Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Future Boy Conan (1978)

Years after the world was almost destroyed in an epic war, a young boy called Conan lives with his grandfather on Remnant Island. They believe themselves to be the last human survivors until a young girl called Lana washes up unconscious on the beach. Soon she is followed by soldiers in a seaplane, who kill Conan's grandfather and take Lana prisoner. Conan takes to the sea and attempts to track them down, getting into all sorts of adventures along the way and picking up a sidekick, the simple-minded and greedy but good-hearted Jimsy. But when he rescues Lana from the nightmarish island of Industria and takes he back to the idyllic High Harbour, it turns out that this is just the beginning of their troubles.

Conan, the Boy in Future was the first major directorial work by the master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, after years of working for his mentor Isao Takahata. His only significant directing work until this point has been co-directing most of the first season of the Lupin III with Takahata; otherwise he had worked as an animator on a handful of films and on a couple of Takahata's television serial adaptations of classic novels. Though it's more primitive than anything he would do later, Conan features many Miyazaki trademarks over the course of its twenty-six episodes. The ideas that appear in embryonic form here would in particular be developed through his long-running manga series NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind and its anime adaptation, culminating in Princess Mononoke.

If I'd had the chance to watch this show as a kid, it would probably have been my favourite tv series of all time. It features engaging characters, silly comedy, a bit of romance, many exciting action scenes, cliff-hangers galore, unexpected plot twists, the odd meditative moment, and enough high adventure to drive most kids insane. Conan and Lana are brave, loyal, selfless and deeply committed to each other. A number of the supporting characters start off as villains and are inspired to heroism by their admiration for Conan and Lana. In addition, many people in Industria are shown to be heroic while some people in High Harbour are selfish or downright rotten. As with most of his later movies, Miyazaki gives most of the "bad" characters more complex motives than traditional villains.

Although the series centres on a male protagonist and some elements of the story reinforce traditional gender roles to a far greater extent than any of Miyazaki's better-known stories, the female characters are strong throughout. The only reason that Conan is rescuing Lana instead of vice versa is because he has superhuman strength, something that he takes for granted but which is a constant source of astonishment to everyone around him. Although physically weaker, Lana is every bit as brave and resourceful as Conan, and considerably more intelligent. The other main female character, Monsley, is the head of Industria's armed forces and is depicted as constantly frustrating the sexist male characters' expectations of a woman's behaviour. She is also the single most complex character in the story, and her character development is key in Miyazaki's filmography, leading directly to Lady Kushana in the manga version of NausicaƤ (she's unambiguously a villain only in the anime adaptations) and to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke.

The most problematic character is Captain Dyce, a villain who turns into one of the heroes early in the story. Dyce has a paedophile fascination with Lana that is made even more creepy by being played for laughs. It is portrayed to be more romantic than sexual in nature, but it still made me deeply uncomfortable. This isn't the first time I've noticed this sort of thing in an otherwise kid-friendly anime; is it a Japanese cultural thing?

The conflict between technological progress and nature, represented by Industria and High Harbour respectively, is another theme that Miyazaki would take a lot further in later works. Conan is also Miyazaki's most explicit endorsement of socialism, as well as his most simplistic and naive; he would explore this much further in NausicaƤ, in both cases linking socialism with environmentalism. As he looked deeper, Miyazaki started to realise that the ideals of a political system are always compromised in reality, leading eventually to the sophisticated political commentary that underlies Princess Mononoke.

All of this is secondary to the sense of fun, danger and adventure that runs through Conan, the Boy in Future. Our three young heroes get to zip around in the air and on sea, run into giant robots and pirates, and generally get into endless amounts of trouble. A goofy sense of humour runs through the series, though it doesn't shrink from killing off characters from time to time.

It's a shame that there are no legitimate English-language releases of this series. There are dvd versions in Korea, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and of course Japan. I won't tell you where to find versions with fan-created English-language subtitles, but this is possible.


  1. Yes, it's a Japanese thing, re: paedo tendencies.

  2. There is an unfortunate tendency to romanticize (in all senses) youth in Japanese pop culture...particularly odd when you consider how miserable the kids are often made.

  3. Green politics, of course, were born of the links between libertarian socialism and environmentalism...