Fans of Japans Studio Ghibli and its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki will remember this plotline from his first official Ghibli film, from the 1986s. Castle in the sky: A dark haired boy stumbles upon a mysterious pigtailed girl who seems to have materialized out of nowhere. The two form a close bond, but she is in danger, pursued by menacing characters after her family’s ties to great power. When the people chasing her catch up to her and kidnap her, the boy leaves his homeland to save her, and the couple ends up traveling to fantastic new lands.
The film established Studio Ghibli as a staple of international animation and solidified Miyazakis’ reputation as one of the world’s most engaging film writers and animators. But the most avid Ghibli fans will know that Miyazaki used the exact same premise eight years earlier for a different story: the 1978 animated television series. Future Boy Conan. The series never aired in the United States and has long been relegated to fansubs and import copies, until now.
Forty-three years after its premiere, Miyazakis’ first film is being released for the first time in North America. The release, available in four Shout! Factory Blu-ray or a digital download, includes 4K digital restoration and new English dubbing produced by Vancouvers Ocean Productions (Dragon Ball Z, the girl who jumped in time). The 26-episode shows, each lasting about 30 minutes, focus on a young boy named Conan who ventures into a post-apocalyptic world. Told with optimism and a heart without limits, Future Boy Conan represents a turning point in Miyazakis’ career and a milestone in the animation industry.
While the name Miyazakis might be the first draw for curious people about the series, Nippon Animation has cultivated a hotbed of talent for the series. Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata made storyboards and directed two episodes. Miyazaki and Takahatas’ mentor Yasuo tsuka served as animation director and helped with character design and the future. Heart murmur Director Yoshifumi Kond contributed key animation. Classical composer Shinichir Ikebe, revered for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, composed the score for the show. Conan came with its fair share of problems: Miyazaki was initially hesitant to direct the series, which was constantly falling behind, and received low ratings when it first aired on Japanese television. Yet he found a devoted following in Japan and abroad, with a particularly successful translation and Release in Arab countries.
Future Boy Conan begins with weird electric guitars ushering in Armageddon. In 2008, a terrible war ravaged the world. Ultra-powerful geomagnetic weapons knock the Earth off its axis, wiping out all five continents and raising sea levels. Twenty years later, two survivors lead lives on Remnant Island, where the affable Conan, 11, simply lives with his foster grandfather, swimming, fishing and leaping with endless energy. They assume they are the last people alive, until a young girl named Lana is washed ashore, unconscious. Conan is delighted with the newcomer, but Lana is on the run from the agents of another island. They want to pit him against his grandfather, the last remaining scientist specializing in solar energy. Their pursuit launches a cat-and-mouse chase that spans Earth’s new island ecosystem.
An almost silent first sequence of Conan hunting a shark offers a quick glimpse into his characterization. Superhuman strength and gripping feet give him a physical advantage, but his determination sets him apart. Like so many of Miyazaki’s protagonists, he manifests a deep and intrinsic loyalty once he connects with someone. A memorable visual shows him using all his might to produce a single drop of water to drink.
For her part, the soft-spoken Lana helps Conan understand the unknown world he enters after meeting her. She sometimes feels too much like a damsel in distress, but she has her own bow and talents. Sometimes the trio is completed by Jimsy, an almost wild kid who smokes cigarettes (hilariously referred to as smokies in this dub) and prefers to eat frogs to responsibility. But he’s not a one-note comic relief. When he inadvertently has Conan punished, he acknowledges the wrong he has done and makes amends.
Think about Conan as a proto-Castle in the sky provides a good entry point into the series. Both stories are high octane adventures that target a younger audience and follow more traditional narratives than later Miyazaki dishes. Clumsy Captain Dyce and his crew provide comedic relief, and they experience an antagonistic arc-turned-ally reminiscent of the Dolas pirate gang in Castle in the sky, while Industria’s government agent Lepka is one of Miyazaki’s few traditional villains. Lana and Chateaus Sheeta even has almost identical character designs.
The two stories also share a first exploration of the environmentalist and anti-war themes that have preoccupied Miyazaki for decades. The inhabitants of Industria Island eat synthetic plastic foods; The people of High Harbor make their living off the land, connecting with nature. By the end of the first episode, a character has already recoiled at the sight of a gun. None of this is subtle. Yet while Conan and Lana frequently encounter dangers and catastrophes, the series never loses sight of the pure worldview of its protagonists. As the extremely catchy theme song says: Swim and make waves / Run and hit the ground / Because we love the Earth so much / Because dawn is so beautiful.
Or Castle in the sky riffs of a steampunk aesthetic, Conan is all about ’70s retrofuturism, creating a vibrant visual language of sleek teal spacesuits, tangerine seaplanes, and beeping computer rooms. The ocean is the central backdrop, but environments vary from abandoned underground cities to endless deserts. Manned details, like moss growing on an old rocket, make it tangible. Twenty-six episodes give Miyazaki plenty of world-building time, and part of the joy is seeing what he comes up with next.
Miyazaki did not create Conanthe world zero. The series is loosely based on The incredible tide by mid-century sci-fi author Alexander Key, best known for Escape to Witch Mountain and the resulting Disney film franchise. Keys ‘novel paints a clear allegory of the Cold War with underlying Christian currents, replacing Industria for the Soviet Union and High Harbor, Lanas’ pastoral home island for the United States. Miyazaki disliked the book, finding it too depressing and inappropriate for children, and only accepted the realization Conan provided he has carte blanche to make changes. Some of Keys’ plot points and offbeat details, like Lanas’ avian telepathy, are part of the series, but Miyazaki remixes Keys’ basic idea of a watery dystopia in a tender-hearted children’s adventure. .
In a 1983 interview with Bunko animation (reproduced and translated into Starting point, a collection of Miyazaki essays and other documents), the director explained, in the original story you have what looks to me like a hopeless world. You have a weird society where people dream of riding bikes through desolate scenes of dark oceans, gray skies, craggy boulders, and boulders, it’s a dark mental landscape. In Miyazakis Conan, blue seas and green landscapes shine brightly.
Rumors persist that Key is partly to blame for the show that took decades to arrive in America. The story goes that the author saw an early version, hated Miyazakis’ interpretation, and asked his estate to prevent him from coming to the United States. In this Bunko animation interview, Miyazaki alludes to the Japanese network NHK which is concerned about his relationship with Key. But the author died a year before Conans outing, and her only son died in 1995. Neither has spoken publicly about the show, making it difficult to ultimately prove whether the rumors carry any weight. (It should be noted that this new version arrives only a few years after Keys to novels were licensed as eBooks, after many of them had been depleted for decades.)
Conan has long been a missing piece of the puzzle for Miyazaki’s finalists, but it would be wrong to say that the show only deserves credit as a first effort, paving the way for future masterpieces. This directly inspired the animators of Akira Toriyama (Dragon ball) to Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe). In the anime about the love of the anime Hands off Eizouken!, the entertainment team has redesigned Conan frames for a pivotal scene to ensure they can pay homage without copyright issues. Pixar Luca is largely an attempt to make a Studio Ghibli movie as part of Pixar on the one hand, the setting for the Italian seaside village is called Portorosso, in homage to Ghiblis Porco Rosso and director Enrico Casarosa took visual cues from the playful multi-limb physicality of Conan, showing his team’s episodes for reference.
The show also inspired Miyazaki himself. In an interview published in Tokuma Shotens 1984 Nausica of the Valley of the Wind guide, he shared his assessment of Future Boy Conan: So my honest feeling is that with this job, I really remembered why I wanted to work on animated films.
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