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Big Little Lions: Disney's New 'Lion King' Dodges the 'Kimba' Similarity Issue

When 'The Lion King' was released in 1994, a controversy erupted over alleged appropriation of the 1960s anime series 'Kimba the White Lion,' created by Japan's "God of manga," Osamu Tezuka. Twenty-five years later, fans of Tezuka say Disney still has some explaining to do.
Father-son heart-to-hearts in 'The Lion King,' left,' and 'Kimba.'   |   Courtesy of Alli MacKay, “Kimba & The Lion King - How Similar Are They?“; Walt Disney Pictures; Tezuka Productions
When 'The Lion King' was released in 1994, a controversy erupted over alleged appropriation of the 1960s anime series 'Kimba the White Lion,' created by Japan's "God of manga," Osamu Tezuka. Twenty-five years later, fans of Tezuka say Disney still has some explaining to do.

Amid Disney's worldwide rollout of its Lion King remake, a controversy that erupted in the wake of the 1994 classic's release has largely failed to resurface: namely, that the animated film's designation as "the studio's first to be based on an original story" was not entirely deserved. Now, with Disney having already amassed $531 million in global box office with the same story and characters, the 25-year-old accusations that the studio copied some elements of that story, and some of those characters, from a renowned Japanese artist are worth revisiting. 

On June 24, 1994, Walt Disney Pictures released The Lion King to rapturous audiences and even more rapturous critical acclaim. The film's creative team and studio execs made much of the fact that The Lion King, unlike all of Disney's other animated films, was not based on a previous work, that it was an entirely original narrative developed "in the story department of Disney Feature Animation more than four years ago." But almost immediately, Disney's claims of originality were challenged by people familiar with a popular 1960s animated series called Kimba the White Lion, created by Osamu Tezuka — who also created iconic character/series Astro Boy — based on his own 1950 manga Jungle Emperor.

It's hard to overstate how popular the works of Tezuka — who died in 1989, around the same time Disney started work on The Lion King — were in Japan during his lifetime. In her 1997 essay "Japanese Culture and Popular Consciousness: Disney's The Lion King vs. Tezuka's Jungle Emperor," Yasue Kuwahara, a professor at Northern Kentucky University and director of popular culture studies, says Tezuka "was regarded as not only the forefather of Japanese comics but one of the great men of Japan." He is often referred to as the "Walt Disney of Japan" due to the universal appeal of his stories and characters (though in recent years that honorific has been more often applied to Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, who was himself heavily influenced by Tezuka).

When it first began airing in Japan in 1965, Kimba was actually commissioned by NBC, which had established a relationship with Tezuka after purchasing the U.S. rights to Astro Boy in 1963. According to a history of Kimba by anime historians Robin Leyden and Fred Patten, in 1964 NBC asked Tezuka if he had other ideas for shows that would appeal to English-speaking audiences, and he suggested a cartoon based on Jungle Emperor. The series premiered in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 1966, and it aired in syndication throughout the '70s and into the '80s.

The plots of The Lion King and Kimba the White Lion share certain, very broad elements. Both are coming-of-age stories centering on an African lion cub, and both cubs' fathers are murdered in the first act, but Kimba includes several human characters in addition to animals, and focuses on the conflicts between encroaching civilization and nature. However, Japanese and American fans of Tezuka's character seized upon several similarities between the two works that, if they are simply coincidental, would rank high among all-time coincidences.

In The Lion King, the main villain is an evil lion named Scar who has a black mane and a scar over his left eye. In Kimba, the main villain is an evil lion named Claw who has a black mane and a scar in place of his left eye. Claw's henchmen include two spotted hyenas. Scar's henchmen include three spotted hyenas. Both Simba and Kimba have, among their small circle of advisors, a wise, sagelike mandrill and a bird — Lion King's Zazu is a hornbill, Kimba's Pauly is a parrot. There are even early pieces of concept art for The Lion King that depict Simba as a white lion. (Oddly, the similarity between the names Simba and Kimba most likely is coincidental, since "simba" is the Swahili word for lion.) But it was the images — The Lion King and Kimba feature several scenes and shots that appear to mirror one another — that critics felt were the strongest evidence of Disney artists having borrowed from Tezuka.

Madhavi Sunder, a professor at Georgetown Law who wrote about the Kimba/Lion King controversy in her 2012 book From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice, says that had Tezuka's company, Tezuka Productions, pursued legal action against Disney in the wake of Lion King's release, the case would have been "very strong."

