Anime: The Mysterious Cities of Gold

It is the 16th century. From all over Europe, great ships sail west to conquer the New World, the Americas. The men eager to seek their fortune, to find new adventures in new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries... to find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes... They dream of following the path of the setting sun that leads to El Dorado, and the Mysterious Cities of Gold.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold (Japanese name: 太陽の子エステバン (Taiyou no Ko Esuteban; "Child of the Sun, Esteban"), French name: Les Mystérieuses Cités d'or), is a Franco-Japanese co-production dating to 1982. The show is animated in a style that's a distinct combination of Japanese and Western animation, features a long, continuous storyline, and has a dedicated and loyal fanbase.

It was aired in several countries, and was shown in the United States on Nickelodeon during the late 1980s.note  The Mysterious Cities of Gold was notable in its disregard of Never Say "Die" and Gosh Dang It to Heck!, two tropes which have dogged American cartoons well into the present day. In some countries where this series was shown (although not in the United States), each episode was followed by a short documentary exploring subjects related to the episode. The documentaries were funded by the NHK.

The year is 1532, a time of exploration (and exploitation) of the New World. The prize foremost in the mind of every Spanish Explorer is the Mysterious Cities of Gold, said to lie deep within the heart of the South American continent. Of course, none of this means anything to Esteban, a young orphan currently living in Barcelona under the care of the Church.

The boy knows very little about his past — his only connection to it being a strange, crescent-shaped locket he's had since being brought to Barcelona as a baby and a mysterious ability to summon the sun on cue (thus earning him the nickname "The Child of the Sun.")

But all that is about to change...

One day, when Esteban is out and about in the city, a charismatic explorer named Mendoza crosses his path. He later claims to be the man who brought Esteban to Spain from the New World after rescuing him from death at sea. To prove this claim, he produces a round ornament that fits perfectly into the boy's locket. Mendoza offers to take Esteban on his next journey of exploration to the New World where the boy will presumably get the chance to learn more about his birth parents. Of course, Mendoza's intentions aren't entirely altruistic and in the boy's interests, as it's the explorer's belief that Esteban's locket and strange powers are somehow connected to the Mysterious Cities of Gold, which he hopes to find.

Esteban accepts the Call to Adventure and heads for the New World, but he quickly learns that Mendoza may not be entirely worthy of his trust. Proof of this lies in the fact that Mendoza has kidnapped an Incan girl (who had been taken to Spain and given to the Queen years before) and stowed her away on the ship they're currently travelling on. The girl, named Zia, has the ability to read knotted strings called quipu — an ability which Mendoza and his employers hope will come in handy on their quest for the Mysterious Cities. Esteban quickly bonds with Zia after discovering, to his amazement, that she has a locket that looks identical to his. Could she somehow have a personal connection to the Mysterious Cities of Gold as well?

During his journey to the New World, Esteban meets many more interesting people, including Mendoza's servants, the Plucky Comic Relief duo, Sancho and Pedro, and Tao, an island boy whose ancestors were (he claims) an advanced civilization capable of great magical and technological feats. The trio also come across The Golden Condor, a solar powered, gold-plated, bird shaped airplane built by an ancient civilization. Esteban also encounters some fearsome enemies, like the Spanish military commander Francisco Pizarro and the Olmecs, a tribe of elf-like humanoids who want to use the power of the Mysterious Cities of Gold to Take Over the World. The trio of kids must use their wits, skill and bravery, along with Mendoza's Badassness to unlock the secrets of those mysterious Cities of Gold and their relations to them.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a sprawling adventure epic that is well worth a watch. A Region 2 English DVD release was brought about in the UK in June 2008, and a French movie company is currently planning a film based on the TV series. A Region 1 English DVD was released in April 2009.

A sequel series was recently announced consisting of three seasons with 26 episodes each. This sequel supposedly deals with Esteban's further adventures in finding the other six cities of gold. Production delays kept pushing back the airdate (originally set at 2011), with the first episode finally airing in December 2012. The series is in cell shading, taking place immediately after first: Returning to Barcelona (Where the original series began), the characters head next to China in their search for the remaining 6 cities.

There was also an attempted adaptation of the book that inspired the series by a different animation company in the mid-aughties, which featured very different character designs, as such lacks some characters (Tao being one of them), the addition of new characters, lacks many of the Applied Phlebotinum such as the Great Condor and choppy animation. It was not well-received and was subsequently abandoned after a limited DVD release of three episodes in France.

This series can be seen on Netflix. At last!

There is a sequel game available on the Wii U set in the Orient.


