The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 101 – Kimba the White Lion

Kimba the White Lion

As is my custom (well, the third time anyway), every 50th article since this column began covers a work by the man known as the “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, who was responsible for making anime and manga the art-form it is today.

Having begun with the first manga to be turned into an anime, Astro Boy (No. 1), and one the most first successful anime to be aimed at girls, Princess Knight (No. 51), we move onto the first TV anime ever to be made in colour. However, it is also famous for another reason – for being the subject of what some might call anime’s greatest conspiracy theory, but to many in the anime world it is a theory that certainly holds water. The theory being it was stolen by Disney, who used it as the basis of The Lion King.

Originally entitled Jungle Emperor Leo in Japan, this series ran as a manga between 1950-54, and was first turned into an anime between 1965-67, with many follow-up series, sequels and films taking place. However, when the series was first shown in the USA they changed the title. “Simba” means “lion” in Swahili, but for some reason the name was changed to “Kimba”. Some say this was to get around trademark laws, others say it was just to create a unique name that could be copyrighted. Whatever the reason, this name change was just the start of a series of problems that would later haunt Disney.

The story primarily takes place in a part the African jungle ruled by Caesar (Panja in the original Japanese), a mighty white lion who protects the animals in his kingdom. However, hunters successfully capture Caesar and his pregnant mate Eliza. Caesar is killed for his hide, while Eliza is put on a ship to be taken to a zoo. On the way there Eliza gives birth to Kimba, and Eliza teaches him about Caesar. Then a storm wrecks the boat: Kimba escapes but Eliza drowns. Kimba then learns to swim from fish, and using a series of stars that form the shape of Eliza’s face, as well as a stream of butterflies, he makes it back to Africa and his home, where he becomes the new king of the jungle.

In the jungle, Kimba is guided by his friends including Bucky (Tommy, a gazelle), Pauly Parrot (Coco), Dan’l Baboon (Burazza the mandrill), his love interest Kitty (a lioness cub) and human named Roger Ranger (Kenichi), who first takes Kimba on a tour of human civilization before living in the jungle with Kimba and his friends. Together Kimba and his allies make the jungle more peaceful, are taught to speak human languages, learn how to farm, avoid killing over animals for food, and learn how to co-operate with good humans and vanquish bad humans who want to hunt them.

Over the course of the series there are some recurring villains, which include Mary, a woman who was in love with Roger but ends up suffering from memory loss and ends up hating and hunting animals; and Claw (Bubu), a villainous lion who wants to take over Kimba’s kingdom, assisted by his advisor Cassius (Toto, a black panther) and comic sidekick hyenas Tom and Tab (Dick and Bo).

Kimba the White Lion should be remembered for the fact it was the very first anime TV series to be made in colour, for its technical achievement, and for its messages of peace and anti-violence. However, the main reason Kimba is now remembered is because many people believe that Disney copied it to make The Lion King. Not only is there the issue of the similar names, but both Kimba and Simba have at least one dead parent (both are dead in Kimba’s case), their dead parents form visions in the sky (whether it be stars, clouds or the Moon), both have mandrills as assistants, and both have main villains in the form of older lions who are assisted by comic hyenas – and that’s just the start.

A quick look online will reveal that many of the stills in The Lion King are practically identical to those in Kimba the White Lion and its follow-ups. When a new Kimba film was released in 1997, Disney filed a lawsuit to stop this film being shown at the 1998 Toronto FantAsia Film Festival. Simba was even going to be a white lion, but even they thought that was too similar.

Anime fans and critics tend to believe that Disney is guilty. My personal favourite indication of this is in the index of Jonathan Clements’s brilliant book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade, where if you look up “Kimba” the entry says: “see Simba”. If you do it reads: “Simba: see Kimba”. The whole Simba/Kimba similarity is even referenced in an episode of The Simpsons.

The other major problem is that no-one in the anime world has ever tried to officially settle this, because Disney is such a powerful company with great lawyers and huge resources. No-one has dared to make a legal challenge and it is unlikely anyone ever will, so legally the whole issue is problematic.

All you can do is look up the evidence and see for yourself. For what it is worth Disney claims that the whole thing is just a coincidence. It has to be one pretty massive coincidence mind.

The original series of Kimba the White Lion is available on Region 1 DVD from Right Stuf and can be streamed legally via Manga Entertainment’s YouTube channel. Both are English language dub only.