Years before he became arguably the most important director of feature-length animated films in the history of cinema, Miyazaki Hayao was an employee of Toei Animation, working as an animator, concept artist, and story man. That's actually under-selling it quite a lot: he was one of the animators and concept artists at Toei, something of a hot-shot superstar. If I were being tremendously and utterly thorough, I'd have sought out every last project with Miyazaki animation; but there has to be some point where we put the brakes on and say, "Sanity first - thoroughness later".

Though Miyazaki was quite well-regarded as a result of his animation, and the manga he illustrated based on Toei's films, he didn't pass up a chance to move up in the world, and in 1971, he left Toei with director Takahata Isao (they'd first worked together three years earlier), to join up with TMS Entertainment. There, the two men co-directed several episodes of the TV series Lupin III, a most popular franchise; and yet Miyazaki's career as a director didn't really take off yet. He designed several more projects for Takahata to direct over the next few years, but eventually he got his next chance, when he joined up with Nippon Animation to develop a very loose adapation of the American science-fiction novel The Incredible Tide. Miyazaki threw out most of the original material and re-shaped it to a more personal vision; he did much of the design work; and I believe it fair to suggest that, while Lupin III was something like hackwork, a chance for a nascent filmmaker to get his feet wet, the 26 episodes of Future Boy Conan that aired in 1978 - all of them directed or co-directed by Miyazaki - are the start of his long and storied career as an honest-to-God auteur.

Things get a bit difficult right about here, because I have no precedent for reviewing a television series. It hardly seems right to treat it as just one 13-hour movie, although there are certainly reasons why that approach is easiest. After a lot of thought and some false starts, I've decided that the most inelegant solution is also the most useful, so I'm going to take it episode-by-episode, in no great detail, although how far it will make sense to take this approach remains to be seen. I certainly don't want to spoil a show that, while over 30 years old, has very little exposure in the English-speaking world outside of serious anime and Miyazaki fans.

The biggest problem with this approach is discussing the animation, which tends to be the same from episode to episode; I'll be studding in observations about that as we go.

Episode 1: "Remnant Island"

Things start off with a bang. A nuclear bang, I imagine, but we're not really given any explanation for what happened on 3 July, 2008, to end human civilization in a fiery apocalypse that caused so much global stress that it drove the continents into the ocean; I was really drunk that week, so I can't recall, but I bet it had something to do with the impending release of The Dark Knight.

This is the opening sequence for every episode, not just the first, but there's no better place to talk about it than here, I think. The first shot, after all, is essentially the first image of Miyazaki's career as an auteur, and it's absolutely haunting: a fleet of futuristic orange planes flying over the skyline of a futuristic city. Indeed, pretty much everything about this sequence is haunting, both apocalyptic and beautiful at the same time

But I am tarrying, which was exactly the opposite of what I meant to do. A group of survivors takes off on a ship, which is struck by some kind of exploding detritus, forcing it to crash on a small island which has survived the death of the world. 20 years later, all that remains of humanity on this rock are an old man (voiced by Yamanouchi Masato) and his 11-year-old grandson, Conan (Ohara Noriko). They eke out survival by catching fish, and Conan is young enough not to remember any other kind of life, which means that he doesn't realise how miserable he's supposed to be.

By chance, a girl, whose name we shortly learn to be Lana (Nobusawa Mieko), washes up on the beach, the first proof of outside humanity to ever show up on Remenant Island. She clearly has a dark past, speaking in scared tones of a place called Industria, and screaming in her dreams; she also has an ability to communicate with animals, specifically the terns all over the island. Whatever the case, she's obviously wanted by somebody, for only days later, two soldiers arrive in a hoverplane looking for her; clearly they're bad news, but neither Grandpa nor Conan can stop them from taking her.

Plainly, this first episode is meant to be a world-establishing story, and it does so swiftly and elegantly. I would rather not look ahead to movies that didn't exist yet in '78, but the representation of a world destroyed and then reclaimed by nature is quintessentially Miyazaki - the shot of the old spaceship covered in vines in particular feels very much like something from one of his later films.

Even at the very beginning, it's obvious that this is a smart, serious kids' show: the debate between the soldiers and Grandpa over the sins of the older generation in bringing about the apocalypse is not at all what you'd expect to find in even a tremendously savvy American cartoon. At the same time, it doesn't stop being fun. Conan is introduced, more or less, in a setpiece that finds him hunting a large white-nosed shark that has been decimating the local fish population; it's both slapsticky and genuinely thrilling. Again, not to look forward, but that's the Miyazaki touch, as we'll later know it - pitched comfortably at the level of a child, but never daring to talk down to them or act like they only deserve half-done material.