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    Season 1 

  • The Ace: Mendoza. However, he clearly has no clue on how to use a cannon. When he gets his hands on it, he fires everywhere but the spots where it'll help.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The TV show was theoretically adapted from a novel (The King's Fifth, by Scott O'Dell) which actually has very little in common with it; it especially lacks the Speculative Fiction elements.
  • Adults Are Useless: The adults in this show are either incompetent or, in the case of Gomez, outsmarted. Mendoza's probably the only one who isn't really outsmarted.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist
  • After the End: Atlantis and Heva fought a war that ended with the use of the "weapons of the sun", which are implied to be akin to nuclear weapons in terms of destructive power.
  • The Alleged Ship: The Esperanza is a rotten, leaky old wreck that somehow hasn't been scrapped yet. How they expect her to survive the Straights of Magellan is anyone's guess. note 
  • Alternate History
  • The Amazon: Much of the story takes place here.
  • Amazon Brigade: Complete with an entire tribe of female warriors.
  • Ancient Tradition: The Guardians of the Mysterious Cities.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: The mini-documentaries shown after the episodes are possibly the greatest example of this trope (very long, accurate, an actual budget)... but are also subversions.
    • The one about human sacrifices is nothing but traumatizing. It ends with a first-person shot of a victim tied up on a sacrificial altar. You see the priest, on top of you, lifting up his knife and stabbing you. The screen suddenly fades to black. Then the narrator says "see you next week on another episode."
    • And one where they show the chicken's head being hacked off with a machete, then the headless corpse flapping and bouncing around madly in the dirt.
    • One of the documentaries, on the native tribes of the Amazon, actually contains full-blown National Geographic Nudity!
  • And the Adventure Continues: The series ends with Esteban, Tao and Zia setting off on the Golden Condor to find the remaining six Cities of Gold. From the preview for the long-awaited second season, they're heading to China in search of the next one.
  • Animated Series
  • Applied Phlebotinum
  • Art Shift:
    • When the story of the Esteban's parents is told, it's done in a complete different art style.
  • Atlantis: The ancient civilization of Heva/Mu fits this trope, although it also fought the literal Atlantis in a war thousands of years ago, which both sides lost.
  • Badass Cape: Mendoza's, of course.
  • Because Destiny Says So
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The origin and downfall of the Olmecs.
  • Beginner's Luck
  • Beneath the Earth: Where the Morlock-like Olmecs dwell.
  • Bloodless Carnage
  • Bold Explorer: Mendoza is a charismatic explorer who claims to be the one who brought Esteban to Spain as a child, and now wants him to return and use the power of the locket to help find the title cities.
  • Butt Monkey: Gaspard (and thoroughly deservedly). Sancho and Pedro get their share of it, too.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: Which leads to Macchu Picchu.
  • The Chick: Zia
  • The Chosen One: Esteban
  • City of Gold: What the characters are searching for. Duh!
  • Competence Zone: Subverted; the considerably older Mendoza is the most competent member of the group, as befitting of a seasoned explorer with years of experience. The children often look to him for guidance and leadership. There's a strict division of competence, however. Mendoza is competent in almost all aspects fitting his role as Team Dad and protector (combat, navigation, survival, combat, asskicking, geography, combat and asskicking), however he's strictly useless for understanding the ancient technology of Mu, or solving the various ancient puzzles and riddles the group comes across — in this area, the kids are strictly the only competent ones.
  • Cool Boat: The Solaris
  • Cool Plane: The Golden Condor
  • Cue the Sun: Esteban has the ability to call forth the sun.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Despite chasing after the treasures of the Mysterious Cities of Gold, not a single one of them ever considers that a fast automated ship armed with a frigging laser, or a frigging flying machine might actually be worth more!
  • Dashing Hispanic: Mendoza
  • Debut Queue
  • Distressed Damsel:
    • Lana, from the floating Totola village, who had been abducted by the Urubus in order to be sacrificed to Pachamama.
    • Myeena, Papacamayo's adoptive daughter, who is abducted by the Olmecs.
    • Zia spends a good part of the plot as this. Heck, the entire reason she joins the plot is her being kidnapped. First brought to Spain, then kidnapped back from Spain to South America.
  • Dramatic Wind: Mendoza and his cape.
  • Dub Name Change:
    • Heva was originally called "Mu".
    • Pichu was renamed Kokapetl, and the title basically changed from "Esteban, Child of the Sun" to "The Mysterious Cities of Gold". Not a straight example since the later is the literal translation of the French title, and the writers were French so it is as much an intended title as the Japanese one.
    • Le Grand Condor (French) to the Golden Condor (English).
  • Dumb Muscle: Tetiola, the Doctor and Malinche's henchman.
