One thing I love about watching anime is that you never know when you’ll run into a masterpiece. Taiyou no Ko Esteban, or The Mysterious Cities of Gold tells the story about three 12-year-old kids who travel from Spain to South America, as they face off against the Spanish soldiers in order to find the titular mysterious cities of gold. While it sounds cliché, I was hooked after only two episodes. This is EVERYTHING an adventure-series should be!
There are many good points of this series; I think it could be best described as a strange crossing between Mahou Shoujotai and Mobile Suit Gundam: the series is the antithesis of episodic: every single episode pushes the story forward, every single episode is fast-paced without any sign of a break and every single episode delivers. (Okay, apart from the one with the submarine I guess, but that still means 38 episodes of epic adventures). While at first this may seem a simple historical series about the Incas and the Mayas, as the series goes on a whole multi-layered science-fiction setting starts to surface. The show is more than 25 years old, and its setting can still be considered as truly original.
The “adventure”-part of this series is also rock-solid. Again, it’s an old series, and yet it can outclass so many modern adventure series. The key is that this series makes optimal use of its environment, whether this concerns large-scale battles between small armies, or just one-on-one fights, strategies take an important role. Think of destroying suspended bridges in order to stop the enemy from advancing, or going against a small army by destroying an artificial dam. One thing I also loved about this series is how it keeps track of its characters: when some of the important characters leave the screen for a while (because Esteban and the others are focusing on something else, for example), you can bet your hat that said characters aren’t going to sit still until the camera focuses on them again, and they’ll be carrying out their own agendas again
The characters are also a lot of fun to watch in this series, and especially Mendoza is an awesome character: he’s continuously scheming and using his head, instead of his muscles; he’s an excellent combination between a father-figure and a greedy and cunning Spaniard. The rest of the characters all have their own identities, roles and purposes. Esteban himself may not be the most memorable of them, but nonetheless he can carry the weight of this series as its main character, and he grows into a brave young boy, who is forced to make huge decisions, despite his very young age.
Regarding the production-values, the only really negative thing I can say about it is that the encoding-quality of the videos I watched was pretty bad. I also encourage people to view the English dubs, instead of the Japanese ones. The English sound-director was a very ambitious one, who didn’t just literally translate the lines from Japanese to English, but instead tried to add as much expressivity as possible. The result is that people speak very fast, but at the same time lots of subtle details are added to the dialogue, giving the characters a very genuine touch. The animation-quality adds to that, with a lot of expressivity in the drawings.
And of course, no review of The Mysterious Cities of Gold can be complete without a mention of the downright astounding soundtrack. Let me say here that I’m going to be very surprised if I were to run into a different soundtrack from the seventies, eighties and even the early nineties that’s able to outclass the different background tunes of this series. You need to listen to it to understand, but the synthesizers and futuristic sounds give this series a unique atmosphere.
In terms of flaws: you do need to suspend your disbelief once in a while. This mostly involves a few coincidences that sit a bit weird, like a building randomly getting destroyed, with the worst being the introduction of Tau. It’s nothing major, though, if you’re not the most critical viewer. While some scenes are a bit dodgy, others are surprisingly clever for a series that’s meant to be for children.
Overall, this series is an excellent watch for every age. Children will love the huge amounts of adventures and wonderful places that this series visits, it also teaches them a bit about making important decisions, and at the same time it’s never too childish for adults to feel ashamed of watching it. This series set the standard of what an adventure-series should be, and unfortunately there were only very few series (if any at all) that followed its example.