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Andrew Osmond is off in search of treasure…

The game Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths is rolling out as a digital download across multiple platforms. This month it becomes available on the Nintendo 3DS and Amazon, following launches on the Wii U, iPad, iPhone and Steam. It’s a puzzle adventure game, set in the sixteenth century, in which you guide three children – the boys Esteban and Tao, and the girl Zia – on a complex treasure hunt through the luscious scenery of China. (Yes, China – for anyone expecting South America, we explain below). Traversing thirty levels, you and the kids must find a fabulous City of Gold.

The game was translated into English after a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $46,000. It wouldn’t be surprising if many of the Kickstarter backers were British, for Mysterious Cities has a special cachet there. It originated as a TV cartoon in the 1980s, before Pokemon, Akira or Dragon Ball, back when very few British people knew there was such a thing as anime. The original Cities was a 39-part serial – shown weekly, it ran the best part of a year. The plot’s basically the same as the game, chronicling the adventures of Esteban, Tao and Zia, though back then they were in South America. (The game’s set in China because it’s based on a new cartoon sequel – more on that later.) The original series is now a DVD set from Fabulous Films.

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Cities was an anime co-production, a collaboration between the prolific Studio Pierrot (whose credits run through Urusei Yatsura and Bleach), the lesser-known MK (which made film and TV versions of the space opera Lensman), and France’s DiC studio. It’s a half-sibling to an earlier, well-remembered Franco-Japanese show, Ulysses 31, which we wrote up here; DiC made Ulysses with a different anime studio, Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Cities was co-written by DiC’s founder, Jean Chalopin, who’d created Ulysses; his collaborator was Bernard Deyries, the show’s French director.

The English-language dubs for Cities and Ulysses shared voice actors: Matt Berman (who voiced the heroic Ulysses, and the villain Gomez in Cities); Adrian Knight (Telemachus, Cities’ Tao) and Howard Ryshpan (who specialised in buffoons, robot Nono in Ulysses and bumbling Pedro in Cities). Esteban was voiced by a newcomer, a boy called Shiraz Adam, who was all of nine years old when he started working on the show. For readers wondering what happened to him, he left acting and became an engineer, as he explains here.

The website includes a 2003 interview with Chalopin abour Cities’ origins. “We must put things in the context of the 80s. The few cartoons from Japan arriving on our screens were classified as Japanese silliness (Japoniaiseries, in French) by the press and (by) most leaders of TV channels.” The negative image of anime in France came to a head with the epic punch-em-up Fist of the North Star, as related here. “Yet we knew,” says Chalopin, “that we had everything to learn from the Japanese, who knew how to produce series when we knew only how to design them. We had to convince the French TV channels and the press that with a cultural alibi and our imagination, coupled with the Japanese skills, we could make an exceptional work that could meet a great and popular success.”

By ‘cultural alibi,’ Chalopin meant an educational angle. Cities taught kids about South American culture and ancient civilisations, even including a live-action segment at the end of each episode, which explained how the story was based in reality. However, these segments were cut when the show was broadcast in Britain; so much for the BBC’s Reithian values! As one of the show’s target demographic, Esteban’s English voice Shiraz Adam testified it had the right effect. “I was a huge fan of the show (in French), even before being offered the part of Esteban. As a kid it sparked my imagination in Mayan, Incan, Aztec and Olmec histories and the possibilities of ancient forgotten knowledge. It drove me to read a great deal about the histories of the Conquistadors and these ancient civilisations.”

The series was nominally based on a book, The King’s Fifth (1966) by Scott O’Dell, but the real idea, says Chalopin, came from Mitsuru Kaneko, one of the credited scriptwriters. “Kaneko had the idea before he knew the book. NHK suggested the title. We used almost nothing of the book, except for the names of three characters: Mendoza, Esteban and Zia – because in fact our characters have nothing in common with the work of Scott O’Dell. In fact, The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a work of pure imagination, resulting from the joint creative work between the Japanese team of MK Prod, Studio Pierrot, and DIC – that is to say, Bernard and I.”

While the BBC didn’t show Cities until 1986, in Japan it played four years earlier on NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. It was called Taiyo no Ko Esteban, or Esteban, the Boy from the Sun. Here’s how it looked in Japan, complete with weird live-action inserts and perhaps the most insipid title song heard in anime. Thank heaven it was fixed for the British broadcast…

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The chief Japanese director, Hisayuki Toriumi, was a true veteran. He’d had the same position a decade before on the 1972 Gatchaman – another ‘hidden’ anime import, which became famous in Britain as Battle of the Planets (see here). Sadly, Toriumi died in 2009. As normal for anime, Esteban was voiced in Japanese by a woman, Masako Nozawa, who’d voiced Son Goku through Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, the boy Tetsuro in Galaxy Express 999, and early incarnations of Spooky Kitaro; she was also Pollyanna, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (though in different anime). The Anime News Network site claims there was a redubbed Japanese version of Esteban later on, with different actors, though it doesn’t say if Nozawa reprised her role or not.