Episode 2: "The Journey"

We're not nearly through with world-establishing, of course, and this episode, divided more or less into thirds, gives quite a lot of exposition. We learn in the middle that Lana is apparently quite a prize commodity, having been pursued by a sea captain named Dyce (Nagai Ichirô), who travels on a futuristic tall ship named the Barracuda; he has no small degree of contempt for Monsley (Yoshida Rihoko), the leader of the group that captured Lana, though he is subordinate to her.

Most of the story, though, is about Remnant Island: first, Grandpa's memories of how he and his companions first landed there, when it was a barren rock, and eked out a life that became easier and easier as the world started to recover from the scars of the war. And thus, again, Miyazaki develops what will arguably become his overriding theme: nature vs. man's destructiveness, with nature winning out here.

Grandpa barely finishes his story before dying of his wounds, and after the interlude with Lana and her captors, we return to the story of Conan attempting to leave the island, in accordance with Grandpa's last request: Conan must find companions of his own, for no-one should be alone in this world. In contrast to the rest of the episode, this sequence is played largely for humor; Conan having already done his mourning, his natural enthusiasm comes back into play. Let us never forget that the target for this show was, after all, children; and no child ever enjoyed a Bergmanesque inquiry into the pain of being alive when someone else has died.

There's a neat symmetry to the episode: the first half deals with arriving on Remnant Island, the second half with leaving it, but in both cases the emphasis is on the debt that the island's human inhabitants owe it, for providing them shelter and a home in an empty world. The title is "The Journey", but it's very much a story of home.

Episode 3: The First Companion

World-building tapers off a bit, as Conan, running low on supplies, lands on a new island, where he meets Jimsy (Aoki Kazuyo), a boy around his own age who, it appears, has grown up in even more savage conditions than Conan did, to judge from his wild hair and appetite for lizards.

The first half of the episode consists of virtually nothing other than the two boys meeting and then trying to prove who's tougher (it ends in a draw); the second half bring Captain Dyce and the Barracuda to the new island, where we learn that far more valuable than mecha suits and luxury items is plastic, which the captain is harvesting to bring back to Industria. When Conan learns that the Barracuda hails from that island, he immediately decides to hop aboard and head off to find Lana; Jimsy decides to head with, and thus Conan has his first friend.

This episode gives us a good chance to stop and talk about Conan himself, something I haven't done yet. Having known nothing like civilisation, he's grown up a bit wild, as much an animal as a human; nearly the first thing we see him do in this episode is catch a fish with his foot and eat it raw. Yes, he catches a fish with his foot; he has prehensile toes. And he's super strong too, as we learn in the first episode when he carries a shark out of the water and across the beach.

Theoretically, this combination of traits should not make him even remotely endearing, but he is, and that's largely a matter of design: without breaking out of the standard TV anime mode of that era, he's pretty damn cute, with his round face and button nose.

Thus far, he's been mostly contrasted with characters rather less cartoonish than himself - Grandpa, Lana, and Monsley are all drawn with more realistic features and much less soft, squashy edges. In this episode, though, we hit full cartoon mode, and Conan doesn't stand out as much - though he's still an appealing character, and a fine protagonist.

All in all, the episode itself is a bit less distinctive than the two preceding it; it's definitely more outwardly childish. Worth mentioning, perhaps that it was also the first episode that wasn't completely storyboarded by Miyazaki alone. Still, let us remember the time period we're talking about: in 1978, most children's animation in both Japan and American, television and theatrical, was epically bad. Future Boy Conan still has a level of creativity and intelligence that nothing from its time period could match, even as it dips a bit in both of those qualities.

Episode 4: "The Barracuda"

The previous episode made friendship its subject; here, friendship is the theme, and for that reason if no other the wee dip already reverses itself. Conan and Jimsy sneak aboard the Barracuda, but Jimsy's appetite gets them caught; when he's too drunk to withstand the beating that Dyce has ordered as punishment, Conan offers to take his friend's share. Later, when Conan is suffering from a fever as a result of that beating, Jimsy watches over him, doing his own double share of the work they've been assigned as the price for passage to Industria. And near the end, the tern that Lana spoke to in the first episode finds the boys, with a strand of her hair wrapped around its leg - a reminder to Conan that she is thinking of him, and enough to make him redouble his efforts to find her.

