Sunday, June 6, 2021

across the leijiverse

Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend
McFarland & Co.
Editors Helen McCarthy and Darren-Jon Ashmore

Leiji Matsumoto isn't as well known in the English speaking anime-fan world as, say, Osamu Tezuka or Hayao Miyazaki. Tezuka’s manga career impacted every facet of the Japanese industry, and his animation aired across America for decades, while Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning films have become their own aesthetic, a byword for the global reach of Japanese animation as serious cinema. Both are names any lazy entertainment media editor will drop into a headline for maximum clickbait value.

But Leiji? In America his most successful work was the syndicated TV cartoon Star Blazers, the localized Space Battleship Yamato. This series had the bad luck to hit an audience distracted by toy-commercial cartoons starring transforming robots. And yet, Leiji Matsumoto had undeniable impact here in North America. The film based on his Galaxy Express 999 manga was the first non-kiddie anime movie to get a national theatrical rollout. His artistic vision inspired American comics based on animated series that never aired in the States. His predilection for willowy, mysterious blondes ran rampant across syndicated cartoon television, the children's section of your local video rental, and the TVs of your local anime clubs - only Russ Meyer has had a larger impact on the visual portrayal of specific body types of women in the media. But while Tezuka and Miyazaki both have bookshelves worth of English-language texts exploring their lives and careers, Matsumoto has... zero.

However! This Leiji-shaped pothole in our anime knowledge has finally been measured, marked, filled, and steamrolled smooth, no longer impeding our progress. Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend, recently published by McFarland & Co., is the long-awaited hard-copy exploration of his six-plus decades of artistic labor. Editors Helen McCarthy and Darren-Jon Ashmore have assembled a dream team of theorists and craftsmen that explore Leiji Matsumoto's popular works like Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, and The Cockpit, with every chapter featuring a different researcher exploring a new facet of Leiji Matsumoto's creativity, skill, and ethos.

With pieces from ten different contributors, the essays are naturally going to differ in tone and focus, language ranging from casual to academic and referencing everything from low-rent comic book publishers to highbrow philosophy. As an academic work Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend isn’t the dashed-off pop culture typical of media fad publishing – this is a serious book that demands and rewards the reader’s extra attention.

Helen McCarthy takes us to then-Akira Matsumoto's youth in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, raised by parents that instilled diligent self-determination without neglecting culture, art, and film. I knew his father had flown fighter planes in the Pacific during WWII. What I didn't know, and what I learned from this book, is what Dad Matsumoto did AFTER the war, and how his moral code directly affected his family's fortunes and became an example for young Akira. His family survived postwar tragedy and hardship and while the younger brother eventually became an engineer and professor, Akira took the midnight train to Tokyo to find his fortune in the burgeoning manga industry, joining Tezuka, Ishinomori and others brute-forcing an entire medium into existence.

Licca-chan meets Captain Harlock

Matsumoto's early shoujo manga work, in part produced with his wife, fellow manga artist and Licca-chan fashion doll creator Miyako Maki, gave Matsumoto the track record and experience needed for his move out of the girls' school. With a pen name change to Leiji Matsumoto, he moved into worlds of science fiction, adventure, melodrama, and licensed Toshiba mascot characters, doing work for Tezuka's COM and adapting Night On The Galactic Railroad for "Friend of Hope" magazine. As a result, Leiji Matsumoto was perfectly placed to become the visual manager for Yoshinobu Nishizaki's Space Battleship Yamato project. Matsumoto remodeled the series, foregrounding the WWII In Space aesthetic and helping to spur not only a "Yamato Boom" but his own manga stardom, making his style inescapable for the rest of the decade.

Darren-Jon Ashmore explores the infinite canvas of Matsumoto's space opera, contrasting the transformative journey of characters like Captain Harlock, Tochiro Oyama, and Tetsuro Hoshino with Matsumoto's own regional express-train "bildungsroman," traveling as he did from Kyushu to Tokyo to become a man amidst a recovering Japan. Goethe and Wagner both reveal their inspirations for Matsumoto's worldview and Ashmore details the history of space opera with "Doc" Smith's Skylark and Lensman novels, their roots in western pulp fiction, and how Matsumoto combined several genres to push boundaries in late-50s shoujo epics like Marie Of The Silver Valley. Captain Harlock's origins as "Captain Kingston", derived from Sabatini's Captain Blood, reveal where young Matsumoto's dreams were moving; out, away from mundane troubles, to boundless oceans, towards the endless "wheel of time" we all cycle through.

