AKA: Jungle Taitei, Jungle Emperor, Jungle Emperor Leo (1965), Jungle Emperor Leo TV
Genre: Adventure/Coming Of Age
Year Released: 1965-1966
Distributor: Nozomi Entertainment
Running Time: TV Series, 52 Episodes, 23 minutes each
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-G
Related Films/Series: Jungle Emperor Leo (1966 Film), Leo the Lion, The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion, Jungle Emperor Leo Symphonic Poem, Jungle Emperor Leo (1997 Film), Jungle Emperor Leo: Hon-O-Ji, Jungle Emperor Leo (2009 Film)
For Fans Of: The Lion King, Bambi, Astro Boy, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Unico
-This review reflects the original 60s English dub AKA the Billie Lou Watt dub.
-The characters will be addressed under their English dub names.
-This is the first Japanese animated TV series ever to be created and broadcast in color. To put this in perspective, the first episode of Kimba predates Speed Racer by two years.
-Since 1978, Kimba has been the mascot of the Saitama Seibu Lions baseball team and the adult version of that character was the logo of that team until 2008.
-Kimba was brought over to America in the 60s through Fred Ladd who’s also responsible for introducing Western audiences to Astro Boy (also created by Osamu Tezuka), Gigantor, and even Sailor Moon.
-Composer Isao Tomita also dabbles in avant-garde and synthesizer based pieces. His “Snowflakes are Dancing” album was nominated 4 times at the Grammy’s.
-Controversy Warning: Despite having a different overall screenplay, this anime series bears several similarities with The Lion King. Matthew Broderick (voice of adult Simba) has admitted to being a fan of this show, too. Some of these details will be mentioned in this review, but I recommend checking out this site for more info: https://web.archive.org/web/20170310165825/kimbawlion.com/kimbawlion/rant2.htm
Any anime fan or at least anyone who knows about the history of animation should know about Osamu Tezuka.
He’s been nicknamed as “The god of manga and anime” and “The Walt Disney of Japan” for being one of the first innovators of comics and animation in his home country. Tezuka has created Astro Boy which would be the first Japanese animated series ever and he would eventually get an adaptation for the anime series involving his renowned lion cub protagonist.
Kimba the White Lion deals with the title character who’s doing his best to make the jungle a safe and united place. He learns how to be a leader who incorporates new ideas to help both the animals in the kingdom, but also to help humans who want to do good for the jungle. Kimba wants there to be a peaceful future between animals and mankind and is willing to fight for his dream to become reality, but he can be naive and make some mistakes.
The episodes do have a bit of an overarching plot, but some of them deal with his interactions with his subjects whether it involves danger or some smaller problems.
To be honest, I did have some low expectations against Kimba the White Lion. I had heard about this series when I was in my early teens, but it was too old-school for me since I was busy watching the newer anime series at the time. Once I finally started checking out this anime series, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised by how much depth there was in several episodes. Sure, there was some of that 60s cheese, but some of the themes dealt with death, discrimination, taking responsibility, morally ambiguous situations, refugees, the cycle of vengeance, and at a couple points even the concept of genocide was portrayed. One example of that last situation dealt with an episode where some alligators are holding some of the animals hostage and threaten to eat them after there was a misunderstanding with one of the young alligators getting sick. At the same time, there are some British diamond smugglers who are in the jungle that are armed. One character suggests that Kimba should get the smugglers to literally shoot all the alligators dead. Kimba gets furious and says one of the best quotes in that episode (I’ll mention another great quote from that same episode later): “No matter how bad some animals may be, we must help them and not hurt them!”. Wow. That was some powerful stuff. I could elaborate more about that issue, but this series has a great sense of justice and morality which is something that I appreciate. Even the episode of Kimba being barred from entering the lion convention due to an older lion discriminating against his white fur had fridge brilliance. He tells Kimba that he’s not a “real lion” the way minorities have been and in certain ways still are treated unfairly and have to prove their humanity to others. The fact that white lions are rarer than their tan or tawny counterparts could make them ethnic minorities in and out of context of the show itself and the show came on with the Civil Rights movement being fresh in everyone’s mind.
