On April 4th, 1978, Japan was introduced to a series called Future Boy Conan, a 26-episode series which marked the directorial debut of a man who was then a seasoned animator – Hayao Miyazaki. The anime is a loose adaptation of a novel by Alexander Tide, but like many of Miyazaki’s future adaptations, the original was mostly a source of names, settings, and a general plot – elements which were then stretched and molded to fit the ideas he wanted to express. Miyazaki has covered a wide range of settings, atmospheres, and emotions in his work over the decades, and Conan sits in a place closer to Laputa or Porco Rosso. At its heart, it is a classic adventure story in the vein of Herge’s Tintin serial, where a boy and his friends must overcome the odds to defeat evil and rescue the innocent. Since it’s directed by Miyazaki, it avoids many immature qualities that are found in many of the more modern shows of the “shounen” demographic, though it contains a degree of slapstick that Miyazaki probably would have avoided later in his career. Ultimately, though, Future Boy Conan simply feeds that immemorial love of bravery, friendship, and adventure with an occasionally exaggerated but largely restrained approach that will appeal to kids and adults alike.
Conan takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the wars of mankind have annihilated all but a small portion of humanity. One of these pockets of humans survived on a small island (aptly named Remnant Island), but as the story begins, we see that the only two remaining survivors are an aging man and his young grandson, Conan. Conan is a young boy who, of course, has no knowledge of the outside world or its dark history – that knowledge has been his grandfather’s burden to bear until this point. However, when a young girl washes ashore, being pursued relentlessly by a seaplane (which Conan naturally assumes is a bird at first glance), Conan’s peaceful existence is shattered. We soon learn that this seaplane comes from a small industrial outpost nearby, a city whose leader is pursuing the girl because her grandfather is one of the few remaining people alive who have the knowledge to bring back the energy that will power their warplanes.
It is perhaps somewhat unfair to consider Future Boy Conan in the context of the future works of Hayao Miyazaki, but it is unavoidable as so much of the series evokes themes, character ideas, and concepts which would be fine-tuned and delivered in Miyazaki’s later films. The post-apocalyptic world and power-hungry villains resemble that of Nausicaa, the swashbuckler approach to sea adventure brings Porco Rosso to mind, and most of all, the endearing bond between Conan and Lana seems like a prototype for Castle in the Sky – the latter of which has the strongest similarity in tone to Conan. However, the obvious difference with Conan is its medium, and most importantly that Miyazaki has a 13 hour running time in which to communicate his story. Thus, the series is able to spend a great deal of time focusing on human interaction and friendship with slow-paced scenes that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for a wealth of time to cover them. However, perhaps also due to constraints in the television medium and its audience at the time, there is also a bit of the aforementioned slapstick and occasionally cartoonish stunts by Conan that probably would have felt out of place in Miyazaki’s later feature-length films. Most examples involve Conan surviving some dangerous situation through physics-bending physical maneuvers.
For all its minor faults, though, Conan still manages to carry the mark of a timeless fable. Its characters seem to resemble familiar archetypes at first, but are given the sufficient amount of development to grow into three-dimensional, well-formed figures who are easy to like and root for while retaining a sort of permanent clarity of character (my mind drifts once again to Tintin as a comparison). The story itself is very strongly defined in terms of morality, but has sufficient depth in its settings to sustain interest throughout its running time, and its single unquestioningly villainous character is not overused to the point of becoming a caricature. Despite the occasional slapstick, the lighter moments have a great deal of endearingly boyish fun, while the more dramatic, serious scenes, which aren’t afraid to depict death or sacrifice realistically, never feel as if they’ve been compromised for the sake of the former. When the plot starts to move quickly in the latter half, after the sufficient attachment to the characters has been built up and the level of danger increases significantly, you’ll almost certainly find yourself on the edge of your seat in suspense. Myself, I went through the first ten episode at a leisurely pace, but couldn’t help but marathon the final sixteen in the span of three days.
I suppose the only real part of this anime that may disappoint long-time fans of Miyazaki is the lack of budget. The broad strokes of vivid color and beauty that are so frequent and mesmerizing in Miyazaki’s later feature films are for the most part absent in this television anime from the late seventies. While the animation of the characters, the depiction of the post-apocalyptic world, and the contrast between nature and industry are strong enough to put it on a tier above the typical television anime, the association of this project to Miyazaki and thus to the art of his later works are, of course, inevitable. Nonetheless, it isn’t something that will stick in your mind after a few episodes. The same could be said about the musical accompaniment. As typical for Miyazaki, traditional anime ballads are eschewed in favour of simple melodic OP and ED themes (the ED starts on an almost tragic, minor-key note before transitioning back to the cheeriness of the OP) and background music is often left off in favour of atmospheric silence. When music does appear, it varies between highly effective melodic, quasi-orchestral sequences and some less memorable synth music (in this case, it resembles the BGM of Nausicaa).
For those of you who are already Miyazaki fans, Future Boy Conan is a must see if you wish to explore a personal work of his that, though lacking the refined quality of his later work, is free to ignore the time constraints of his films while incorporating much of the same themes. For those of you have not become Miyazaki fans yet, I would suggest going to those first to get a better appreciation of Miyazaki at his best, as Conan is occasionally restrained by both budget and, perhaps, inexperience. However, it is generally superior to most television anime in this genre and well deserving of appreciation as an anime classic, so if you’re seeking a good-natured fable about the sort of ideas of friendship and heroism that defined a lot of adventure stories that you may have grown up with, Conan is certainly a fine place to start.
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