Tim Eldred brings the eye of a professional animator and comic artist to a process-oriented chapter that examines how Matsumoto's work was modified for mass production both here and in Japan. We learn how Matsumoto's ethereal brush line was changed for animation, and Eldred delivers a fascinating look into a forgotten corner of American comic publishing, when comics based on Japanese anime properties could sell in the tens of thousands. His eyewitness look at what it took to publish Eternity's Captain Harlock comics is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. The problems of quickly rendering fleets of space battleships and of compressing the more relaxed narrative pace of a Leiji Matsumoto space opera into the rigid 24 pages of American periodicals are all detailed. Also reported firsthand: his own evening visiting Leiji Matsumoto at home, finding out what Matsumoto feels is Matsumoto's most representative work and whether Yamato influenced Star Wars or Star Wars influenced Yamato or both (it's both).

Jonathan Tarbox dives into Matsumoto's war stories, little seen in the West but perhaps the best example of comics exploring the human tragedy of warfare since Harvey Kurtzman was editing EC’s Frontline Combat. The Japanese ideals of purity and sacrifice in pursuit of a doomed goal are highlighted against Western concepts of heroism, as Joseph Campbell's mythic thousand-faced hero stacks up against the "noble failed hero" described by Yukio Mishima translator Ivan Morris. We're shown how notions of the ephemeral beauty of human achievement in our fallen world permeate Matsumoto's work, particularly in the three-part OVA series The Cockpit, where three different WWII stories show three different characters wrestling with sacrifice and duty.

1980s American VHS releases of Matsumoto anime films

Stefanie Thomas gets to tackle perhaps the most tangled knot in Matsumoto's intertwining space operas, the world of women and gender roles. What can we learn from Harlock’s female characters - the traditional, mothering Miimay, the boundary challenging Kei Yuki, and the cranky kitchen matron Masu versus the Mazone, who appear to be beautiful, seductive women, but who we're told are asexual plant creatures bent on dominating and/or destroying men? How does Maetel navigate both the 999's galactic railroad and her own character's journey from "mother figure" to "object of sexual desire" and back again? On what page does she name-drop Corn Pone Flicks (126)? Thomas examines the evolution and interplay of these characters against decades of women's rights campaigns in Japan and Matsumoto's own ideas and ideals of womanhood, informed by the women around him during his Kyushu childhood and the femininity presented to him in popular culture.

Captain Harlock TV and Galaxy Express 999 film laserdiscs

Edmund Hoff’s chapter looks at the origins of cosplay culture in 1980s Japan. First-hand reports of the controversies surrounding costuming at fan events like Comiket, the origins of the word "cosplay" itself, and how Matsumoto’s characters fueled the scene all enter into the investigation. Meanwhile, here in the present, award-winning costumers Ondine and Matthew Montoya deliver a detailed how-to guide all about building your own Captain Harlock and Captain Bainas (from 2012's Ozma, based on Matsumoto's 1961 manga) outfits from the ground up, including plans for a Mr. Bird puppet and how to get the proper facial scars without actually, you know, scarring your face.

Translator Zack Davisson speaks to his struggles at translating Matsumoto's poetic idiom into English, finding the rhythm and tone of opera serving as context for rendering the inner monologues and dramatic declarative statements of characters like Emeraldas and Captain Harlock. In live "translation battles" his approach is tested against that of Harvard professor Jay Rubin, and seeing the contrast between their takes on the material is an enlightening look at a process many anime and manga fans might take for granted.

Leiji Matsumoto in Kenya

In the final chapter Ashmore interviews Matsumoto for a wide-ranging conversation that bounces from his love of classical music, the origins of his iconic female characters, the impact of films like Shochiku’s 1943 The Spider And The Tulip, Fleischer’s 1941 Mr. Bug Goes To Town, and Scarlett O’Hara’s determination to never be hungry again. Matsumoto speaks to his early years in the newspaper and print industry, the coldness inherent in digitally-produced animation, and holds forth on the theories of race memory and time dilation that have come to the foreground in his work; the cyclical nature of universal time seeing iconic characters appear and re-appear in new yet familiar guises. Also discussed: how he and Ishinomori were accused of running an illegal underground cinema.

The usual adjective for books like this is “essential,” and usually that’s just overblown hype. In this case, Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend is the real deal, honestly a one of a kind must-have. Informative, unique essays, revealing interviews, and an exhaustive appendix of Matsumoto’s manga and anime career guarantee you’ll be returning to this again and again. English-language work on manga-ka is rare enough, and to finally have the career and philosophy of one of the prime movers of the worldwide success of Japanese animation laid out for us is a pleasure long overdue.

