“Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer, he’s a demon on wheels.
He’s a demon and he’s gonna be chasing after someone.
He’s been around a lot, you’d better look alive
‘Cos he’ll be revvin’ up the powerful Mark 5.
And when the odds are against him and there’s dangerous work to do,
You bet your life Speed Racer will see it through.
Go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer, go!”
—– theme song
In TC6, we praised ‘Akira’ and ‘Warriors of the Wind’ as shining examples of Japanese animation. This may have led you to believe that all Oriental cartoon series are artistic and morally sound. ‘Speed Racer’ proves, beyond all doubt, that this is not the case.
The opening sequence of this surreal 1967 movie has the above lyrics, set to a hideously archetypal late 60’s song, behind which we see a car-race going along a fly-over – suddenly two cars collide, one of which ploughs through a crash-barrier and explodes in a fireball! Those of you who’ve seen the A-Team and their 70-mph multiple pile-ups, rollovers and crashes, after which the baddies climb out uninjured, will understand my shock as this U-rated cartoon starts to resemble an animated ‘Faces of Death’.
The first thing in the film proper is a clown driving a car. This explodes, leaving the driver with an umbrella dropping from the top of the screen, Mary Poppins style. The clown explodes. In his place is a girl; I use the term ‘girl’ for want of anything better as she could well be the result of some illegal, bizarre genetic experiment involving giraffe DNA – the length of her neck is only exceeded by the length of her legs. She introduces the Stunt Car Spectacular, where the aim seems to be to drive your car down a ski-jump and clear a number of sports cars piled vertically in front of it. The first contestant is Mr Guts Wheeler (sic) – he shoots down the ramp, crashes into the second top car and brings the whole lot down, leaving him trapped among the wreckage. The next driver up, Mr Hi Octane, fares even worse, hitting the top of the pile and the car smashes into a concrete wall and explodes. Mr Octane rolls onto his back, twitches and lies still. This sort of thing occurs irregularly throughout the 65 minutes of the cartoon.
Our hero, Speed Racer, is the driver for a racing outfit run by his father, with the assistance of Speed’s kid brother Spridle (and pet monkey Chim-chim), his girlfriend Trixie and mechanic Sparky. Their car, the Mark 5, is entered in the Alpine Race, a gruelling endurance event, though judging from the number of Yawning Chasms present, the Swiss government stopped any spending on roads some time ago. Against them is the Car Acrobatic Team, seven drivers out to win at any cost in cars equipped with extending wings to help them cross Yawning Chasms. Speed’s team (minus Sparky, thanks to an argument about whether Speed should race at all) work through the night to try and fit similar wings (“even I’m going to help”, says token female Trixie in what seems a fine display of assertiveness until we discover she merely popped off to put the kettle on) but Speed’s dad collapses with the effort.
Undaunted, Speed works on (Trixie’s playing at nurses, naturally) and manages to fit the wings. “Now I’ll see if the wings work…They do!!”, he says – to be strictly accurate, while they do go out and in fine, he never bothers to see if they’re any good at actually keeping him up. Hopefully, Boeing operate slightly more stringent test procedures. Anyway, he makes it to the start line just in time, and is joined by Racer X (“Speed does not know that the driver of this car is his older brother, Rex, who ran away from home years ago”) who specialises in platitudes like “As a professional racer, I’ve got to meet the challenge”. Within thirty seconds of the start, we have the first crash-and-burn and not long after we get the first Yawning Chasm.
Now, Speed argued with his mechanic so his brakes aren’t working too well and he skids, backwards, down a Yawning Chasm. Naturally he’s rescued by Sparky, who suffered a pang of conscience and lassoes the entire car from a helicopter piloted by, of all people, Nurse/Tea-Lady/Pilot Trixie. The brakes are fixed and Speed catches up with the rest of the field, including what’s left of the Car Acrobatic Team, at a Yawning Chasm, appropriately named Yawning Chasm Pass. The six drivers who decide to go on, including Speed, Racer X, and chief C.A.T. driver Snake Oiler, draw lots to see who goes first but it’s all fairly pointless since they all end up at the bottom of the Yawning Chasm, Speed included.
Fortunately, as Yawning Chasms go it ain’t up to much – not only is Speed merely knocked out, but the Mark 5 has nary a scratch and starts first time. On regaining consciousness, Speed seems to suffer an acid flashback and stares at the sun for so long he is blinded. But Racer X is also there with another undamaged car and Speed is able to drive by following the sound of his engine… This isn’t totally effective (Speed’s eyesight might improve if he tried opening his eyes instead of driving with them shut) and to help Speed, Racer X crashes his car and pretends to have injured his legs so he can sit in the Mark 5 and give directions (yes, I know – why didn’t he do that without resorting to self-inflicted smashes?). These start off as “left 10 degrees”, but soon degenerate to “faster…even faster”.
They catch up Snake Oiler, whose car, it will not surprise you to hear, still works (some damn Yawning Chasm!) but is leaking oil and will blow up if he doesn’t slow down. Speed pulls alongside to try and warn Snake but he fails to believe Speed and, lo and behold, his car explodes torching the occupant to a cinder, leaving Speed the winner to the wild cheers of the crowd who would have instantly forgotten the messy fatal accident on the home straight. The C.A.T. drivers haven’t, and swear revenge…
Animation quality is ‘primitive’ it’s safe to say; plenty of loops with the same car going past multiple times. Dialogue fails to match the lip movements at all, despite more groans, gasps and moans on the soundtrack than your average porno movie. This film was clearly constructed of 3 twenty-minute episodes slammed together as every so often it pauses and you get a brief voice-over of previous events. An animated version of ‘Death Race 2000’, this film should be required viewing for anyone who thinks ultra-violent kiddie cartoons are a modern invention.
[Beware: at least two cassettes of ‘Speed Racer’ are available; the one reviewed here is on the ‘MY-TV’ label (MYTV 20027); the Parkfield Junior release may have been cut and is noticeably less vicious]