"For copyright infringement, we look at a few different things. We look at similarities in terms of the storyline, the plot and the characters; the more similar the second-comer is to the original details of the storyline or plot or particular character personalities and depictions, then we start to cross over into infringement," she tells THR. "In addition, in the case of the animation here, the strongest evidence is that the actual drawings depicting several scenes are strikingly similar between Kimba and The Lion King."

In his essay "Simba Versus Kimba: The Pride of Lions," Patten includes an extensive list of specific sequences from episodes of Kimba and their analogues in Lion King amid a larger argument marshaling circumstantial evidence that Disney artists and researchers either knew or should have known about Kimba in the early '90s. His list reads, in part:

3-A The Lion King. Zazu flies to Simba clinging to a tree in the midst of the wildebeest stampede, and tells him to hold on, his father is coming. 33:08 to 33:14.

3-B Kimba, Prod. #66-24, "Running Wild." Pauley Cracker flies to Bucky Deer clinging to a tree in the midst of the antelope stampede, and tells him to hold on, Kimba is coming. 8:23 to 8:28.

4-A The Lion King. Lighting starts a fire, 75:00 to 75:05, and rain puts it out. 79:58 to 80:05.

4-B Kimba, Prod. #66-42, "The Red Menace." Lighting starts a fire, 0:38 to 0:47, and rain puts it out. 13:37 to 13:52.

Most conspicuous to Tezuka supporters then and now was the scene in which the image of Simba's father, Mufasa, materializes in a cloud bank. Jungle Emperor featured a panel where its main character likewise appeared to his son in the clouds (a version of the scene also appears in the anime series). Frederik Schodt, the author of several books on Japanese manga and a personal friend of Tezuka's, told the Los Angeles Times on July 13, 1994, that the two scenes were "too similar to be a coincidence."

But when reporters asked the Lion King creative team about Kimba, their response was, "Never heard of it."

"Frankly, I'm not familiar with [the TV series]," co-director Rob Minkoff told the Times. "I know for a fact that [Kimba] has never been discussed as long as I've been on the project," he added. "This is the first I've heard of Kimba or Tezuka. I never heard anything or saw anything about his work," screenwriter Linda Woolverton told the San Francisco Chronicle the next day. In the same article, Howard Green, a Disney spokesman, went further: "None of the principals involved in creating The Lion King were aware of Kimba or Tezuka." (In a follow-up article four days later, Green softened his stance to "some of us had heard of Kimba," and one anonymous source even admitted to bringing up the series in a meeting, but no one quoted deviated from the company line that Tezuka's work had no influence on the development of the film.)

Disney's denials only served to deepen suspicions among Tezuka's supporters. (In fact, at the time Green gave his initial statement to the Chronicle it had already been undermined by the film's star, Matthew Broderick, who voiced the grown-up Simba. In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman a month earlier, Broderick, who was cast when the working title of the project included the name "Simba," said this: "I thought [they] meant Kimba, who was a white lion on TV when I was a little kid. So I kept telling everyone I was going to play Kimba.") 

Schodt says the notion that no one who worked on Lion King had even heard of Tezuka is "absolutely unthinkable — anybody who knows anything about animation knew that that was just preposterous." He insists that, in the early stages of production, Disney's animators would have been actively seeking out reference material. "The first thing they'd do is go out and try and look at every work that's been done using lions. You have to learn to draw these animals!" he says. "And the other thing is that all the Disney animators at that point in time, they were of the age that they would have seen it on television or seen references to it. So the idea that nobody knew it's just crazy!"

Sunder also points to the fact that Minkoff's co-director, Roger Allers, lived in Tokyo for two years during the '80s, when Tezuka was still alive and his series would have aired on TV frequently (also worth noting that until 2008, Panja — Kimba's father — was the mascot for the Seibu Lions baseball team, who were basically Japan's version of the Yankees in the '80s, winning eight championships between 1982 and 1992). But, she adds, coming up with "smoking-gun proof" that people involved in the production of Lion King actually had watched Kimba or read Jungle Emperor isn't necessary. "In addition to showing 'substantial similarity,'  you have to show access to the original. It's a sliding scale. You look at, how prevalent was Kimba the White Lion in those days? If it's a much more obscure work, then you have to show more similarity. If it’s more accessible — as Kimba the White Lion was — then substantial similarity is enough. I think here, again, it's a slam-dunk case because we actually could say many of the animated expressions are 'so strikingly similar,' which is the highest level of evidence of copying."