Diecast Arcadia toy (author's collection)

Without Leiji Matsumoto, the infrastructure and industry that’s grown up around Japanese animation in North America would be very different. Certainly without his work I wouldn’t be here writing these words. If you’re interested in Japan or Japanese comics or animation, let alone Space Battleship Yamato or Galaxy Express 999 or Captain Harlock or Queen Millennia or anything else from his lifetime of creativity, Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend needs to be on your bookshelf for every single revolution of that wheel of time.

-Dave Merrill

with special thanks to Stephanie Nichols and McFarland

collect 'em all!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Amy Howard Wilson

Amy Howard at AWA III in 1997

I can't remember exactly where the news came from, the news that another Star Blazers voice actor had been located. But it spread quickly across late 1990s anime fandom; the voice actress for Nova from Star Blazers was out there, her name was Amy Howard, and we should totally invite her to our newly-thriving anime conventions. And that's just what we did. 

AWA 1997 program book bio

Amy first arrived at Anime Weekend Atlanta in 1997, and as a convention administrator and a Star Blazers fan, I was curious and a little concerned about how someone from outside the fandom would react to our anime-nerd world. As it turned out I shouldn't have worried; Amy was absolutely delighted to find herself immersed in friendly and enthusiastic crowds of cosplayers, gamers, artists, and nerds. She seemed thrilled to talk to former kids who'd raced home from school to listen to her voice on Star Blazers. And let there be no mistake. To sit down and talk with a woman who spoke with a voice I and so many other Star Blazers fans had heard over and over again, well, it was downright supernatural.

Amy (3rd from left) and Space Battleship Yamato cosplayers

Amy loved anime conventions; I never saw her at one without a smile on her face. She was always happy to share stories of Star Blazers, of acting, of New York City in the decadent late 1970s. She was quickly adopted by anime fans across the country, and when other Star Blazers voice talent was located she acted as their ambassador to our anime-con culture.

Amy, Peter Fernandez, Corinne Orr, and AWA admin Lloyd Carter

The first thing we Atlantans did was to sit her down and interview her. I'm sure hundreds of other Star Blazers fans did the same thing. Today's fans, raised in the day of IMDB and the panopticon of promotional and social media, might not understand how for years Star Blazers voice actors were mysteries. Their work went uncredited in the 1979 series, so we had to track them down, and Amy became a key part of that process. Within a few years we found out who Ken Meseroll and Eddie Allen and Tom Tweedy were (they were, of course, Derek Wildstar, Leader Desslok, and Mark Venture), and Amy acted as their ambassador to our anime-con culture.

Amy and Dave III and another Dave in 2002

We were all pleasantly surprised when Amy wound up hitting it off with one of our own. David Wilson III was one of Atlanta's original anime-club crew and was then running AWA's consuite. He was grumbling about being so busy in the consuite that he'd been unable to see any of the guests, including Amy. Hearing of his plight, our tech director Gordon fetched Amy and brought her up to meet Dave. Two years later, there we were, at their wedding.

Amy and Dave III at AWA 2008

The last time I saw Dave & Amy was at Otakon in Baltimore; we caught up over Inner Harbor seafood and promised to see each other again soon. And now that's never going to happen. We all recently learned Amy passed away at the end of February. I always thought there would be one more convention for us to share a box of wine at, one more opening ceremony introduction, one more memory to make, and I'm stunned that she's gone.

The past year has been particularly tough. We've said goodbye to a lot of things and a lot of people. We've had to endure loss without the support of having our friends and family close. But losing Amy seems particularly cruel right now, when it seemed like we were finally getting the end of the pandemic in sight, just when we were starting to look forward to coming together again. And we will come together again, believe me. It's just that when we do, there are going to be some empty spaces at the table and a little less laughter all around. 

We'll miss you, Amy.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

spacemen with a mission

By all logic, this should not work. A juvenile delinquent with a secret agent big brother who moonlights as a manga artist? A secret world war over a planet-destroying Anti-Proton Bomb? A detour into small-town school board politicking? A time-travel twist ending? And as the main characters, three space aliens turned into what appear to be inflatable pool toy animals? These ingredients don’t seem to add up to anything but obscurity. Yet Wonder 3 became one of Osamu Tezuka’s many popular manga serials and an early success for his Mushi Production animation studio. In a mid ‘60s field crowded with amazing robots, jet boys, and Planet Princes, Wonder 3 carved out its own transformative space, inspiring decades of fans. And now more than fifty years later, English readers finally get to enjoy the original Wonder 3 manga that inspired the Amazing 3 television series.

