Mysterious Cities of Gold
by Justin Sevakis,
Nostalgia makes everything better. Fast food, cheap perfume, and school lunch are all so much improved in retrospect. And so it is with TV and movies. Films I remembered fondly as a kid, more often than not, are unwatchable to me as an adult. TV series, especially cartoons, fare even worse: Transformers, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and most of the other cartoons that used to comprise my daily viewing would make me want to stab myself if I marathoned them today.
I remember when I first got to college, a number of my fellow freshmen were obsessed with various childhood pop culture relics, like those old cartoons and movies like The Goonies. While I could join in their appreciation of the few things I remembered fondly, the ones I hadn't seen just looked dated and lame. And so too I imagined, was Mysterious Cities of Gold, an early 80s Japan-France co-production that saw broadcast on Nickelodeon during its early days, but had somehow slipped past me. When the show mysteriously popped up on the streaming site Hulu.com, I decided to check it out.
To my surprise, the show has aged better than most 80s children's fare. But only slightly.
Mysterious Cities of Gold (Esteban, Child of the Sun)
It's the 1500s in Barcelona, and for as long as he can remember, 12-year-old Esteban has lived in the Cathedral being raised by Father Rodriguez. This era of idyllic happiness comes to an end as Rodriguez grows ill and weak. With his dying words, he tells the boy that he was found at sea by the sailor Mendoza, apparently having lost his parents in a horrible storm. Hanging from his neck is a big, gold, disco-esque medallion that might offer more clues to his past. Meanwhile, the townspeople are all convinced that Esteban has the magical power to summon the sun at will.
As luck would have it, Mendoza is in town, and he has a hunch the kid might lead him to a lost world filled with all the treasure he can eat. He agrees to help the boy find his lost father, and boards him on a vessel chartered by some evil government officials. It's there that he meets Zia, an Incan princess who's been kidnapped (also in the belief that she might lead to the lost Cities of Gold). Later, they add the Incan boy Tao to their group, and go off searching for their loved ones, with Mendoza in tow, hoping they'll also lead him to riches.
Very loosely based on the 1966 children's novel The King's Fifth by Scott O'Dell, the series opts for adventure and fantasy in lieu of the book's historical accuracy. The idea of Esteban being a "chosen one" with mysterious powers, the secret societies and constructs of the Incas, and all of the other obviously inaccurate bits are purely the constructs of the TV series. Some elements (such as the boat built by Tao's family) are outright science fiction, and feel a bit at odds with the yellowed antiquity that comprises the rest of the environment. Most of these elements (which start wafting into the story in episode 7) were added at the request of a French co-producer, who began contributing funds to the already-airing show. The result bears more than a slight resemblance to another fantasy anime set in antiquity, Gainax's Nadia.
The animation is on the high-end for a show from that era, with Studio Pierrot managing to maintain a consistent level of animation quality throughout the series' run that rivaled most other animated television shows at the time. The show was broadcast on NHK from 1982-1983, then recut, rescored and dubbed into French by AK Video a few months later. The English dub and other versions are all derived from this French version.
The dub is simply ludicrous today. In addition to the awkward, staccato acting common to dubs of the era (not surprising given how technically challenging the task was), some characters have slight accents that give away the actors' French Canadian heritage. A wonky screenplay ("Help! I'm frightened," shouts young Esteban, using words that most adults wouldn't choose) doesn't help matters either. However, nothing contributes to the production's age like the replacement musical score, composed by none other than Haim Saban and his then-partner Shuki Levy. Its warbling synth tracks, clearly trying to channel Jean-Michel Jarre and failing miserably, don't sound very far removed from those of an 8-bit Nintendo, and repeat themselves ad nauseum. Dramatic moments, which were likely silent in the Japanese, are lamely plastered over with wall-to-wall music.
All this serves to make the show feel far more monotonous and repetitive than it actually is. As Esteban, Zia, Tao and Mendoza explore new areas and meet New People, Esteban can literally be heard saying, "I wonder what new adventures I'll have next?" That is, in essence, the problem with watching Mysterious Cities of Gold today: despite being a sweeping, epic serial, the show feels plodding and endless. It's perfect for kids in that the action happens frequently and regularly; the kids are lovable scamps that get into adventures most children could only dream of, and the show can be picked up midstream without feeling like you've missed too much. But for grown-ups, there's nothing here. From the archetypal characters to the adventures they get into, there's simply nothing that would stand out in the crowded memory of an experienced anime consumer.
As a relic of the 80s, Mysterious Cities of Gold is invaluable. The style of children's entertainment of that era is captured in the artwork, particularly in the opening -- the character poses, the sloppy film optical effects, and the backgrounds that are obviously painted-in photocopies of photographs. I could almost feel the brown, Berber carpeting of an elementary school library, and see the pink-tinted glasses of the librarian as she hung a "READ" poster featuring Judge Reinhold in a wacky pose. In a way, I'm glad Hulu and the recent DVD reissue didn't restore the show in any way -- the blurry, beat-up film elements serve as a reminder of those days when not all TV was digitally mastered 1080i. And that's to say nothing of the hilariously dated "educational documentary" segments at the end of each episode, shot in Japan and hastily narrated-over in English.
For years, Mysterious Cities of Gold was almost impossible to find. Long since retired from TV broadcast, the show only started having an organized fan base due to the power of the internet. (I hadn't even heard of the show until the year I started AnimeNewsNetwork, when a poll I was running -- "what unlicensed anime do you most want to see released on DVD?" -- was spammed into the ground by a Mysterious Cities of Gold fan group.) Finally this year, a deluxe DVD boxed set containing every episode plus a reunion of the dub cast, was released in North America. The show was also made available on Hulu.com (and, by proxy, Anime News Network).
I have a feeling that, like most kids' entertainment, Mysterious Cities of Gold can only really be enjoyed by its target audience, comprised entirely of kids from the era in which it was released. Now that those original fans have grown up, some might be able to return to it now and bask in the nostalgia, but those of us who didn't see it as kids will be left baffled by their devotion. I have no idea if today's generation of kids would find anything to like in this show, but for the anthropologist in all of us, what's left is a bizarre-feeling relic of television of a bygone era.
Note: I have decided to get rid of the Obscure-O-Meter™, since pretty much nothing has ever fit neatly in one of those ratings. We're going to be reworking a couple things in the near future, so look forward to a new look!
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