Here is a series with a very interesting production story: what I watched was the Canadian dub, commissioned by British and American companies, of a Franco-Japanese coproduction with finance from Luxembourg written primarily by a Frenchman based loosely on an American novel about Spaniards in the New World, with an enduringly popular theme song written by a very talented Israeli musician living and working in France. The scripts were written by the French but storyboarded, it seems, mostly in Japan, under a French director who had moved there. So debate has long raged about whether or not this is anime. Well, I’d say no, on the grounds that Thundercats is not regarded as anime – after all, that was entirely animated in Japan, but the creative team were Western. The only difference is that Mysterious Cities of Gold was first released in Japan, with Japanese voice acting, as Taiyou no Ko Esuteban – or Esteban, Child of the Sun. But the project’s origins are Western.
The series was a collaboration between DiC, a French company whose name was ubiquitous in 80s cartoons and made me and my brother giggle even back then, and Studio Pierrot, now probably most well-known for churning out Naruto and Bleach but back then a fledgling studio with only three productions under their belt (though including the notable smash hit Urusei Yatsura). It was developed and produced in 1981, first ran in Japan in 1982, then the slightly edited French version was aired in 1983. The English version was not aired until 1986, in both the US and the UK. My own memories of the first run, or the repeat in 1989, are limited, and certainly I don’t have the fond childhood memories of it that I have for Ulysses 31 or M.A.S.K., but that theme tune is embedded in my psyche, as well as the image of the Golden Condor in flight.
In 16th-century Barcelona, little Esteban is treated as something of a miracle child, able to call out the sun, though he doesn’t believe it is magic of any sort himself. Because of a medallion he has worn since his rescue from a shipwreck as a baby, he is drawn into a voyage to search for the Mysterious Cities of Gold. Along the way he meets Zia, a little Incan girl with a medallion of her own and the ability to read ancient scripts, and eccentric Tao, the last of the Hiva people.
The first half of the series centres on interesting struggles between different political factions in the time of conquistadors, and remains remarkably sophisticated in terms of historical detail right up until the kids stumble upon ancient technology. The crumbling temples and even the incredible solar-powered flying machine the Golden Condor all work well, but as the series goes on, it goes a little too far with its fanciful science fiction, and many of the final episodes are given over to the Olmecs, an unconvincing group of pointy-eared goblin people with advanced technology and bioengineering skills. It just goes a little too far and they look too silly, with the result that everything gets a little trivialised. I would have much rather had closer ties to reality, because the same story could have been told without the daft sci-fi excesses.
Because the first half is brilliant. The characters are very interesting – the kind-hearted and innocent children are contrasted with the adults, be they greedy and oafish like Sandro and Pedro, or morally ambiguous like Mendoza, that detail according to the creators added by the Japanese. He has to be one of the most interesting and compelling supporting characters in any animation, by turns noble and conniving, always with an agenda of his own, even if it is simply to keep the children safe.
I made a point of tracking down at least the French and Japanese versions to compare with the English dub that coloured my childhood and so I stuck with. The French is on the commercial DVDs but the Japanese is remarkably hard to find. The English dub was actually meticulously and carefully done – the DVD extras reveal a laborious process of matching plosives and fricatives, and getting strong performances out of inexperienced children. The main problem with the English dub is how often it is an info-dump, with far too much dialogue crammed into too little time, resulting in the actors garbling out long lines in a very unnatural way. There is none of this in the Japanese version – the adults in particular are much stronger, giving measured and even performances, but the children’s voices are bad…Esteban sounds cocksure and is clearly an adult woman, and Zia’s whiny voice is like nails on a blackboard. And I just can’t get over Sandro and Pedro calling Mendoza ‘Aniki’! The theme song, with its English refrain of ‘Try my best!’ is also nothing to the adapted version’s, and twee in a very different, less impressive way – though it’s a shame some of the animation got hacked out for the Western release. The French dub preceded the English, and has kids performing the main roles as well, and Sancho sounds so much like his English counterpart I actually looked up the actors to see if they were the same person in both roles (not so), but there’s much less variety in the voices, Mendoza’s voice is a little too brazen for my tastes and there’s the same problem with rushing and incidental characters overacting. I’d put it on a par with the English version – though I must say I prefer the intro having a refrain of ‘Someday we will find the Cities of Gold’ to the rather awkward and silly ‘Esteban, Zia, Tao – Les Cités d’Or’.
As a major cult hit, lots of material has been made recently available for fans, including DVDs with several documentaries, dominated by the animation director who also played Mendoza (with the somewhat suspect story of being picked from four anonymous candidates by French producers to play the role after simply recording himself to fill an empty slot – not that I mind too much as he does an excellent job). The main thrust of these is that those who took part in the production are astonished how well the title has endured. And there is always talk of a revival – in 2007 it was feature films, and now it’s three new 26-episode seasons to premiere in 2012. Having ambition and quality in animation makes it last, and though it was cheaply animated and looks dated now, the story and characters have stayed with the audience, and I for one cannot wait to see the updated version.