Taking a page from the 1951 20th Century Fox film The Day The Earth Stood Still, the theme of a union of advanced alien races observing & judging our terrible Earthling behavior isn't new, even for Japanese pop culture - Shintoho’s 1957-58 "Super Giant" films used similar story beats. Tezuka himself would utilize the plot point in manga like Next World and Zero Men, but Wonder 3 may perhaps be peak Tezuka; a wild mix of action, SF, human interest, Big Philosophical Issues, and the polymorphously perverse ability of every character to transmogrify almost at will that runs through his entire amorphous body of work. Serialized in Shonen Sunday from May 1965 until May 1966, the Wonder 3 manga was being produced concurrently with several other Tezuka works, because let’s face it, the guy was a workaholic. Wonder 3 shared manga rack space with the similarly transformation-themed Ambassador Magma (itself to become a 1966 live-action P Production teleseries), the transforming cyborg Big X (which would become TMS’s first anime series), and the folktale-inspired Dove! Fly Up To Heaven, which would finish its run in Tezuka’s magazine COM. Tezuka’s manga factory was running at top speed as does Wonder 3, zooming from outer space to Kanto region farmland to secret Pacific military bases to the center of the Earth and back again, never stopping to catch its breath.


Wonder 3 begins as the Milky Way League appoints three agents to observe the Earth. Enter our titular W3, Bokko, Nokko and Pukko, who arrive on Earth in their transforming flying saucer-robot, right in the middle of a brutal throwdown between ace Phoenix Agency counterspy Koichi Hoshi and various nefarious secret agents. Using their ultra-science, the three aliens obey the command of the theme song lyrics and change into animal forms, in order to better observe the humans. The warm-hearted Commander Bokko becomes a rabbit, engineering specialist Corporal Nokko becomes a horse, and cranky Lieutenant Pukko becomes a duck with what appears to be a Beatle haircut. Hey, it was 1965. The animal disguises are great for Galactic Patrol espionage purposes, but this leaves our heroes vulnerable to typical Earthling animal mistreatment. Rescued by Koichi’s brother, local juvenile hot-head Shinichi Hoshi, the three reveal their true mission and he becomes their willing, if at times reluctant, assistant. In the course of a few days Shinichi learns his three new animal friends are actually space aliens sent to destroy the Earth, and his brother is actually a secret agent for Phoenix; each a mind-blowing revelation that would ruin any kid’s life. But Shinichi is tough, and when he’s not getting into fistfights with the locals he and the rest of the cast are off on world-spanning adventures.

The story has barely begun before Pukko gets pissed off and tries to fast-track that whole Earth demolition thing ahead of schedule. That bullet dodged, he tags along with Koichi on a Phoenix mission to destroy Nation A’s Skeleton Satellite while Shinichi begins to learn impulse control through judo. Koichi is framed as an international gangster and assassinated on live TV - or is he? A typhoon exposes the hidden antiproton bomb, which has an amazing journey all its own before becoming a literal international hot potato that’s also a literal ticking time bomb. 

Shinichi and hundreds of local kids survive fires, floods, and the evil landlord’s plan to demolish the school. Nokko’s high-speed engineering skill comes in handy as he builds everything from remote spaceship controls to fleets of pickup trucks to advanced medical equipment to the W3’s iconic “Big Wheel” vehicle, all expressed in lots of speed lines, clouds of dust, and a galloping cartoon horse. Pukko grinds his teeth at the stupid minds of Earthlings while Bokko is forced to confront her troubling feelings of interspecies attraction. 

The 1960s espionage mixes freely with YA and SF, the result being a furious, panicky climax as Shinichi races to rescue the Wonder 3 and Earth itself from the runaway antiproton bomb. And after all that, those jerks on the Galactic Council vote against Earth! Spoiler, the Wonder 3 disobey their orders to destroy our planet, even though this means memory erase, exile, and transformation into a lower life form. What will they choose? Where will they go? Read the comic and find out!

The W3 manga is pulpy fun that jams high-concept ideas next to kid-gang adventures and trademark Tezuka comedy bits, filled with great characters and big set-piece action that never forgets the emotional beats. The comic has lots of memorable characters. Shinichi’s mom is a powerful Ma Hunkel-esque force of nature, Tezuka’s Lamp appears as an evil spymaster with his own code of ethics, and the Wonder 3 themselves are complex, motivated individuals who carve out their own destiny against everything the Earth or the Galactic Patrol can muster, leading to a time-travel paradox conclusion that bears a certain resemblance to Tezuka’s earlier Captain Ken.

