Monday, May 12

Soft Power, Japanese style.

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / America in Speed's rear-view mirror

Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

As Speed Racer's Hollywood blockbuster adaptation opens in U.S. theaters today, Western media outlets are trumpeting its Japanese source: the 1960s manga and anime created by Tatsuo Yoshida and Tatsunoko Productions, the studio he formed in Tokyo with his two brothers, Kenji and Toyoharu.

Originally titled Mach Go Go Go, Speed Racer debuted on U.S. television in 1967, bearing many of the aesthetic characteristics now associated with anime as a global juggernaut--jerky, hyperkinetic action, ethnically stateless or even Western-looking characters, visceral violence and a complex, multifaceted, episodic storyline.

Its commercial success marked a watershed moment in anime history. Though Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy had arrived a few years earlier, Speed Racer was the title that catapulted anime into the U.S. marketplace and penetrated the consciousness of a generation now entrenched in middle age.

But despite its very Japanese roots, Speed Racer was, from the very beginning, made for America.

"We were surprised about the success [of Speed Racer]," Ippei Kuri (the brother formerly known as Toyoharu Yoshida) said in an interview last year, the 40th anniversary of the original TV series, "but it was actually what we had been planning. We had been studying American culture, and its style was something we tried very hard to emulate."

Speed Racer's protagonist was named Go Mifune in the Japanese original, a nod to Toshiro Mifune, the actor who appeared in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and other classics--but his appearance is modeled on Elvis Presley, specifically the race-car driving, scarf-wearing Elvis of Viva Las Vegas. The Mach 5, Mifune's gadget-equipped car, was inspired by Ferrari, and its elaborate equipment was lifted from the 007 movies, specifically James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger.

Most importantly, the familial bonds at the heart of Speed Racer--the macho yet lovable father, competitive male siblings, patient mother, helpful girlfriend and family pet (a chimpanzee)--all emanate from American television shows broadcast in Japan in the 50s.

"America in the 50s had a growing economy and was the global leader after its victory in World War II," Kuri said. "After that came Vietnam, and I think Americans lost their peaceful family image. We in Japan saw the '50s America as an ideal, and we presented that in Speed Racer. I think Americans in the '60s and even today like our show because it feels nostalgic for them. It was about a time when America was the world's ideal."

Peter Fernandez, the American writer and voice actor largely responsible for turning the Japanese original into a U.S. TV series, agrees. "Speed Racer had family values," he told me from his home in New York. "It wasn't about a hero who won in the end, or a robot. It had a family of characters who were all concerned about what happened to their members. That was and is immensely attractive, and I think that has helped the series maintain its longevity."

Fernandez spoke to me the day after he attended a preview of the Hollywood movie, directed by the Wachowski Brothers, the anime-obsessed makers of The Matrix. "I think they got it right," he said.

And what did they get right? A story created in postwar Japan by artists imagining an America that would no longer exist by the time it reached American viewers: projection turned nostalgia via transcultural boomerang.

The crowning irony? Not one of the original Japanese creators of Speed Racer actually knew how to drive.

More from here.

This short article talks about cultural power and appeal of anime as it trying to be in mainstream of US cinema goers with Speed Racer leading the way currently. On the gist, I agreed with the author but I also felt he is oversimplifying few things here and there. In the spirit though, it is an excellent article.

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