Hey, gang. Hope you haven't missed me too much. So, does anyone remember this dumb t-shirt?
I remember the shirt well, because as I became an ardent anime fan in 1994, The Lion King's similarities to Osamu Tezuka's Kimba the White Lion were a hot topic. All of the conventions and discussion boards were buzzing with the controversy, which was far-reaching enough that one of western anime fandom's foremost experts of the time, the late Fred Patten, went on Entertainment Tonight to try to explain to Mary Hart and John Tesh and their national TV audience what the hell the animation community was in such an uproar about. It was an interesting controversy, both because it was so bizarre—the idea of Disney denying any significant knowledge of Osamu Tezuka is hilarious, akin to Quentin Tarantino claiming to have never heard of Sergio Corbucci after releasing Django Unchained—and because the anime fan community of the 1990s just loved conspiracy theories about Disney ripping off anime. You had TaleSpin, which was an obvious ripoff of Laputa, er, Porco Rosso, maybe? You had Disney's Little Mermaid, which admittedly has some weirdly specific similarities to the boffo 1975 film that Tomoharu Katsumata directed for Toei, and you had The Great Mouse Detective, whose climactic clock tower duel was either ripped off from The Castle of Cagliostro or Puss n' Boots Travels Around the World, depending on who you asked.
Consequently, chatting about the Lion King's striking similarities to Tezuka's Kimba (nee Jungle Emperor Leo) were all the rage on FIDOnet, usenet, and the bimonthly anime club meeting in the library's media room. Disney, for their part, refused to give even the slightest indication that their film might owe even the smallest tip of the hat to Tezuka, even as lead actor Matthew Broderick commented that he'd initially thought he signed on for a Kimba remake and The Simpsons soon made a “Kimba—er, Simba” joke in one of their episodes. While there was considerable consternation among the anime and manga artist community in Japan over the similarities, Tezuka Productions director Satoshi Tezuka (Osamu's son) stated that the company had no interest in taking any legal action against Disney. The controversy eventually died down… until 2000, when Disney released Atlantis, which clearly owes a heavy artistic debt to Gainax's TV series Nadia!
Well, there's a new Lion King movie in theatres, a high-tech photorealistic animated film that's already on the verge of clearing half a billion dollars just in US ticket receipts, and with it, an all-new crop of “Hey, Did You Know Disney Ripped off Tezuka?!” articles and videos. Most of them are pretty sedate retreads of the 90s controversy, updated for a fresher audience that, let's face it, was too young to have paid much attention to the hot topic the first time around. But on social media—on both Facebook and Twitter, specifically—I've noticed a weird phenomenon. A variety of folks have been posting about the similarities, but adding details about Disney threatening Tezuka Productions with a lawsuit, or even outright suing them over a version of Kimba that, as it turns out, was in production at the same time as the Disney movie! What an outrageous thing for Disney to do. But hey, Disney are notoriously litigious about their characters—they're the assholes who keep getting the copyright term extended to keep the public from seizing and redistributing Steamboat Willie, and they're so protective of their cartoon mascots that they won't even let daycare facilities paint them on the walls. I guess them lawyering up over Tezuka's Kimba was inevitable.
Well, here's where you can imagine that 30-second montage of Jonathan Frakes from Beyond Belief telling you that it's fake, it's fiction, and it's false. Disney never sued Tezuka Productions over latter-day Jungle Emperor cartoons, because if they had, you'd be able to fire up the requisite public records engine and find the court documents. The closest thing to legal action I've heard about is a brief Facebook post from Fantasia Film Festival planner Julian Grant alleging that Disney had sent a Cease and Desist letter to them in 1997, over the festival's screening of the 1997 Tezuka Productions film Jungle Emperor. Grant's memory is a little squishy, here—Jungle Emperor screened in 1998, not '97—but I'll assume that someone sent a C&D in that year. I'd love to see what actual law firm sent that letter, and if they really did it on behalf of Disney, and what the letter actually said. I reached out to Fantasia about five or six weeks back to see if they had the letter or could connect me with Grant, but they haven't gotten back to me. Nowadays, it's really easy to go “Oh, you want a letter from eight years ago? Yes, let me type it into my gmail search bar, and… there it is.” No doubt it's a little harder to find a 20-year-old Cease and Desist letter that, while sort of a legal document, isn't the kind that needs to be filed anywhere.
