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Speed Racer: A Fan’s Perspective or Why the C Button Should Activate Mach Five’s Buzzsaws

Photo caption:

The team of Speed Racer's anime TV series from 1967 (Lionsgate)

Along with this unique take on the series that inspired it, Speed Racer also presents an idealized depiction of a common perception of anime (Japanese animation) from a U.S. point of view, giving us stylized futuristic cities, corporate headquarters, and racetracks. The film raises its Japanese pop culture cred even further with the inclusion of a cameo by famous action film star Hiroyuki Sanada. Like seeing Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill , the presence of a Japanese icon in a U.S. film that was inspired by a product of Japanese pop culture brings to mind the increased cross-pollination and global circulation of images and cultural reference points - all we need now is a Japanese-dubbed version of the U.S. Speed Racer film to complete the circle.

The movie also contains some nice details to appeal to the die-hard Speed Racer fans. For instance, there's an homage to the odd-looking famous final shot of the animated series opening titles where Speed (frozen in a gravity-defying pose) and the Mach Five rotate in front of the camera, a shot which was spoofed on an episode of Family Guy , and was originally used by the production team to test whether or not the Mach Five could actually be animated properly (come on, Wachowskis, why didn't you use the multi-camera "bullet time" photography on this?). Also, the music that plays over the closing credits of the film very cleverly integrates samples of the original Japanese theme song by the Tokyo Meistersingers, as well as newly-recorded versions of the middle-eight (not heard in the US cartoon) used to bridge the two verses of the original Japanese theme song, and the Herb Alpert-like rendition of the theme used in the closing credits of the U.S. cartoon.

Photo caption:
Photo caption:

Seeing double Racer X? (Lionsgate/Warner Brothers)

So why, with this sort of attention to detail, did they assign the wrong functions to the buttons in the Mach Five? At least the "A" button still made the car jump, but you could sense the jaw-dropping bewilderment of the true Speed Racer fans in the audience during the scene where the function of each button was revealed. This sort of thing is tantamount to sacrilege in the eyes of fans, like when the guns that pop out of Astro Boy's butt were replaced by a cannon that pops out of his arm in the recent 2003 version of Astro Boy . Adolescent Speed Racer fans knew the functions of the Mach Five buttons before they knew their addresses and phone numbers. They expected that information to appear on the written test at the DMV when they got their permits ("What does a flashing red light mean?" "What is the speed limit in a residential area?" "Which button activates the buzzsaws on the Mach Five?"). Hopefully the Wachowskis won't get to make the next Godzilla movie, in which the fire-breathing monster might team up with the robot Jet Cougar to fight the mighty pterodactyl Gaugin.

So, is Speed Racer a good film? The best answer I can give is that I think it's as good as it needs to be. Certainly not as good as it could be, but absolutely as good as it needs to be. The filmmakers had the task of creating a live-action version of a world in which a man and woman with the last name "Racer" have no problem naming their son "Speed"; a world in which a chimpanzee eats his meals at the dining table with his human family; a world in which every automobile seems to be surrounded by some kind of anti-Newtonian aura that allows it to defy any and every law of physics. With these sorts of criteria upon which to build your world, how else might you do it? The visual sensibility of Speed Racer is perfectly in keeping with the more outlandish aspects of this world, while the performances are perfectly suited to the human element of this story. For all its 21st-century razzle-dazzle and cutting-edge visuals, Speed Racer is a sentimental, old-fashioned fable straight out of a Frank Capra movie, in which a plucky young hero and his close-knit family triumph over an evil, ruthless corporate giant. In terms of this good-natured, earnest simplicity, maybe this 2008 version of Speed Racer isn't so different from the original cartoon after all.

-- Ramie Tateishi is a professor at UC San Diego who knows that the "C" button activates the Mach Five's buzzsaws.

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