  • Durable Deathtrap: Traps in the ruined temples.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Although the exact nature of their relationship is never clarified, Malinche is visibly concerned for Tetiola's welfare when he's briefly enslaved by the Olmecs and is very relieved when he's released.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Malinche suggests poisoning a village to get at the gold in the lake as well as to keep the kids from being sacrificed. The doctor's response to this suggestion is, "What?!" and says he hates doing it — and even then, he only mixes the poison, mumbling about how much he hates it. It's very easy to assume that he only did it because he fears retribution from the other two.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Esteban's father, who is just referred to as "The Traveling Prophet".
  • Evil Chancellor: Omoro, great priestess of the Amazons.
  • Expository Theme Tune: At least, the English dub describes exactly what they're doing, even mentioning the Condor which doesn't show up until midway through the series.
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: Tao's jar.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Tao
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "The Olmecs love children!" — though arguably as a dying race who require the life force of the children to keep their stasis strategy going, the line is played completely straight in this instance.
  • God Guise: Esteban is believed to be a God by various New World tribes.
  • Gold Fever
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: The entirety of episode 33, "The Reunion", is this trope played out as the various villages are convinced to help the Village of the New Sun fight the Olmecs.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: During the last episode, during his Heroic Sacrifice, Esteban father is thrust backwards by the flames, causing his golden mask to fall and melt. Since flames were already consuming his clothes, his fate is certain.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Averted with lines like, "Damn your eyes, FIRE!" and "Straits of Hell". Although it is worth mentioning that in the right context, you can get away with "Hell" in a kid's work. Heck, Sleeping Beauty has a "G" rating despite that word.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: Tao's encyclopedia of plot exposition.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Esteban's father, who dies in his attempt to prevent a Phlebotinum Overload that could threaten the entire world. According to Word of God, he somehow survives and meets Esteban again. We'll count it: onscreen he's toast.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Mendoza, while not really evil or greedy, does eventually warm up to the kids.
  • Historical Fantasy
  • Historical In-Joke:
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Gomez and Gaspar blow up a wall of stones that barred the entry to Machu Picchu. It ended up blowing up the whole cliffside, sending them in a river below.
  • Hostage for MacGuffin
  • Humongous Mecha:
    • The Olmec War Machine.
    • The Golden Condor qualifies too.
  • I Lied: Gomez demands that Zia surrender to them and gives his word the Inca's village will be spared. After she's in their grasp, Gomez Immediately order the ship to fire at the village, saying he's taking his word back.
  • Inevitable Waterfall
  • Kid Hero
  • Knight Templar: Menator
  • Landmark of Lore: Machu Picchu, although it was never directly stated as such in the show. Also the Nazca lines, which in this universe are the pre-determined autopilot routes for the Golden Condor.
  • Last of His Kind: Tao
  • Leitmotif
  • Limited Wardrobe: Esteban is the only one that got a costume change and that was early in the show. One would think trekking through the jungles, deserts, and seas, would those clothes be reeking of gunk by the end of the show. Gaspar and Gomez still have one costume each but at least theirs show a little wear and tear. Mendoza somehow manages to maintain his cloak. His seafaring clothes just got torn up after the Esperanza's wrecking, and by the time he got to Tao's island he simply discarded his red vest to end up in the damaged outfit he'd wear for the remainder of the show.
  • Lost Technology
  • Lovable Traitor: Mendoza
  • Loyal Animal Companion: Kokapetl
  • MacGuffin
  • Magic Skirt: Zia and Tao
  • Magitek
  • Mayincatec: This series is a classic example of Mesoamerican Hollywood History.
  • Mutants: Many viewers think the Olmec are aliens but the way the Olmecs describe themselves makes them being mutants much more likely.
  • On the Next
  • Notable Original Music: The theme song and BGM was composed by the musical team of Shuki Levy and Haim Saban. The music was collected and released vinyl and then on DVD in France. (Some of the music got reused in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983).)
  • Older Is Better: How the tech of the series literally runs.
  • Opening Narration
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: The Urubus tribe.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Disappeared Father: It's the reason why Esteban accepts Mendoza's offer. Later when Zia finds out her father left on a journey, she searches for him.
    • Missing Mom: Esteban's mother does get mentioned in one episode. Tao and Zia's mothers never get mentioned at all.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: The Golden Condor uses solar energy to fly. Which is great, except when it's nighttime or the sky is overcast.
  • Post-Episode Trailer
  • Precursors: The Hevan/Mu civilization
  • Previously On
