Racers Start Your Engines!
Part 2: How it All Began!
Author: James Long
Most SPEED RACER fans know that the series was originally released in Japan as MACH GO GO GO and was the creation of Tatsuo Yoshida and his animation studio, Tatsunoko Productions. Beyond that, many fans know very little about Yoshida himself, his studio, and the efforts that went into creating MACH GO GO GO.
Tatsuo Yoshida was born in Kyoto on March 4, 1932. He was the eldest of the three children in the Yoshida family, followed by brothers Kenji on January 1, 1935 and Toyoharu on January 1, 1940. Yoshida was a self-taught artist, showing remarkable skill even as a grade schooler. Following the end of World War II, the three Yoshida brothers all fell in love with the Superman comics that were being brought to Japan by the occupying American forces. The dynamic art style in those comics was unlike anything seen in Japanese comics of the time, and inspired Tatsuo to try to emulate it.
This eye-catching style helped earn Yoshida a position as an illustrator for a local newspaper, the Mayako Shimbun, but what Tatsuo really wished to be was a comic artist. With all the major comic publishers being based out of Tokyo, Yoshida realized that he would have to move if he wanted to have any chance of making this wish a reality. So, in 1954, he made the move from Kyoto to Tokyo.
Yoshida’s big break came when he was signed to work with writer Ikki Kajiwara to do the art for a new wrestling comic, Iron Arm Rikiya. His success with Rikiya quickly led to Yoshida drawing more and more comics, eventually even writing some as well. With the success he was having, it wasn’t long before Yoshida needed some assistance to handle his workload. As a result, in 1955, Kenji and Toyoharu moved to Tokyo to join Tatsuo. While Kenji took on the role of business manager for his brothers, Toyoharu soon proved to be as prolific an artist as his older brother. In short order, Toyoharu began working on his own comics. Taking on the pen name “Ippei Kuri,” Toyoharu’s first solo work, Rampaging Tengu, was published in 1956.
As their reputations grew, the Yoshida’s work became synonymous with exciting, action packed comic adventures. Their work covered all manner of subjects, including wrestling, martial arts, historical drama, costumed heroes, baseball, science fiction and war stories. Bringing things full circle, Tatsuo even became the artist for a Superman comic series produced for the Japanese market in 1959.
In 1962, the Yoshidas decided that it was time to officially form their own shop for producing comics. So, on October 19, 1962, the three brothers founded Tatsunoko Productions. With “Tatsunoko” meaning “Seahorse” in Japanese, the new studio quickly adopted the profile of a seahorse as its logo. It wasn’t long before the Tatsunoko name began appearing in their comics, as well as the Tatsunoko seahorse being snuck into the occasional background drawing.
Tatsunoko might have remained a comic studio had it not been for the legendary Osamu Tezuka. In January of 1963, Mushi Productions, the animation studio founded by the “God of Comics,” premiered a weekly TV series based on Tezuka’s popular Mighty Atom (Astroboy) comic strip. Prior to this, the general consensus was that it would be too costly to produce animated series for television. But Tezuka’s studio proved that, by employing the techniques of limited animation first introduced in America by the Hanna Barbera studio, animated TV shows were indeed possible.
The Yoshidas had long been admirers of the animated works of Walt Disney, and like so many others, they had felt that animation would be too time-consuming and expensive for their fledgling studio to afford. Thanks to Tezuka’s groundbreaking work, Tatsuo Yoshida began to realize that this impossible dream might actually be attainable.
The final push came from a gentleman named Hiroshi Sasagawa. Sasagawa was a comic artist who worked as an assistant for Tezuka. When Tezuka moved into animation, Sasagawa began working as a storyboard artist for MIGHTY ATOM. Sasagawa was a friend of Tatsuo, and after seeing how enthusiastic the artist and his brothers were about animation, Sasagawa encouraged them to follow their dream of creating animation. Before that could happen, the Yoshidas would first need to learn the ins and outs of the animation industry. To that end, the trio joined the Toei Doga Laboratory. Toei was a leader in the feature film animation industry, and it had been there that Tezuka had cut his teeth on animation.