The statements from Disney prompted a well-known Japanese animator, Machiko Satonaka, to send an open letter to the studio, accompanied by a petition signed by 82 other artists and hundreds of Tezuka fans. "To Japanese, Mr. Tezuka's works are a national legacy. 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." She ends the letter by requesting "a few lines paying respect to the origin of the story" be included in the beginning of the film.

But, according to Kuwahara, Satonaka's letter marked the end of the controversy. "Satonaka and other manga artists tried to protest, but the public didn't go along with it," she tells THR. "Because as much as Tezuka is considered important, the Japanese love Disney. They recognized Lion King was a copy of Jungle Emperor, but it was OK with them."

Most notably, it was OK with Takayuki Matsutani, the president of Tezuka Productions. Though he was quoted in the Chronicle agreeing that the Mufasa-in-the-clouds scene was "nearly identical to one in the original comic book version of Dr. Tezuka's story," he also told the paper that the company's official position was that "Lion King is absolutely different from Jungle Emperor and is Disney’s original work.

"If Disney took hints from the Jungle Emperor," he said, "our founder, the late Osamu Tezuka, would be very pleased by it."

Tezuka, like his fellow Japanese, also loved Walt Disney. Jungle Emperor itself was heavily influenced by Bambi, which Tezuka claimed to have seen over 100 times while it was playing in a Tokyo theater after World War II. The two master animators famously met at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where Disney reportedly told him he was a fan of Astro Boy (which, recall, was airing on American television at the time). Given both the widespread admiration for Disney in Japan and the fact that Tezuka idolized him, it might have been awkward had the company that bore his name taken a more adversarial stance toward The Lion King.

Tezuka Productions' position, wrote the Chronicle's Charles Burress, also had to be considered within "a Japanese cultural context where preservation of good corporate relations is prized over public criticism."

Over the years, however, many anime fans have speculated that there were, perhaps, other reasons that Tezuka Productions declined to take legal action against Disney, with some even suggesting that the company might have paid them off in secret. However, in the 2006 book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. by Roland Kelts, Tezuka Productions' Yoshihiro Shimizu insists they never received any compensation.  "Of course, we were urged to sue Disney by some in our industry. But we're a small, weak company. It wouldn't be worth it anyway. … Disney's lawyers are among the top 20 in the world."

Schodt, in his book Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, notes that — even setting aside the quality of Disney's counsel — in Japan, "litigation is socially frowned upon except as a last resort." Furthermore, he writes, at the time of The Lion King's release, Tezuka Productions was already engaged in another lawsuit — over the rights to the Kimba series outside of Japan. Most likely though, Schodt tells THR, Tezuka Productions was reluctant to sue because animators understand that borrowing of ideas and images is a "two-way street," and the line between homage and theft can be incredibly thin. "The truth of the matter is, there's an awful lot of borrowing among animation companies," he says. "People are constantly ripping each other off." In other words, had Disney's top-20 lawyers gone poking through the Tezuka archives, they likely would have found more than a few images that might have triggered the studio's famously vigilant defense of its own copyrights. 

After Lion King had been in theaters for a few months, mentions of Kimba faded away almost entirely, with one notable exception: a joke in the 1995 Simpsons episode "Round Springfield," written by Joshua Sternin and Jennifer Ventimilia. Toward the end, Mufasa appears in a cloud bank next to the recently deceased jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy, Darth Vader and James Earl Jones, and tells Lisa, "You must avenge my death Kimba … I mean, Simba." However, if any supporters of the theory that Disney borrowed from Tezuka without acknowledgment had ever imagined a roomful of pissed-off scribes trying to keep the anti-Disney torch burning, that joke made it into the script like most Simpsons jokes: Someone in the writers room just threw it out there. "We were just doing the idea of the James Earl Jones voices up in the clouds, and we [needed] a third one," Ventimilia says. "As we both remember it, one of the showrunners mentioned the controversy and brought up point by point where the two stories and characters were similar." Interestingly — and this might bolster Disney's case — both writers say the appearing-in-the-clouds thing was not a reference to Lion King. After all, if dead people are going to appear somewhere, the sky seems like a natural place for it.

