Even these tapes cost something

  Speed Racer: The Demon Acrobats
1987 | Harmony Gold.
battle for moon station Dallos celebrity just for kids

What's that? There's a movie of Speed Racer? In cinemas now? Wow, what a coincidence that I should choose to put this dusty of VHS into my VCR! Thrills and spills and all-action car racing! Go Speed Racer Go!

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Spawned from a manga series published in 1966, Mach GoGoGo (Mach Five Go! Go!) reached Japanese TV screens in March 1967 broadcast on Fuji TV. Created by Tatsuo Yoshida it was animated by the studio Tatsunoko (Time Bokan) which he had recently founded with his brothers Kenji and Toyoharu (better known as Ippei Kuri).

Go Mifune is a skilled young racing driver who drives for his father Daisuke's team Mifune Motors. His super car is the Mach 5 which, aside from its unparalleled speed, has a number of gadgets to give him an added edge in the often dangerous races. Go is supported by a team of family and friends including his younger brother Kurio (accompanied by his pet chimp Senpei), his girlfriend Michi Shimura and Sabu the only other person skilled enough to tune
the Mach 5.

Then there is the mysterious Fukumen (Masked Racer) who frequently steps in to protect Go from danger, often sacrificing his own position to ensure the survival of Mach 5 and its driver. Little does Go realise that this masked driver is actually his runaway brother Kenichi.

The look of Mach Go Go Go had a Western influence. Two popular movies of 1964 in Japan were the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas and the James Bond thriller Goldfinger. These two movies provided the look of the lead character (Elvis' outfit) and the Mach 5's gadgets (Bond's Austin Martin).

The series lasted for a total of 52 episodes and, while it was only moderately popular, it did spawn a number of tie-ins over the years including model kits and video games. In 1997 the show was remade for TV Tokyo to mark the 30th anniversary.

As you all know Mach GoGoGo reached massive popularity in the U.S. and many other countries as Speed Racer. Acquired for distribution by Trans-Lux, a company better known for their real-time, stock market displays, Mach GoGoGo was handed to producer Peter Fernandez to be fashioned into the cartoon series which has since entered American popular culture. Fernandez was no stranger to anime adaptations having already worked on both Astro Boy and Gigantor and he would also go on to prepare Marine Boy also for Trans-Lux.

The content of the episodes was heavily edited to make them acceptable to the American TV censors. The violent content was problematic as it was far too strong by western standards. The easiest work around was to imply that enemies had simply been stunned rather than killed. And of course there were the name changes. The title character became the famous Speed Racer with his dad Pops, brother Spritle and girlfriend Trixie. Sabu the mechanic was renamed Sparky and the mysterious Fukumen became known as Racer X or Rex Racer.

Speed Racer was aired on ABC the same year as its Japanese debut. It became a big success with most of the audience completely unaware that it wasn't an American show. Decades later, in the early 1990's it had a short revival, returning to screens on MTV and later Cartoon Network. It had become such a well known franchise in the west that Accolade released a PC game based on the series 25 years after the show began.

The nineties became a peak period for Speed Racer. An American sequel series was launched in 1993 animated by the Irish Fred Wolf Productions whose best known work was the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. However the series couldn't repeat the Japanese original's success and disappeared after only 13 episodes. Then in 1997 the Japanese remake came to the U.S. retitled Speed Racer X but it suffered a similar fate to the American remake, vanishing from Nickelodeon's schedules after only 34 of the 52 episodes aired.

Despite its immense popularity Speed Racer was poorly served by the home video market. Two compilation tapes were created and marketed by Harmony Gold, The Demon Acrobats and The Secret Car, consisting of several continuing episodes bolted together, but there was never any attempt to market individual episodes or volumes. It wasn't until the age of DVD that Speed Racer's exploits were finally released in their entirety.

Finally, Speed Racer was bestowed with the greatest honour America can give - a big budget Hollywood movie in 2008.

Manga book 1
Mach 5 in the manga
Japanese VHS Vol.1

Ok, I should come clean... I've never really watched Speed Racer before. I've watched this video once, as an anime hungry teenager back in the mid nineties but that's all. It seems the show never was that famous in the UK, Marine Boy was more popular (and I've never seen that one either). I did see an episode of the Fred Wolf series but that doesn't count really does it?

So, with that confession out of the way, on with the video.

