A comical warthog and wise baboon. An evil lion with a deformed eye and hyena henchmen. A lion cub that experiences profound loss, grows up under the tutelage of a talking bird, then reclaims his throne and his legacy.
It sounds like the story of Simba in the Disney animated classic “The Lion King.” But legal experts, animators and anime historians say it’s more an appropriation than homage to “Kimba the White Lion,” a Japanese anime series that NBC syndicated in the United States in the 1960s.
As generations of fans flock to theaters to see the newly released remake of “The Lion King,” the one story line the millennials who grew up with the original 1994 film might have missed is the intellectual property controversy that clouded it.
Kay Clopton, a cultural diversity researcher at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, remembers when the Kimba debate first surfaced among anime fans in the 1990s. She thinks it’s picking up steam lately - “Kimba” was trending on Twitter this week - because of the strong reaction, both positive and negative, to the live-action remake of “The Lion King.” The film racked up nearly $185 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, and an additional $346 million abroad, according to the New York Times.
“Until now, the controversy would come up, kind of simmer and then go away,” Clopton said. “For some reason, this time around, there’s more legs to it.”
Susan Napier, a chaired professor of rhetoric and Japanese studies at Tufts University, said the issue is an “old wound” among Japanese animators and fans of Osamu Tezuka, who is known as Japan’s Walt Disney.
“I do think we have a huge power dynamic going on here,” she said. “Disney is a gigantic, huge corporation and people are intimidated by it. . . . It’s such a completely different corporate culture than these small animation studios in Japan.”
The intellectual property debate
The intellectual property debate is rooted in the work of Tezuka, the cartoonist and filmmaker who’s been called the father of manga - a type of Japanese comic books and graphic novels. The creator of the popular anime series “Astro Boy” also was a big Disney fan and claimed to have watched “Bambi” at least 100 times. He said it influenced his manga “Jungle Emperor Leo,” which became an animated series in the 1960s (the first color animation to ever appear on Japanese television) and was renamed “Kimba the White Lion” for English audiences.
Madhavi Sunder, who teaches intellectual property law at Georgetown University Law, researched the issue for her 2012 book, “From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice.” She told The Washington Post that many of the scenes and other plot and animation elements in “The Lion King” would set a clear case for copyright infringement today.
“Many of the cultural work that the whole world holds dear, including ‘The Lion King,’ are actually the product of others,” Sunder said. “It was galling to learn that there were artistic elements of ‘Kimba the White Lion’ that were wholesale copied by Disney in the 1994 animated film version of ‘The Lion King.’ “
Tezuka’s family and production company in Tokyo never pursued litigation. In her book, Sunder attributes this to Tezuka Productions’ amicable relationship with Disney, Tezuka’s fondness for Disney films, and the controversy’s boost for the show’s sales.
At the time, Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Productions, said the animation company found the works to be “absolutely different,” but if Disney was influenced by Tezuka’s work and Tezuka (who died in 1989) had lived to see it, he would have been flattered, according to news reports. Tezuka Productions did not respond to requests for comment.
There’s been a definite borrowing
Ben Whaley, who teaches Japanese pop culture at the University of Calgary in Canada, said he has worked with Tezuka Productions for his research and found that the company typically endorses even amateur replications of many of Tezuka’s original comics.
“I think there’s somewhat of a symbiotic relationship in Japan between amateur fans who are replicating creative works and the companies themselves who are making these properties,” he said. “There may not be as strong of a notion of stealing and plagiarism in Japan when it comes to borrowing or parodying characters from pop culture texts.”
Andrea Horbinski, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley who researches Japanese manga and anime, said there was “definite borrowing” from “Kimba” in “The Lion King,” but that that may point to an industry standard within animation.
“The question of originality is often kind of emphasized, partly because of the structure of intellectual property laws,” Horbinski said. “But I don’t know necessarily if it’s the most important question in terms of creative works.”
Billy Tringali, editor in chief of the Journal of Anime and Manga Studies, said plenty of today’s American animation is inspired by anime, but that that influence is usually acknowledged.
