Future Boy Conan: The Videogame (PC Engine CD-ROM)

Hayao Miyazaki fans have been screaming for videogame adaptations of his classic animated movies for years. Thankfully, our prayers have been Japan, at least. This is Future Boy Conan on the PC Engine CD-ROM, which was released in the West as the Turbografx-16 and TurboDuo. It is based, obviously, on the 1978 Miyazaki television series, which is just about the greatest cartoon series ever made.

Unfortunately, neither the anime series nor the videogame ever made it to our shores, but thanks to the magic of import shops (and internet downloads, cough, ahem), we can enjoy Conan in all his greatness.

I will freely admit that, strictly on the standards of videogame criticism, Future Boy Conan is a somewhat standard, almost rudimentary side-scrolling action-platformer. Its layouts and level designs are nowhere near the genre's greats, and if you're expecting the next Super Mario or Sonic, you'll be greatly disappointed. The game largely exists for players who wish to relive the TV series, by walking from Cut Scene A to Cut Scene B. For these reasons, this game will probably only appeal to fans of the series.

 That said, fans will have a terrific time. The many cut-scenes use the in-game graphics engine to depict its scenes, instead of merely playing compressed MPEG video clips. This means that graphics are extremely clean, sharp and colorfully detailed. The animation is a touch limited but very impressive, and the programmers did an exemplary job in recreating many of our favorite Future Boy Conan scenes, including the title sequence ('70s anime always had the best opening credits).

Hudson Soft made a strong push to promote the PC Engine/Turbografx library on Nintendo's Virtual Console, including a number of CD titles. I do wish that Konami (who now owns the Hudson name and library) would continue the good work and bring us more games, especially the many CD titles that never left Japan. Like the Sega Saturn, the PCE is an endless treasure trove for classic gamers at a time when videogames and anime were practically joined at the hip. Today's most game designers are trying to mimic Hollywood blockbuster movies. They should mimic Miyazaki anime instead.

Just tell me you wouldn't go completely gaga over a videogame version of your favorite Studio Ghibli movie just like this one. Indie developers, assemble!

I previously wrote a post about this game way back in 2010, but only shared a few screenshots. Now we can watch an extended gameplay video that really shows you the guts of this wonderful little gem.

Riffs: Princess Mononoke (Movie and Book)

Here is one of the more interesting riffs in the Ghibli canon. In Princess Mononoke, we see a character named Kaya who serves as a romantic interest (of sorts) for Prince Ashitaka. The relationship is shown shown in brief moments, but she clearly loves the boy and is devoted to him. As he is cast out of the village and sent on his quest, she gives him a crystal dagger as a symbol of her memory.

Later in the movie, Ashitaka meets San, the "Princess Mononoke", and falls in love with her. He gives her his crystal dagger as a sign of his devotion to her. Later, during the dramatic climax, San lashes out in anger by striking the same dagger into Ashitaka's chest. In the end, while the two share love for one another, they both realize that they cannot live together, and must stay in their separate worlds (don't kid yourself; when the girl you are dating says "I need my space," you're never seeing her again).

Now here's where things really get interesting. The village girl Kaya is actually a recreation of the heroine from Hayao Miyazaki's original 1980 version of Mononoke Hime, which was radically different from the eventual movie. It's far closer to a traditional fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast meets Feudal Japan. In that story, Mononoke is a large cat who takes on a human wife, the "Mononoke Princess."

Incorporating the storybook princess into the movie is a stroke of sly brilliance. The romantic heart of this movie involves a love triangle, where the heroic prince must choose between two women who carry the same name.

Most Miyazaki fans in the West had never heard of the 1980 version of Mononoke, created as a series of storyboards for a planned animation project which was scuttled, then published in the 1983 book Hayao Miyazaki Image Boards. A standalone storybook was published in Japan in 1997 to coincide with the movie, and was eventually published in North America by Viz Media in 2014.


New GKIDS Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray: Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Cat Returns, Tales From Earthsea

My Neighbors the Yamadas
Tales From Earthsea
The Cat Returns
Pom Poko

At long last, all of the Studio Ghibli feature films are now available on home video in North America. On January 16, GKIDS released My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Cat Returns; on February 6, they released Pom Poko and Tales From Earthsea. The collection is now finally, thankfully complete.

