A young girl psychically communicating with birds because she has a metaphorical connection with nature is about as Miyazaki as anything I’ve ever seen.
Future Boy Conan is basically a 26 episode Studio Ghibli movie with solid TV animation. That right there should be enough for you all to know whether you want to watch it. But there’s some stuff that interests me about the series, so I’m writing about it anyway! So there!
This show is undoubtedly one of the biggest stepping stones in Hayao Miyazaki’s career. He had important jobs on several TV series before this, but Future Boy Conan is where Miyazaki was without a doubt The Man. Isao Takahata co-directed a few episodes and did some storyboarding, Yoshiyuki Tomino storyboarded a couple of episodes and Keiji Hayakawa co-directed half the show, but it is Miyazaki’s baby. His fingerprints are on everything — that’s apparent 0.00001 seconds into the show.
As I’m sure you can tell by looking at the main female character, Lana, the character designs are straight-up, all caps MIYAZAKI. At the same time, though, what I’ve always appreciated about Miyazaki’s designs is that they look similar enough that you know they’re his work, but they at least look varied enough to the point where they stand on their own as character designs. There are obvious visual similarities among Lana and Nausicaa and Kiki and so on, but they’re at least different, even if Miyazaki does have a bit of the Akira Toriyama palette swap syndrome going on. There’s also a random visual quirk I’ve noticed: Miyazaki characters — particularly the youngsters — tend to run with a very distinctive gait. If you watch the show, take a look at Conan running and think back to other Miyazaki young’uns running around in his various movies. It’s totally there! I couldn’t stop thinking about it after the first time I saw Conan running around. I’m probably really late to the party on this, though, and people noticed this shit years ago.
This square-faced motherfucker is the show’s main antagonist. He looks totally trustworthy, right?
The show’s setting also hammers home themes Miyazaki has been blaring through his literary megaphone his whole career. Future Boy Conan is based on The Incredible Tide by Alexander Key, which is a very Miyazaki-like tale of a boy who grows up on an island after World War III has ravaged the world and left only a few islands as inhabitable places. There are science-fictiony electromagnetic weapons — several times more powerful than nuclear weapons! — that tear the world asunder and throw the Earth off its axis (which causes much of the world’s land mass to sink). This anime was made in 1978, though (still in the shadow of the Cold War), and with Japan’s history in mind, the world may as well have the shit metaphorically nuked out of it. I’d say the story steers away from nuclear warfare more out of practical story concerns, because there would be nowhere to live for a long ass time, particularly at the level some of the island societies scattered throughout the world carry on.
At the beginning of the series, I joked that it was awfully convenient that World War III obliterated the planet into Miyazaki’s dream world. This is perhaps the least subtle of Miyazaki’s screeds in favor of the environment and against industrialization and the urban sprawl that I’ve ever seen. The people who are happiest are the ones quietly wiling their days on an island called High Harbor, where inhabitants live entirely off the land and work together in a neat community where everyone knows their roles and are unencumbered by modern technology. Bad Things happen only when invaders from an island with the on the nose title of Industria encroach upon everyone’s peaceful lives to kidnap Lana, who has a connection with the scientist whose knowledge of solar power would allow Industria world domination.
Miyazaki may as well distill his ideas into the form of a nail and hammer it directly into the viewer’s ear canal. Once upon a time, that heavy-handed, didactic approach annoyed the hell out of me, and it still does, to a certain extent; after all, nobody wants to feel that a story is condescendingly offering them an obvious Life Lesson. But I actually don’t mind it so much here, for several reasons. Even if the main aim of the story is (arguably) to remind us that the environment is awesome and that we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to fuck it up, the means of delivering that message is pretty damn entertaining.Future Boy Conanis a fun adventure yarn — you’ve got the world’s strongest kid teaming up with a psychic girl and a boy who has grown up entirely in the wilderness going up against the manifestation of industrial greed and destruction. That’s a slam dunk. The plot loses steam every so often, but the overall adventure is so grand and the humor so fun in that Miyazaki/Ghibli way that I couldn’t help but enjoy watching the series.
(Side note: there is a character, a ship’s captain named Dyce, who is kind of weird to watch with a modern context because he spends much of his time comically hitting on the 11-year-old Lana. Back in 1978 this was probably charming and highlighted the silliness and immaturity of the character. Today, though, he comes off as a horrifying pedophile. I must stress that I believe nothing is intended other than Dyce being a silly bastard, but God damn, it’s really creepy to watch today!)
There’s also the fact that while the message itself is heavy-handed, the skill Miyazaki employs in delivering it is evident, if not quite as nuanced as his Ghibli movie output. Yes, Lepka, Industria’s leader, is almost comically evil. My group watch took great delight in his Overbearing Villain Chair at the end. Yes, some characters shift from villains to heroes in somewhat heavy-handed ways. Yes, the evil center of environmental destruction is and always will be called Industria. But there’s such earnestness and genuine passion in the way Miyazaki has all this play out that it’s difficult to not get sucked in. I may have scoffed all the while at the pro-environment stuff, but you know what? I genuinely didn’t want Industria to run roughshod over High Harbor and its inhabitants. That has to count for something in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know Miyazaki at all, so I couldn’t say whether the man is a cynic, but his stories don’t feel cynical.
That last point is important both to me and to why Miyazaki/Ghibli stories just work. I don’t know if I come off as cynical, but I don’t like fashioning myself that way. It’s fun to be a snarky little shit, but it’s also nice to see the good in things and people and have a little hope. When watching Miyazaki/Ghibli movies, especially on your lonesome, it’s easy to forget that Miyazaki is creating works primarily for children, with the hope that the whole family will join in. His works are so smart and well-made that the heavy-handed lesson of environmentalism stands out. I wonder if it’s possible to work with a theme so big and far-reaching and have it resonate with a group so inexperienced if done in a subtle way. As a kid, “Industria” would have no real meaning to me. All I would see is a big, evil jerk trying to wreck everything and the nice people defending the nice, quiet lives they’ve built for themselves and reaching out to people who fought against them.
It’s hopeful. Maybe some people are beyond hope, but others are not. You never know until you reach out. So basically the ultimate message isn’t so much ENVIRONMENTALISM as it is “take care of yourself, your land and each other.” Is that such a bad thing to have our stories shout at us? Miyazaki definitely found more nuanced ways to express this thought as his career progressed, but Future Boy Conan shows the basics of that base and is valuable for that. The show’s much like its eponymous hero: straightforward and honest to a fault.
It’s a nice feeling to root for someone like that every so often, you know?