The ink was barely dry on Wonder 3 before Tezuka began to move away from science fiction with his next works, the political/monster thriller Vampire and the historical revenge fantasy Dororo. But while W3 was still in Shonen Sunday, across the aisle Tezuka’s animation studio Mushi Production was hard at work on the Wonder 3 TV anime series. Sponsored by candy manufacturer Lotte, Wonder 3 aired on Fuji TV from June 1965 until June the next year, Sundays at 7pm until episode 35, when it switched to Mondays at 7:30. Wonder 3 did well in the ratings until Tsubaraya’s Ultra Q premiered in January of ‘66, which pulled viewers, including Tezuka’s own kids, away from W3

Big Wheel Keep On Rollin'

Opening with the W3’s arrival on Earth, the antiproton bomb threat is set aside for most of the show, allowing Shinichi and the W3 to adventure around the world in the Big Wheel while Koichi engages in the kind of spy adventures that were ubiquitous in film and TV of the era. Occasionally scripts will drop in an episode with environmental themes, and there are a few mentions of the “new airport” ruining farmland and uprooting locals, referencing the mid-1960s battle between landowners and the construction of Narita Airport, which was making headlines at the time.

Though Mushi was then producing animation for big-deal American distributors like NBC Films, Wonder 3’s American license was picked up by an obscure outfit doing business as Erika Film Productions. Erika doesn’t seem to have produced anything before or since. Their version, retitled The Amazing 3, was dubbed by the same Copri International crew that localized Prince Planet, with biker film idol Bobbie Byers voicing Bokko, now “Bonnie”. The show is deeply weird in a way that only translated children's cartoons were allowed to be at the time; the big messages of conflict, hatred, and greed merging with Tezuka’s penchant for comedic non sequiturs, punctuated by the angry ranting of Beatle-wigged cartoon duck Zero, a rabbit clearly thirsty for 12 year old Kenny, and a horse now named Ronnie that builds everything out of literal garbage. 

there's so much wrong with this

Copri’s dubbing is like radio drama, overacted and overly descriptive, yet at the same time content to leave big chunks of the show completely silent. The dub occasionally delivers bursts of unintentional comedy (“Democracy is stupid!”), and the American show begins and ends with a theme song that sounds like the college glee club is humoring some drunken alumnus who brought his accordion to the homecoming cookout. Mushi’s animation on W3 is fine; not as cinematic as what they were doing on the contemporaneous Jungle Emperor, but certainly not as clunky as some of the stuff TCJ was cranking out across town. There’s an interesting UPA-ish thick-line character design seen in the show that gives W3 its own style.

Viewed today, the fuzzy black and white images and hissy, warbly soundtrack give the show a real late-night cult-movie feel. The Amazing 3 aired on UHF television across America, until the mid 1970s turned black and white TV into a quaint novelty. As far as we can tell, the show last aired in the United States in 1976 on KCOP channel 13 in Los Angeles, right before Peter Potamus. Then the series vanished forever. Somebody on eBay was selling 16mm prints of the whole series for $24,000 back in 2008; if you picked them up, drop me a line!


That last KCOP rerun was the last America would see of Bonnie, Ronnie, Zero, and their friend Kenny Carter. Sure, fuzzy 13th generation VHS copies were kicking around at the swap meets and on the mailing lists of cartoon nerds, but unlike contemporaries Kimba The White Lion, Marine Boy, and Gigantor, the Amazing Three failed to grab that valuable late-boomer cartoon mindshare.

Until now, that is. Digital Manga's Wonder 3 is an absolute chonky brick; three solid pounds of W3 manga in English for the first time ever, with a solid translation, sharp production values, and an afterword by Tezuka himself. It’s a must-have for fans of Tezuka’s work or manga in general, and anyone interested in midcentury pop SF adventure will get a solid kick out of W3. However, as with some of their other properties, Digital Manga can’t seem to get out of its own way, making publishing decisions that here seem almost counterintuitive. Wonder 3’s advertising and promotion were, apart from Kickstarter updates, almost nonexistent. The jacket design for the book itself is obtuse and confusing; it’s unclear on the shelf or in the hand what exactly this thing is. The manga’s back cover copy and DMP’s marketing for Wonder 3, instead of mentioning that Wonder 3 is the manga version of a TV show readers might have seen as a child, bizarrely insists upon explaining what “sentai” is, Millions of Americans watched The Amazing 3; wedging a Power Rangers mention into this series’ description makes zero sense. Potential American readers are pointedly ignored, if not deliberately avoided, and it’s a shame because this wonderfully entertaining block o’ comics deserves a wide readership.

Wonder 3 toy bus image from World Mook Figure King no. 11

Wonder 3 never achieved the kind of iconic cultural status reached by other Tezuka creations like Astro Boy or Black Jack. Among the parade of Tezuka reboots, remasters, sequels, and adaptations, W3 is noticeably absent. Sure, the characters make appearances every once in a while, like in the 1980 Astro Boy series, but with a few exceptions they’ve vanished. One of these exceptions was the fascinating July 2017 stage performance "Amazing Performance W3 (Wonder Three)," a silent theatrical piece that involved modern dance, pantomime, acrobatics, and images projected onto the stage. 