I also enjoyed the portrayal of the various human characters. Even though some of them are goofy, I appreciated how they have both good and bad humans. This could have been some “mankind is evil” storyline considering that Kimba’s backstory would normally be fodder for that stuff like some green aesop stories that would be released in the 90s, but I like how they didn’t resort to that fallacy. Roger Ranger is a good friend to all the different animals and wants them to be treated with dignity. His uncle Mr. Pompous may be cowardly, but he’s willing to make sure that the protagonists are safe from harm. Even some of the villainous human characters have a chance to repent from their evil ways to show that even some of the worst people have a chance at redemption. I thought that was a great subtle message about that and how there isn’t some good/evil paradigm that dictates everyone’s morality.
While this anime series has a large cast of characters, I’ll just highlight some of the other animals that frequently show up. There’s Caesar, who’s Kimba’s father. He was the benevolent king of the animals until he got murdered, but at one point in the story, his spirit shows up in the night sky to motivate his son. There’s Dan’l who’s Kimba’s advisor who’s worked for his family since Caesar was alive. He’s a wise, yet extremely eccentric baboon who counsels Kimba as he’s trying to lead the animals. Pauley is a major-domo in Kimba’s regime that is a bird who warns enemies not to mess with the king, but tends to get into lots of prat falls. We have Kitty, who’s a lioness cub who becomes Kimba’s friend and will eventually be his mate. That’s not a spoiler it becomes obvious given their later interactions. Finally, we have one of the villains who’s called Claw. He’s a sinister lion with a black mane, dark brown fur, and has a wounded left eye. Claw takes over the kingdom at one point of the story and he even has hyena cronies who do his dirty work.
If this is your first time hearing about Kimba, you’re probably thinking this: “Hold up! Kimba and all those animal characters sound like they’re from that one 90s Disney movie!”.
Oh boy. It’s really hard talking about Kimba the White Lion without bringing up that famous movie.
For the record, Kimba is not a rip-off, and I can back it up with historical dates. The original manga Jungle Taitei (Jungle Emperor in English) was released in 1950, it was animated in 1965, and The Lion King was released in 1994. This anime adaptation alone predates Disney’s lion movie by 29 years.
To be fair to the House of Mouse, there are noticeable differences between the two screenplays. From Tezuka Productions’ standpoint, there are things only unique to Kimba. There are several human characters in that anime, some sci-fi elements in certain episodes, and both of Kimba’s parents die in the series. From Disney’s standpoint, there are no humans, the environment is based on the Serengeti as opposed to having a jungle most of the time, and Timon and Pumbaa are the only characters who have no parallels to Tezuka’s creations. Also, Pauley is a parrot while Zazu is a hornbill. Not to mention the former is a TV show while the latter is a movie, so the storytelling formats are different in how they present their respective lion stories. I’d be lying if I said The Lion King ripped off every second of this series, so I had to mention some of the differences.
With that being said, the similarities are so glaring that even a child would be able to figure it out. There are characters (Claw is the most obvious one), storylines, scenes, and even dialog that will remind anyone of The Lion King while watching it. One such example of dialog goes back to the aforementioned alligator episode. After the smugglers are escaping on a plane, one of them threatens to get revenge on the animals and humans who stopped them. At the end of his little diatribe, he says (keep in mind, he has a British accent) “Next time, we’ll BE BETTER PREPARED!”. Am I the only person who finds that quote to be unintentionally hilarious? Disney has denied any influence of Kimba the White Lion and have never given credit to Osamu Tezuka or Tezuka Productions even to this day. It didn’t even help that Tezuka died of cancer five years prior to The Lion King while he worked on The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion of all things. If you think some of these similarities are coincidental, I have a couple of questions for you.