When I began writing about Studio Ghibli in 2003, only a handful of movie titles were available on home video, either on VHS or the new DVD format. Even with an Academy Award for Spirited Away and the support of Disney, new catalog releases remained elusive. For many die-hard fans, it seemed as though expensive importing would be the only option for building a complete Ghibli movie collection.

Now, under the direction of GKIDS, that journey has finally reached its end. We have everything! We have all the Ghibli features from Nausicaa to The Wind Rises. We have Omohide Poro Poro and Umi Ga Kikoeru. We even have Yoshiyuki Momose's excellent 2002 short film Ghiblies Episode 2, which I honestly never believed we would see on our shores.

Like the other catalog titles in their reissue campaign, GKIDS has provided proper English subtitles to all four movies (Pom Poko suffered from a "dubtitle" track on the Disney Blu-Ray). They have crafted new cover and slipcase designs, and offered new bonus features where possible.

Of these newest reissues, My Neighbors the Yamadas is my clear favorite. I absolutely loved this movie ever since I first saw the Japanese DVD over a decade ago. Its zen watercolor design is a revelation, and the loose episodic structure felt like a template for any future comic strip adaptation, and reminded me a lot of the classic Peanuts cartoons. Years later, I was fortunate enough to see the movie on the big screen, and it was a visual revelation, with colors and audio that absolutely stomped the limited DVD format.

Yamadas has never been a popular movie among Ghibli fans. I've never understood why this was so. Perhaps it's just too different, too quiet, too reflective, too dependent on comic strip humor, too dependent on its original Japanese soundtrack (Disney's dub cast tries hard, especially Jim Belushi, but it just doesn't work in English). Hopefully, the new Blu-Ray release will win over the fans. This movie looks and sounds fantastic.

I'm also looking forward to picking up the other three titles. Pom Poko is another Paku-san near-masterpiece that has been strangely overlooked by Western fans. It's a very dense and complex movie, one that feels like three or four smaller movies smashed together in a giant Katamari ball of happiness and gloom. I enjoy those kind of movies. They play out like classic rock double albums, where indulgence and sprawl are celebrated as virtues. There isn't a double album that couldn't have been made "better" by trimming the fat and creating the perfect single album. But that would be missing the point, and wouldn't be nearly as interesting. Pom Poko needs its weirdness, its cultural mythology, its comedy and tragedy and nods to documentary films.

The Cat Returns and Tales From Earthsea are considered minor works in the Studio Ghibli canon, but these are rare instances of new and inexperienced directors trying to find themselves and test their limits. Both of them are probably better than you remember, and will benefit greatly from the Blu-Ray format, with richer colors, cleaner textures and more involving audio. Besides, Cat Returns has cats, which will be a hit with social media addicts, and Earthsea involves Goro Miyazaki openly fantasizing about murdering his father and being cursed to live within his endless shadow. I'll take that over talking emoji poop and Poochie wannabes any day.

So that's the end of the long journey. You now have all the Studio Ghibli features. Grave of the Fireflies remains under Sentai Filmworks, and The Wind Rises remains under Disney. Eventually, GKIDS will get the rights to those titles as well, and put the entire catalog under one roof. Heck, maybe they'll really surprise us and announce they're importing Ghibli ga Ippai Special: Short Short, or turn their gaze to the vast pre-Ghibli eras of Miyazaki and Takahata. At this point, anything is possible.


Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro Sees New Audio Commentary

In 2004, Lupin the 3rd scholar Chris Meadows took inspiration from a Roger Ebert essay on DVD audio commentaries, and decided to record his own commentary track for Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki's 1979 action-comedy-caper classic. In 2017, he returned once again with a revised and updated version to share with all the fans.

The idea of fan-generated audio commentaries was a hopeful one, but for various reasons never really caught on. The only real example of this model is Rifftrax, a movie commentary website curated by alumni from Mystery Science Theater 3000. YouTube and podcasting are similar in many respects, but the idea of a full-length audio companion to your favorite home videos remain an idea ahead of its time.

Whatever. Meadows performed a minor miracle with his 2004 Cagliostro commentary, and his new 2017 commentary is that much better. It is a must for all fans of Lupin or Miyazaki or movie fans in general.