I don’t think the world of Japanese animation will ever entirely forget Wonder 3, with that Big Wheel zooming across oceans, the space rabbit with the hypno dynamism, and that cranky duck voting to blow up the Earth. The series might be the peak of Tezuka’s science fiction mythos; from here on out his works would focus more on adventures of the past and issues of the present. Absent our outer space saviors, mankind will have to find salvation on its own. Anybody got $24,000?

-Dave Merrill

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

you are all interested in the future


Frame for frame, cel for cel, the 1978 series Future Boy Conan is the best Japanese animated television show ever. The show is a whirlwind of world destruction, feral children, technofascism, workers’ revolution, colonies of Winnebago-warrior Lost Boys, a pig named “Looks Delicious,” sharks smashing into Porsches, tsunami-triggered PTSD, gigantic flying fortresses, near-drownings, near-stabbings, rockets, machine guns, bombs, flying saucers, acres of abandoned tanks, an outraged Earth striking back at the human race, and gratuitous scenes of unsupervised children smoking, drinking, and peeing freely, without a catch-up episode, a recycled sequence, or a wasted shot in sight- no filler. In short, everything kids of all ages want to see in their cartoons; a wrecked world becoming an endless playground of adventure, animated by future Academy Award winners.

The recent series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken leaned into Future Boy Conan hard. 2020’s Eizouken – it started airing a million years ago, in January - also rambled through a dense, extremely realized landscape as our three protagonists uncovered treasures and secrets among the architecture and the social dynamics of their quirky seaside town. Also, they watch Future Boy Conan in the first episode, they don’t even change the name. But you? If you’re an Anglo anime fan in North America, here in 2020 when Japanese animation has never been more available, the show remains a fansub-only gray market unavailability. 

But let’s begin at the beginning, with Alexander Key, the American author who would barely live to see this adaptation of his novel "The Incredible Tide" make it to TV screens. If he ever did. Maryland native Key attended the Art Institute in Chicago in the early 1920s and spent the next two decades illustrating, pausing only for a WWII hitch as a Navy officer. In the 1960s he turned to juvenile SF, writing roughly 15 novels between 1963 and his death. A common Key theme was exceptional children fleeing authority, finding help and communion with the natural world. The various Disney iterations of his ‘68 novel Escape To Witch Mountain are well known, and as a kid I saw his “The Forgotten Door” in at least three school libraries. But "The Incredible Tide" is where we’re at, a book I only saw once in print, at the Sandy Springs branch of the Atlanta Public Library, where coincidentally, we were holding our anime club meetings in the early 1990s.

Key’s novel is shorter, grimmer, and much less fun than the TV show. Conan is older and lonelier, the Cold War rhetoric is inescapable, and the book wraps up at a point where the cartoon is just getting started. If you’re a fan of dystopian juvenile SF it’s worth a look, but it’s no John Christopher or H.M. Hoover.

"The Incredible Tide" would be selected by Japanese broadcaster NHK to be the basis for their first animated series. Conan’s future studio Nippon Animation had experience adapting Western works to anime for their Calpis/House Foods sponsored World Masterpiece Theater series airing on Fuji-TV. For their inaugural anime show NHK wanted something more actiony, more SF, more in line with the “anime boom” currently rocking Japan, and producer Junzo Nakajima kept this in mind when selecting the Hayao Miyazaki / Yasuo Otsuka team.  After a decade spent working on Moomins and Pusses In Bootses and Pandas go Pandas, the two might have been eager for something with more of an edge, and Miyazaki agreed to work on Conan provided he had a free hand to make changes to the original story. This would all come together when Future Boy Conan aired on NHK between April and October 1978, Tuesdays at 7:30pm.

Remnant Island

Future Boy Conan’s disaster happened long ago in 2008, when the axis of the Earth was knocked silly during a world war involving “electromagnetic weapons much more powerful than nuclear bombs,” submerging most of the world’s surface. Years later, our titular Future Boy lives comfortably with his grandfather on tiny Remnant Island. Born after the cataclysm, Conan’s never known anything but the island and his crashed rocket ship home. This all changes when Lana washes ashore, the first non-Grandpa person Conan’s ever seen.

The amazement over seeing other humans barely registers before more people appear in a flying boat, new arrivals from what we’ll learn is Industria. Lana’s grandfather, the brilliant and missing scientist Briac Rao, has the secret of solar energy, and Industria will stop at nothing to get it. This includes using Lana, who shares a mysterious mental connection with her grandfather, as a hostage. Monsley, leader of the Industrian search party and perhaps the first appearance of Miyazaki’s warrior-lady archetype, retrieves Lana while inadvertently causing tragedy. This spurs Conan into the greatest adventure of his young life.

