Which Is The Real Kimba?

by Fred Patten

Kimba the White Lion is always ready to take on his next challenge! © The Right Stuf International.

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.

Kimba the White Lion’s 1990 U.S. appearance had some unfortunate changes. © The Right Stuf International.

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.

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