Kimba, the White Lion was a popular TV cartoon series during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Based upon a Japanese 1950s cartoon-art novel, Jungle Emperor by Osamu Tezuka, and later produced by Tezuka's Mushi Production animation studio in 1965-1966, the 52-episode series was licensed in America by NBC Enterprises for syndication for twelve years from its initial American airdate on September 11, 1966. NBC closed its syndication division in 1971 and sold its syndicated properties to National Telefilm Associates. Mushi Pro declared bankruptcy in 1973 and lawsuits were filed in Japan over Mushi's assets. The litigation lasted for over two decades. Therefore there was nobody in a position to renew the Jungle Emperor/Kimba license when it expired in 1978. Blurry bootleg Kimba videos taped off TV (mostly showing the station logo of Los Angeles' Channel 52, KBSC-TV, which showed one of the last broadcasts from August 1976 through July 1977) have been popular sellers at animation and comic book fans' clubs and conventions since then, but Kimba has not been available legally. As far as the general public was concerned, Kimba was forgotten.
Versions of Versions
Meanwhile, variants of Kimba developed outside of the American public's notice. Tezuka's original 500-plus page Jungle Emperor cartoon novel told the life story of his lion hero, Leo (Kimba). The TV series was based upon the first part of this only, showing Leo as a young cub. Tezuka produced a 26-episode sequel in Japan, showing the further adventures of Leo as an adult. This was not picked up by NBC and was never shown as part of the Kimba series in America. It was eventually shown as a separate children's program, Leo the Lion, on the Christian Broadcasting Network during 1984. The adult lion retained his original Japanese name, so most Americans did not realize the two programs' relationship. Further, the litigation in Japan over the ownership of Mushi's 1960s TV series did not prevent Tezuka, as the author of the story, from creating new adaptations of his novel. Tezuka started a new animation studio in the 1970s, Tezuka Productions. He was planning a new Jungle Emperor TV cartoon series at the time of his death in February 1989. His staff completed it as a 50-episode weekly prime-time series which was shown in Japan from October 1989 through September 1990.
The final variant almost degenerated into farce. One of the litigants in Japan, Fumio Suzuki, tired of the endless trial, unilaterally declared himself the owner of Kimba. He offered Kimba for sale in America in 1990. The Right Stuf International, a video company in Des Moines, was ready to buy when it learned that the rights were still in question in Japan. The Right Stuf began new negotiations with the reorganized Mushi Pro as the original owner. This led to an understanding that Mushi would license Kimba to The Right Stuf if it won the litigation (which was expected). Meanwhile, Suzuki went looking for new customers.
Then in June 1994, Disney's The Lion King was released. A controversy hit the news that summer as to whether or not the Disney blockbuster had consciously copied from the 1960s Kimba cartoons. Disney went on record that none of its Lion King production crew had ever heard of Kimba or of Tezuka. This brought publicized hoots of derision from animation professionals, including a "Kimba...I mean Simba" gag in an episode of The Simpsons. This made Kimba newsworthy, but still not available to a curious public.
Fuel to the Fire
Other video versions stepped forward to take advantage of this publicity. First was a July 1994 release of eight videos (sixteen episodes) of the Leo the Lion series with Leo/Kimba as an adult. A distributor's announcement read: "As any hep person knows, the hit Disney movie The Lion King was inspired by Japanese animation great Osamu Tezuka's Kimba The White Lion, which appeared on U.S. TV in the mid-60s. In this sequel series, the lion cub has grown up, gotten married, sired two cubs, and changed his name to Leo. Go figure." (Advance Comics, October 1994, pg. 288) The video box logo, Leo the Lion: King of the Jungle, combined the American TV title with a translation of the Japanese title in a way that suggested the Disney feature. Despite the acknowledgement that this was a sequel, the promotion implied that anyone who wanted to see what Kimba was like would find out in these videos.0
In January 1996 four videos (eight episodes) appeared titled Kimba the Lion Prince. The video boxes emphasized that, "Kimba, the Lion Prince is the original lion adventure that started it all!", with synopses that were closer to The Lion King than Kimba had actually been. ("It's action and adventure as Kimba battles the evil hyenas and his father's wicked brother!" In the original program there was never any suggestion that the brutal adult lion whom Kimba must defeat was a relative.) This release did present the original 1965-'66 Mushi animation, but with new dialogue, music and sound effects. The new English credits named a Toronto production studio. The original Japanese credits for Osamu Tezuka and his staff were gone, replaced by a card reading, "Special Thanks To Fumio Suzuki."