Evidently reading from the script for Horus Prince Of The Sun, Conan’s grandpa dies exhorting Conan to get out into the world and find friends. From that moment Conan never stops moving, not for a minute, taking a homemade catamaran to Plastic Island where he finds a friend in Jimsy, the feral Huck Finn of the future. They both wind up cargo monkeys on the trading ship Barracuda, captained by the roguish and occasionally skeevy Captain Dyce, hauling plastic scrap to the next port of call – Industria, whose triple towers mean trouble for Conan, Jimsy, and pretty much everybody. 

The last remnant of the pre-cataclysm world, Industria is an authoritarian city state boasting mechanical genius – anti-gravity, computers, food machines – but its ruling council are puppets controlled by the autocrat Chairman Lepka, its citizens obedient and regimented, and beneath it all, an oppressed slave class keeping the machines fed. 

Conan locates Lana in this fortress-city maze with the help of Lana’s animal friends and his own Future Boy climbing skills. Together they escape, surviving dizzying heights, crushing depths, burning deserts, and the dubious aid of Captain Dyce, who has his own agenda. The pair come across the salvage operation run by the taciturn Patch, who is actually Briac Rao in disguise, hiding in plain sight doing what he can to save people in the face of returning tidal-wave destruction. Earth is returning to its normal, pre-disaster shape, meaning newly-risen land will sink, earthquakes and tsunami will again rock the planet, and, by the way, Industria is doomed.
Not for the first time, here Conan’s moral center is made explicit. Rao could easily walk away and let those Industria jerks sink or swim. But he risks his own freedom to save others, regardless of consequences. Many anime shows talk this talk but it’s rare to see one that walks the walk as Conan, Rao and Lana return to Industria, rescuing a left-to-die Captain Dyce along the way. Rao stays behind to work in secret while Conan returns Lana to her High Harbor home. 

November '78 Animage article

The reverse of Industria, High Harbor is a small agricultural community, a low-tech utopia of peaceful farms, fields and small-town harmony (your own small town experience may vary). Conan and Jimsy chafe a little at the bonds of civilization, and Jimsy finds kindred spirits in the gang of malcontents who roam the other side of High Harbor, led by the surly Orlo. 

Shoes? Ewww!

Just when things reach a tipping point between Orlo’s gang and the villagers, Industria attacks! High Harbor is occupied by Monsley’s Industrian gunboat blitzkrieg, aided by Orlo’s fifth column. Conan avoids capture to lead a tiny guerrilla action, disabling the gunboat and the Barracuda to isolate the invaders. All these insurgencies and counter-insurgencies are interrupted by the first of Dr. Rao’s predicted tsunamis, which spares High Harbor but takes the fight right out of the Industrians, particularly Monsley, whose traumatic memories shock her into insensibility.

memories of the great disaster

knives, tidal waves, it's all in day's work for this Future Boy

Monsley, Jimsy, Lana, Dyce, and Conan, now allies, return again to Industria to face Chairman Lepka with the truth; Industria is doomed. Lepka doesn’t care. Monsley’s literal death sentence is preempted by the revolution of the proletariat. With Lepka deposed and Dr. Rao in charge, Industria is finally connected to the solar power satellite and powered up 100%. Unfortunately, this also means full power for the giant flying battleship Giganto, hidden beneath Industria, which launches from its underground hangar with Lepka at the controls. Can Conan, Dyce, and Jimsy in the tiny Falco flying boat stand up to the armed might of this potentially unstoppable flying fortress, and end the menace of Lepka once and for all? 

At the risk of spoiling a 42 year old show, it’s safe to say Lepka’s plans come to naught. Heck, the show ends with a wedding, merely another way Future Boy Conan puts every single character through emotional changes, a challenge most anime shows, and indeed most TV shows in general never even attempt. 

Captain Dyce and his robot buddy

Another of the show’s most compelling aspects is its tactile physicality, how everything seen in the series lives in the real world, can be dented, scraped, dismantled, repaired, hammered, scarred, rusted, rebuilt, moved, blown up, harvested, repurposed, or sunk. Conan builds what he needs out of the things he finds in his environment, he’s a part of that environment, he moves through it, under it, above it, in it. We’re introduced to Conan fighting a shark amid a sunken urban neighborhood full of junked cars and empty buildings. He lives in a repurposed rocket ship that gets a third life as the raw material for his outrigger canoe. 

