a major tent-pole release for Japan’s oldest major movie studio, Nikkatsu, next year. After Tatsuo’s untimely death in 1977, Kuri became Tatsunoko Pro.’s head artistic planner. The company continues to be associated with era-defining anime such as “Robotech” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” both of which are now being sized up by U.S. studios. “Speed Racer” could well be merely the first of a long line of Hollywood movies inspired by Kuri’s tenure at Tatsunoko Pro.

“I like film and I like realism,” says Kuri, who is now semiretired (the Takara toy company having bought an 88 percent stake in Tatsunoko three years ago) and working on a boys’ detective manga set in the 1920s. “I always felt that it was hard for us at Tatsunoko to try to reach that level of detail in the anime style. Still, we tried in our own way. I wanted to make something that was truly real, but it ended up the way it ended up. The result was ‘Speed Racer.’ ”

The exhibition “World of Tatsunoko Production” runs July 18 till Sept. 15 at Hachioji Yume Art Museum in Tokyo, displaying artwork from “Mahha GoGoGo” and other key Tatsunoko Pro. animations. For details, visit www.yumebi.com. The “Speed Racer” movie is released July 5, and is reviewed in tomorrow’s Japan Times.