  • Prophecy Twist: It was prophesied that one of the Cities of Gold would be destroyed by "white men". It turns out these white men were the Olmecs not the Spainards.
  • Puppy Love: Although their relationship isn't overtly romantic, Esteban and Zia are an adorably inseperable couple. They're always holding hands, Esteban is always protecting her and whenever something scary happens they always cling together.
  • The Quest: Which is to find the Cities of Gold.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: The heroes have two sets of these following them around, Commander Gomez and Gaspar, and Malinche and The Doctor , trying to beat them to the treasure.
  • Running on All Fours: Olmecs.
  • Schizo Tech: The Olmecs have fantastically advanced technology, including a massive flying machine armed with a devastating Death Ray. Their soldiers fight with swords and longbows.
  • Shown Their Work: How well the mini-documentaries tie into some of the episodes shows just how much care was put into trying to make the show fit into the time period and the location.
  • Silly Reason for War
  • Skinny Dipping: In one episode, Esteban takes a bath naked in the river, since swimsuits hasn't been invented yet. He forcefully drags a reluctant Tao to come along, but didn't invite Zia.
  • The Smart Guy: Tao
  • Speedy Techno Remake: "Golden Condor vs. The Olmec Machine"
  • Spoiler Opening: The opening spoils the appearance of Zia, Tao, the Solaris and the Golden Condor when they only show up later in the series.
  • Spoiler Title: The series is full of them.
  • Supporting Leader: Mendoza
  • Team Pet: Kokapetl (called Pichu in French)
  • Temple of Doom
  • That's All, Folks!: At the end of the documentary segments, "Goodbye... till next time." For the final episode, it was simply "Goodbye."
  • The Load: Sancho and Pedro are idiots and a danger to themselves. Their love and obsession for gold repeatedly get the group in trouble and the mere mention of the word gold makes them spaz out and act even dumber than they usually are, and they contribute nothing to the plot except for being an extra set of arms and legs when Mendoza needs heavy things moved.The team's parrot outdoes the both of them in both action, skills and intelligence.
    • Zia in season 1 is a lesser example: Her skill at deciphering kipus early in the series is essential to the plot, but after this, she's prone to being kidnapped and needing rescuing a lot while contributing very little to the plot, especially when the story moves away from her people towards the tribes of the Amazon.
  • Those Two Guys: Sancho and Pedro
  • Threatening Shark: It wasn't enough that Esteban, Zia, Mendoza, Sancho and Pedro were stranded on a flimsy raft in the middle of the ocean. They had to be attacked by sharks as well.
  • ¡Three Amigos!: Esteban, Zia and Tao
  • Title Theme Tune: An eponymous Expository Theme Tune (except in Japan, where the theme tune is "Try my best").
  • Took a Level in Badass: Esteban starts out as a pretty helpless kid, but as the series proceeds he gets more independant and even combatative when necessary. Perhaps most notably, in episode 26 "The Swamp" the heroes confiscate Tetiola's bow and arrows when they capture the Doctor's party. When they get attacked by alligators Esteban uses the bow (which, let us remind you, was made for a man literally more than twice his height) to kick serious reptile ass! And in the second season (set in China), he gets to meet Shaolin monks and learn a trick or two...
  • Translation Convention: A WMG entry suggests Zia taught Inca to Spanish-speaking Esteban during the trip to the New World. Fair enough. Then the gang meets Last of His Kind Tao, who presumably would only speak Hevan/Mu. And they chat along without any issues at all. And Mendoza and the other adults can understand Tao, despite never being taught Incan, let alone whatever Tao's native language would be.
  • Tripod Terror: The Olmecs' three-legged flying machine, which is also capable of walking.
  • Unexplained Recovery: No-one is even surprised that Gomez and Gaspar survived the destruction of the Saint Miguel even though it was literally blown to splinters with them aboard when Tao overloaded the Solaris' solar heat ray, causing the ship to self-destruct right next to the Saint Miguel.
  • Walking the Earth
  • Walking Disaster Area: All the temples visited by the heroes end up destroyed. Usually because the Plucky Comic Relief try to ham-fistedly steal something valuable, activating a solar-powered trap in the process, which sort of qualifies as Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Golden Condor can't handle being in a rainbow. It cause it to malfunction and crash on the ground. Then, the Golden Condor stop working altogether for a few days.
  • Wham Line: "That man is not our High Priest." The real High Priest of the City of Gold died years earlier and the man in the golden mask is Esteban's father, who took the High Priest's place.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Waina, Ketcha and a group of Inca soldiers were assigned to escort our heroes. After an attack from the Urubus, they become separated and we never hear from them ever again.
  • Wolverine Publicity: A weird example where the subject is an item, not a character. Ask any fan of the show what they remember of this series, they'll mention the Golden Condor almost immediately. It appears on most promotional art, is seen in the intro, is mentioned in the lyrics of the theme song in both French and English. Yet it doesn't actually appear until half way into original series!

