Most who know me pretty well know that Osamu Tezuka's Kimba the White Lion, the first Japanese cartoon, or anime, to be shown in color in America, is my favourite animated series. Some scratch their heads at the incongruity of my taste in films. Cannibal Holocaust, Sweet Movie, and the Kurt Kren/ Otto Muehl aktionist ouevre existing in the Covert library alongside Kimba? I guess I enjoy extremes.
This article was originally published in the now defunct magazine EYE, in its 16th issue, Summer 1998. My editor, Sam Gaines, was enthused right off when I pitched him a Kimba article, especially with the Lion King controversy still fresh and painful (of which, much more in the article). My goal was to enlighten folks not only on the Disney vs. Kimba imbroglio but to extol the virtues of Kimba on its own terms.
In 1998, DVD was newly a-borning and the anime label Right Stuff took awhile to release Season 1 of Kimba. But now the entire series has been presented on DVD with the episodes assembled in the order in which they were intended and I finally proudly own it (thanks to my wife Sarah L. Covert). But the whole series was unavailable at the time this piece was written. I had access to most, but not all, of the 52 original episodes, on VHS bootlegs of varying quality. But I'd pieced the very strict chronology of the series together and had viewed the materials available to me countless times. So this article functions as an overview and critique of the series, not a blow-by-blow survey of the episodes. Nor did I intend such a thing.
I originally included a “resources” bit to serve as a bibliography but have dropped that in favour of a recommended video section - completely retooled to reflect the current DVD releases. The books I originally recommended are discussed in the article proper so no need to be superfluous. Anyway I'm sure there's much more information online by far than there was in 1998.
I also opted, however, to drop Sam Gaines' original small sidebar highlighting his internet research (I was not on the web then) detailing intricacies of the Disney vs. Tezuka estate situation. This is the most dated bit in the original piece now anyway, and its info can be gleaned easily on google. But thanks anyway Sam; this information was much appreciated at the time.
I've included Sam's original lead-in blurbs for the article in quotes.
So, as with my pleas to appreciate the heart of Kimba despite the primitive conditions of its birth, I merely ask for the same consideration for this now 15 year old document. Enjoy, and I hope something is learned along the way, regardless of what position you subscribe to on the subject matter.
Pillaging Kimba (Redux)
by Henry Covert
Millions swooned before the calculated charm and mendacity of Disney's The Lion King. After the cross-promotional dust cleared – from Happy Meal toys to the inevitable video roll-out – the sanitized empire had raked in millions. Sure, the film's fundamentalist detractors protested its alleged subliminal message and the “questionable sexuality”of the protagonist's sidekicks. But there remains a greater controversy enshrouding Disney's award-winning animated opus – a matter of inspiration and outright theft, a matter as inculcated in fandom circles as the debate a few years back over whether Quentin Tarantino “borrowed” from the Hong Kong film City on Fire for his own heist flick, Reservoir Dogs.
The source of the scandal – all but ignored in a nation mesmerized by Disney's tyranny over the minds of its children – lies in allegations that Mousecorp plundered their first wholly “original” story from Kimba the White Lion, a nearly forgotten 1960s cartoon broadcast for two seasons on NBC. It didn't help that The Lion King's original title, The Jungle King, so closely paralleled Kimba's original title, The Jungle Emperor. USA Today was among the major media outlets covering the story when it broke, as Kimba fans lambasted Disney for stealing whole cloth from their beloved childhood favourite.
Fans with a wider set of cultural referents knew that Kimba, like its better-known black-and-white NBC cartoon predecessor, Astroboy, was originally broadcast in Japan. Both were created by Osamu Tezuka, Japan's “god of manga” (the Japanese word for comics) in the early '50s. Tezuka also devised such strips as Black Jack (later adapted in anime – Japanese animation – and live-action films) and Ambassador Magma (popularized in a live-action series known in the U.S. as Space Giants).