Also, this controversy brings up a double standard. Let’s all be brutally honest with ourselves and imagine if the situation was reversed. If Disney released The Lion King first and Tezuka released Kimba the White Lion later, then everybody would mercilessly lambaste Kimba as nothing more than a cheap Japanese piece of crap rip-off.
Okay, that’s enough about the tale of two lion stories.
I’ll go back to the review.
The music in Kimba gives me an ambivalent feeling. Don’t get me wrong, the background score by Isao Tomita is quite good with orchestral and synthesizer pieces. Remember when cartoons had their own orchestras? The English dub theme is incredibly catchy and will get stuck in your head if you hear it at least twice. However, I admit I wasn’t a fan of the English translated songs. The singing was average at best, but there were moments that were off beat. Some of the songs still had the original Japanese vocals in the background albeit quieted which made some of the vocal flaws more obvious to my ears. I wish they would have had better singers or just left the songs alone. They even censored the villain song that a group of panthers sing because it was considered too creepy back then. Yes, I’ve seen the original footage with that song and I thought they should have left it in the show. I know Kimba technically isn’t a musical, but they should have put more effort in the American production.
Since Kimba was animated in 1965, the visual presentation has certainly aged. There’s nice coloration with the backgrounds and characters, but the dated nature really shows. Keep in mind, that this predates other old-school anime like the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, Urusei Yatsura, and GoLion/Voltron. Some of the fight scenes and slapstick reminded me of Hanna-Barbara cartoons that came out the same decade which can turn off viewers who think that anime that was released in the 90s or early 00s would be considered old-school. There are some funny scenes like Kimba and Kitty trying to drive a truck or the hippo tanks that a hunting party bring in, but a good deal of the jokes can be pretty outdated.
I’d say the biggest flaw of Kimba the White Lion would be the executive meddling done in the English dub. The episodes were aired out of order when they were on NBC, but thankfully, Nozomi’s DVD box set complied them in the original order according to the Japanese broadcast. I don’t mind most of the English dub names despite some of them being silly, but I do prefer Kitty’s original Japanese name of Lyra a lot more. In addition to the names, some of the tertiary characters are renamed just randomly because of the original out-of-order broadcast. The big thing that hampers Kimba’s score are some of the needless cuts and re-writes. Some of the death scenes are edited by claiming that they were just asleep. The biggest offense was episode 5 which involves Quasimodo the cheetah. I won’t go into all the details, but there’s no way a character like that would live given what he went through and the re-written ending ruins the context of the scenery. At least most of the other episodes follow the original Japanese plot more or less, but the censorship in that episode was insufferable. On another note, I was surprised there weren’t many people of color despite being in Africa. Sure there are positive examples like Seymour Hart, but there should have been more. To be fair, the portrayals of Africans are improved from the original manga which are highly questionable.
Despite the controversy and the aged elements, Kimba the White Lion is still worth watching. The sense of morality in the storytelling was ahead of it’s time and would still work if it were released today. This came out the same decade as The Jetsons and Johnny Quest, but it has way more substance than several other 60s programs and movies. There are some likable characters and it has a good balance of funny and serious stories involved. Sure, Kimba won’t impress people from a visual standpoint, but the writing is still strong. Anyone that wants to learn about Osamu Tezuka or find out about the lesser-known animated gems out there should give this one a look. Definitely recommended.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you’re an Osamu Tezuka fan
Add 1 point if you like cute animals
Subtract 2-4 points if you dislike older animation
-Strong writing when it comes to morality and adult themes
-Likable main protagonists
-Great background score and theme song
-Censorship/executive meddling in the English dub
-English translated songs are mediocre
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: This is a good anime for families to watch with few objectionable things. There are some deaths involved and not just the ones including Kimba’s parents. Most of the fight scenes are just slapstick. Yes, the word “pussy” is used, but they are obviously talking about cats. However, one thing that can raise eyebrows is Claw’s affection for Kitty and his desire for her to be his queen when she’s older is way creepier than it had any right to be, but at least he gets defeated before any of that could happen.
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