Who lives down in deepest darkest Africa?
"Who lives down in deepest darkest Africa? Who's the one who brought the jungle fame? Who's the king of animals in Africa? Kimba the White Lion is his name!"
How many others out there start singing this tune when Kimba is mentioned? For many people of my generation, Kimba the White Lion was our first experience with anime - or Japanimation, as it was then known. Though the series hasn't been on the air in years, it's never been forgotten. Disney paid obvious tribute to it in The Lion King. Recently, Pokemon distributor Pioneer Entertainment began to release The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion, of which six volumes are currently available.
Kimba got his start in a 1951 storybook, "Jungle Emperor," though the little lion was known as Leo as he grew up. The 1965 television series Jangaru Taitei, as it was known in Japan, arrived in the U.S. with the title Kimba the White Lion and aired in syndication for many years. Along with Gigantor and Speed Racer, Tezuka's classic Kimba exposed American audiences to anime. The 1966 NBC program guide lists 52 episodes, including the classic "Journey Into Time" in which Kimba learns the history of the white lion, and such silliness as "The Gigantic Grasshopper" in which...well, you can probably guess.
The premise of the series will sound very familiar to anyone who has seen the 1994 animated feature The Lion King. After the King of the Jungle (Caesar in the 1965 series, Panja in the comics and the Pioneer videos) is killed trying to protect his pregnant mate (Snoweene in the TV show, Eliza on the new tapes) from poachers, his baby son must return to defend his jungle which has been overtaken by a scarred, one-eyed, dark-maned lion.
There are dozens of parallels between the Disney film and the anime: prominent illustrations of a jutting rock overlooking the grasslands, the ghost of the dead father talking to his cub, a wise babboon, an advisor bird. Even the names Kimba and Simba sound a lot alike. When Disney's The Lion King was released, there was a bit of furor surrounding accusations of plagiarism from Kimba the White Lion, but the new Pioneer direct-to-video series borrows from Disney in return.
"The Successor of Legend," the first of the Pioneer videos, has a very Lion King opening: a narration about the circle of life accompanies images of zebras running, birds flying, while a lion stands perched on a precipice. The familiar theme music from the old television show is gone, replaced by a more electronic sound. A brief history of the white lion's mythology follows: worshipped in ancient Egypt, the rare line was returned to the jungle to guard over the other animals. The menace from wild beasts, however, has been replaced by the menace from poachers.
Humans are the bad guys in most of the Pioneer video episodes, but their behavior is particularly heinous in the pilot. Illegal elephant hunters conspire with a tribal chief to kill the white lion by trapping his mate. The king of the jungle is murdered and his queen placed aboard a ship bound for a western zoo ("I know a couple of magicians in Las Vegas who will pay a hefty price for a white lion cub," sneers one of the villains). The lioness gives birth at sea and forces tiny Kimba out the bars of her cage, exhorting him to get home and take his rightful place.
Though Kimba has the huge eyes of many manga characters, his parents have just as much in common with Disney animals. Panja sounds like James Earl Jones, who voiced Mufasa, while Eliza has the sleek grace of Simba's mate Nala from The Lion King. The backgrounds in the video are not nearly as lush or detailed as that big-screen feature, but they're much more vivid than the two-dimensional cities and futuristic landscapes that crop up in a lot of anime. It's unfortunate that the same attention isn't paid to the expressions and movements of the animals, which aren't at all realistic. But then, they all talk to each other, so who needs realism?
In "Friends," the second episode on "The Successor of Legend," Kimba challenges a vulture who expects him to die and befriends a parrot and gazelle who initially run away from him like all the rest of the animals in the jungle. He also has the first of several struggles with Jamar, a Scar-like character who has been ruling in the absence of a white lion, and Jamar's minion, a black panther. The gravest threat, however, comes from the Aussie-accented hunter and his driver, who risk a tornado to pursue the cub.
The subsequent episodes follow similar patterns. In "The Homeland," the third episode on the pilot videotape, a fire nearly destroys the jungle until Kimba seeks advice from an old rhino who knew his father. He also meets Raya, a young lioness training as a priestess, who asks his help finding a rare star flower and accompanies him on his dangerous trip to find the source of a waterfall that could save his land. Can you feel the love tonight? The impressive animation of the waterfall is in stark contrast to the rather flat look of the old temple.
"The Vow of Peace," the second video in the Pioneer series, begins with an episode entitled "Courage," in which a young capibara nearly loses her mother as Kimba did to hunters. But these men don't want the animal for a zoo; they plan to sacrifice her in a ritual led by a cult leader. While Kimba bonds with young Cappy, the two hatch a plan to free her mother.
The characters in "Courage" are strikingly stereotypical by American standards - the African trappers who bring in the mammal take orders from a light-skinned, Amazon-like priestess who treats them like fools, just as the white game hunter from the pilot pushed around the native ruler. The female figures can be divided easily into sacrificial mothers like Kimba's own, and dangerous vixens like the priestess. The rigid race and gender roles are less grating among the animals than they are when humans echo the same cliches, though they don't reflect typical anime appearances - the Africans have exaggerated features, but not doe eyes.
In "The Invaders," humans are firmly established as the villains of the series, despite some bad behavior from animals before Kimba shows his fellow forest dwellers their place. A hunter named Attila arrives with an entourage, determined to conquer all that he sees; he successfully wrestles with a crocodile and nearly shoots the friendly parrot Coco before Kimba decides to try to sink his ship.
Meanwhile, a young wildebeest befriends the lion cub until its father (a riff on the gruff grandpa triceratops from The Land Before Time) orders no contact with lions. But when Kimba tries to use a downed tree to ram the boat of the hunters, the wildebeests are impressed with his idea and join forces to attack the ship with much larger logs. The boat sinks, the minions disappear under the water, and Kimba attacks Attila, destroying his gun. The jungle isn't entirely safe, but Kimba's vow of peace is preserved.
Pioneer video number three, "Poachers and Puzzles," contains two additional New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion. "The Warning" tells the story of the discovery of a family of Barbary lions, long believed to be extinct. Their leader wants nothing to do with the other animals of the jungle after being spotted by Kimba...and by poachers who arrive in a hot air balloon. Yet Kimba helps the old lion save himself and his son, then prevents his new ally from killing a poacher in cold blood, which wouldn't be fair according to the code of honor they both follow.
Continuing the socially conscious theme, "Flash Flood" concerns a disaster which leaves a domestic cow stranded among wild animals who refuse to accept her until Kimba sings "We Are One"...that is, until the young lion makes them all realize that they have to share the natural wonders of their home. The cow, Manuela, is initially delighted at the idea that her calf could be born in a world without fences, but when her farmer comes looking for her, she realizes that the farm is home and leaves a reluctant Kimba. Another episode with lush backgrounds but stilted character animation, "Flash Flood" benefits from Kimba's tour of his kingdom.
Kimba further explores his courage and the contradictory warnings he receives that his kindness could get him killed in the fourth Pioneer video, "Freedom and Responsibility," and the fifth, "Prophesy and Legend." Each segment tends to have a one-line moral articulated by one of the characters, but despite the child-oriented storylines, the attractive backgrounds and high action content makes Kimba the White Lion entertaining for adults as well.