To me, the more annoying 'well, this sounds true, so let's repeat it' line is the one about Tezuka Productions actually working on a Kimba feature film at the same time as Disney's Lion King. Now, there absolutely was a Kimba project going through production during Lion King's production cycle—in fact, there were two. Rintaro's 1989 The New Adventures of Kimba The White Lion TV series was one of the last productions that Osamu Tezuka himself greenlit and worked on before his demise in that same year, and in 1991 the studio released Jungle Emperor: Symphonic Poem, an OVA that uses composer Isao Tomita's iconic score from the original series as the launchpad for a gorgeous, dialogue-free retelling of the tale. The '97 film didn't go into production until 1994, and even that was under some pretty interesting circumstances. It came about because of a new agreement between Tezuka Productions and film distributor Shochiku, who'd had a pretty crappy run at the box office and were looking to diversify their offerings. They signed up Tezuka to produce two animated films; one of them was the Black Jack movie, and the other one was supposed to be a new Astro-Boy film. Early in production, the team decided to go with Tezuka's famous white lion instead.
Now obviously, a big-deal Jungle Emperor movie released just 3 years after The Lion King was going to draw some comparisons. There are some pretty sly moments where this new-look Leo references The Lion King referencing the original Kimba. But thematically, the films aren't that similar—sure, we all love to describe The Lion King as a cartoon animal version of Hamlet, but Tezuka's Kimba stories were really all about the peculiar struggle of jungle animals to act morally and form a society; while the heroic white lion did square off against hyenas and a scarred lion adversary, it always ultimately led to a reckoning with mankind. You can see this in the 1997 film, which is pretty damn good if you're a Jungle Emperor completist—it finely adapts the later parts of the manga, in ways that earlier versions had not. It was screened at Fantasia in 1998, and eventually released without any controversy on home video by Media Blasters in 2004. I think the reason it never evoked a strong response is because it's just not that great of a movie; Tezuka Productions' concurrent Black Jack movie was considerably better, and that one involved an Olympic athlete's heart literally exploding during surgery and the day being saved by a heavily-armed variant of Doctors Without Borders!
But here's a curveball, for you: there was a Kimba the White Lion lawsuit! But it was an issue that predates The Lion King, and it didn't involve Disney. Instead, it involved Tezuka's bankrupt old production company Mushi Production, a reorganized newer incarnation of Mushi Pro, Tezuka's newer outfit Tezuka Productions, and a gentleman by the name of Fumio Suzuki, who, way back in the day, had worked for a company called Video Promotions, a Japanese firm that helped to broker the deal between Mushi and NBC Enterprises that led to Astro-Boy, the original TV anime, to be shown in North America. A decade later, Mushi Production went bankrupt, and while they were able to avoid going out of business, they had to reorganize, effectively as a new company (on paper), just still called Mushi Production, because this situation isn't confusing enough already.
By 1978, the North American broadcast rights to both Astro-Boy and Kimba the White Lion had expired; in the case of Astro-Boy, NBC contacted Mushi Production in 1975, who couldn't afford to have the dubbed masters shipped back to Japan, so they ordered them destroyed. (Fortunately, lots of other archival copies survived, due to factors like TV stations not returning them to NBC, or copies shipped to overseas stations; it was the work of over ten years to bring 'em all together!) But in Kimba's case, NBC no longer had control—a late-60s rule change in TV syndication meant that NBC could not both run a broadcast network and create syndicated content for other stations, so NBC Film Enterprises was shuttered and the rights to Kimba were passed to National Telefilm Associates, who dutifully continued to sell Kimba to local TV markets from sea to shining sea. NTA's rights to Kimba expired on September 30th 1978, and at that point, Kimba the White Lion went down the memory hole. As part of the contract's winding down, NTA reached out and contacted the international licensing agent for the series—a man named Fumio Suzuki. Did Mr. Suzuki want the original films back? Turns out that yes, he did. Did he ever!