Industria survives on plastic dug out of the antediluvian world, sits on a honeycomb of tunnels and catacombs, and encompasses a huge central courtyard that our characters improbably spend a lot of time either standing in, falling through, trapped underneath, or otherwise engaged with. The show uses physical space in a way that is instantly appealing to its audience of 8-12 year olds – the age when you’re learning to build things, move things, construct forts out of cardboard and scrap lumber, dig for treasure in the backyard, explore neighborhoods, vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and construction sites. The whole Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn vibe of Future Boy Conan is always there. Our heroes are always camping, catching fish, building shelters, canoeing, doing all that Boy Scout stuff that gets channeled constructively if you happen to get into the Scouts and your local troop isn’t run by a psychopath.

9 out of 10 Future Boys prefer Camels

American anime fans of a certain age like to pretend Japanese animation was their own private playground, that the only way to enjoy anime was to be in a club, swap VHS tapes, or spend a lot of time in dank comic-con video rooms. But the truth is that Japanese animation was broadcast freely over the airwaves, and this was even the case with Future Boy Conan, which aired across America in the 1980s as “El Nino del Futuro Conan” on the Spanish-language TV station Univision. Merely part of the giant wave of anime that soaked the Romance-language speaking world, Conan was one more bit of evidence proving every other kid got more anime than we did. 

Sponsored by Post, which is Nutrideliciosos

Enough received wisdom had percolated through mid 80s fandom to inform us that Hayao Miyazaki was the Castle Of Cagliostro director and had made something called Nausicaa  that was still being serialized in the back of the Animage magazines we bought at the comic shop, and that he’d worked on a TV show called “Future Boy Conan.” So when somebody in our club with cable TV showed up with Univision Conan episodes, well, that there was a great day. I watched the entire series in Spanish, and then the laserdisc box set came out and we all pitched in to buy it, and then we watched the entire series in Japanese, and then we went to Project A-Kon where somebody had the show on VHS-C with English subtitles. Future Boy Conan is a show I’ve seen repeatedly in more home video formats than I care to remember, and it shines every time.

Conan soundtrack LP with booklet

If you’ve ever been roused from sleep by the whirring of the auto-rewind as one more tape of a fansub finishes recording, telling you to set up the next tape and then try to doze again, well, you’ll remember the opening bars of every episode of Future Boy Conan, that ominous electric guitar droning over the destruction of Earth. Shinichiro Ikebe’s soundtrack gets a lot of mileage out of strings and woodwinds, imparting drama without the kind of pompous brass we’d hear in contemporaneous anime themes. Winner of the “Person Of Cultural Merit” award, professor emeritus of the Tokyo College of Music, composer of hundreds of choral and symphonic pieces, Ikebe’s works include Kurosawa film themes and TV drama, but Future Boy Conan is his only anime soundtrack. 

Future Boy Conan would end on Halloween ‘78, but the story doesn’t end there – the show would be compressed into two feature films produced without the Miyazaki stamp of approval; the first, a two-hour compilation, would screen in 1979, and the second, a 40 minute adaptation of the final battle with the Giganto, would be in theaters along with Locke The Superman in 1984. Conan would be licensed for a wide variety of late 70s merch – calendars, puzzles, books, records, model kits, sandals, stationery, keychains, buttons, and snacks. 

Future Boy Conan laser disc box set

Miyazaki’s plans for a Conan sequel would wind up inspiring both his Ghibli feature film Laputa and Hideaki Anno’s NHK series Nadia. Video games for the PC Engine, the 3DO, and the PlayStation 2 would appear as well as pachinko and pachislot games. Bandai’s 1990 LD set would set sales records, and the show had 3 DVD releases and a BD in 2011. The show has been re-run on Japanese TV several times and now is streaming on the Animelog channel for viewers in certain regions.

So why, here in the new world, where there’s an anime streaming service seemingly born every minute, why has Future Boy Conan not made the step to legitimate English-language release? My understanding is that enough of the original source material was changed to transform Future Boy Conan from an "Incredible Tide" adaptation into its own unique work, and therefore foreign licensing rights are firmly in the hands of its creator, Mr. Hayao “I’m retired, just kidding” Miyazaki, who for reasons known only to himself has not seen fit to sign off on a non-Univision North American version. 

Future Boy Conan plot spoilers, in toy form

And right now, in a world where we can own Astroganger BDs and where formerly obscure classics are now streaming at our fingertips, well, the absence of Future Boy Conan doesn’t seem to make any sense. There’s a reason Eizouken spent so much of its first episode on Conan – the show is fundamental, it’s the bedrock of a generation of animation fans who built their own fully realized worlds to play in. Future Boy Conan is a work of almost universal appeal that speaks to us all, and we should all be able to see it. Make it happen, people. 2008 was a long time ago.

-Dave Merrill