     Season 2 

  • All Monks Know Kung-Fu
  • Art Shift: From tradition cel animation of the original series to cel-shaded animation.
  • Big Bad: Zares.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Tian Li saving Tao from taking a dive in an icy lake.
  • Bigger Stick: Played for laughs with Sancho and Pedro who holding a silly contest with the guy carrying the biggest stick. This cumulate with Sancho struggling to lift a tree trunk to out-gun Pedro's stick.
  • Blade Across The Shoulder: Zares's knives. They can be launched like a kunai.
  • Callback: Severals.
  • Cel Shading
  • Conspicuous CG: The Golden Condor, Ambrosius ship, the dragon kite and many more. The most blatant ones were the crocodiles.
  • Cool Airship: Ambrosius' flying ship, the Nef.
  • Crush Blush: Zia is smitten by Zhi and blushes when she sees him for the first time, complete with stammering. Esteban and Tao are annoyed.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Zares versus Pedro and Sancho. The two latter finally put aside their cowardice and stand up to Mendoza. Zares then kicked their asses in less than a second. Next thing you know, Pedro and Sancho are hanging upside down, as Zares is holding them by their leg with a single hand.
  • Disney Villain Death: How the captain of the guard meets his end.
  • Distress Ball: Just about everyone except Mendoza carry the Distress Ball and need rescuing. Tao counted that they were captured 3 times during the same week.
  • Downer Ending / Cliffhanger: Season 2 end with the Prophet Traveler being alive, but contaminated with radiation. Before he could be reunited with Esteban, Zares captures him.
  • Evil Chancellor
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Zares. He's actually using a voice changer.
  • Food Porn: Well animated Chinese food being cooked along with the appropriate cooking sound. Hell yeah!
  • Foreshadowing: You could teach a university writing course with just examples from this season. One notable example is one episode which contains a seemingly stupid and pointless scene where Sancho and Pedro dance and sing a sea-shanty for the amusement of the children. The song and dance actually end up getting Estaben out of trouble later in the episode.
  • Gentle Giant: Mu-Chun stand out as he is the tallest and largest of the Shaolin monks. He's peaceful enough.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: While climbing a rope, everyone was watching Zia, meaning they saw her panties under her skirt.
    • Zia goes Skinny Dipping and play a prank on the boys, by pretending to be dragged underwater by some creature. Esteban dives underwater to rescue her. While not shown, he may have spotted her naked.
  • Ground Punch: Ambrosius in his Powered Armor. A single leap in the air and a blow on the ground is enough to break the ice that imprisoned his Cool Airship.
  • Idiot Ball: Happens quite a lot and leads to a handful of Distress Ball. Special mention goes to Tian Li who read a prophecy stating the children are in danger because of a traitor. He discover Ambrosius is the said traitor and truly is Zares, but keeps the information to himself. Tian Li confront Zares alone (despite keeping a large dog for a companion) and gets beaten. By the time he comes around, everyone has move out of his reach.
  • Imperial China: The setting for season 2.
  • On the Next: Every episode has one, including the very last. Since the third season hadn't been greenlighted at that point, the preview is made entirely of concept art.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: A mechanical one, built with Heva technology.
  • Powered Armor: Concealed in a cloak and robe, Zares is truly Ambrosius wearing a two-meter tall exosuit made of Bamboo Technology.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Li Shuang makes sure his workers and soldiers alike are well treated. He harbors no animosity against Gurban, a Mongul kid who wander too near the Great Wall.
  • Royal Brat: Prince Zhu, at least at first. After he left the Imperial Palace for first time, he saw how his father the Emperor ruled brutally over his people. He then vow to be a better ruler when he'll succeed his father.
  • Say My Name: All over the place.
  • Scenery Porn: The Golden Condor factory. Seeing all the condor's components hovering in the air and assembling itself is truly stunning.
  • Skinny Dipping: It's Zia's turn to take a bath naked in a lake (probably a callback to season 1). She undressed while the boys were arguing.
  • Time Skip: Season 2 take place six months after the end of season 1.
  • What the Fu Are You Doing?: Pedro and Sancho boasted that they mastered kung fu by watching the Shaolin monks train. No one were impressed.
  • The Worf Effect: In comparison to the original series (where he was all but unstoppable), Mendoza very rarely proves a match for the arc villain. He always puts up a good fight though.