This 'movie' is entitled The Demon Acrobats. A newly added mention for Harmony Gold replaces any reference to the original production company. The action opens at a Stunt Car show where anyone and everyone is allowed to have a try at clearing an eight tall pile of cars. Christ knows how the organisers got this past the insurers. Several oddly named members of the public have a go at it but end up in comically extreme crashes, though all of them walk away alive so that's ok. They should probably go and be x-rayed though, just to be on the safe side.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

In the sparsely painted crowd Speed is watching with his brother Spritle (a name more bizarre than his Japanese original) and Trixie. Some plain looking girls spot him in the audience and cause a bit of a scene, bugging him for autographs. All this commotion gets the attention of a strangely dressed man on the track. His name is Snake Oiler, of the world famous Car Acrobatics Team, and he demands to compete in the stunt against our hero. Speed instantly accepts unaware that Snake wants the stack of cars made even higher.

To the crowd's amazement Snake clears the obstacle with ease. Speed is ready to accept the challenge but Trixie and Sparky warm him against it, encouraging him to stay in one piece for the upcoming Alpine race. Just as Speed resolves to chicken out Snakes team mates arrive on the scene. They perform a number of impressive formation stunts that defy both logic and physics, but the audience doesn't seem to mind. The cars, while driving, leap on top of each other to form a moving, vehicular Jenga and then, in the most mind bending move of all, jump out of the car pillar one-by-one - starting at the base! Dare-devil Drivers indeed!

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

The cars leap obnoxiously around the track like giant metal insects, repeatedly knocking Speed and his friends to the ground. Once that gets old they round up Snake Oiler and make their exit. A circle swipe and we're out.

In a picturesque Alpine meadow Speed, Trixie and Sparky contemplate the dangerous race ahead. Sparky voices his concerns and Speed roughs him up for his troubles. Seems like the pressure's getting to him, or maybe it's the 'roids. Shunned by his best friend Sparky mopes off into the hills.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

To get prepared for the dangerous track Speed Racer gets in some practice, first at the home on a specially built course (which, fortunately for the animators involves the Mach 5 driving around the same sections over and over) and then on the Alpine course itself. Up on the perilous cliff edge Speed prepares to attempt the toughest jump of all when suddenly the Car Acrobatics Team arrive with the same idea. Seeing every one of the rival team's drivers effortlessly perform the death defying feat Speed goes in for his turn but is cut off by Racer X. The narrator informs us the Racer X is actually his brother Rex who ran away from home.

The mysterious masked man advises Speed Racer on this treacherous section of the course. His key piece of advice - concentrate on the jump not the other drivers. Also, if it rains, beware of the terrain as it will become slippery. I think maybe he's misjudged his brother's intelligence with that last one.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats

That night Pops decides to completely overhaul the Mach 5 to make its abilities comparable to that of their rivals, but he needs to know more about them. Cue an extended silent comedy skit featuring the irritating Spritle and his chimp chum Chim Chim as they venture deep into the dark and scary territory of the Car Acrobatic Team in their daft comedy car. Why the Car Acrobatic Team live in this foreboding, spooky Scooby Doo land is never explained, it doesn't seem to fit in with their style. I'd expect them to have their base set inside a huge adventure play area for cars, with loads of loops and ramps, that would seem more fitting. Maybe they do, but Spritle decided to take the less direct route as it would characterise them as dark, evil and scary. The enemy is easier to beat if you don't think of them as human!

The Demon Acrobats

After much hilarity Spritle and Chim Chim find the Car Acrobatic Team taking part in some sort of satanic black mass ritual, holding burning torches aloft in their cars while their decidedly unhinged-looking leader preaches to them in a booming voice. The names of the seven who have been chosen for the Alpine race are announced and one of them is the sly Snake Oiler. The chosen seven practice their aerial acrobatics while Spritle takes secret spy snaps of them using one of those old folding cameras on a tripod and a large flash gun. Not exactly James Bond stuff but it gets the job done.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo
Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

Back home the photos reveal the Acrobatic Team's secret design... the cars have wings. Just like Body Form! With this important news the gang begin the arduous task of rebuilding the Mach 5 the best way they can - with a musical montage! During the night Pops collapses with a fever while working on the car. Trixie rushes him to the hospital while Speed Racer continues his father's work. Soon there is only half an hour before the start of the race and without Sparky to help Speed has his work cut out. Surely it wasn't a good idea to completely strip down the team's only car the night before the race.

