Copy­cat ac­cu­sa­tions con­tinue to dog Lion King

Con­tro­versy resur­faces over sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Dis­ney film, Ja­panese manga se­ries


A com­i­cal warthog and wise ba­boon. An evil lion with a de­formed eye and hyena hench­men. A lion cub that experience­s pro­found loss, grows up un­der the tute­lage of a talk­ing bird, then re­claims his throne and his legacy.

It sounds like the story of Simba in the Dis­ney an­i­mated clas­sic The Lion King. But le­gal ex­perts, an­i­ma­tors and anime his­to­ri­ans say it’s more an ap­pro­pri­a­tion than homage to Kimba the White Lion, a Ja­panese anime se­ries that NBC syn­di­cated in the United States in the 1960s.

As gen­er­a­tions of fans flock to the­atres to see the newly re­leased re­make of The Lion King, the one sto­ry­line those who grew up with the orig­i­nal 1994 film might have missed is the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty con­tro­versy that clouded it.

Kay Clop­ton, a cul­tural di­ver­sity researcher at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity’s Billy Ire­land Car­toon Li­brary and Mu­seum, re­mem­bers when the Kimba de­bate first sur­faced among anime fans in the 1990s.

“Un­til now, the con­tro­versy would come up, kind of sim­mer and then go away,” Clop­ton said. “For some rea­son, this time around, there’s more legs to it.”

Su­san Napier, a chaired pro­fes­sor of rhetoric and Ja­panese stud­ies at Tufts Uni­ver­sity, said the is­sue is an “old wound” among Ja­panese an­i­ma­tors and fans of Osamu Tezuka, who is known as Ja­pan’s Walt Dis­ney.

“I do think we have a huge power dy­namic go­ing on here,” she said. “Dis­ney is a gi­gan­tic, huge cor­po­ra­tion and peo­ple are in­tim­i­dated by it . ... It’s such a com­pletely dif­fer­ent cor­po­rate cul­ture than these small an­i­ma­tion stu­dios in Ja­pan.”

The 1994 ver­sion of The Lion King was a global block­buster, with more than $312 mil­lion to­tal do­mes­tic gross sales and $545 mil­lion world­wide, ac­cord­ing to Box Of­fice Mojo. Char­lie Fink, who pitched the project to stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives, fa­mously dubbed it “Bambi in Africa.”

Crit­ics claim the an­i­ma­tion style, char­ac­ters and sev­eral spe­cific scenes in The Lion King too closely match Tezuka’s work to be a co­in­ci­dence.

The in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty de­bate is rooted in the work of Tezuka, the car­toon­ist and film­maker who’s been called the fa­ther of manga comics. The creator of the pop­u­lar anime se­ries Astro Boy also was a big Dis­ney fan and claimed to have watched Bambi at least 100 times. He said it in­flu­enced his manga Jun­gle Em­peror Leo, which be­came an an­i­mated se­ries in the 1960s (the first colour an­i­ma­tion to ever ap­pear on Ja­panese tele­vi­sion) and was re­named Kimba the White Lion for English au­di­ences.

Mad­havi Sun­der, who teaches in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty law at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity Law, re­searched the is­sue for her 2012 book, From Goods to a Good Life: In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty and Global Jus­tice. She said that many of the scenes and other plot and an­i­ma­tion el­e­ments in The Lion King would set a clear case for copy­right in­fringe­ment to­day.

“Many of the cul­tural work that the whole world holds dear, in­clud­ing The Lion King, are ac­tu­ally the prod­uct of oth­ers,” Sun­der said.

Tezuka’s fam­ily and pro­duc­tion com­pany in Tokyo never pur­sued lit­i­ga­tion. In her book, Sun­der at­tributes this to Tezuka Pro­duc­tions’ am­i­ca­ble re­la­tion­ship with Dis­ney, Tezuka’s fond­ness for Dis­ney films and the con­tro­versy’s boost for the show’s sales.

At the time, Takayuki Mat­su­tani, pres­i­dent of Tezuka Pro­duc­tions, said the an­i­ma­tion com­pany found the works to be “ab­so­lutely dif­fer­ent,” but if Tezuka (who died in 1989) had lived to see it, he would have been flat­tered, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports. Tezuka Pro­duc­tions did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Billy Tringali, ed­i­tor in chief of the Jour­nal of Anime and Manga Stud­ies, said plenty of to­day’s Amer­i­can an­i­ma­tion is in­spired by anime, but that is usu­ally ac­knowl­edged.

