Having finally seen Future Boy Conan, I’ve come to the conclusion that this 1977 anime is probably the work that most directly represents two of the major themes in Miyazaki Hayao’s earlier works, environmentalism and Marxism. People are likely more familiar with the former, which figures prominently into works such as Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke, while the latter tends to be a bit more subtle. While the characters of Future Boy Conan aren’t rolling out banners with pictures of Karl Marx on it, the criticism of capitalism and the dangers of “unthinking” technological progress as associated with a post-industrial society are too strong to ignore in Future Boy Conan. It makes for an interestingly political work, though perhaps what is equally impressive is that the series does not neglect to build up a rich cast of characters, an interesting world, and a sense of fun and wonder, whether is characters are traveling on land, sea, or air, that perhaps even contributes to that Marxist underpinning.
Future Boy Conan takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has had most of its land masses submerged due to the use of “super electromagnetic weapons,” said to be even more powerful than nuclear weapons. At the center of the narrative is Conan, a boy whose life of hunting and fishing has granted him unusual (almost superhuman) strength and swiftness, and Lana, a telepath girl who holds the secret to reviving the limitless power source that is “solar energy,” and together the two must evade capture by the technological city of Industria, whose leader Lepka wants to use solar energy for his own selfish desires. Here, the series’ warnings about the abuse of technology and issue of greed are clear, but this is also contrasted with scenes of Conan using his nature boy powers to baffle his enemies like a freakishly powerful Dennis the Menace tormenting Mr. Wilson. The result is a work that is clearly in its championing of communal lifestyles and living closer to nature, but I can’t tell if the series’ own sense of action and adventure make for a “Trojan Horse” through which these political concepts are introduced, or if those fun and more lighthearted elements are the very means by which these arguments are made.
Much like some of the more lighthearted Studio Ghibli films, Future Boy Conan can be approached in a variety of ways. Certainly it can be seen as this highly political work. It can even be watched for historical or cultural significance, being an early work from not only Miyazaki but also the other big Ghibli director Takahata Isao. However, these need not be the primary reasons to watch Future Boy Conan, as it’s just as strong in terms of its sprawling sense of epic adventure and its attention to animation and even just the fact that it’s a simply an engaging story. Outside of its original context or the Marxist and environmentalist themes, Future Boy Conan is extremely approachable without needing to be a fan of older anime.
If you do pay attention to the political aspects of Future Boy Conan, however, then there is much to chew on. Nowhere is the criticism of capitalism stronger than in Lepka’s characterization. His problem isn’t just that he is clearly a horrible human being, but rather that his time spent at the “top” means that he has no conception of how people really are. To him, the masses comprise an amorphous engine meant to serve him, and he has no idea what it really means to be a leader. This also ties in with the series’ warnings about abuse of technology, as it is through his reliance on technology as a means to control the lower classes that he is increasingly both literally and metaphorically distanced from them. in this respect, it’s especially noteworthy that the prospect of a renewable energy source, a dream of humanity both inside and outside of fiction, is viewed with skepticism in Future Boy Conan. Although I don’t agree entirely with its message, the fact that it encourages us to be wary of the possibility that limitless energy might not satisfy those whose ambitions are to always have more is a warning message that’s still relevant today.
I find it kind of funny that I finished Future Boy Conan not long after having seen The Wind Rises, which is said to be Miyazaki’s final feature-length film. Whereas The Wind Rises is partly about the costs of living according to one’s passions, Future Boy Conan strongly exhibits a more youthful sense of idealism with its post-apocalyptic environment that makes way for what is more or less a communist agrarian utopia. Here is a man who has changed, and if we take his works each as their own “Miyazaki,” I wonder what kind of debate they would get into.