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Thursday, July 3, 2008


'Speed Racer': drawing on an anime legend

Special to The Japan Times

Fast-moving, globe-trotting Japanese anime icon "Speed Racer" has hit the silver screen in the form of a flashy, big-budget Hollywood film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix"). From its familiar-to-millions theme song to the characterizations of teen race-car driver Speed and the mysterious Racer X, the movie is a loving pop-art tribute to the classic action-comedy anime of decades past.

Speed Racer
Speed Racer, Hollywood style © 2008 WARNER BROS. ENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Although the limited cel animation of the TV series has been updated with state-of-the-art CGI in a live-action outing starring the likes of Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Christina Ricci (Speed's girlfriend, Trixie) and John Goodman (Pops Racer), the film is as faithful an adaptation of the original as could be imagined.

But, as the series' original cocreator Ippei Kuri points out, "What makes a good anime and what makes a good live-action film are very different things. The key to both is how human drama is depicted. That's how you can decide if a work is truly great or not."

The show followed the adventures of a teenage race-car driver and his family as they traveled the globe, all the while tussling with crooks, gangsters and rival motorists who believed in foul play. Engrossing story lines would play out in exotic locales, with the mix of drama and action, both on the race track and off, setting the tone for Japanese animation to come.

In 1962, at the dawn of Japan's modern anime industry, Kuri cofounded one of Japan's oldest and most successful anime studios. Kuri has a midas touch for making classic anime, and he is now in the unique position of watching his creations come to life in the form of live-action feature films.

And while he's pleased that a movie based on "Mahha GoGoGo" (the original Japanese title of "Speed Racer") is opening in theaters across Japan this week, Kuri seems more impressed that the long-in-development project even made it across the finish line at all.

"It's certainly not the first time Hollywood has tried to make a 'Speed Racer' movie," he says of the new $120-million film. "I was involved with an earlier proposal at Warner Brothers, and they wanted to know if they could change the character and story line. I remember they were talking about casting Charlie Sheen for the part of Speed. He was himself a big fan of the show, and he was really hoping to be the star. He certainly looked the part, and I think he would have been good. Johnny Depp was another actor who was suggested. This time around, I simply wondered who was going to play the part of the main character."

Kuri, born Toyoharu Yoshida in Tokyo in 1940, formed Tatsunoko Production Co., Ltd. (commonly known as Tatsunoko Pro.) with his brothers Kenji and Tatsuo. Both formidable draftsmen, Kuri and Tatsuo began their careers as manga artists before moving into TV animation with Tatsunoko's first series, "Space Ace," a kiddie show much influenced by the popular "Astro Boy." Soon, the fledgling studio needed a followup.

Kuri recalls, "Around 1965, I was going to a lot of motorcycle races. Back then, car racing was popular in the U.S., and I thought the sport would soon catch on in Japan as well. While not everyone could afford to own a car back then, I was able to buy one thanks to the success that Tatsunoko was having. I used to drive everyone to the bike races, and that's where I was inspired to make a story about car racing."

Speed Racer
Go Mifune, the main character in "Mahha GoGoGo," was renamed Speed Racer in the West. © TATSUNOKO PRO.

These company outings resulted in "Speed Racer," awash in wide-eyed optimism and hyper-modernity. And while the settings changed from the Middle East to Europe and America, the show rarely ever seemed to look to Japanese culture for inspiration.

"Since childhood, we (the Yoshida brothers) really envied the style of American comics like Superman and Batman," explains Kuri. "The drawings looked so lifelike and accurate. After the war, during the U.S. occupation, there were many well-built American soldiers in uniforms. To me, they all looked like Superman. I actually thought that all Americans had bodies like that!

"America also made a great impact on us through the movies. After the war, we didn't have a washing machine, just a board on a bucket. Our living conditions were just awful. When we saw American home-drama films, we saw electric appliances that everyone has now, but that did not exist in Japan at the time. When they opened the refrigerator, there were ready-made ice cubes inside and people are making fancy cocktails. We felt nothing but longing for stuff like that."

Today, Western-style furnishings and gadgets dominate Kuri's home studio in Tokyo's Kugayama Ward, which bears a distinct resemblance to the family dwellings in the "Speed Racer" movie (Kuri even insists on trying out a new espresso maker before the interview begins). But "Speed Racer" is about more than just mechanical marvels and globe-trotting adventure. At the core of it all is a tightly knit family unit complete with the gruff-but-loving Pops Racer, a character known only as Mom who's rarely seen without an apron, and three brothers; the number of siblings in the Yoshida clan.

"I lost my parents when I was young, so another thing that made a big impression on me was the structure of the family in American films," says Kuri. "There would always be a mom and dad who looked extremely happy. There were friends and pets and a good-looking girl next door. All of these things eventually appeared in 'Speed Racer,' and they all came out of my longing for American home life."

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.

Ippei Kuri  sits in his home studio in Tokyo
Incredible inkings: Ippei Kuri sits in his home studio in Tokyo's Kugayama Ward

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.

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