Now, due to the Mushi bankruptcy, there was already some confusion about precisely who owned what portion of the productions based on Dr. Tezuka's own characters—should the reorganized Mushi Production be sole custodians of these seminal works, or should Tezuka and his new outfit, Tezuka Productions, have a say? That issue was not yet settled in 1978. Meanwhile, Suzuki got wind of the international expirations, and sensed an opportunity. Not only did he take delivery of the US film elements, he negotiated with the flatlined “old” Mushi Production's bankruptcy attorney to purchase their surviving film elements for Astro-Boy and Kimba. It wasn't entirely clear what Suzuki was buying, or if the “old” Mushi was even permitted to sell either the rights or the materials, but this didn't stop Suzuki from subsequently declaring himself the new owner of both series. Naturally, both the “new” Mushi Production and Tezuka Productions objected to this… but not until years later, when they found out about the issue because Suzuki was trying to renew the copyrights in his name. In the meantime, the agent was overseas, looking to license out his new acquisitions.
Suzuki didn't make much headway at first—really just a barter deal for TV syndication in one market-- but in the late 1980s he had some meetings with a pair of businessmen from a company called Century Systems, out of Des Moines Iowa. They wanted to release Astro-Boy on videocassette, and had been referred to Suzuki by the show's dubbing director for NBC, a guy named Fred Ladd. It seemed to Century Systems that Suzuki could help them make that happen. I was able to reach one of those businessmen, Shawne Kleckner, who commented, “We ended up licensing Astro-Boy from Suzuki... but it turns out that he actually didn't have a lot of materials [for us to use]. We had to go out and find the rest of the episodes ourselves." After this deal was in play and Astro-Boy tapes started seeing release, Suzuki shipped out his Kimba film masters to Century Systems for safekeeping—or, more likely, to keep his new partners busy with the materials while he rushed to file the paperwork that he should've already had straightened out. The thing is, unbeknownst to Century Systems, Suzuki was also striking licensing deals with other partners. Check out this boffo colorized version of the '63 Astro-Boy, commissioned by one of Suzuki's other partners!
Nowadays, a release like Suzuki's Astro-Boy, the product of a single businessmen confounding the chain of ownership of an anime to facilitate an overseas release, would be harder to do—information just moves too fast. But back then, owing to both the “old” Mushi bankruptcy and the NBC rights expiration, it took some time for the Tezuka Productions folks to figure out what was going on. To preclude losing his dubiously-gotten rights to Tezuka and Mushi, Suzuki started busily filing trademark and copyright renewals. Then, he struck a deal with Landmark Entertainment Group— yep, the Ceasar's Palace people, which is particularly hilarious to me for some reason, casino developers getting into the anime biz—for the rights to Astro-Boy and Kimba. And so, Landmark ran an ad in Variety Magazine, asserting their claim to Kimba and Astro-Boy. This was clearly excellent business practices by the opportunistic Mr. Suzuki, and by “excellent” I mean “totally dishonest.”
This wasn't the only Kimba-related advertisement in Variety during that time period. In the 80s, CBN ran a program called “Leo the Lion,” which was a dubbed version of Tezuka and Mushi Production's previously Japan-only Susume, Leo! sequel series. Home video and broadcast rights and associated trademarks to this version were acquired legitimately by a pair of outfits called Krypton and Front Row Entertainment via Marubeni and Tezuka's people—but when Krypton got wind of Suzuki's re-registration attempts, they too realized the matter wasn't settled and opportunistically jumped in, hoping to leverage their only-partial rights to snatch the whole kit n' kaboodle away.
Then, Suzuki took it even farther—he filed suit against Tezuka Productions and Mushi Production. “At this point,” comments Kleckner, “We finally started hearing from the Tezuka Productions people. As you might expect, that was very upsetting to us, as we had invested heavily in [Kimba] at that point based on our agreement with Suzuki, which he essentially double-sold. I had to lawyer up and go to Japan! The lawsuit [against Suzuki] lasted for several years. Ultimately, I was deposed in both Japan and California, though I never did testify at the hearings.” Original Kimba dub producer Fred Ladd touched on this sequence of events in his book Astro-Boy and Anime Come to the Americas, where he also asserted that he testified as an expert witness in a hearing between Tezuka Productions and Mr Suzuki in Los Angeles. While this installment of my column is principally about Kimba, in Ladd's estimation, the struggle over the characters was first and foremost over Astro-Boy. Comments Kleckner, “The central issue was over who owned the rights to the characters-- the names, the characters, and the underlying programs (the chain of title), for all of the shows that Suzuki had claimed. But in 1994, The Lion King came along, and at that point, there was definitely more interest in the character [of Kimba]… the show was in color, and therefore more marketable than Astro-Boy.”