It's fairly light on incident, but "The Barracuda" makes up for it with sheer unmitigated sweetness: it quietly demonstrates how quickly young people are to bond with one another, and to treat that bond as a sacred duty. The obligations of friendship take many different specific forms here, but the idea is always the same, that the most important thing is to ease your friend's suffering. Or, when all else fails, to share in it.

It advances the plot barely at all (a single line about Lana's knowledge of solar energy), but it gives us a chance to know these characters a little more, and to find that they're pretty darn admirable, when you come down to it. After the hectic slapstick of the last episode (which isn't completely banished, of course), it's a gentle, welcome change of pace.

Episode 5: "Industria"

And now we reach... well, I guess it's a "special" moment. The third and fourth episodes, I mentioned, weren't storyboarded by Miyazaki working alone; he worked alongside Hayakawa Keiji. Now we come to a stretch of three episodes that Miyazaki didn't storyboard at all: this one and the one to follow were both done by Okuda Seiji.

Still, Miyazaki's touch is very obvious in the look of the episode, which is everything you'd expect from a story titled "Industria" and directed by a famed environmentalist. It's only a couple of moments into the episode when the Barracuda enters the waters around Industria island, and it is a hideous graveyard of rotted metal, a moody and effective visual that tells us volumes about what this future world looks like away from the isolated, undeveloped islands we've seen so far. Even more telling is the tall spire of gleaming silver in the center of this ruin: Industria itself.

Every post-apocalyptic story has the moment when the agrarian hero finds himself in the sleek Last Outpost of Technology, and in the best of them it's a real "wow" moment of design. Future Boy Conan is no exception, although given Miyazaki's feelings, and the series' established notions of technology, destruction and the eventual resurgence of the natural world, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Industria, for all its dazzle, looks forbidding and mechanical.

After two episodes mostly given over to slow character beats, the plot kicks back in with a vengeance: Conan and Jimsy get sidelined, letting the story drift back to Lana, currently in the clutches of the Administration, the group that rules Industria. They want her grandfather's solar energy secrets, but she won't tell where he is. A square-faced bit of nasty named Lepka (Kayumi Iemasa) has some particularly ruthless ideas about convincing her otherwise. Meanwhile, Dyce has gotten in a spot of trouble with the Administration for kidnapping Lana from her home in High Harbor, and then losing her.

Eventually Conan breaks out of the Barracuda brig and runs through the bowels of Industria, giving us some tantalising hints about how this city works, eventually running across a truly uncanny sight: the room where Industria's "undesirables" are kept, locked away from the world.

Finally, he spots Lana, locked high up in a tower; their reunion that ends the episode is altogether touching, given that we've seen them together for all of five minutes out of, so far, 2.5 hours of animation.

By this point, the show has more than demonstrated its versatility: from a sweet fable of friendship to a cascading series of visual representations of soulless technology in just one episode. This keeps it fresh, and also speaks to the creator's endless interest in both humanist and sociological themes. Eventually, of course, he'd get to be a bit better at combining those two simultaneously, but even here, he's not flailing about; the shot where Conan identifies Lana's location by noticing where the terns are flocking is a perfect combination of these urges, and absolutely characteristic of Miyazaki's later work.

Episode 6: "Dyce's Rebellion"

Case in point about the show's versatility: this episode is at once the most serious and the silliest of the show yet. We start to get the first real idea of what the rest of the plot is going to look like, when Conan and Lana escape underneath the giant Triangle Tower at the center of Industria: it would appear that Lepka hopes to use the solar energy technology lost in the war and rediscovered by Lana's grandfather to power the very same airships that caused so much devasation in the first place. That doesn't sit well with Dyce, who decides to snatch Lana (after she and Conan are recaptured) and bring her to High Harbor himself, out of Lepka's clutches.

Here's what I mean by serious and silly: after Lana breathlessly figures out the general scope of Lepka's plot, Conan replies, "What a rotten guy he is!" as if talking about the mean old man who doesn't let you go in his backyard for a ball. When Lepka threatens Conan with a future-ey laser gun, he proves its power to the defiant youth by burning off a lock of Conan's hair, that crumples in a cartoon-physics chain. When Conan and Lana escape from a tower bristeling with gun turrets, it involves a playful bit of character animation when Conan lands on his feet after a multi-story fall, and the impact shock travels all the way up his body.