While continuing their prolific work for the comic industry, the Yoshidas quickly learned all they could at Toei, and began developing what they hoped would be their first animated project, a science fiction series titled SPACE ACE. This series would feature the adventures of Ace, a young boy from an alien world who was lost in space and made his new home on Earth, using his unique powers to combat evil. But, if the Yoshidas were going to make SPACE ACE their own series, and not one owned by Toei, the brothers had to leave the safety of a major film studio and set up shop themselves.
Building an animation studio from scratch would be a daunting and expensive task. But the three brothers had faith in what they were doing, and decided it was worth the risk to invest their energy and resources into the project. One of the first moves they did was to hire the man who had started them down that road in the first place, as Hiroshi Sasagawa became the first permanent staff member of Tatsunoko’s new animation department. He was soon joined by Seitaro Hara, a director whom the Yoshidas had worked with while at Toei. These two gentlemen were then tasked with hiring the animation staff needed to bring life to SPACE ACE and any future Tatsunoko productions.
While Sasagawa and Hara were busy dealing with the production side of things, The Yoshida brothers were consumed with the business end of the situation. Up to that point, all of the expenses were being paid for out of their own pockets. With a growing staff and expensive animation equipment that needed to be purchased, they were quickly draining all of the savings they had built up during their years as comic artists. What was needed was to find a company that was willing to advertise their products during episodes of SPACE ACE. Finding a company to act as a sponsor was proving to be a difficult task, primarily because Tatsunoko was a fledgling animation studio with no track record behind it. To keep money coming in, Tatsuo and Ippei continued to work on their comics. In order to generate interest in SPACE ACE, Tatsuo even created a comic using the character for Shueisha’s Shonen Book starting in July of 1964.
The financial situation reached its low point when the Yoshidas had to mortgage their family lands in Kyoto to keep things going. The necessity of this move made them fear that they had made the wrong choice in going into animation. This all changed during the production of the first episode of SPACE ACE, when their agents finally secured their first sponsor, the cosmetics and toiletry manufacturer Kanebo. With the commitment from Kanebo, Tatsunoko was now assured that it could produce a full 1-year run of SPACE ACE. Finally, at 6:15pm on May 8, 1965, over a year after the Yoshidas decided to change Tatsunoko Productions into more than simply a comic studio, Fuji Television aired the first episode of SPACE ACE.
Over the course of the 52 SPACE ACE episodes, Tatsunoko’s animation staff grew more confident and polished in what they were doing. Their efforts were rewarded by the warm reception viewers gave the series. Tatsuo even commented in the SPACE ACE comic that it seemed as though everyone he met was becoming a SPACE ACE fan. Still, as planned from the beginning, the adventures of the boy from space ended after one year. On April 28, 1966, the last episode of SPACE ACE aired. Though the stories for Ace and his friends were finished, Tatsunoko Productions was now officially an animation studio.
With production of SPACE ACE coming to a close, the obvious question at Tatsunoko was about what to do next. In Japan at that time, the popularity of car racing was at its height. Despite the wide enthusiasm for the sport, no one had done an animated series based on the exploits of these racers, so the Yoshidas thought that using racing as the background for their next series would be a good choice. The Yoshidas were no strangers to stories featuring race cars and their drivers, as both Tatsuo Yoshida and Ippei Kuri had done several racing comics in the past, including Pilot Ace (1960~64), Mach Sanshiro (1960~61), Hayabusa Q (1961~63), and Speed Bun-chan (1962).
With Pilot Ace being the most successful of their racing comics, it was this comic that would serve as the cornerstone for the development of MACH GO GO GO. The look of many of the main MACH GO GO GO characters can be traced to Pilot Ace, with Mach Sanshiro helping to fill in most of the rest. While it would have been easier to do a straight adaptation of Pilot Ace, certain elements of the comic that worked in 1960 were not very relevant just a few years later. A prime example of this was that the lead character in Pilot Ace became a racer only to earn money to help build a space rocket that his father had designed, a rocket he would pilot so that Japan could be the first country to put a man into space. This was a central feature of early Pilot Ace stories, but had become pointless once Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961. So, rather than a straight adaptation, it was decided to take the best elements of the various Yoshida and Kuri racing comics and build a new series around them.