In the meantime, Suzuki had a novel plan to stay ahead of the dispute. See, he had two things: the gumption to assert that he was the true owner of Kimba the White Lion, even though the matter was very much not settled in court, and a set of Japanese commercial Jungle Emperor laserdiscs, from which satisfactory new masters could be created. Suzuki and his new partners with Landmark (plus another outfit called CEG Cinema Partners) provided these laserdisc masters to a dubbing studio named Zaza Sound Productions to create a brand-new uncut dub, without the edits from the clipped-for-60s-TV-standards original. The thinking was that this would be the version of Kimba that Suzuki would definitively own, being a derivative and distinctive work from the original. Says Kleckner, "It was all this deal where [Suzuki] realized that he couldn't quite get away with claiming Kimba, but he had another company re-dub the show so he could then claim ownership of that version."
And thus, from the confused shadow of Kimba the White Lion, there emerged a new challenger: Kimba, the Lion Prince! Behold.
What you're looking at here, aside from the spectacle of the commercial artist hired by home video firm UAV Corporation of simply drawing the exact same face on Kimba over and over, no matter the circumstances, is a version of Kimba newly-dubbed in Toronto, with forgettable synth music replacing Isao Tomita's original score. The dub itself was reportedly produced in 1993, but home video versions didn't come out for a couple of years, giving the publisher plenty of time to come up with that excellent “THE LION ADVENTURE THAT STARTED IT ALL!” jab, not to mention a telling “Special Thanks to Fumio Suzuki!” line in the credit roll. In the meantime, with the lawsuit winding down, several things happened. First of all, Palm Beach Entertainment released the previously-mentioned Leo the Lion on VHS.
Then, Geneon (then still known as Pioneer) licensed Tezuka's 1989 Jungle Emperor TV series, dubbed it The New Adventures of Kimba The White Lion, and released it in those fat, happy little clamshell VHS cases. Suzuki's version of Kimba was also still in circulation… and finally, once the lawsuit was settled in 1997 and ownership of Kimba was returned to Mushi Production and Tezuka Productions, Kleckner's outfit, The Right Stuf International (hey, I know those guys!) was cleared to release a beautiful new version of the original TV series, based on the film masters, on VHS. I wondered, did this create any market confusion?
Kleckner chuckled ruefully at this question. “It was a mess! It was an absolute mess. We had to market ours as the original version from 1966, and very prominently put that on the packaging.” Ultimately, Tezuka Productions and the “new” Mushi Production prevailed; the DVDs that you can get from Right Stuf these days bear both company names, as Mushi have remained the custodian of most of Tezuka's older animated works. Curiously, Suzuki's version of Kimba is also still easy to find on DVD, though likely out of print at this point. Those tapes and DVDs were supposed to be removed from circulation, but obviously they weren't. Man, maybe Disney oughta sue to get that version taken off shelves!
In Japan, the character of Jungle Emperor Leo is a cultural icon; he's not just one of Tezuka's most famous characters, he's the universally-recognized mascot of the Seibu Lions baseball team! Because of that, the idea of Disney suing to prevent Tezuka Productions from creating new works featuring their own beloved character was always an absurd one. The most recent Jungle Emperor animation is a 2009 TV special, after all, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if we all learned tomorrow that Tezuka Productions was working on a brand new, photorealistic Jungle Emperor. In the meantime, we can all be secure in the knowledge that yes, The Lion King is clearly taking a big fat bite out of Kimba's style and characters. It doesn't matter that Disney strenuously denies this, the resemblance is as plain as day, and of great and continuing fascination to animation buffs around the world. While we wait to see if Disney can ever come down off the high horse and acknowledge their debt to Tezuka, we can console ourselves with many repeated viewings of the highly original, not-influenced-by-The-Lion-King Mondo TV production of Simba the King Lion. Sometimes it's good to avoid going to court; if Mondo had been sued over their lion cartoon, then viewers like you and me never would have seen the Disney-esque heroic lion, Simba, coaching a team of cartoon animals to victory in the World Cup.
What, you think I made that up? I ain't lion. Also, I am not lying, either.