Disney's lawyers stated patently that not only had they not swiped from Kimba, but that none of their staff had ever even heard of Kimba or Osamu Tezuka! This assertion strained credulity, as Tezuka occupies a place in Nihon pop culture much as Walt Disney does here – and the two men had professional contact during the '60s. Further, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, to the contrary, three of the animators who worked on The Lion King admitted they were familiar with Kimba. Considering Disney's pervasive influence on Kimba's creator, the irony of the Disney assertion is biting. It's hard to believe that someone who had such an impact on the animation industry worldwide, and created series as popular and widely distributed as Tezuka's, could pass undetected beneath the collective radar of an entire generation of animation aficionados who grew up to toil for the Disney empire.
Amid cries of outrage from both camps regarding the Lion King controversy, a few things have slipped through the cracks. Side-by-side comparison reveals many superficial similarities between the two lion sagas, but how do they stack up thematically? Notwithstanding issues of plagiarism, nostalgia, and personal bias, there may be other reasons Disney's uber-budgeted, mega-hyped ersatz epic compares unfavorably to a crudely animated television show produced more than 30 years ago. The most important thing lost in all the debate? Just how great the original Kimba series was, and why it has such a sublime quality about it even today – a quality that, quite literally, money couldn't buy.
Kimba's roots lie in Tezuka's manga series Jungle Taitei (Jungle Emperor), which began in October 1950. Set in the African jungle, it chronicled the long, convoluted saga of Leo the white lion. Leo's father, the “Jungle Emperor” Panja, is killed trying to rescue Leo's mother, Eliza, from evil hunter Hamegg; Leo is born in the hold of the ship taking him and his mother to a European zoo. The ship sinks in a storm off the coast of East Africa, taking Eliza down with it. But Leo swims ashore in Aden and is adopted and raised to adolescence by a human boy, Kenichi. Leo returns to the jungle, having learned much about “human kindness”. Thus inspired, he molds an animal society modeled after human civilization (albeit of the utopian variety), in which all animals are equal and united against human predators. Jungle Taitei depicts the entire saga of Leo, as he grows to adulthood, gains a mate, has children of his own, and assumes his father's mantle as the king of all animals. Leo's story draws to a close when he sacrifices his life to save a human friend.
The strip ended in 1954 but remained popular in reprints, inspiring Tezuka's own animation house, Mushi Studios, to produce an animated Jungle Taitei series in 1965. Tezuka contacted NBC Enterprises in the United States to collaborate on the project, since the studio had successfully repackaged his Tetsuwan Atomu as Astroboy for the English-speaking market a few tears before. NBC even provided funds to convert Mushi Productions from black-and-white to color production just for the series.
NBC used its position to affect major changes in the story. As the network had with Astroboy, they “Americanized” the character names. Leo was considered too unimaginative and was jettisoned. Fred Ladd, producer of the American series, was instructed to come up with something “more original” and, with his team of writers and dubbers, led by Cliff Owens and Billie Lou Watt, came up with “Kimba”, a unique variation on “simba”, the Swahili word for lion. Other characters were given typically punny names, much like the ones Ladd and company devised for Astroboy's cast.
Other changes involved excising the Aden material and jumping right into the story of Kimba's (Leo's) return to the jungle. The resulting plot holes created the need for later flashbacks to Kimba's life among the humans to explain his knowledge of their culture. Despite the many changes, or perhaps as a result of them, what emerged was an engaging Nippon/ Anglo hybrid that became one of animation's most endearing and enduring creations and one of the most complex stories to grace American children's TV.
NBC insisted that Kimba's episodes adhere to a non-serial format, so that they could be shown in any order. This only served to confuse things, as the saga was shot following a distinct chronology charting Kimba's progress in “civilizing” the animals. Unfortunately, NBC also assigned episode numbers without regard for the carefully plotted story continuity. Kimba aficionados over the years have reassembled the episode numbers, enabling us to reconstruct the Kimba story as conceived. Once reconstructed, it becomes clear that the Kimba story arc closely follows its manga origins.