The point is clear enough: as the story starts to get really involved and, frankly, dark - a madman wanting to trigger a second nuclear holocaust - the tone is commensurately lifted, so that it doesn't get to grim and nihilistic for the youthful target audience. And it works. Because it's one thing to show this-

-a haunting image of the tower erupting in gun turrets, that has a certain poetic threat to it. It's beautiful and scary at once. But when you follow it with this-

-that leavens some of that fear, and makes it fun again. Which has so far been most of the point of the show: touches of seriousness about war and the environment in a canvas that's mostly a sprightly adventure story. "Dyce's Rebellion" might well be the most fun of any episode yet, and if the trade off is that it has to back off on some of its harshest edges, well, that's a fair price to pay for a swashbuckler (in a similar vein, we get the first hint here that Monsley has a certain admiration for Conan's pluck and strength, and if generic convention weren't enough to tell us that she was going to turn over to the good guys at some point, this would do it).

The moment when a serial goes from set-up to hardcore plot is a delicate one, and Future Boy Conan handles it admirably; it is a tribute to the director's sure hand that even as the series kicks into gear it doesn't feel rushed or hectic.

Episode 7: "Chase"

Another personnel shift in the storyboards: this time, they were drawn by none other than Takahata Isao, Miyazaki's longtime collaborator.

The story itself is much the most straightforward of any episode thus far: Dyce brings Lana to the Barracuda, Monsley follows on her hoverplane, the Falco, Conan (who of course managed to escape on his own), stows aboard, Lepka fumes.

Much like the previous episode, this largely showcases Miyazaki's facility at pacing action, for there is indeed very little else about it. Which isn't a problem, really; any adventure story needs its passages of breakneck speed. There are still flashes of humor, of course, and a couple nice character moments, but in the main, this is just like the title says: movement, constantly, well-executed by a gifted team of animators. It even eschews the lightness of the previous episode in regard to the more esoteric and dark parts of its plot, though since so little is said, not that much can detract from the propulsive narrative.

Episode 8: "Escape"

Once again, Miyazaki drew the storyboards for this episode, again in collaboration with Hayakawa Keiji, but that's not the most important behind-the-scenes fact about it, nor the reason that I've chosen it to be the stopping point for the first chunk of this review. This was the last of the 26 episodes that Miyazaki directed solo; he would take a co-director credit on the remaining 18, either with Takahata (episodes 9 & 10) or Hayakawa (episodes 11-26).

Beginning where the last episode ended, most of the first half is the same non-stop incident; with perhaps a touch more slapstick to it. The second half is much more distinctive and unique, with Conan and Lana finding themselves on the shores of a island, or maybe even a continent, dominated by a desert. The pace slows down to a crawl for a long while, allowing us to observe the pair recovering and relaxing. It's a delicate sequence, quiet and sincere, and it reminds us how much of Future Boy Conan is about human relationships, as Conan and Lana simply enjoy each other's company. For the first time in eight episodes, there is simplicity and peace.

It doesn't last, of course; in the desert, they find another sign of the past war, maybe the eeriest shot in the series to this point:

That's only the beginning of a long tracking shot over a tank graveyard, dominated by yellows and browns; it's atmospheric as hell, and without the greens and blues that accompany all the other images of broken technology in the film, there's nowhere for us to go but to really grapple with the concept. Miyazaki's emphasis on showing us the corpses of machines in this series has been quite striking, and fairly easy to read in light of his later films; but let me try to stop doing that, and instead just respect Future Boy Conan for what it is: a smart young artist taking limited means and making a potent argument about the destructive possibilities of technological progress, just through lovely, unexpected visuals.

That's all the farther I'll be taking such a close analysis of the series narrative, as the remaining 18 episodes are (on the one hand) so broadly similar to what we've already seen that a thematic reading would be repetitive, and (on the other hand) so specifically different that I'd feel like a bastard if I gave away some of the surprises.

So let us leave Conan, Lana and Jimsy to their destiny, and scale back to consider some of the things I couldn't get to in the episode-by-episode framework: the overall aesthetic of the show, its place in anime history, and in the development of the career of its director, Miyazaki Hayao - who is, after all, the reason we're all here.

