Kimba the White Lion

7 Jul

With the pending release of the ‘live-action’ remake of Disney’s animated classic The Lion King, now is perhaps the perfect time to look at one of the strangest controversies ever to follow a Disney cartoon. At the time of its release, The Lion King was a unique production from Disney. It was the first animated film from the studio to feature an original story created by its team of writers. Over the years, however, this claim has faced several credible challenges from the Japanese anime, Kimba, The White Lion, made in 1965. That cartoon, about African wildlife, was based on a Manga comic called Jungle Emperor Leo by animator Osamu Tezuka. Whether Disney was inspired by Kimba isn’t the problem here; rather, it’s that Disney has long asserted that The Lion King was its first original animated film, and that it’s never heard of Jungle Emperor Leo or Tezuka. When you see the side-by-side glimpses afforded by YouTube it’s pretty impossible not to see the similarities, whether it be in the characters themselves, the design flourishes, or even specific shots. Yes, Kimba’s dad dies by drowning rather than wildebeest stampede, but his clamber up the rock wall and denial of saving by the story’s nefarious antagonist still looks familiar. Obviously, this isn’t a cry to disavow The Lion King or any such thing; it’s still a great film. But this may be one controversy that merits a closer look – after all, it was even once parodied, famously, in an episode of The Simpsons (you remember: the one where Mufasa appears in the clouds, bidding Lisa to “avenge my death, Kimba—I mean, Simba”)!

Disney’s stance has always been that those involved with the film had no knowledge of Kimba or Tezuka. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff said, “Frankly, I’m not familiar with [the TV series],” in reference to the controversy. He also added that he and co-director Roger Allers first learned about the debate on a trip to Japan to promote the movie. But as author Madhavi Sunder pointed out, Allers actually worked as an animator in Japan in the 1980s, a place where Jungle Emperor Leo was widely seen, and its creator, Tezuka, is known as Japan’s Walt Disney. Disney’s denial of any influence inspired petitions and protests from animators and fans alike who believed Kimba should have been acknowledged. Well-known Japanese cartoonist Machiko Satonaka, who says she was told by the company that “Disney has never heard of ‘Jungle Emperor’ or ‘Kimba, the White Lion,'” wrote an open letter to the studio that was signed by hundreds of animation professionals. But did these protesters really have a case?

Kimba, The White Lion, set in Africa, just like The Lion King, revolves around the white lion Kimba (Leo, in the manga), who has to grow up outside his territory after his father, the righteous lion Caesar (Panja, in the manga) is killed by professional hunters. Kimba returns from the wild after years and attempts to establish amiable relations between humans and beasts. Replace Kimba with Simba, Caesar with Mufasa, the human hunters with Scar, and you have the plot of The Lion King. The similarities do not end there. Scar, so named because of a scar on his left eye, bears similarities with the one-eyed evil lion Claw (Bubu, in the Japanese manga) who wants to kill Kimba’s family and become the jungle emperor. In The Lion King, Scar is Mufasa’s jealous brother and Simba’s uncle. Scar kills Mufasa, gets rid of Simba, and becomes the jungle’s king. Then there is the savant baboon, Dan’l Baboon (Burazza, in the manga), who mentors Kimba. Its counterpart in The Lion King is Rafiki. The spirited parrot, Pauly (Coco, in the manga), who is a close friend of Kimba is a lot like Zuzu from The Lion King. Scar is aided by three hyenas in The Lion King while Claw has two in the manga and the anime. Most strikingly, both Kimba and Simba see the images of their fathers forming in the sky during crucial moments.

While all of the above might sound fairly damning, it has to be said that Takayuki Matsutani, the president of Tezuka Productions, the company formed by Tezuka, acknowledged the similarities, but added that his staff, after seeing The Lion King, concluded that the similarities could not be avoided “as long as you use animals as characters and try to draw images out of them”. Matsutani added that both productions were different and that The Lion King was an original work “completed by the Disney production’s long-lasting excellent production technique”. Even with its similarities to The Lion King, Tezuka’s work also has clear differences. In addition to Kimba having more fantastical plots and anthropomorphic traits in the characters, the biggest contrast between the two projects is without a doubt the relationship between animals and humans, which stems from the original inspiration for Kimba: Walt Disney’s Bambi. Tezuka himself died in 1989, but during his life he didn’t bother hiding his affection for Disney, especially his love for Bambi, claiming to have seen the film more than 100 times. The animator actually met Walt Disney himself during a World’s Fair before he ended up licensing Bambi for a Japanese adaptation and credits Disney in his autobiography for some creative influence. Despite all the controversy surrounding The Lion King with regard to Kimba, both works have stood the test of time and hold an important place in the hearts of fans. Hakuna Matata, then.

2 Responses to “Kimba the White Lion”

  1. ospreyshire August 31, 2019 at 10:39 pm #

    Interesting write-up, but I have to correct you on a few things. Kimba’s dad Caesar gets shot and it’s his mom who drowns. Tezuka Productions did want to sue, but they couldn’t because they didn’t have enough money to take on that giant company. Also, Disney tried to block the Jungle Emperor Leo (1997) film from North American distribution when it was about to have it’s debut in Canada at the Fantasia Film Festival. Watching Kimba was certainly mind-blowing and I wish Disney would own up to it. If this situation as reversed and The Lion King came out before Kimba the White Lion, then everyone would call it a cheap Japanese rip-off. Besides that, Disney trademarked the phrase “Hakuna Matata” which is total cultural appropriation, withheld millions of dollars from Solomon Linda’s surviving family members with the royalties they made with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (as documented in the Netflix documentary The Lion’s Share), and even Beyonce was caught plagiarizing imagery from South African singer Petite Noir’s long form music video “La Maison Noir” for her “Spirit” music video.


  1. Let’s Rewind: July 2019 | Zezee with Books - August 5, 2019

    […] ★ Kimba the White Lion ( […]

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