With these comics as a blueprint, the task of planning the new series fell to Jinzo Toriumi. A talented and creative writer, with the screenplays to several movies on his resume, Toriumi had entered the animation industry as a scriptwriter crafting MIGHTY ATOM stories for Mushi Productions. Toriumi left Mushi to join Tatsunoko during the run of SPACE ACE, for which he would pen the scripts for 10 episodes. Working with the Yoshidas, Toriumi was able to combine elements from their comics into a single cohesive whole, now titled MACH GO GO GO. Most of the elements in Toriumi’s planning would remain throughout the series. It featured Go Mifune, a young racer, as well as his family, his girlfriend Michi Shimura, and even his missing brother Kenichi. Two notable differences were that there was no mention of the special gimmicks that Go’s car, the ‘Mach,’ would eventually have, and that Kenichi reappeared as the mysterious “Number 0-X,” not the more familiar “Masked Racer” name he would later possess.
Despite the vagueness of the car in Toriumi’s initial planning, the Yoshidas were keenly aware of the importance of the ‘Mach’ to the merchandising of the series. The shape of the car, as well as the variety of special features contained within it, would be major selling points when approaching potential sponsors. Because of this, they knew that a unique design for Go Mifune’s car was necessary. With Tatsuo Yoshida busy working on the designs for the main characters in the series, the task of creating this one-of-a-kind race car fell to Mitsuki Nakamura.
Nakamura had come to the studio from Toei Doga when Tatsunoko and Toei parted company over SPACE ACE. While Nakamura had spent most of SPACE ACE painting backgrounds for that series, he had a wide diversity of experience in the animation industry from his time at Toei, where he did everything from cel painting to photography. As he had an interest in cars, when the time came to create the look for the ‘Mach,’ Nakamura asked Yoshida if he could try doing the design. Knowing Nakamura’s background, Yoshida decided to give him the chance.
When designing the ‘Mach,’ Nakamura preferred not to use any references, relying instead on his own imagination as his guide. One consideration he had to keep in mind was how easy the car would be to animate, making sure that there was no excess linework in the design. After much trial-and-error, Nakamura finally developed a design that satisfied Tatsuo.
Despite Nakamura’s efforts to the contrary, when the animators saw the design, they began to complain that the subtle lines and curves would be difficult to animate. To prove that his design could work, Nakamura took it upon himself to animate the last scene in the opening credits for the show. That complex shot involved the ‘Mach’ driving toward the camera and stopping, with Go Mifune jumping out of the car as the camera angle moved from a front view to a side view. Doing this showed Nakamura that his design did need a few minor alterations to flow correctly. Nakamura quickly made the final changes, and the familiar design of the car was established once and for all.
As this work was progressing, Nippon Television became the first network in Japan to announce that they were going to switch entirely to full-color broadcasting. Upon hearing this, the Yoshidas realized that it was only a matter of time before all the Japanese networks would demand their programs be in color. Since SPACE ACE had been a black and white series, Tatsunoko was going to have to upgrade their equipment and their animation techniques if they were to keep up with this coming change. This was a major step for any animation studio, but even more so for one that was as new to the industry as Tatsunoko was. The studio had to do a great deal of research in order to insure that their color balance would be presented correctly, without problems such as the colors bleeding into each other. If the studio was to survive, this work was of the highest necessity.
Even with their work on SPACE ACE to point to, finding sponsorship for the new series was a difficult task. Since the premise was original, not based directly on an existing product, the sponsors were leery of investing in something for which the potential for success couldn’t be easily gauged. After completing work on the pilot film for MACH GO GO GO, Tatsunoko was positive enough that they would eventually succeed in finding backing for the series that they continued working on further stories for the series. As more and more stories were finalized, the Yoshidas decided that the best way to prove that there would be interest in MACH GO GO GO was to use the same method the studio had used to garner advance interest in SPACE ACE, by creating a comic based on the series.
Mach Go Go Go made its comic debut in the June, 1966 issue of Shueisha’s Shonen Book. Drawn by Tatsuo Yoshida, the comic took full advantage of the stories that had already been prepared for the TV version. SPEED RACER fans who look at the comic today will instantly recognize stories that would later become episodes like “The Great Plan,” “The Most Dangerous Race,” and “The Desperate Desert Race,” as well as being treated to a few adventures that never made their way into the animated version.