In 1966, Kimba the White Lion debuted on American television – the first of 52 episodes. In the first episode broadcast (also thankfully the first chronological installment), “Go White Lion”, Panja is now called Caesar; Eliza has become Snowene; and two hunters, Viper Snakely and Tubby, fill Hamegg's shoes as the murderers/ kidnappers of Kimba's parents. Caesar's prime advisor is old Dan'l Baboon. Right away, we're introduced to the recurring themes that hunters are evil; humans are not necessarily to be trusted; and poachers exist only to exploit and defile the jungle and its inhabitants. Also established is Caesar's mission to curb the animals' predatory nature and get them to live together in peace. Caesar is determined to set all animals free, even farm animals, which he steals and sets loose in the jungle.
Caesar thwarts the two bungling hunters, but, as in the manga, they capture his mate, lure Caesar to his death, and take Snowene on a zoo-bound boat, where she gives birth to Kimba. When the cub is two months old, Snowene tells Kimba about his father. Snowene orders baby Kimba to jump the sinking ship and leave her behind in a cage to meet her fate. The deaths of Kimba's parents are portrayed very tenderly; a whole generation of children was probably traumatized as Kimba drifted away from the ship's wreckage, weeping, “Not without my mother”. A school of fish teach the cub to swim, and a swarm of butterflies lead him to the mainland. As he exclaims, “Butterflies! Land is near!”, a vision of Snowene appears in the stars and speaks to Kimba.
This first episode set the tone for the series, one that veers between goofy slapstick and serious didactic moments. “Go White Lion” lays out all the elements that make Kimba a unique cartoon: unabashed sentimentality; unusually somber music; moral lessons that come off less heavy-handed than standard kiddie fare; sharply drawn and well-defined characters; a multi-tiered storyline; and great voice talent. Billie Lou Watt – who also provided the voice for Astroboy – is perfectly charming and expressive as Kimba, and her colleagues provided ample support.
In “The Wind in the Desert”, Kimba returns to the jungle and meets Dan'l Baboon and the other characters – Paully the parrot, Bucky the deer, Dodi the doe, and others – who serve as his constant companions throughout the series. In “Human Friend”, Kimba first encounters Roger Ranger, the cartoon equivalent of the human character Kenichi from Tezuka's manga. Roger decides to stay in the jungle to teach the animals human language.
“Battle at Dead River” introduces Kitty, a lioness cub who becomes Kimba's best friend and love interest for the remainder of the series. Also in this episode, Kimba defeats his archfoe Boss Claw, who ruled the animals after Caesar's death and before Kimba returned. This episode is also the first where the animals learn to work communally to improve conditions for everyone.
There are elements throughout the series that set it apart from other cartoons to make Kimba truly unique. Kimba's not perfect; he makes many mistakes. He's continually forced to juggle his responsibilities to the animals with his own needs and desires. He's kind, but doesn't always do the right thing. When his half-sister Leona prizes the hides of their white lion ancestors over the welfare of Kimba's friends, Kimba, understandably, stops speaking to her for awhile. He finally relents only when the other animals induce enough guilt in him to attempt to forgive.
At other times, though, Kimba is too indulgent of others. When the evil lioness Belladonna poses as his aunt and tries to kill him, he forgives her not once, but three times! And when he discovers that the ailing Hetta Riverhog has been stealing the animals' entire food supply, Kimba not only forgives her but risks his life for her. Kimba backs down from taking revenge on the hunters responsible for his parents' deaths, as well – though he is urged to do so by Dan'l and company, who don't wish them to go unpunished. This is one of the few times when Kimba trots out a cliché: “Revenge won't bring them back anyway”.
Throughout the series, Kimba “rehabilitates” enemies with kindness,. Often they're shown to just be in need of a little understanding to help them overcome their nastiness. This soft side of Kimba is best shown when he befriends “outsider” characters, like Rancid the Reekybird and Gargoyle G. Warthog. All the animals shun Rancid, who carries an offensive odor stemming from his steady diet of “stinkweed”. But Kimba teaches his kingdom an important lesson about tolerance and the contributions we all make, drawing from his own past among the humans. His pals heed the lesson, and pretty soon they are playing with poor Rancid, who is soon declared a hero for running off evil serpent Puffy Adder with his stench.