You can download Meadows' Lupin audio recording on his website, where he also includes a lengthy essay discussing the development of this project, as well as the excellent (and must-have) Discotek Blu-Ray release. I highly recommend that you download your copy...and maybe consider recording a fan commentary track of your own.

P.S. I first received word about this project last summer, but failed (once again) to post the news on Ghibli Blog for many months. I promised Meadows that I would finally publish it tonight. In addition, I also sent him free copies of my ebooks (Zen Arcade, Pop Life, Greatest Hits) as my personal thanks.


Ursula Le Guin Has Passed Away

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science-fiction and fantasy writer, passed away today at age 88. Her family made the public announcement this morning but did not disclose a cause of death.

Generations of writers have been inspired and provoked by Le Guin's writings. I certainly count myself among them, although I would only be, at best, a casual fan. The diehards will be more than happy to share their tales, and you should seek them out in the coming days and months.

Ghibli Freaks will remember the 2006 feature animated movie Gedo Senki, titled Tales From Earthsea in the West, and directed by Goro Miyazaki in the midst of a very public feud with his legendary father. Le Guin was personally approached by Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki to create an animated adaptation of her acclaimed Earthsea novels, promising that the father would pass the torch down to his eldest son, but carefully oversee the production and treat it like one of his own works. Things unfolded quite differently in the ensuing months, and Le Guin was left feeling slightly betrayed and alienated. Thankfully, a written letter from father Miyazaki repaired the breach, and the two were able to make their peace.

Fans of the Studio Ghibli movies will have a unique view of Earthsea because of the 2006 movie, famously uneven, uncertain, and overwhelmed by the ongoing family melodrama. The same fans will also observe that Goro-san showed himself in that movie, through its troubled central character, and through his interpretations of the novels. Like the father, the son did not create a "faithful" movie adaptation, which is what is expected today, but used the original work to explore larger themes and wider discussions. That some of these discussions became very personal and painful is a tribute to the artist's courage and determination.

When I think of Ursula Le Guin, I always think of an inner strength, a tough-minded resilience. She was strong and wise, after all, because she had to be. She practiced her art at a time when female sci-fi and fantasy authors were all but unknown. She forged her own path, sang in her own voice. She persisted. And so she fought, scrapped, struggled, succeeded, and became a living legend.

It is not an easy thing to become an author. It takes an almost obsessive stubbornness to create, to write and edit, to publish, to promote, to suffer acclaim and rejection and silence, and then go back to the writer's desk to go through the whole thing again. You must believe in your own worth, your own voice, just as you must believe that an audience is out there, waiting to hear your tales.

A giant has passed from our world. Her spirit is now on the next journey. We will miss her greatly, but we will wish her Godspeed. Thank you.


Happy 77th Birthday Hayao Miyazaki

Happy 77th Birthday Hayao Miyazaki

Today is Hayao Miyazaki's 77th birthday. Here's wishing a happy day with many more fruitful years to come. The director is busy working on his next "post-retirement" feature animated movie, which should be completed within the next three years. His newest animated short film, Boro the Caterpillar, is expected to be screened at the Ghibli Museum in Japan later this year (and, sorry, there are no plans for foreign distribution).

This photograph of a young Miyazaki is from the production of Horus, Prince of the Sun between late 1965 and early 1968. According to the documentary movie Yasuo Otsuka's Joy in Motion, the aspiring animator was 25 years old at the time of this picture, which would date it at 1966. Other than the hair color and lack of beard (which he didn't grow until the 1990s), he looks essentially the same. Imagine spending an afternoon in his company, when he was in the prime of his youth, full of energy and vitality and overwhelming ambition. At age 77, he still possesses more energy than most filmmakers half his age.

Personally, I'm glad that Miyazaki is back, even if only for a little while longer. Some artists should never stop creating, the relentless march of time be damned. As long as he can still hold a pencil, he should draw. The world needs his art. There are far too many loud, obnoxious and stupid cartoons crowding our movie screens, but there is never enough of Miyazaki. There is always room for more.


Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan is the 1978 television anime series created and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Spanning 26 half-hour episodes, it tells the tale of a group of young heroes and their adventures in a post-apocalyptic world. It perfectly balanced the cliffhanger serial style of Miyazaki's younger years with the social commentary of his later works such as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. If you're a fan of Castle in the Sky, then you'll love Conan, which is definitely cut from the same cloth.