The Anime Encyclopedia, meanwhile, notes that Cities involved Japanese staff who’d worked on an anime that wasn’t as well-known overseas. That was the 1981 Gold Lightan, in which giant robots are summoned into battle by youngsters wielding cigarette lighters! According to the Encyclopedia, the sequences with Cities’ most memorable mecha, a giant gold condor-plane, use glare effects and shot compositions based on Gold Lightan. In other words, Cities inadvertently recycled an ad for underage smoking!

Like many kids’ anime, Cities had the appeal of an exotic foreign location, South America. It also had an ongoing, unfurling story of a kind British kids hadn’t seen in cartoons before. The show starts as a period adventure, but blithely drops in SF elements; a mechanised, solar-powered sailing ship, the aforementioned condor plane and (in the last episodes) a hidden super-civilisation. Many of the basic ingredients showed up in an anime near-contemporary, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 Laputa – Castle in the Sky. Consequently, there were fan legends that Miyazaki worked on Cities, which were false but not unreasonable, as Miyazaki indeed cut his teeth on kids’ TV.

And of course, Cities had the crucial thing needed in a kids’ cartoon – a great theme song, unlike the terrible Japanese version. In fact, the music was by the same folk as Ulysses 31, Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, who founded Saban Entertainment and brought the West Power Rangers. Here’s the inevitable BBC singalong, with Philip Schofield and Gordon the gopher…

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While the ‘80s series had an ending, it was a very open one, with just one City of Gold accounted for, many questions unanswered, and Esteban, Zia and Tao heading off to new adventures. As the show’s fans stayed loyal, there was much speculation about if Cities would continue in some form. After many reports of remakes or sequels, Chalopin announced in 2008 that there would indeed be a new series – indeed, three new seasons, 78 more episodes! The first 26 of those, called ‘Season Two,’ are now on a DVD and Blu-ray from Fabulous Films.

As noted above, Season Two takes the kids to China to continue their treasure hunt, with leads them to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and ultimately Tibet. The show’s a sequel, not a reboot, which raises questions about its audience. Is Cities a kids’ show any more, or is it aimed at the thirty or fortysomething fans of the original, like many anime revivals of archive titles? In fact, it’s quickly clear on watching the new Cities that it’s true to its original audience, very much a kids’ programme, though the climax rewards old fans with big revelations and a terrific action finale. The series seems to assume – probably reasonably – that kids will happily jump into an adventure in the middle, and maybe buy the first series to catch up on later.

Unlike its predecessor, the new Cities is not anime, being made by the French studio Blue Spirit, though it’s still supervised by Chalopin and Deyries. Technically, it’s a fascinating update. The familiar characters are now computer-rendered, looking much more dimensional on screen, yet they’re cartoony and recognisable as our friends from three decades ago. (French TV animation is often way ahead of anime in combining computer with trad animation.) A spinoff benefit is that the 3D models and computer-rendered assets used in the series were transferred to the Secret Paths game, which is a direct adaptation of Season Two. Blue Spirit also provided research settings and storyboards to the game’s developers, Neko Entertainment, while Paths’ cutscenes were created by Blue Spirit’s animators.

The Secret Paths press release includes an interview with Season Two’s series director, Jean-Luc Francois, who expresses satisfaction with the game. “We really are in the world of Mysterious Cities of Gold, the immersion is impeccable. And I really loved watching the designers adapt a technique while using all their skills to remain faithful to the show.”

Meanwhile, Francois assures us, the journey of Esteban, Tao and Zia will continue. “We are rolling up our sleeves again to continue the adventure. The French TV channel TF1 has greenlit a new season, while at the same time we are waiting to see the results of international broadcasts.” However, he asks for fans’ patience. “(My producers) must find funding and are largely counting on international results. It takes time to develop, write, design, animate and so on.”

And, after China, where will the children go now? “We will follow our heroes to Japan next,” Francois confirms. “But I cannot say more for now. After all, the series is named Mysterious Cities of Gold…”

The game Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths is available for digital download on multiple platforms. The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Complete Series (the original ‘80s series) is available on DVD from Fabulous Films. The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Season Two (the new sequel) is out on Blu-ray and DVD, also from Fabulous Films.

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