Fans of Japan’s Studio Ghibli and its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki will remember this plotline from his first official Ghibli movie, 1986’s Castle in the Sky: A dark-haired boy stumbles across a mysterious pigtailed girl who seemingly materialized from thin air. The two form a tight-knit bond, but she’s in danger, pursued by threatening figures after her family’s connections to great power. When the people chasing her catch up and kidnap her, the boy leaves his homeland behind to rescue her, and the pair eventually journey to new, fantastical lands.
The movie established Studio Ghibli as an international animation staple, and cemented Miyazaki’s reputation as one of the world’s most engaging movie writers and animators. But the most fervent Ghibli fans will know that Miyazaki used the exact same premise eight years earlier for a different story: the 1978 anime TV series Future Boy Conan. The series never aired in the United States, and it’s long been relegated to fansubs and import copies, until now.
Forty-three years after its premiere, Miyazaki’s directorial debut is now being released in North America for the first time. The release, available as a four-disc Blu-ray or a digital download, features a 4K digital restoration and a new English-language dub produced by Vancouver’s Ocean Productions (Dragon Ball Z, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). The show’s 26 episodes, each about 30 minutes long, focus on a young boy named Conan who adventures through a post-apocalyptic world. Told with boundless optimism and heart, Future Boy Conan represents a turning point in Miyazaki’s career, and a milestone in the animation industry.
While Miyazaki’s name might be the initial draw for people curious about the series, Nippon Animation cultivated a hotbed of talent for the show. Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata did storyboards and directed two episodes. Miyazaki and Takahata’s mentor Yasuo Ōtsuka served as animation director and helped with character design, and future Whisper of the Heart director Yoshifumi Kondō contributed key animation. Classical composer Shin’ichirō Ikebe, revered for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, composed the show’s score. Conan came with its share of problems: Miyazaki initially hesitated over directing the series, which constantly fell behind schedule, and received low ratings when it first aired on Japanese television. Still, it found a dedicated following both in Japan and abroad, with one particularly successful translation and release in Arab countries.
Future Boy Conan starts with eerie electric guitars ushering in Armageddon. In 2008, a terrible war devastates the world. Ultra-powerful geomagnetic weapons knock the Earth off its axis, obliterating the five continents and causing sea levels to rise. Twenty years later, two survivors eke out a life on Remnant Island, where affable 11-year-old Conan lives simply with his adopted grandfather, swimming and fishing and bounding with endless energy. They assume they’re the last people alive, until a young girl named Lana washes up on shore, unconscious. Conan is thrilled by the newcomer, but Lana is on the run from agents from another island. They want to leverage her against her grandfather, the last remaining scientist specializing in solar energy. Their pursuit kicks off a cat-and-mouse chase that spans Earth’s new island ecosystem.
An early near-wordless sequence of Conan hunting a shark offers quick insight into his characterization. Superhuman strength and prehensile feet give him a physical edge, but his determination sets him apart. Like so many Miyazaki protagonists, he manifests a deep, intrinsic loyalty once he connects with someone — one memorable visual shows him using all his strength to produce a single drop of water for her to drink.
For her part, soft-spoken Lana helps Conan understand the unfamiliar world he enters after meeting her. She occasionally feels too much like a damsel in distress, but she has her own arc and talents. Sometimes completing the trio is Jimsy, a near-feral kid who smokes cigarettes (hilariously referred to as “smokies” in this dub) and favors eating frogs over responsibility. But he isn’t one-note comic relief. When he unintentionally causes Conan to get punished, he recognizes the harm he’s done and makes amends.
Thinking of Conan as a proto-Castle in the Sky provides a good entry point into the series. Both stories are high-octane adventures that target younger audiences and follow more traditional narratives than later Miyazaki fare. Bumbling Captain Dyce and his crew provide comic relief, and they undergo an antagonist-turned-ally arc reminiscent of Dola’s pirate gang in Castle in the Sky, while Industria government agent Lepka is one of Miyazaki’s rare traditional villains. Lana and Castle’s Sheeta even have near-identical character designs.
The two stories also share an early exploration of the environmentalist and anti-war themes that have preoccupied Miyazaki for decades. Inhabitants of the island Industria eat synthetic food made out of plastic; High Harbor inhabitants live off the land, connecting with nature. By the end of the first episode, one character has already recoiled at the sight of a gun. None of this is subtle. Yet while Conan and Lana frequently meet danger and disaster, the series never loses sight of its protagonist’s pure worldview. As the exceedingly catchy theme song puts it: “Swim and make waves / run and kick the ground / Because we love Earth so much / because the dawn is so beautiful.”
Where Castle in the Sky riffs off a steampunk aesthetic, Conan is all about ’70s retrofuturism, building a vibrant visual language of slick teal spacesuits, tangerine seaplanes, and beeping computer rooms. The ocean provides the central backdrop, but the environments vary from abandoned underground cities to endless deserts. Lived-in details, like moss growing over an old rocket ship, make it feel tangible. Twenty-six episodes give Miyazaki plenty of time for world-building, and part of the joy is seeing what he comes up with next.
Miyazaki didn’t create Conan’s world from scratch. The series is loosely based on The Incredible Tide by mid-century science fiction author Alexander Key, best known for Escape to Witch Mountain and the resulting Disney film franchise. Key’s novel paints an obvious Cold War allegory with Christian undercurrents, subbing in Industria for the Soviet Union, and Lana’s pastoral home island High Harbor for the United States. Miyazaki disliked the book, finding it too depressing and inappropriate for children, and only accepted directing Conan on the condition that he’d have free rein to make changes. Some of Key’s plot points and offbeat details, like Lana’s avian telepathy, make it into the show, but Miyazaki remixes Key’s basic idea of a watery dystopia into a tender-hearted children’s adventure.
In a 1983 interview with Animage Bunko (reproduced and translated in Starting Point, a collection of Miyazaki essays and other material), the director explained, “In the original story, you have what seems to me to be a world without hope. You have a weird society where people dream of riding bicycles through desolate scenes of dark oceans, gray skies, and craggy boulders and rocks — it’s a bleak mental landscape.” In Miyazaki’s Conan, blue seas and green vistas shine vibrantly.
Rumors persist that Key is partially to blame for the show taking decades to arrive in America. The story goes that the author saw an early version, hated Miyazaki’s interpretation, and instructed his estate to block it from coming to the States. In that Animage Bunko interview, Miyazaki alludes to the Japanese network NHK having concerns with its relationship with Key. But the author died a year before Conan’s release, and his only son died in 1995. Neither spoke publicly about the series, making it difficult to ultimately prove whether the rumors hold any weight. (It’s worth noting that this new release comes only a few years after Key’s novels were relicensed as e-books, after many of them had been out of print for decades.)
Conan has long been a missing piece of the puzzle for Miyazaki completionists, but it would be misguided to say the show only has merit as an early effort, paving the way for future masterpieces. It has directly inspired animators from Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball) to Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe). In the anime about loving anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, the show’s team re-drew Conan frames for a pivotal scene to ensure they could pay homage without copyright issues. Pixar’s Luca is largely an attempt to make a Studio Ghibli movie within the Pixar framework — for one thing, the Italian seaside village setting is called Portorosso, in a salute to Ghibli’s Porco Rosso — and director Enrico Casarosa took visual cues from the playful multi-limb physicality of Conan, showing his team episodes for reference.
The show also inspired Miyazaki himself. In an interview featured in Tokuma Shoten’s 1984 Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind guide book, he shared his evaluation of Future Boy Conan: “So my honest feeling is that with this work, I really recalled why I had wanted to work on cartoon movies.”