Now there is only 30 minutes until the start of the race and Speed is still busy with his spanner, sweat streaming off his face in singular droplets. Finally the Mach 5 is ready, new wings and all and with only 3 minutes remaining before the flag drops. Racing from home to the track Speed Racer passes the start line the exact second the race begins. This rolling start gets a blind eye from the umpires. Well, you can't blame them since Speed is a big draw with the crowds, if you loose them you loose all that money and that is bad business sense!

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

We are only minutes into the race and already three cars have plummeted to their doom, the tension already too much for the drivers to bare. Can Speed Racer hold his nerve and emerge victorious and alive? Would the creators allow the lead character to die, only nine episodes into a 52 episode run? And will Pops survive his terrifying brush with "a bad fever"? Find out in the next episode chapter of this thrilling movie.

Over seemingly endless driving footage the narrator recaps the events of the past 23 minutes 57 seconds. It seems Speed Racer has entered the deadly Alpine Race with hopes of beating a the Car Acrobatic Team. Sounds exciting.

The following few minutes is taken up with yet more racing footage set to music, the most exciting event of which is Speed Racer passing through a toll booth. Finally it appears something might happen. The brakes on Mach 5 are acting up, which could be disastrous this high up in the Alps. If only Speed hadn't flipped out at Sparky, (although that's not quite how he remembers it in a conveniently edited flashback).

Elsewhere, as if by telepathy Sparky knows he needs to fix the Mach 5's brakes and he race through the woods to Speed's rescue. Alongside him is Spritle who holds the mechanic responsible for the state of the racing car and so tortures facially him with a spanner. Back at the race the evil Snake Oiler pulls a dastardly trick on Speed inside an icy tunnel. In order to prevent him from getting ahead he and two of his team mates launch their cars through the frozen stalactites on the tunnels ceiling bringing them down on their heroic competitor. This causes the boy racer to skid over the side but also brings about the deaths of two of their team mates.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

The brakes finally fail on Mach 5 and it seems like an early end for Speed Racer. Let's hope the Racer family has another, seldom seen child also with amazing racing abilities or I don't know how they're gonna fill the remaining forty two shows. Luckily for everyone Trixie is passing in her helicopter and with a little help from Sparky, who she picked up on the way through, Speed and the Mach 5 are pulled to safety despite the rope ominously fraying at the close of the scene.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

In a quiet spot away from the racing Sparky fixes the brakes on the Mach 5 while Trixie, Spritle and Speed engage in a spot of curious dated slapstick humour. With a storm brewing Speed heads back into the competition armed only with new brakes and Spritle's good luck charm. Even though he took all that time out it doesn't take him long to catch up to the other drivers. He finds them out of their cars looking out into the distance. As Speed approaches Snake informs him part of the track has fallen away due to the poor weather. They'll now have to take it in turns to attempt to cross the treacherous chasm, drawing lots to determine their place, as the jump will become increasingly dangerous with each racer's attempt. First up are two of the Acrobatic team who fail miserably, and plummet out of sight never to race again. Where are the race organisers in all this? Shouldn't they have called this off long ago? This is in a time before mobile phones so i guess it's possible that the race was cancelled hours ago yet this handful of remaining drivers have no idea and are bravely throwing themselves into a pit for nothing. This isn't gonna look good in the press.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

With the tragic death toll rising higher than an entire Nascar season Snake Oiler steps up to the challenge. It's not really a shock that he is the first to succeed in jumping the gorge. He's followed closely behind by Racer X, the narrator having already reminded us that his true identity is Speed Racer's lost brother. As Speed is preparing to take his turn news of his predicament reaches Trixie and the others who are holed up in a log cabin. The ever caring Racing Committee are even discussing a change of route due to the sharply dwindling numbers of living racers remaining in the competition. Fearing for his brother's safety Spritle begins yet another rasping bout of tears, which coupled with all the mood swings and the tool related facial violence makes me wonder why the others insist on bringing him along all the time.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats

With Spritle's good luck charm and his plagiarised wings Speed makes his attempt on the yawning chasm... and fails! Is this the end of Speed Racer? Is, as it seems, Snake Oiler really a better driver? If so why does Racer X bother wasting all that time getting his hapless brother out of scrapes? To protect the family name? Find out in the next thrilling chapter of Speed Racer!

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

Which is now. More news reaches the cabin including the fate of many of the drivers. This is too much for Trixie, Sparky and Spritle who rush out into the storm to assist Speed. A creepy, unnamed adult, tries to prevent them from venturing out into such dangerous weather conditions but all his concern gets him is bitten on the arm by a chimp. I think maybe he should get that bite looked at as soon as the storm clears or even sooner if possible, I'm just saying I've heard bad things. Off into the mountains they rush, having stolen the old man's jeep. He's really not having a good day.