“Cre­ators of pop­u­lar me­dia dis­cussing and (giv­ing) credit to their in­spi­ra­tion not only shows re­spect for their fel­low artists, but al­lows for fans of these Amer­i­can works to seek out these anime they might not other­wise have heard of,” he said. “Fans and schol­ars of Tezuka’s work aren’t ar­gu­ing that The Lion King is pure pla­gia­rism, but that the lack of ac­knowl­edg­ment is dis­re­spect­ful, and that the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween these pieces should not be ig­nored.”

Kimba the White Lion fol­lows the story of three gen­er­a­tions of lions fight­ing to de­fend their king­dom from hu­mans. The pro­tag­o­nist is a white lion cub named Kimba, whose fa­ther (the jun­gle king) is mur­dered. Kimba is kid­napped by hu­mans and, af­ter em­bark­ing on a long jour­ney home, finds an evil lion named Claw and his evil hyena friends have taken over the king­dom.

“The par­al­lels are stun­ning,” the U.S. pro­ducer for the Kimba se­ries, Fred Ladd, told The San Fran­cisco Chronicle in 1994.

The is­sue drew ex­ten­sive cov­er­age by Ja­panese news me­dia. Soon af­ter, comic artist Machiko Sa­ton­aka pub­lished a let­ter signed by hun­dreds of Ja­panese an­i­ma­tors in a prom­i­nent Ja­panese news­pa­per con­demn­ing Dis­ney for not giv­ing credit to Tezuka.

Dis­ney has long de­nied any sim­i­lar­ity to or in­flu­ence from Tezuka’s work. Fink told The Washington Post that The Lion King was in­flu­enced by Shake­speare’s Hamlet and bib­li­cal para­bles.

“None of us had ever heard of that thing,” he said, re­fer­ring to the Kimba se­ries. “If other peo­ple knew about it, they didn’t talk to me about it.”

Co-di­rec­tor Roger Allers re­port­edly worked in Ja­pan as an an­i­ma­tor in the 1980s, when Jun­gle Em­peror was widely viewed and cir­cu­lated, but he told Fumet­to­log­ica in 2014 that nei­ther the manga nor the anime tele­vi­sion se­ries ever came up while he was work­ing on The Lion King.

“I could cer­tainly un­der­stand Kimba’s cre­ators feel­ing an­gry if they felt we had stolen ideas from them,” Allers said in 2014. “If I had been in­spired by Kimba I would cer­tainly ac­knowl­edge my in­spi­ra­tion.”

Tom Sito, lead an­i­ma­tor on The Lion King, told Huf­fPost En­ter­tain­ment that the film de­rived no in­spi­ra­tion from Kimba. “I mean, I watched Kimba when I was a kid in the ’60s, and I think in the re­cesses of my mem­ory we’re aware of it, but I don’t think any­body con­sciously thought, ‘Let’s rip off Kimba,’ ” Sito said.

Ac­tor Matthew Brod­er­ick, who voiced the adult Simba in the 1994 movie, said he was con­fused when he was first cast, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports.

“I thought he meant Kimba, who was a white lion in a car­toon when I was a lit­tle kid,” Brod­er­ick said at the time.

Napier said Tezuka was known glob­ally at the time and that Ja­panese an­i­ma­tors were al­ready trav­el­ling to Hol­ly­wood to col­lab­o­rate with Dis­ney. Even if it wasn’t in­ten­tional, she said, Dis­ney’s lack of knowl­edge about Tezuka’s work doesn’t make sense.

“An­i­ma­tors know a lot about other an­i­ma­tions. This is what they’re fas­ci­nated by,” she said. “Ja­panese ani­mes were be­com­ing well known long be­fore The Lion King.”

With the con­tro­versy still lurk­ing in the pride lands, researcher­s and Kimba fans say it’s not too late to give Tezuka a nod.

“This his­tory is one that needs to be reck­oned with by Dis­ney,” Sun­der said. “It’s not too late for Dis­ney to ac­knowl­edge that The Lion King owes a great debt to Osamu Tezuka.”

The re­boot of Dis­ney’s The Lion King has also rebooted claims that the com­pany lifted parts of a Ja­panese manga se­ries also about a lion cub named Kimba whose fa­ther, the jun­gle king, is mur­dered.

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