The third and best promoted series was a six video release from October 1998 through July 1999 of the first thirteen episodes of the Japanese 1989-1990 50-episode Jungle Emperor, as The New Adventures of Kimba, the White Lion. This was a production of Pioneer Entertainment USA, the American subsidiary of the Japanese entertainment giant. Although the "New Adventures" in the title signified that this was not the original series, the larger Kimba, The White Lion logo implied that this was a part of that series, in the sense that a 1990s Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon can be considered to follow directly from the famous 1940s and 1950s theatrical cartoons.
Now the original Kimba is finally available. In early 1997 the Japanese litigation over the 1973 Mushi Pro bankruptcy was resolved in favor of the reorganized Mushi studio. Mushi eventually signed a license with The Right Stuf International for an authorized American release produced from the original NBC masters. This release began in April 2000. It is scheduled to consist of thirteen monthly video releases of four episodes per video until all 52 episodes are out.
However, The Right Stuf is encountering market confusion between the different Kimba versions, especially over Pioneer's New Adventures since that has been the most widely promoted. Shawne Kleckner, President of The Right Stuf International, recently said, "We have received a number of calls stating confusion between the Pioneer product and the original. To avoid confusion, we are planning marketing which will focus on the fact that this is the 'Original, Uncut 1966 Television Series' and the packaging will also reflect this. Also, the releases previously [of Kimba, the Lion Prince] and Leo the Lion were really of poor quality. The perception that they represent the quality of the original Kimba will have to be overcome."
The Good and the Bad
Actually, all four versions have some points in their favor. The 1966 series is, above all, the original. It established the name Kimba, the White Lion. It is the version for nostalgia fans who enjoyed it in their childhood and who want to own it now, or who are curious about the Kimba/Lion King controversy and want to see what may or may not have influenced Disney's animators.
But Kimba was an uneasy compromise between NBC and Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka wanted to produce a faithful dramatization of his cartoon novel, which showed Leo fighting for the rights of animals throughout his life and dying a martyr's death. NBC insisted that the story had to be less tense and violent for American viewers. The hero should remain a young cub with whom children could more easily identify, and should have more animal friends to interact with instead of being such a grim lone idealist. (NBC also arbitrarily changed all of the character names in the American dub.) Tezuka's Leo the Lion sequel was produced on a much lower budget and lacks the high production values of Kimba. But it does show his lion hero's later adventures the way Tezuka wanted the story to be told.
Similarly, Pioneer's The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion is not a sequel. It is a blend between a remake of the original TV series and a more faithful adaptation of the beginning of Tezuka's cartoon novel. Most of the supporting cast who had been added for the 1960s TV series are missing, and the remaining characters (except Kimba) retain the original names that Tezuka gave them. There is less humor and a more somber, even tragic, mood. Those curious to see how the original Kimba might have looked if Tezuka had not been constrained to tailor it to American TV standards should see this. There is also a more modern character design.
The 1990s Canadian version of Kimba the Lion Prince is actually quite compatible in quality with 1990s TV cartoon standards. (The quality of the video production, however, leaves much to be desired!) It has the misfortune to be compared with the exceptionally good original version. The animation itself, of course, is identical. But Tezuka spent extra money to impress the American TV market. The original background music is by composer Isao Tomita (better known for his serious electronic music in the 1970s and 1980s) and scored for a full symphony orchestra. The new synthesizer music in Kimba the Lion Prince may compare well against most 1990s TV cartoon scores, but not against the rich tonalities of a full orchestra. (The beautiful music in Kimba is one of its best-remembered aspects by nostalgic fans.) Whether the new scripts match the witty 1960s scripts may be a matter of taste, but NBC's producer-director, Fred Ladd, and his crew of writers and voice actors (Cliff Owens, Billie Lou Watt, Gilbert Mack and Hal Studer) were among the top veterans in the profession, producing the 1960s and '70s American versions of such fondly-remembered TV cartoons as Astro Boy and Gigantor, and animated features like The Little Norse Prince, Jack and the Witch and (Animal) Treasure Island. On the other hand, the new translations for Kimba the Lion Prince again have the virtue of retaining more of the original character names (except, obviously, for Kimba himself).
But whether one happens to prefer the 1960s dubbings or the 1990s dubbings, the fact remains that the 1990s remake is not "the original lion adventure that started it all!" That is the original 1966 Kimba, the White Lion. And now, thanks to the ending of a 20-plus year bankruptcy trial in Japan and the patient waiting of The Right Stuf International, the real Kimba is available in America once again.
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Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.