Thursday, June 2, 2016
I generally credit my childhood friend Hiroki Shimamura with introducing me to Japanese culture. We met around 1980.
But before Hiroki there was Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo in Japanese). This debuted on American television in September of 1967 and ran for 52 episodes until March of 1968 - before I was born. But its immense popularity meant that by the time I was of the cartoon-watching age it was still being aired in syndicated re-runs weekday afternoons.
The animated cartoons I was watching at the time were Looney Tunes, the Flintstones, Tom & Jerry, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You and the Pink Panther Show. While all very different in terms of style and story, these were all American productions. Speed Racer was something new, something unusual. It was strange. But it was cool. It was this strange-but-cool factor that drew me in.
It didn't look or sound like anything else I was watching. First of all, it wasn't funny. A cartoon that wasn't funny. That was peculiar. There was an excitement and a danger in the stories more real than an anvil falling on a coyote's head.
I don't think I knew it was a Japanese cartoon, but I did recognize the odd way the characters spoke, how the voices and the movement of their mouths didn't synch as they did in other cartoons. Speed and his pals had a different look with their big, bright eyes and fierce determined expressions. The animation was also curious - flat, jerky, more like a moving comic book than the fluid motion of a Warner Brothers cartoon.
And that theme song! "Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer Go-o!" This sounded like something on FM radio, not a theme song for a kids show.
Mach GoGoGo was the creation of Kyoto-born Tatsuo Yoshida. He and his two brothers founded their comic/animation studio Tatsunoko Productions in 1962. Following on the success of their early race car themed comic books like Pilot Ace and Hayabusa Q they launched the comic book version of Mach GoGoGo in 1966. The animated series premiered on Fuji Television in Japan in April of 1967.
A couple of weeks ago I happened upon an original Hayabusa Q comic book at the Kyoto City Hall Flea Market. The copy was a bit tatty but for ¥300 I couldn't resist. The roots of Speed Racer and my Japanese experience were in this thin book.