This LaserDisc box set was released in Japan some years ago, and like most classic anime series for the format, it is now a prized collector's item. You can find copies on Ebay easily, but expect to spend a lot of money. Even if you don't have access to a LaserDisc player, you can enjoy the packaging, as well as the complimentary art book, which goes into detail on the series, including a number of production art stills and screenshots.

Everything is in Japanese, and there are no English subtitles on any of the discs (the only English subtitled version of Conan at present is an online fansub copy). This will be a barrier to many Western fans, and we are reminded once again that so many of Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli works remain beyond our reach.

Why is Future Boy Conan not available on our shores? I suspected licensing (read: money) is the cause, as Nippon Animation owns the rights and do not appear willing to deal with anyone. Then again, we don't know if anyone has made any formal offers. The challenge in importing an anime series from four decades ago is quite high, as a new dub soundtrack would have to be produced, and the fanbase is far too small to cover the costs. Anime fans are typically teenagers and college students, and they have more than enough on their plate from the present; they don't have much time or patience for the "old" stuff. That's okay. You and I were the same when we were their age.

At some point, somebody will have to bite the bullet and bring this great series to our shores. Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have a solid cult following today, and that fan community is only growing over time. Sooner or later, they're going to discover that there's life beyond Totoro and Spirited Away, and movies that were made before Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa. I'll bet that if you sit down any Miyazaki fan and have them watch an episode, they'll become diehard fans of Conan just like you and me.

This reminds me, I really need to finish that Future Boy Conan blogathon that I began way back in 2011. By the time I reached the eighth episode, I was hit by writer's block, and couldn't find anything further to say. I need to finish that one up, certainly for the Ghibli book project and for posterity.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays From Ghibli Blog

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our friends and followers from Ghibli Blog. Here's hoping that you're having a great time, that you got all the presents you wanted, and that the weather outside isn't unbearably cold.

Here's Totoro hanging out at the bus stop again. He doesn't have to go anywhere, he just likes hanging out for fun. Even he is a bit surprised at the arctic air that's blasting through North America right now. He's getting a full plate of a traditional "Minnesota Winter". That's okay, things will warm up soon. At least he has some snow to play around in.

Don't forget to also visit our indie publishing site, DT MEDIA, and consider purchasing or downloading one of my books. I'm already working on the next two manuscripts, including the mammoth "Conversations on Ghibli" book project that is seemingly never finished. Oh, well, whatever.


Spirited Away Academy Awards Screener

Spirited Away Academy Awards Screener

Ghibli fan Molly DeWolff asks about this impressive little piece of Studio Ghibli memorabilia:

I found an academy screener copy of Spirited Away at my local library book sale and wondered if you could tell me a little bit about it? After relatively thorough google searching, your tweet about the same copy back in June of this year (though the one I found is NOT sealed) is the closest I came to finding anything like it. Is a copy like this collectible or worth keeping? Can you tell me where I can find more information on it? 
Thanks! I appreciate your help.

I shared some photos of this VHS Spirited Away screener on my Twitter page earlier this year. I found it on Ebay, which means one lucky Miyazaki fan now has this prized item in their collection. I'm a little envious, and I'm wondering right now why I never tried to buy it when I had the chance.

Movie "screeners" are commonly used in Hollywood during the awards season. Free copies are distributed to voters and judges, usually along with a nice gift basket, press kit or other promotional items. It is the same as any home video release, only without the endless commercials and with minimal packaging. Also, as this was distributed at the end of 2002, the Disney producers released on videotape. It's crazy to imagine that people were still watching movies on VHS barely only 16 years ago.

Right now, as I'm writing this post, a local Chicago TV station is broadcasting Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy classic The Producers. They're playing an old videotape. You can really hear the tape hiss in the background, the details are smudgy, the colors are bleeding everywhere, and the picture is cropped...but it still looks pretty good. I'm having a fun time. Heck, at this point, I'd feel very tempted to pop in this Spirited Away VHS and make a big bowl of popcorn.

Anyway, if you ever find any screener VHS tapes, hold onto them. They'll be worth something someday. Maybe. Whatever. Sentimental value is priceless.


