Original Airdate: August 28th, 1982 on NHK
The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a French-Japanese co-production, and unlike many of the kids’ shows I’ve reviewed so far, it’s serialized as opposed to episodic—that is to say, it tells a long continuous story. There are risks to doing this—a 10 year old isn’t going to binge-watch a Saturday morning cartoon the same way you’d swallow up an entire season of House of Cards in a weekend—but Cities does a good job of bringing the viewer up to date on what exactly is going on in the story before any given episode, which makes sense. Much like Powerhouse, it half-heartedly attempts to be educational by way of a documentary featurette appended to the end of each episode that is superficially related to the plot, addressing subjects such as the natural geography of South America or the fauna of the Galapagos Islands. There’s also a 2012 sequel of the same name.
- Original premise. You don’t see a lot of historical fiction pitched at kids, especially not in serialized cartoon form. Cities tells the story of a small group of travellers on a grand adventure, searching for the eponymous cities. It pertains to a particularly bloody moment in Spanish history, but it doesn’t whitewash things too aggressively—Zia (Janice Chaikelson) is a kidnapped Inca princess and Tao (Adrian Knight) is the last living descendant of an extinct tribe. But the show doesn’t lean too heavily on historical elements and instead looks for material in the fantastic. In this episode, the explorers are menaced by a tribe of hill-dwelling giants and make their escape in a giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. And about that…
- A giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. I guess you might call this sort of innovation in 16th-century historical fiction “sunpunk.” Either way, it’s unexpectedly awesome to watch what at first appears to be a gigantic golden statue spread its wings and take flight when exposed to the sun as the temple around it dramatically crumbles to the ground. If a jaded adult can experience a few moments of surprised joy at this spectacle, I can only imagine how a kid would feel. It’s even better when Esteban (Shiraz Adam) discovers that a magical trinket makes it stow its landing gear and submit to passenger control. You may have seen the recent stories in the news about how a 15-year-old discovered a heretofore forgotten Mayan city using the help of satellite photography and deductions about astronomy. If there are still jungles today that are so thick and impenetrable that they contain unknown secrets, imagine what it must have felt like to be an explorer 450 years before Google Maps. Barring major technological innovation like deep space travel, only fiction can offer the thrill of exploration in the 21st century.
- Aurally displeasing. First of all, there’s the music, which sounds like a reject from Eurovision 1977. Wikipedia discloses that one of the directors of the show vetoed the original Japanese theme music because it was too “understated.” They may have overcorrected. The other audio issue here is the dubbing. I understand that dubbing comes with the territory in anime, especially if it’s pitched at kids and/or rebroadcast in the US, as was Cities. Still, it’s egregiously terrible here, and the issue is that the creators didn’t even try and rewrite the lines so they fit the amount of animation time they had. I wouldn’t care if the faces didn’t sync up with the dialogue, but once again, they overcorrected–the faces sync up fine, but every other line of dialogue is so rushed that it sounds like you’re watching Gilmore Girls on 2x. A couple of rewritten lines and the show would have been that much more immersive.
- Padded. I watched four episodes of Cities to get background and they all felt like there was 10 minutes of content in a 20 minute show. Often the padding takes the form of dreadful interludes of “comic” “relief” featuring the bumbling sailors Sancho (Terrence Labrosse) and Pedro (Michael Rudder, Blindside.) Mercifully, they’re only in the background here, but instead we get a pointless excursion to an underground volcano viewing platform and some stupidly careless death-defiance when Esteban and Tao try and climb to the top of the enormous bird statue/airplane. The best kind of suspense is transparently manufactured suspense designed to kill time!
Motivation: There’s a couple things going on here. Any story of exploration is to some extent driven by knowledge, but Esteban is seeking to be reunited with his lost family, and his Spanish guardian is of course looking for money in the form of that sweet, sweet municipal gold.
Final Judgment: 4/10. Definitely nothing too special, and I can’t imagine why anyone who isn’t a nostalgia junkie would want to seek this out.
NEXT TIME: Another review of an extremely short subject as I analyze Disney’s new Mickey Mouse cartoons.