“The Runaway” is probably the most depressing Kimba episode, and contains some of the strongest messages of the series. Kimba tries to help Gargoyle, a deeply masochistic warthog obsessed with his own ugliness. So consumed is Gargoyle with self-loathing that he believes it is his fate to share everyone else's pain. Even though he gets a job at Bucky's post office, and Wildie Boar has a crush on him, Gargoyle is still a tragic figure. Wildie is likewise suffering. Her mother tells her: “Little girls don't look pretty if they get too fat”, to which Wildie replies, “What good is it to be pretty if you're starving?”. The gist of this episode is a far cry from the shallow “lessons” rampant in kids' TV and was right on the mark in depicting the body image issues suffered by so many young people.
Kimba's challenges are many. In “Journey Through Time”, Kimba deals with prejudice. Kitty's uncle Specklerex calls Kimba a pussycat, not a real lion, simply because – he's white! In “Two Hearts Two Minds” Kimba realizes his true love for Kitty when he rescues her from a Nazi-esque film director shooting an African-based “mondo” movie a la Jacopetti and Prosperi. Throughout the series, Kimba's biggest challenge is keeping the animals on track to realize his father's dream. In “Jungle Thief”, the animals, low on food and despairing, resolve to build a farm and grow their own food through much hardship. This introduces an interesting pro-vegetarian theme; one of Kimba's most cherished principles is that animals shouldn't prey on other animals. Kimba and his friends rebuild the farm after an insect invasion and an antelope stampede, and even open a vegetarian restaurant!
Kimba loses his confidence many times; on those occasions, the cub retreats to cry or to reflect beside his father's hide, which almost always restores his faith in himself.
Kimba's dilemmas are poignant and involving, never stooping to the lugubrious pandering of typical children's fare.
Leo and the Lion Prince
UVA's Kimba tapes contained episodes of the '60s Kimba series, remastered with computer-generated brightened colours. The downside is they were re-dubbed with obnoxious voices, hideously inappropriate synth scores, and a trite new theme song which was a total desecration of the immortal original theme. The scripts were re-translated too, changing the dialogue and mangling the original plots. Some characters are renamed: Roger is now Jonathan, and, interestingly, Caesar is once more Panja. Billie Lou Watt's adorable Kimba voice has been replaced by that of a syrupy and saccharine child, and Dan'l has morphed into a bad Frank Zappa impersonation. Rumor has it that this version of Kimba played on Canadian TV and in some U.S. Markets as well.
The Lion King was Disney's big 1994 summer release, and is an almost chilling exercise in shameless audience manipulation. What the film – an opulent animated “epic” - offers is what film pundits dub “the roller coaster ride”. This is the process of shutting off the brain and letting emotions be led by the leash. Disney excels at this technique, and their legions of fans just don't want to hear about the studio's rape and plunder of our innocent white lion pal.
The Lion King kicks off with a tableau of near-messianic reverence for the newborn prince Simba. The opening song, “The Circle of Life”, proffers a less idealistic worldview than Tezuka's. In Simba's world, animals prey on other animals, but it's all part of the accepted order. While Disney's themes perhaps sounds more “realistic” than Tezuka's, they are far less radical, and much less compelling. Interestingly, humans don't seem to be part of life's circle, as they've been jettisoned altogether from this more mundane tale of royal family intrigue. Although the story has been stripped down, it plays as much more of a bad soap opera than Tezuka's more convoluted souffle.
At the heart of The Lion King is “Hakuna Matata”, a laissez-faire philosophy embraced by its only relatively original characters, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog – a singing, dancing, and, some allege, homosexual pair. These two provide what little genuine humour and entertainment value exist in a virtually unwatchable film. Jonathan Taylor Thomas' cloying, bratty reading of Simba as a cub justifies one character's decree: “ With an attitude like that you're shaping up to be a pretty pathetic king”. A better analysis of the film itself is not possible. Disney may have pillaged the body of Tezuka's work, but in so doing managed to cut the heart right out of it.
Decide for yourself. If you can make it through Mousecorp's noxiously unctuous blockbuster in one sitting, well, you're a better man (or woman) than I, Gunga Din. But for me, as the theme song declares, “Kimba the White Lion leads the way”.