Perhaps not too surprising is that many of these comic stories, and others that would later appear in the MACH GO GO GO TV series, were themselves adapted from tales that had first appeared in the pages of Pilot Ace and Mach Sanshiro. The Mach Go Go Go comic would eventually run for two years, with its final chapter appearing in the May, 1968 issue of Shonen Book. In addition to introducing readers to the world of Go Mifune, the comic showed the kind of excitement and exotic locales that would be the trademark of the TV series. With a successful comic series to point to, the studio was finally able to secure the necessary sponsorship.
With financial backing now in place, MACH GO GO GO found a home on Fuji Television, the same network that previously aired SPACE ACE. Even though Fuji Television was still supporting black and white series, it was decided to still make MACH GO GO GO in color, as not to waste all the effort and expense that had already gone into the color conversion. Unfortunately, all the efforts making the switch to color animation and to gain sponsor approval had taken time, resulting in the premiere of MACH GO GO GO being delayed until the Spring of 1967, almost a year after SPACE ACE had finished its run.
With the series moving into full production, the staff got to work in earnest. As one of the most experienced members of the Tatsunoko staff, Hiroshi Sasagawa was named as the Chief Director for MACH GO GO GO, a position he had also held on SPACE ACE. It was his job to oversee the entire production of the series, giving him final say on all elements of the show.
In recognition of his contributions to the development of MACH GO GO GO, Mitsuki Nakamura was placed in the position of Art Director for the series. Even though Nippon Television had insisted on full color programming, the majority of TV sets in Japan were still black and white. As a result, a large part of Nakamura’s new job was to make sure the colors would look all right, even on black and white TV sets.
In an unusual move, Tatsunoko hadn’t waited until MACH GO GO GO had a sponsor commitment before going ahead with production on the series. Because of the switch to color, the staff needed some extra time to work out the kinks in their new processes. As a result, the first batch of 13 episodes were produced in the latter half of 1966, followed by a four month break in production until the series had received its sponsorship and a spot on Fuji TV’s schedule.
When the series finally premiered on April 2, 1967, the world of MACH GO GO GO was brought to life with the episode “Take Flight! Mach (Beginning).” Setting a pattern that would dominate the stories throughout the series, this adventure was shown in two parts. While continued stories were an unusual habit for animated series of that era, Tatsunoko took advantage of the additional time allotted for the stories to give them far greater depth than could be found in an average 30-minute story.
The first thing to strike viewers watching the series was the memorable theme song, titled MACH GO GO GO. Until then, most theme songs for animated series were similar to elementary school songs or school marches. This song broke that mold immediately, with a wild drum solo for the intro, followed by a jazzy song that set the tone for the show to follow. A popular success, this song is still requested frequently during late-night radio shows in Japan. Credit for this memorable theme song goes to composer Nobuyoshi Koshibe, with lyrics by Tatsuo Yoshida, and assistance by Akira Ito. Koshibe would continue working on MACH GO GO GO, composing the background music for the series. Though the series had a small library of standard music cues upon which they could draw whenever they wished, the overwhelming majority of the music was created specifically for each episode. This required Koshibe to regularly compose a dozen or more pieces of new music for each episode!
After the work he had put into the planning for MACH GO GO GO, Jinzo Toriumi was given the job of Chief Writer for the series. Toriumi proved the best possible choice for the post, as this prolific writer quickly set the tempo for MACH GO GO GO stories. Of the 52 MACH GO GO GO episodes, Toriumi wrote scripts for 28, and co-wrote 15 more. Toriumi had a natural flare for fast-paced action shows, and the setting for this series provided the perfect forum for his imaginative style to shine.
The task of bringing Go Mifune to life went to a voice actor in his first lead role, a young man named Katsuji Mori. For reasons that are unclear now, Mori decided to work under the pseudonym of Setsuya Tanaka, a name he dropped after his second lead role in Toei’s 1968 TV series CYBORG 009. His voiced filled with youthful exuberance, Mori was the epitome of an animation action hero. From this start, Mori went on to a very successful voice acting career, including the leads in two more Tatsunoko action series: Ken, the Eagle in GATCHAMAN and Joji Minami in TEKKAMAN.
