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Saturday Morning Cartoon Club: Mysterious Cities Of Gold

The 1980s and 90s were something of a golden age for co-productions between Japanese studios and various European broadcasters. It was through these series that many young viewers got their first taste of anime- even if they didn't know it at the time.

We have covered a couple of these series already; Dogtanian and Ulysses 31, but often said to be the greatest of these Euro-Japan co-pros was 1982's The Mysterious Cities Of Gold.

Produced by France's DiC and Japan's Studio Pierrot, Cities of Gold was a historical fantasy adventure set in the age of discovery. In the 16th Century, a young orphan named Esteban is saved from a shipwreck by navigator and sailor Mendoza. 10 years later he joins Mendoza on a quest to the new world, hoping to find the fabled seven cities of gold and discover his father's true fate.

Esteban joins up with Zia, an Incan High Priest's daughter who was kidnapped from her home by Mendoza and Tao, the last living descendant of a lost tribe (and Kokapetl, Tao's pet parrot).

The story is an ingenious mix of historical fact, legend and fiction, that builds on South-American mythology and myths such as Atlantis and Eldorado. So for example, it features real historical tribes such as the Incas, Mayans and Olmecs- but introduces fantasy and even sci-fi elements. In this story, the ancestors of these people had advanced technologies such as solar-powered ships and the series's most iconic creation The Golden Condor, a giant mechanical bird, which our heroes get to pilot and which has a key role in the show's classic theme song and opening sequence.

It's eventually revealed that the Olmecs were the last survivors of a catastrophic war who took cover under the mountains, suspended in cryogenic sleep- with their pointed ears and bald heads, it's also suggested that they may not be entirely of this earth.

MCOG (as its affectionately known) had surprisingly deep, intelligent storytelling for a show aimed at kids at that time. A perfect example is the complex character of Mendoza, who is neither hero nor villain. He may be a kidnapping, gold-obsessed colonizing reprobate, but he's also something of a father figure to the children, who he does seem to genuinely care for.

The series was also sneakily educational, with live-action inserts which gave viewers bite-size chunks of the facts behind the fiction.

It screened not only in Japan and France, but the US, Australia, Ireland, Africa and dozens of other places. But it seems to have been particularly popular in the UK, where it screened multiple times, first on the BBC, then The Children's Channel and received a fully-restored DVD release 26 years later. It's frequently featured on British lists of best Kid's shows or best cartoons.  It even got a sequel, 30 years after the original. It was perhaps the fact that the series refused to talk down to its audience that made it such a hit.  Or maybe it was just that theme song...