“Creators of popular media discussing and [giving] credit to their inspiration not only shows respect for their fellow artists, but allows for fans of these American works to seek out these anime they might not otherwise have heard of,” he said. “Fans and scholars of Tezuka’s work aren’t arguing that ‘The Lion King’ is pure plagiarism, but that the lack of acknowledgment is disrespectful, and that the similarities between these pieces should not be ignored.”
Kimba the White Lion’s story
“Kimba the White Lion” follows the story of three generations of lions fighting to defend their kingdom from humans. The protagonist is a white lion cub named Kimba, whose father (the jungle king) is murdered. Kimba is kidnapped by humans and, after embarking on a long journey home, finds an evil lion named Claw and his evil hyena friends have taken over the kingdom.
When “Kimba the White Lion” was aired in the United States, an NBC executive changed the main character’s name from Simba (Swahili for “lion”) because he found it too common, the US producer for the Kimba series, Fred Ladd, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1994.
“The parallels are stunning,” Ladd said at the time.
The issue drew extensive coverage by Japanese news media. Soon after, comic artist Machiko Sanonaka published a letter signed by hundreds of Japanese animators, including those who worked on the original Tezuka cartoon, in a prominent Japanese newspaper condemning Disney for not giving credit to Tezuka.
“To Japanese Mr. Tezuka’s works are a national legacy.” Sanonaka said in the letter. “Therefore, the respect and admiration we Japanese felt for Disney Co. is severely diminished. It is not possible to explain the damage inflicted upon our love of this aspect of Japanese culture.”
What is Disney saying?
Disney has long denied any similarity to or influence from Tezuka’s work. Charlie Fink, who pitched the project to studio executives, told The Washington Post that “The Lion King” was influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and biblical parables, and that the accusation regarding Tezuka’s work wasn’t worth discussing.
“None of us had ever heard of that thing,” he said, referring to the “Kimba” series. “If other people knew about it, they didn’t talk to me about it.”
Co-director Roger Allers reportedly worked in Japan as an animator in the 1980s, when “Jungle Emperor” was widely viewed and circulated, but he told Fummettologica in 2014 that neither the manga nor the anime television series ever came up while he was working on “The Lion King.”
“I had never seen the show and really only became aware of it as ‘Lion King’ was being completed, and someone showed me images of it,” Allers said in 2014. “I could certainly understand Kimba’s creators feeling angry if they felt we had stolen ideas from them. If I had been inspired by ‘Kimba’ I would certainly acknowledge my inspiration. All I can offer is my respect to those artists and say that their creation has its loyal admirers and its assured place in animation history.”
Tom Sito, lead animator on “The Lion King,” told HuffPost Entertainment that the film derived no inspiration from “Kimba.”
“I mean, the artists working on the film, if they grew up in the ‘60s, they probably saw ‘Kimba,’ “ Sito said. “I mean, I watched ‘Kimba’ when I was a kid in the ‘60s, and I think in the recesses of my memory we’re aware of it, but I don’t think anybody consciously thought, ‘Let’s rip off ‘Kimba.’ “
Actor Matthew Broderick, who voiced the adult Simba in the 1994 movie, said he was confused when he was first cast, according to news reports.
“I thought he meant Kimba, who was a white lion in a cartoon when I was a little kid,” Broderick said at the time.
Napier said Tezuka was known globally at the time and that Japanese animators were already traveling to Hollywood to collaborate with Disney. Even if it wasn’t intentional, she said, Disney’s lack of knowledge about Tezuka’s work simply doesn’t make sense.
“Animators know a lot about other animations. This is what they’re fascinated by,” she said. “Japanese animes were becoming well known long before ‘The Lion King.’ “
Frederik Schodt, an American interpreter and translator for Japanese media, would often accompany Tezuka on his trips to the United States, including to Disney World in Florida, the Disney animation studios in Burbank, California, a San Diego Comic Convention and talks at various universities. Tezuka met Walt Disney at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, and often repeated the story of Disney telling him that he knew much about Tezuka’s work and “hoped to make something like” “Astro Boy” one day, according to Schodt’s 1996 book, “Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga.”
With the controversy still lurking in the pride lands, researchers and “Kimba” fans say it’s not too late to give Tezuka a nod.
“This history is one that needs to be reckoned with by Disney,” Sunder said. “It’s not too late for Disney to acknowledge that ‘The Lion King’ owes a great debt to Osamu Tezuka.”