Mysterious Cities of Gold (TV Series, DiC Entertainment and Studio Pierrot 1983)
What it’s about:
The year is 1532 and we are in the midst of the golden age of exploration, or to put it another way, the first period of European colonialist expansion. In the midst of the Spanish conquest of continental South America three children and three adults set out to find El Dorado, the Mysterious Cities of Gold in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. They are constantly pursued by Spanish conquistadors, who are also looking for the titular Cities of Gold and get into various adventures along the way.
Why It’s Good:
Out of the various feature length cartoons I have talked about and will talk about in this series on this blog this is probably my all time favourite. I have fond memories of watching this on BBC children’s television when I was a kid myself. The way they had a “previously on” and “next week on” at the beginning and end of every episode meant that essentially you got to see everything three times so the complicated episodic plot was relatively easy to follow for me even at that young age. Then I read about it as a teen and was pleased to find that this old favourite was regarded among Animé fans as a classic and although I couldn’t see it at the time. Then years later when it was finally released in on DVD 2007/8 after protracted wrangling over the copyright I bought it, watched it again and marvelled at how good it actually was.
In the middle of quite a pumpin’ wee adventure story there are skilfully inserted elements of science fiction (it’s never stated overtly but the advanced technology of the inhabitants of the Cities of Gold at the end of the series include nuclear fission) and historic fiction (real world historic characters are part of the plot and are presented in a way that is easy to understand and gives you some insight into the era). Also, the little 4 minute mini-documentaries at the end of each episode where the factual real-world elements are explained are very well done and informative.
The animation was ground-breaking at the time and still stands up as a product of the two best cultures as far as animation and sequential art go both then and now, Japan and France. The music all the way through is pretty immense, the theme music is catchy enough that it’s indelibly lodged in the back of my consciousness as a bridge to that time in my youth, as I'm sure it is many other peoples. All together, it’s just a nicely done bit of work.
What the young ’uns will hopefully take from it:
|Mendoza, brilliantly morally ambiguous|
Well, here’s where it gets interesting. This is pure “baby’s first anti-imperialism”. Rather than glorifying the conquest of the new world, as some children’s adventure fiction set in that time will do, the whole process is depicted as a rapacious land grab, a scramble for resources and specifically gold. The fate of the Incan and Mayans is presented as tragic. The three children, who are the unambiguous heros of the story, are all native Americans. The white European characters are all either evil and motivated purely by greed (the conquistador characters) or stupid (Sancho and Pedro, the protagonists comedy sidekicks) and even Mendoza, the children’s adult protector is at best an anti-hero, a rouge who is depicted as being on the children’s side out of enlightened self interest and only comes out as unambiguously heroic in the last couple of episodes. This is powerful stuff and alongside the factual elements of the story make for quite an education as to what the conquest of the new world actually was.