Early in his career, Japanese manga artist and anime director Hayao Miyazaki wanted to turn Richard Corben’s Rowlf into an animated feature.
We’ll say that again: Miyazaki’s Rowlf, adapted from a Richard Corben Heavy Metal story.
This seeming marriage of opposites was a fantasy of Miyazaki’s — he went so far as to create some concept sketches, and his vision is very much a Miyazaki-fied version of Corben’s story. In the original, a princess has a dog she loves; she’s kidnapped by some monsters and the dog must save her. That could be a Miyazaki story.
Corben’s story has more nudity, sex, heavy weaponry and violent death in it. But you can imagine Miyazaki leaving that out and delivering something that’s more like a fairy tale than a monster story.
We can see how certain elements of Corben’s tale appealed to Miyazaki — the monsters drive fearsome tanks and live in a fortified castle, which lines up with a few of Miyazaki’s movies. Rowlf loves Princess Maryara — it’s a quasi-sexual lust (the old “if only I weren’t a dog…”) but it’s there, and Miyazaki could easily have toned it down to the kind of human-animal connection that we see again and again in his films. Miyazaki’s ideas for Rowlf would show up in the feature he made, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke (1994).
Miyazaki pursued this project in 1980, the year after the release of his directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro. Rowlf was published in Heavy Metal over three issues, from November 1979 to January 1980, although Miyazaki didn’t necessarily see it in our pages first, as it was published in black-and-white underground comics form back in 1971. This is all well before the founding of Studio Ghibli, with which Miyazaki is now so closely identified. That didn’t happen until 1985.
In 1980, Miyazaki was working with TMS Entertainment, and the company took a pass on his Rowlf proposal because it only wanted to make movies from existing manga titles. It was a moot point anyway, as Corben wouldn’t give Miyazaki the rights. That’s hardly surprising — while Miyazaki might have made an entertaining film, it would have been pretty far from Corben’s vision of Rowlf.
Thanks to Polygon for bringing this interesting story to our attention. The Miyazaki art in this post comes from his book Starting Point: 1979-1996 (via the excellent Corben site muuta.net) and the Rowlf panels are from the story’s presentation in Heavy Metal.