Beginner's Guide: The Mysterious Cities of Gold

The question of what your first anime was is often thrown about in communities such as this. I can't tell you The Mysterious Cities of Gold was my first anime for two reasons. One, it technically wasn't because I received a Voltron action figure as a reward for becoming successfully potty trained, and two, Mysterious Cities of Gold was spearheaded by French company DiC and funded as a Japan/Luxembourg (?!) co-production, so it falls into that "just Japanese animation and not anime" category. When I think about works that seriously influenced my tastes later on in life, however, this one is near the top. I saw this before Raiders of the Lost Ark became my official placeholder for favorite movie of all time, and way before the days where I would marathon Illusion of Gaia every six months or so. My thirst for adventures revealing the shrouded and dangerous secrets of lost civilization started here, and even though I don't get outside much and have been given prescription vitamin D regimens on multiple occasions, I am one of the Children of the Sun, the nickname for this series' fandom.

So what is the series? It's the NHK's first animation they helped produced themselves, so theoretically, without this, there might've been no Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. For people like me over 30, it was briefly a staple of Nickelodeon viewing and garnered a few excited conversations in the grade school classroom along with its strictly French-created companion Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea. Now, the American memory of it is almost nothing. Oh, the French have excitedly rebooted the series by themselves with a sequel that started production around the time of its 30th anniversary, but it's shown up just about everywhere it was popular BUT the United States. I'm guessing places like Nickelodeon have so much of their own programming where they get to keep all of the money, and importing shows like this just doesn't make sense anymore. Despite a DVD release that almost instantly went out of print and streaming stints on Netflix and Hulu, it did little to re-ignite passions in the U.S. A game managed to get Kickstarted for PC and some consoles covering the new material, but not much else. For the price of smashing my nostalgia glasses, I'd be more than happy to try to up the awareness for a couple people.

It's 1532. The Spanish have heard the legends of El Dorado and the cities of gold, and are beginning a voyage to seek the truth behind these legends, hopefully bringing in shiploads of gold in the process. Unbeknownst to the crew, the key to finding the cities of gold lies in young Esteban, an orphan raised in a Barcelona cathedral who is strangely revered by the city for being able to bring out the Sun if he is lifted in a high enough position (Giving him attacks of vertigo). His guardian Father Rodriguez reveals in his dying breaths that Esteban is not Spanish, but was discovered during Magellan's voyage around the world where his real father handed him off to crew mate Mendoza before the mysterious ship they were on vanished in a storm.

With Mendoza as his new caretaker, Esteban is snuck aboard a ship to the New World and finds the Spanish crew, including Mendoza, may not be the most honest and trustworthy fellows. Holding Inca girl Zia in storage, the Spanish led by Captain Gaspard and Commander Gomez are trying to line their own pockets through kidnapping, murder, and whatever else is required. Mendoza is more pragmatic, knows the children will be useful in the New World, and convinces the crew to keep the them alive... at least until Mendoza leads them across the Strait of Magellan, a place only he can navigate.

Once they cross the strait, Esteban, Zia, Mendoza, and obligatory comic relief duo Pedro and Sancho enter a race with the rest of the Spaniards to find the cities of gold. They eventually stumble upon Tao, a dark-skinned child who comes from a family of mechanical geniuses living on an island village consisting of him and his pudgy parrot Kokopetl, and get him to join their quest (After doing so, he promptly torches the treetop huts of elevators and pulleys that three generations of his family spent building. Jerk). With Esteban's ability to summon the sun, Zia's ability to decipher Inca languages, and Tao's technical skills, they work together to solve the riddles of El Dorado. Their travels take them across the ancient wonders of South America, including Incan and Mayan ruins, the Nazca plains, Machu Picchu, and more. Each place has a little piece of the puzzle about the fate of the advanced race that once ruled the Pacific and may have secretly guided the growth of other civilizations. They even have extremely advanced vehicles and facilities, like a solar-powered boat and the golden condor that shows up in the opening that every kid wondered when the heck were they going to get to. Before anybody questions what happened to these buildings and devices, the lost civilization of Mu (called Hiva in the English dub) apparently had the attitude of putting a self-destruct device on everything. EVERYTHING.