The gang don't get far however, the old man didn't keep his jeep gassed up and the tank runs dry, leaving them stranded in the storm. Faced with this urgent, life threatening problem they do the only sensible thing, fall asleep. Trixie dreams of Speed although it turns out to be a horrifying, burning demon. The significance of this is never explained.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

In the burning morning sun Speed Racer awakes at the scene of the crash. Fortunately he is completely unharmed. Except now he's completely blind. Snake Oiler chances by and, realising his rival's predicament does some serious gloating at him. Speed's lightning fast comeback? He begins to sob. Snake leaves our whimpering hero in the dust, surely his victory is now assured?

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

Speed gropes his way back to the Mach 5 and attempts to rejoin the race, doing well for a blind man. He catches up with Racer X (did I ever tell you that he is actually Speed Racer's brother? The narrator seems to think it's important enough to mention every time he appears on screen) who can't bare to let his brother carry on like this but what can he do? Intentionally crash his car into the wall and pretend to have two broken legs of course! Now they have both suffered potentially race ending injuries the only course of action is to team up. Racer X will do the seeing and Speed Racer will do the driving. Didn't Gene Wilder and Richard Prior do a movie like this?

Together they race for several uneventful minutes until Snake Oiler's car is in sight (well, of Racer X, anyway). At the finish line the announcer reveals that of the 86 cars that started the race only 2 remain. It may be even less than that if what Racer X says is true. He's spotted an oil leak coming from Snake's car and, by his calculations, if he carries on at his current race winning speed, he'll blow up... for some reason. The masked driver advices Speed not to warn Snake of his predicament, after all if Snake explodes then Speed will easily win. But, being a good hearted and kind racer, Speed decides to take the right path and warn his rival of the danger he faces.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

Drawing up along side, Speed Racer yells to Snake but the paranoid bad guy thinks it's a trick and accelerates even faster. Drawing ever closer to the checkered flag it looks as though Snake Oiler and the Car Acrobatic Team are gonna be the winners. Then, just as Racer X (secretly Speed Racer's long lost brother) predicted the car catches fire and then explodes, to the horror of Snake's watching team mates.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

Speed Racer crosses the finish line as the winner and soul survivor of the Alpine Race. A mentally impaired looking girl throws a flower to him and then faints. The crowd cheers. Ticker tape rains down. The race officials approach and hand Speed Racer the prize he and his fellow racers risked their very lives for. A gold cup. The exact same, manic looking girl throws the same flower and faints again. The man behind her still looks shocked.

Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo
Speed Racer The Demon Acrobats Mach GoGoGo

"You drove a magnificent race Speed Racer and you fully deserve to be the winner and champion." One of the race officials tells him, "Now go to the hospital where the doctors will make your eyes well again." Oh, that's right - he's still blind from the horrific crash he survived. I think I might have gone to the hospital instead of the race celebration. In fact they probably could have postponed the ceremony until he had been checked out, especially since Speed was the only driver to live through the event.

Elsewhere on the track the remaining members of the Car Acrobatic Team vow to have their racing revenge on Speed Racer. The terrifying leader of this borderline cult carries Snake Oiler's (still living) body to his car and they leave ominously together. Speed Racer and his carefree chums decide maybe they've got time to go to the hospital and get his blindness checked out. Y'know, to make sure it's not becoming permanent. Honestly, you'd think he'd be in a bit more of a hurry than that.

Missing videos Missing videos

The Speed Racer Theme
You've probably seen it a million times but here it is again, plus a small plug for Harmony Gold.

Speed-ing to Victory
Yeah, sorry about that terrible pun...
Speed Racer wins the race and Snake is 'stunned'.

Good dubbing
Easy on the brain
  Good animation
  Thin story

Sixties anime really isn't my thing. I know, I'm sorry, I'm a heathen but at least I know it. It's all a bit too Disney-fied for me, Japanese animation had yet to fully find it's own distinct character. Having said that my own favourite period is the 1980's so I'm fully open to criticism.

But, my own personal biases aside, I still found Speed Racer enjoyable. Sure the plot was fairly thin on the ground, there were no big twists and the whole thing was more dated than last year's calendar, but it was fun and involving. I'm not sure I would want to watch the entire series, at least not off of the back of this one 'movie', but for just over an hour's worth of entertainment I could've done a lot worse (ie anything from Kidpix!).