In the 25 years since The Lion King's release, the controversy — which had first bubbled upon among American animators and anime fans before making its way across the Pacific — has found a new life where all long-forgotten cultural artifacts inevitably resurface: YouTube. Videos with names like The Lion King Lie - Did Disney Steal The Lion King? (238,000 views), Is The Lion King A Rip Off? (630,000 views) and The "Original Story" - The Kimba VS Simba Controversy (1.2 million views) have proliferated on the platform. Alli MacKay, an animator and creator of the latter — as well as another video with a million-plus views that's just 8 minutes of concept art for and scenes from the Disney film and Tezuka's white-lion oeuvre in split-screen, sort of a greatly expanded A/V version of Patten's list — wasn't even born when The Lion King came out.

In the early 2000s, they came across an episode of Kimba the White Lion airing on a public access television station in Alberta, Canada. "I assumed it was a rip-off of The Lion King," says MacKay, "I jumped online and learned it was animated in 1965, decades earlier. Since then, I've been trying to organize every bit of information I can find about how The Lion King came to be so uncannily similar to Tezuka's cartoon."

Yet despite the new abundance of accessible and compelling visual evidence of similarities between the two works; despite the fact that anime fandoms have grown well beyond the message boards of the mid-'90s internet; despite the general ubiquity of social media, where conceivably all it might take for the Kimba/Simba controversy to go viral would be a tweet or a Facebook post from the right person; and despite a much greater sensitivity to accusations of IP theft and cultural appropriation, mentions of Tezuka and Kimba the White Lion have been almost entirely absent from the media coverage of Disney's live-action remake. A few articles have recounted the controversy, and there's been at least one semi-viral Twitter thread about it, but it doesn't appear that, in the run-up to Friday's premiere, anyone involved with the remake has been asked even a single question about Kimba, and whether Disney's position in 2019 is the same as it was in 1994. (THR emailed Disney but received no response.) Kuwahara says that Japanese media is likewise ignoring the controversy this time around.  

MacKay points to a podcast, published July 1, where Don Hahn, a producer on the original Lion King, as the only recent instance they've found of someone asking a question about Kimba. (The podcast, Wedding Experts Live, is described as "Your home for wedding stories in the news" on its Apple Podcasts page. OK!) When asked whether it's true that The Lion King was based on Kimba, Hahn says he's still never seen Kimba, that no one brought it up during production, and chalks up any similarities to the "limited palette of things you can do in Africa."

The near-total lack of Kimba mentions is particularly baffling to Sunder in light of how much more seriously people take accusations of cultural appropriation now than "even 10 years ago. This has become part of our daily cultural awareness and our daily lexicon around issues of justice and representation." Especially, she says, "when you've got the rich taking incredibly rich cultural expression from less powerful entities."

Sunder does point out that, with the photo-realistic remake, Disney did take pains to respond to some criticism regarding appropriation and representation leveled at the animated original. Despite being the first Disney feature animation set in Africa, the 1994 film featured a majority-white cast — with original songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. The new film features a majority-black cast — with original songs from Beyoncé (who released a whole album of music inspired by the film that she called "a love letter to Africa.") "We need to recognize these achievements and the love so many share for this truly human story," Sunder says. "At the same time, it is not too late for Disney to acknowledge that the original Lion King film owes a great debt to master Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka." 

That, after all, is all that Tezuka's supporters have ever asked for — some small acknowledgment by Disney that, despite the obvious differences in the works as a whole, Tezuka's white lions did influence The Lion King in some form, just as Tezuka acknowledged Bambi's influence on Jungle Emperor. It's what Satonaka, and the hundreds of others that signed her letter, asked for. It's what Patten and Schodt and Sunder ask for in their books, what MacKay and their fellow creators ask for. It's what the forums and the message boards and the Twitter and Reddit threads have asked for. 

But that's not likely to happen if, once again, The Lion King completes its theatrical run without some significant portion of the audience — beyond just anime fans — finding out that Kimba exists. 

"I think it's really up to the public to seek justice here," Sunder says. "And it's not necessarily in the form of a copyright case by Tezuka — not ruling out that possibility, now that we have a new work. It's more, 'Apologize and make amends for erasing the authorship of this great human creator who very much also deserves the credit for bringing us this incredible story.'"

A previous version of this story identified Osamu Tezuka as the creator of Speed Racer. Speed Racer was created by Tatsuo Yoshida.

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