The story of how this got made was a fascinating one that is fully detailed on the special edition DVDs, but since you can only get those from Australia right now, I can reiterate most of the interesting bits. It starts with Jean Chalopin, the head of French animation studio DiC who's lived in at least four countries over his lifetime. One of them happened to be Japan where he had a friend in the anime animation industry named Mitsuru Kaneko and they got together to try to convince NHK, Japan's version of PBS, to produce their first-ever animation project. Since NHK was obsessed with programs of cultural importance, they dangled the notion of adapting the historical novel The King's Fifth by Scott O'Dell about a teenage conquistador in front of them. They knew from the onset they weren't going to follow the novel in the slightest bit, but NHK didn't know that and gave them some money to do it with the attached demand that they put in an educational component. The money NHK gave them was inadequate, and with their native country not giving them a bit of support because they didn't want a show that was a serial and needed to be watched in order, they turned to a small company in Luxembourg called CLT-also known as RTL, confusingly enough-to give them the rest of the funding (And it should be noted that the series was first aired in Luxembourg a year before showing up on one of France's public television channels). "Today, people take credit in Europe and France," Chalopin discusses in a DVD interview. "They say, 'Oh, we have done that. We supported it, we recognize-Not true. Big lie. Nobody wanted the series...."

Rather than giving money to Studio Pierrot and Japanese production company MK, letting them do it, and call it a day, Chalopin had ideas for a more intense collaboration. Jean convinced his old friend and animation director Bernard Deyriés to move to Japan for a bit and directly work with Pierrot's assigned chief director  of the series, Hisayuki Toriumi, former chief director of Gatchaman and episode director of Speed Racer. Deyriés laid out exactly how the series should look, and in exchange took ideas from the Japanese side of things. It is with this we get scenes like the psychedelic vision Esteban enters early on as a premonition of his trip to the New World which weren't typically seen in anime unless it was titles like Adieu Galaxy Express 999 which had heavy Western influences. On Japan's end, they crafted Mendoza into a much more ambiguous character than the rest of the cast. The French preferred characters with natures that were more obvious, but with Mendoza, the character was required to be more sneaky, more willing to play every side against each other for his goals, and his endgame might've been more sketchy than the average swashbuckling hero.

Despite being a full collaboration, the Japanese and French versions were actually very different. Chalopin talks about how the translations were a little dry, creating different characterizations. The Japanese kept their own music composer, Nobuyoshi Koshibe, while Deyriés went another direction after he felt the score was too understated based on another project they had collaborated on, Ulysses 31. Instead, the Western version brought on Israeli Shuki Levy and Egyptian Haim Saban to bring a more adventurous sound. Levy and Saban might not be household names... well, Saban is. He would go on to found the company given his last name that now lives on the Power Rangers empire. But  Levy isn't well known even with some of the iconic music of people's childhoods, most recognizably the theme to Inspector Gadget. Aside from some cues that utilize world music, the score is most known for being heavily inspired by synthetic new age from the time including the work of Jean-Michele Jarre. It's one of those scores that definitely dates itself, but it's also a one-of-a-kind soundtrack that helped the series stand out. Oh, and it also includes this ear worm of an opening and closing theme.  The series was dealt with as a much more traditional and had very little impact in Japan. I couldn't find much on the Japanese version, but from what I've gathered in the small snippets I did find, the performances were much more typical of what you'd find in anime at the time, and the opening and closing swapped out the series-defining theme for generic karaoke fodder.

Looking at it now, I'm afraid to say everything surrounding the series is more interesting than viewing the series itself in modern times. The first few episodes have some pieces of a show that could possibly hold up. Despite the natural aging that animation goes through, there are few pretty impressive aspects. Hand-drawn perspective shots of the various transports were always a highlight of seventies and eighties animation, and it's no different here. However, even considered one of the more colorful shows of the time, it still looks washed out these days and in addition to that, it's on a television budget with stringent deadlines, so the animation more often than not went with necessity over aesthetics.

What I appreciated when I was a kid was it didn't feel like it was talking down or leaving things out to protect me. Alcohol existed and people enjoyed it. The bad guys just weren't just "going to get" the kids, but murder them. Even the trio of kids straight kill some conquistadors when they use the golden condor to blow them off a bridge when they threaten to invade an Incan village. As a young boy, I could tell when a series was trying to treat me like a kid, and I appreciated when this and The Adventures of Tintin (Which was made for an older demographic) trusted I could handle a few truths about the world others didn't. There is one hilarious "adult" moment when Esteban solves the puzzle of a naked woman statue by making his medallion her nipple I didn't get as a kid and made me giggle like an idiot in present day.