Future Boy Conan LaserDisc Box Set

Future Boy Conan is Hayao Miyazaki's 26-episode series that aired on Japan's NHK network in 1978. It was not a ratings hit, but the series has become a cult classic as Miyazaki's name rose to fame with the movies of Studio Ghibli. It may even be his finest achievement in animation, a perfect distillation of his many talents and personas. Action, adventure and romance crash head on into sober observations of war, decay and destruction. The buoyant, younger Miyazaki meets his cynical, older self that would soon emerge with Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

In the West, Conan remains virtually unknown, even among Ghibli fans. In Japan, however, the series has been widely celebrated on all the major home video formats, from VHS to Blu-Ray. Here is one excellent example of this: a glorious LaserDisc box set, featuring all 26 episodes on six discs and a large art book, all packaged in an impressive case design. This looks absolutely spectacular.

These Conan box sets are found on Ebay from time to time, and the price is quite expensive, as you would expect. At this point, it's really a conversation piece for the diehard fans. It certainly will look awesome on your bookshelf next to the other LaserDiscs and vinyl records. But would it actually be played often? Probably not, especially when a vastly superior Blu-Ray release is more easily available (and just as frightfully expensive).

Unfortunately, for English-speaking fans, no commercial release of Future Boy Conan includes English subtitles. It appears there was at least a cursory attempt at exporting the series, hence the "Engrish" title, "Conan, The Boy in Future." I don't have the heart to tell Nippon Animation that nobody actually talks like that. We've always used the direct translation of Mirai Shonen Conan, "Future Boy Conan." I just know that if we ever secured a Western release, this would become a major argument, just as we had a major fight over title "Horus, Prince of the Sun" a few years back.

I have no idea why Nippon Animation (the Japanese animation studio who holds the rights) has never successfully exported this series. Like most matters in the movie business, the answer likely comes down to money. Now that the show's creator is an internationally-famous movie director with two Academy Awards, the price tag has shot through the roof. Hey, this is their chance to cash in on that meal ticket.

Also, it must be said: there is virtually no interest or demand for Future Boy Conan in the States. Anime fans, who are largely teenagers and college students, won't touch anything they consider "old", meaning anything older than they are. They also won't touch Miyazaki or Ghibli, as they consider those too "mainstream". Ghibli fans, likewise, have little to no interest in anything Miyazaki or Takahata created before 1984. Believe me, I've tried. They like to share Totoro fan pictures. Beyond that, it's a struggle to gain any attention. Oh, well.


Riffs: When Marnie Was There, My Neighbor Totoro, Omohide Poro Poro

Hiromasa Yonebayashi pays tribute to the Studio Ghibli movies in all of his work, and When Marnie Was There is chock full of them. Here is one easy riff for fans: Anna is wearing the same hat as Mei in My Neighbor Totoro. However, I was also reminded of Taeko's hat in Omohide Poro Poro. Maybe that's just me, or maybe it's intentional. You be the judge.


Download My Ebooks For FREE on Amazon

Greatest Hits: An Anthology in Four Volumes

Pop Life

Zen Arcade: Classic Video Game Reviews

Update: The free ebook promotion has ended, but the prices are now only 99 cents. Please pick up a copy. You can also purchase a paperback for $19.99, which is the ideal format for these great books.

Good news, everybody! My ebooks are FREE on Amazon from now until Sunday, December 10. Please download a copy of each and leave a reader review.

Zen Arcade: Classic Video Game Reviews features 140 classic video game reviews for NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64, Genesis, NEC Turbografx and Neo-Geo. Do you love retro games? Did you score that awesome Super NES Mini? Here's your guide. You've played the games, now read the book.

Pop Life features essays and stories on movies & television, music & audio, classic & modern video games, and politics & life. Oh, and there are a number of chapters on Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Ghibli and anime. This book is awesome. It's funny and grouchy and feels like a classic rock double album.

Greatest Hits: An Anthology in Four Volumes is an anthology of stories, reviews and essays on pop culture and life. Read 26 chapters about Studio Ghibli. Read 20 chapters about the greatest video games ever made. Read about vinyl records and cool albums and great movies you shouldn't miss.

Remember, kids: the sooner you download my books, the sooner I'll get off your case and go back to posting Totoro pictures. I think that's a pretty fair bargain, don't you?

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