Filling the role of Go’s girlfriend, Michi Shimura, proved somewhat problematic. Initially she was given voice by Yoshiko Matsuo, but for unknown reasons, she was only able to do Michi’s voice in the first episode of the series. Replacing her was Ikuko Sugita, who voiced Michi starting with the second episode. Unfortunately, due to other commitments, she left the role after episode #11. Fortunately, the revolving door of actresses came to an end when Michiko Nomura stepped into the role starting with episode #12, and stayed through the end of the series.
Kinya Aikawa, the voice of the Masked Racer, was the only actor among the main cast of MACH GO GO GO to have also been a part of the regular cast of SPACE ACE. A veteran voice actor who had made his debut dubbing the voice of Jimmy Olsen for the Japanese version of the George Reeves SUPERMAN TV series, Aikawa provided the voice for the comedic reporter Yadokari in Tatsunoko’s earlier series.
Though telling an entertaining story was their foremost concern, Yoshida and Sasagawa continued making efforts to increase the quality of their animation. Having gone as far as their own animation experience would take them, they looked for outside assistance to help increase their range. To this end, they subcontracted Tama Productions, an independent animation house, to help with the animation chores on MACH GO GO GO. From Tama Productions came Masami Suda, a talented young animator who would take on the role of Chief Animator for the series. One important step Suda made to help improve the look of MACH GO GO GO was to bring the use of an airbrush to the animation. At that point, very few companies outside of Disney had used airbrushes to any degree. The airbrush was used to detail the ‘Mach,’ adding shadows to the body or reflections on the windshield glass. This attention to detail became one of the highlights of MACH GO GO GO.
To help capture the feeling of actual car racing, the staff made many trips to the newly finished Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka in order to observe and absorb the atmosphere. The staff also worked hard to bring to life the many unusual locations from around the world that Go Mifune went to race, with extra effort spent trying to make them as realistic as possible. For many people in Japan at that time, world travel was only starting to become a reality, and a show like MACH GO GO GO served as an introduction to the exciting places beyond the borders of their homeland.
An important member of the MACH GO GO GO production staff didn’t appear until the series was well under way: Hisayuki Toriumi. Toriumi had joined Tatsunoko in February of 1966 as part of the writing department. While he was a talented writer, his true gift was as a Director. Toriumi would make his debut as the Director in MACH GO GO GO episode #34, “Reckless Driving! Record Car.” Toriumi could easily inspire his animators to do their best work, and he showed a special talent for bringing action scenes to life. He would go on to direct a total of 9 episodes, including the final three episodes of the series. Despite having the same family name, Hisayuki Toriumi was not related to writer Jinzo Toriumi. To avoid confusion among the staff, the two were soon given nicknames. The older Jinzo was called “Otori (Big Bird), while the younger Hisayuki was called “Kotori” (Little Bird).
Once MACH GO GO GO was on the air, it quickly found success. Soon, Go Mifune’s face could be found on everything from note pads to toy binoculars, and the popular theme song was even released on a record. As expected, it was the toys and models of the ‘Mach’ that were in highest demand, and remained popular even after the series had completed its initial broadcast. These same model kits came in handy for the animators during the production of the series, giving them a 3-dimensional representation of the car to examine from any angle they wished to draw.
After 52 episodes, MACH GO GO GO finished airing on March 31, 1968. Though new episodes were no longer being produced, the series was popular enough to make regular appearances in syndicated reruns. The extra effort that went into making the series in color soon proved fortuitous, as black and white series fell out of favor over the next few years, both in Japan and abroad. Thanks to its vibrant colors, MACH GO GO GO would stay on the air, generating new fans for many years to come.
When the series ended, the staff and cast held a party in a restaurant near Tatsunoko’s studios in Kokubunji. In a 2006 interview, actor Katsuji Mori recalled the occasion. Mori said, “As I came out of the restaurant, Tatsuo came up to me. He had left a little earlier, and it was night, and he asked me, ‘Mr. Mori, say something to me with the voice of Go Mifune.’ I then said to him, ‘The television broadcast has ended, but in the heart of Tatsuo Yoshida… I will continue to speed along forever.’”
A sentiment shared by all the fans of MACH GO GO GO!
To Be Continued!! Keep checking back to SciFi Japan as we continue our in-depth look at the original SPEED RACER cartoon and the new SPEED RACER movie coming to a theater near you May 9, 2008 from Warner Brothers!