The Mysterious Cities of Gold
In 16th Century Spain, Esteban, a boy of mysterious origins, is recruited by Mendoza, a ship's navigator, to accompany him on a voyage to the New World. Esteban discovers another young person on board, Zia, an Inca girl being returned to the New World to be forced to serve as a translator to the Spanish governor Pizarro. When they finally arrive in South America they encounter a third youngster, Tao, the last descendant of the technologically advanced Hiva Empire. Together the three look for the fabled Cities of Gold, sometimes under Spanish coercion but also because that route seems likely to lead to Esteban and Zia's missing fathers.
This show is about as "old school" as they come- a joint French/Japanese production from 1982 that has achieved minor cult status. It's an action-adventure show above all; there are enough booby-trapped and/or collapsing temples to occupy an army of Indiana Joneses. The show plays very much like an old movie serial, sans the convention that every episode end on a cliffhanger.
Shows of this sort have not traditionally been strong on characterization, and this one's no exception. Esteban's the typical "man of action" (OK, "kid of action") type who tends to act impulsively, relying on his intuition. The show does give him one vulnerability, a fear of heights- a definite problem when crossing the Andes. Zia is, alas, a far too typical damsel-in-distress. Both Esteban and Zia are drawn in a pleasant proto-Miyazaki style. The artistic rendering of the third member of our kid triumvirate, Tao, I found too caricatured, but he's a critical character in the show; he's the resident genius (every hero group needs one), the last surviving member of the high-tech Hiva Empire (Hiva in the English dub , Mu in the original), a kind of Pacific Atlantis which met the same fate as the Atlantic one (this is all explained in detail late in the show.) Tao is the person to go to when they find occasional relics of ancient Hiva technology: an automated boat; a flying machine in the shape of a condor; and the Cities of Gold themselves. (Everything's solar-powered, very environmentally correct.) Tao is also good at improvising devices to get his friends out of danger. He'd prefer to think his way out of a crisis, so he's kind of playing Mr. Spock to Esteban's Captain Kirk.
The villains here are mainly the Spaniards, and their motivation is simple greed, which of course it actually largely was. Fortunately, the Spanish here are rather dimwitted (despite having firearms), and two of them, Gomez and Gaspar, get conned time and time again by the kid's guide and sort-of guardian, Mendoza.
Mendoza is by far the most intriguing character here. Since he's a Spaniard, Tao distrusts him, and Zia distrusts him even more, but his true motives are ambiguous; while he keeps his rather stereotypical bumbling, cowardly sidekicks Pedro and Sancho in line with promises of gold, he may very well have a higher regard for the children than just as a means to that end. The DVD set features an interview with the show's director, who says that Mendoza's ambiguous nature was an idea from the Japanese side of the collaboration, and that makes sense; one of the delights (and frustrations!) of anime is its plethora of ambiguous characters and relationships. In any event, Esteban understands Mendoza better than his companions do, and is sometimes shrewd enough to use that knowledge to his advantage. For example, Mendoza is loath to give up any advantage over others that he acquires, but, in my favorite scene in the show, Esteban recognizes the perfect opportunity, and says just what he needs to say, to wrest something important from Mendoza's grasp.
The show has plenty of flaws, mostly of necessity; for example, the fact that everyone can understand everyone else's language. Here's a more interesting one: the show turns more blatantly sci-fi with the introduction of the Olmecs, who have an extremely advanced technology which doesn't quite fit into the Hiva narrative, and besides these guys don't seem quite human. (Erich von Daniken was still big in 1982, as I recall.) Yet despite their possession of heat/disintegration rays, when the Mayans suffering under their oppression rise up in revolt, the Olmecs mostly fight back with the Mayans' own weapons- spears and knives.
I would also carp a little about the background art- you're portraying a time and place that's not only exotic, but seldom depicted in ANY media, and it deserves a richer depiction than it gets, though I do understand the limitations of animation (and TV budgets for it) of the time. The show's theme song is infectious, but not necessarily in a GOOD way. (I couldn't get the Astroboy theme song out of my head either, and was equally annoyed about that at the time. ) The parting of our cast at the end seemed way too rushed, considering all they'd endured together.
On the other hand, Native American characters are quite prevalent in the show, and they're neither denigrated nor treated in a patronizing fashion- they might seem superstitious to us, but they're definitely not stupid, and are portrayed as (mostly) peaceable people with highly developed architecture and agriculture. This is a good place to mention the live-action travelogues, a few minutes long, at the end of the shows, which depict aspects of the history and contemporary culture of South and Central America. Some of these are delightful, and they also prove how well the show's creators researched the people and landscapes it depicts. For all the improbable technology and forays into sci-fi, The Mysterious Cities of Gold feels like a much more authentic depiction of its time, place, and people than certain other anime with a historical setting that I might have ragged on elsewhere in my reviews.
The real problem with the show might simply be that it might seem too old-fashioned now- it doesn't have the frenetic pace, or flash-and-dazzle of more contemporary shows, nor are its characters tormented by their own demons, or having crises of conscience (with the interesting possible exception of Mendoza).
But there was a moment at the beginning of the show when Esteban is standing on the Spanish shore waiting to embark on his journey, and I was feeling the same kind of excitement and expectation that I'm sure his character was. I took this journey with him, and I'm glad I did.
Four stars is the rating I give this for its audience (15 and under), and for those older folks who can put themselves back in that youthful frame of mind. Adults who expect more depth or personal conflict may subtract one. It's not a boring show at all- it's well paced- but like the Golden Condor here, it's a relic of a more innocent time. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Esteban is nude (back only, of course) in a swim. The live-action travelogues include one where topless native women dance, because that's what some native women do (or used to anyway.) If you read National Geographic, there's nothing new here. Many people get shot or skewered, but not explicitly, and there's no blood. In short, no sexuality and the violence isn't gruesome. Probably OK for its intended audience.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, English dub
Review Status: Full (39/39)
The Mysterious Cities of Gold © 1982 CLT/NHK
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