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

EDITED TO ADD: Earlier in 2021 it was revealed that GKIDS Films was, much to our surprise, releasing Future Boy Conan on Blu-Ray in North America! It's out now, you can buy it for yourself and I urge you to do so, because by golly it looks fantastic and the English dub is great and it's very reasonably priced. Make your next Blu-Ray a Conan Blu-Ray!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

the year without an AWA (almost)

For the first time in 25 years there isn't an Anime Weekend Atlanta happening this weekend in Atlanta. Sure, we're all better off. COVID is still happening and people are still catching it, still suffering crippling life-long disabilities, still losing their lives. It's ridiculous to think an anime convention is worth even the slightest chance of that outcome. And sure, we've spent the past ten months seeing mournful messages from con chairs and events coordinators, invoking force majeure and apologizing for their own no-shows. But AWA hurts a little more because darn it, it's my con.

AWA 1995 program book cover

I'm one of the goofs who looked around in the early 1990s and said to the room full of assembled Atlanta anime fans, other people are starting anime conventions, why aren't we? In hindsight the early years seem whimsical and almost foolish - we called the cheapest convention hotel we knew of, set a date, put out some flyers, sold a bunch of vendors tables and advance badges, and hoped for the best. The day before we all descended upon the Castlegate with boxes of VHS tapes and carts full of our VCRs from home. We built the main stage backdrop and video screens out of lumber from Home Depot and sheets from Wal-Mart and we printed the program books at work when the boss wasn't looking. 

AWA reviewed in the local paper

The first year was a success and we immediately started planning Year Two and we never really stopped. The convention moved from the Castlegate on the north side, to a Holiday Inn on the south side, down by the airport. This is where AWA learned to fine-tune their facility contracts. 

flyer for AWA 1996 promotional room party

Then AWA moved north again to a two-year stint at the Marriott North Central, filling its halls with cosplayers, mislaid Civil War bayonets, and Dessoktoberfests, not to mention our first Japanese guests.

Ippongi Bang at AWA 1997

memories of AWA 1997

vendor's hall at AWA 1998

1999: the convention went further north to the outer reaches of the Atlanta area, to the Gwinnett Marriot, where the guests were Space Ghost and Speed Racer voice actors, the dart wars filled the hallways, and the fans broke the elevator. That's another thing that goes in the contract for next time. 


Star Blazers fans (and voice actor Amy Howard Wilson) at AWA 1999

In the year 2000 AWA moved back to the Perimeter, to the Marriott Perimeter, a classy hotel we pretty much wrecked. 

AWA 2000 dance

guest Brett Weaver with costume contest winner

is "risingsun.net" still around? 

room party flyer for our Animazement party featuring the "suitcase full of drugs"

2001 was a make or break year for the show. AWA was moving to a full on convention center for the first time. The Georgia International Convention Center was on the other end of the compass, down by Hartsfield Airport close to the site of AWA 2. But that wasn't the only challenge. As it happened, AWA took place two weeks after 9/11. There were guest cancellations, there were attendee refunds, there was a convention center full of nervous fans. But like America itself, AWA soldiered on. AWA had a successful 2002 at the same location, but it became clear that the convention needed a new home. Mostly because the Georgia International Convention Center was closing.

guest Neil Nadelman and friend 

AWA 2002 flyer 

2003 put Anime Weekend Atlanta into its current home, the Renaissance Waverly and the Cobb Galleria Convention Center at I-285 and Cobb Parkway. The show has been there ever since. 2004 was when I left the the Atlanta area, moving 950 miles and an international border away. "Packing up for AWA" no longer meant loading the car up with boxes and bags and coolers, but packing a suitcase and getting to the airport on time. Staff meetings became a thing I could not attend, and whatever authority I had with the convention receded into pure ceremony, take the hint, people that still ask if I can make them guests.

2003: AWA's Lloyd Carter & Astro Boy producer Fred Ladd cut the Astro Boy cake

AWA has grown past any reasonable expectation we might have had in 1995. It has become a thing unto itself, sometimes only tangentially involved with the Japanese animation fandom that spawned it. There's a school of thought I occasionally entertain for whom this is terrible news, a wish that the fandom could have stayed a niche fandom. The wish is that anime conventions would remain where they were in 1998, a closed world where everybody pretty much knew everybody else, where the crowd moved from Otakon to Anime Expo to Project A-Kon to Katsucon to AWA to Anime Central and back again, sharing the same stories, watching the same fan-subbed VHS tapes, leering at the same Sailor Moon cosplayers. I see this opinion shared among anime fans my age from time to time and I understand where it comes from. 


AWA's SuperHappyFunSell

But let's face facts, Grandpa. Japanese cartoons weren't going to stand still. New anime TV and films were made every year, new American releases of those cartoons were hitting American eyeballs every season, there were new anime fans blasting into existence every time somebody caught a glimpse of Gundam Wing or Cowboy Bebop or Princess Mononoke or The Big O out of the corner of their eye on a TV screen at Mediaplay. These new fans don't care about how you hauled fifty top loading VCRs across five states to show 5th generation KIKU-TV Raideen episodes to mid-1980s sci-fi fanfic nerds. And why should they?

2010 Anime Hell flyer celebrates the anime bust

AWA swelled like the rest, anime fandom becoming a mid-2000s youth culture touchstone alongside JNCO pants, raves, Nickleback and Coldplay. Doomed companies like Geneon, ADV, and Raijin Comics cashed in while the cashing was good; but the landscape shifted and the anime boom turned into an anime bust. Weirdly enough, people kept coming to anime conventions. Fifty bucks for three days of raves, costumes, anime videos, exclusive merchandise, and hanging out with your friends away from parents and bosses? It's a bargain. Attendance at anime conventions kept right on climbing, past the bust and into the new streaming video landscape, which has spawned its own ecosystem of anime-delivery businesses. The fandom convention world itself was growing way beyond what anybody thought was sensible or sustainable.

onstage at AWA 2012 opening ceremonies

Shonen Knife rockin' out at AWA 2014

the late night crowd at AWA 2015

At least it was... until this year. Like most 2020 conventions, AWA exists only in a virtual state, happening in December. 

The absence of AWA lends itself to a complex mix of emotions. AWA for me was a big chunk of my year, first the endless round of planning meetings and coordination, then the prep work of events and panels, and finally the schlepping of luggage and equipment down to the Waverly. It was a reunion of sorts with my Atlanta friends and friends from all over who also made AWA a priority. For most of the administration it was a thing we sacrificed time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears for. And now, poof, it's gone, and we're filled with both regret and relief. Sure, our thing isn't happening, but maybe this gives us a chance to catch our breath, get off the treadmill, and take a break.

Miyavi and friends at AWA 2018

This unintended year off might wind up being a net positive for the fan convention world. Volunteer organizers can catch up with their lives. Events coordinators can step back and see what works and what doesn't. Maybe the convention can re-evaluate itself, refocus on its core values, jettison some of the more costly or less relevant attractions. Who knows? Maybe anime cons will never return to the days of massive crowds of sweaty fans herded into event halls, all shouting and sweating on each other, a prospect that here in October 2020 disturbs me on a fundamental level.  We don't know what the post-COVID world is going to look like, and that includes anime conventions. 

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual meetups, wear your mask, stay home, and stay safe. Hopefully we'll all get together in 2021. 

-Dave Merrill

1995 was a long time ago, guys. Stay safe