Viewed with thirty years of hindsight, knowing how staggeringly lush some of Miyazaki's later works would be, it's somewhat hard not to immediately respond to Future Boy Conan with a touch of dismay: it frankly looks a bit cheap. Especially in the character design and animation, where figures are deliberately drawn with a lack of fussy details, so that they can be quickly and efficiently painted in mostly solid blocks of color.

Moreover, the series is consistently animated at a much-reduced framerate: by my reckoning, never more than "on the twos" (a new image every second frame, i.e. 12 images per second), and nearly always "on the threes" (every third frame, i.e. 8 images per second). There is at any rate a definite jerkiness to the movement throughout all 26 episodes of the show that never lets you forget that you're watching a cartoon.

That being conceded, let us not forget the world in which Future Boy Conan was released. The 1970s were a fairly awful period in animation history, in every country; the state of American cartooning I will let speak for itself - SuperFriends, anyone? - and while my specific knowledge of 1970s anime is fairly limited, the scraps that I'm familiar with have suggested that on the whole, the Japanese animation industry had receded from the already uninspiring work being produced in the 1960s - Astro Boy, anyone? A quick survey of Japanese film history can at least confirm that the period was marked by a significant belt-tightening, both on television and in theaters, and this extended to the production of animation like everything else.

(And yes, I recognise that both SuperFriends and Astro Boy have their earnest defenders. Sadly, just because you liked something when you were six, does not mean that it is actually good.)

So even though it was "cheap", obviously produced quickly for television (public television, at that), Future Boy Conan actually holds up better than most of what was being produced around the world in 1978. For a start, the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. And, while the characters may not have the richness of movement or design that a bigger budget would have permitted, they've all been drawn with no small attention to developing their personality through facial features and expressions. We might even say that this is the more impressive feat than more outwardly "accomplised" animation would have been: given a small resource pool, the animators and designers - "designers" pretty much means "Miyazaki" - could create simple, instantly recognisable figures that could move through a great many emotions, which all had to be instantly recognisable themselves. That the biggest complaint I can lay against the animation is its framerate says quite a lot about their success: most animators of the same era wouldn't have even tried to do what the Conan team did. It's something like playing a symphony using three guitars and a drum.

It's hardly likely to be the case that Miyazaki was individually responsible for the high quality of this series, but not impossible to believe that his personal stake in the project gave him the passion to lead his animators to do their very best work. Let us not forget that Miyazaki himself was an animator on this series, as he'd been one of the country's premier animators for a decade at that point; as I mentioned before, this is indeed an essentially arbitrary place to begin a Miyazaki retrospective, given the number of projects he'd designed before this, and the number of stories he'd helped to develop. Really, the only point of distinction concerning Future Boy Conan is that it is the first project that Miyazaki largely guided from story concept to completion with only minimal input from others. But by 1978, he was something of an old pro, and the jump from supervising animator to director can hardly have been that pronounced.

So this is, in essence, the work of a seasoned filmmaker, and it shows. There's a certainty to the progression of the narrative, a faith that the audience will follow along without having things explained in tiny detail, and a willingness to put in twists and turns that would bring the whole edifice crashing to the ground if they weren't perfectly executed; the animation bears the stamp of someone with a marked gift for efficiency, getting the point across visually in the smallest number of steps. It's a bizarre thing to say of a 13-hour serial, but Future Boy Conan is a remarkably disciplined work: little is put in that isn't necessary to either further the plot, advance characters and theme, or craft a solid gag. The last of these isn't given any less weight than the other two, by the way: above all things, Future Boy Conan is awfully entertaining, and the goofy slapstick that dominates its humor is never frantic or pushy, as it so often is in children's entertainment across the globe: it too is expressed at a nearly perfect pace.

The show was a hit, and rightfully so: its intelligence, humanism and precise craftsmanship all added up to a very worthy entertainment that never speaks down to its audience or assumes that they can't keep up. Indeed, other than its frequent use of very broad slapstick and its privileging of child heroes as the most able and brightest members of the cast, there's no indication that it's "for kids" at all: it's "for audiences", and it does a damn good job of making sure that nobody of any age is going to be restless. That would in due course prove to be arguably the key element of Miyazaki's cinema, but of course that's in the future. Let us leave him for the moment in 1978, where the bright artist has continued his string of animated successes with his first "authored" work, though I can hardly suppose he or anyone thought of it in those terms at that time...