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.