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!