Most of the series suffers from severe tedium in the spots where it shouldn't. After the trip to the New World, the episodes essentially become one plot repeated over and over and over. The kids discover a village/relic/vehicle that could lead them to the Mysterious Cities of Gold, the series gives a couple minutes to reflect on the cool new thing, and then the conquistadors start chasing them around and trying to conquer the natives which forces the kids to blow up whatever vital relic they found to escape. Even when they get the series' trademark golden condor, one of the first things they do is crash it. Thankfully, the condor is tougher than most other Mu artifacts. Discovering the secrets behind the Nazca plains or the ancient Mayan temples in the Amazon is like candy to me, and this series made it boring. There is a 25-30 episode hole between when the journey starts and when they meet up with the Olmecs for the climactic confrontation where, well, let's just say if you think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's use of inter-dimensional aliens came out of left field, you haven't watched enough of this stuff. It's tough when the majority of the series feels like filler.

The English dub's quality has also aged into almost unwatchable at times. Not that I blame anyone on the dub-especially not Howard Ryshpan, the director of the dub and awesome voice of Mendoza-but the method to getting it done in those days severely restricted the ability to get a performance, especially from children. The dialogue recordings were still literally loops of magnetic tape that were snapped together and difficult to edit (Episode editing would normally go well past one in the morning), so the dubbing emphasized the duration of the words to fit the timing over everything else. Some seasoned pros could deal with it no problem, but the Montreal dubbing house decided to use kids since adults trying to be children felt too unnatural to them. I imagine this was a nightmare to control. So much of their dialogue is full of weird intonations or flat delivery, which was caused by just trying to get them to fit the lip flaps. It's how it had to be done, but recent editing advances making this work so much easier have the flaws of the old ways stick out too far. Not helping is one of the narrators was the French liaison to DiC who spoke stilted English, making the production even seem more awkward. After watching this, I don't want to hear ANYONE complain about Alphonse's English dub in Fullmetal Alchemist again, understand?

There are some great stories from the dub. The reason Canada became a place for dubbing houses is when the Americans and the British wanted an English dub like Nickelodeon and the BBC wanted for this series, they have to settle the problem that both countries dislike each other's accents. As an alternative, they use Canadian dubbing because their accents are more "neutral." The series' English version wasn't released until 1986 and it first hit French airwaves in 1983, which included French Canada. For children including Esteban voice actor Shiraz Adam, the English dub was an opportunity to literally play their hero on a show that was running on television at the time. One last note before moving on is the magnetic tape had a tendency to lose the beginnings and endings of their loops, so whatever poor person putting it together in the middle of the night (In this case, Ryshpan) had to imitate the other actors to get a finished work in and had to hope the unions never found out about it.

The one aspect that is still fully entertaining is the little documentaries they put at the end. NHK's demand of an educational component was met with live-action travelogues and reenactments that run at the tail-end of every episode. They usually discussed the real-life locations and people that were referenced in the show. On one hand, these things can be enjoyed because the 1980's documentary either has information that is wrong (Magellan only wishes he died of illness and not being speared and cut into little pieces) or hilariously out of date (Yes, the coca plant is a huge export because of medical anesthetics and nothing else). On the other hand, it has some pretty hefty stuff for a kids show. The first few episodes feature a recreation of a woman in a skimpy outfit being sacrificed to the gods. It's not Apocalypto or anything, but it's there. During a section on Machu Picchu, there is an oddly disquieting discovery of a room with the mummified corpses of a hundred young women discussed. There is even an episode that brings up how the Amazons would choose men from various jungle villages to mate with just for the parents who hate when sex is brought up in any media. Remember when I said this show didn't treat you like you were a kid?

Even as I can't say I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, I can still appreciate The Mysterious Cities of Gold as something that opened my eyes to a world of historical/archaeological action-adventure. Hopefully, the new series finds its way to an American audience because as much as I love fantasy, it feels like it's overshadowing everything else, and kids could use an adventure that takes place in their own world now and then. Besides, I'm not going to be a part of the last generation who got the theme song stuck in our heads! It wouldn't leave my mind for a decade, and by golly, I'm going to make sure it's going to drive my kids crazy for the same time period!


  1. I'm not sure when I'll get to yet, but I might give this show a try anyway. It might be heavily flawed, but I'm kind of a sucker of pulpy adventure at times. I think Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is a higher priority for me, though.

  2. Funny old review. No mention of the elevated plotlines, darkness, mystery and twists, and the kiddy TinTin is the more "adult" show???

    As I say, a funny old review.

    *From a 40-something who watches a lot of grown-up stuff (the Wire, Twin Peaks etc.).*


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