'Lion King' recalls beast of another reign

July 12, 1994|By San Francisco Chronicle

Disney's blockbuster film "The Lion King" has aroused a roar of protest from those who say the record-breaking animation feature is not as original as Disney claims but borrows substantially from a Japanese story created 40 years ago.

Disney has promoted the film as its first cartoon feature since 1970 not taken from an existing story, but there are striking similarities to a tale that began as a Japanese comic book in the 1950s called "Jungle Emperor" and was reincarnated in a Japanese TV series in America in 1966 called "Kimba, the White Lion."

Claims of unacknowledged borrowing are common in the film world, but this dispute is particularly significant because the creator of the Japanese story is an animation pioneer, the late Osamu Tezuka, who American journalists sometimes call "the Walt Disney of Japan."

The similarities include:

* Both Disney and Mr. Tezuka's animations center on lions in Africa.

* In both, a father lion is the king and is killed early, leaving a young son. The son returns after an exile and struggles with himself over his responsibility to become king.

* The son overthrows an evil lion who has usurped the throne.

* The good lions are aided by a wise old baboon and a talkative bird,while the evil lions are aided by henchmen hyenas.

* The hero in the American TV adaptation of Mr. Tezuka's story was called Kimba. In Disney, he is Simba.

* The evil Japanese lion has one eye and was called Claw. The evil Disney lion is called Scar and has a scar over one eye.

* Even some specific images -- the promotional shot of a lion on a jutting rock or the outline of a dead father lion in the clouds talking to his son -- are common to both.

And although the stories differ in major respects -- humans play key roles in Mr. Tezuka's saga, for example, and the plots diverge sharply --the parallels are close enough that many people familiar with the Japanese story are "quite up in arms," says Trish Ledoux, editor of San Francisco-based Animerica, a magazine on Japanese animation.

"I was horrified," says Toren Smith, owner of San Francisco's Studio Proteus, which licenses American versions of Japanese comics. "It looks awfully fishy."

"I've received calls every day from people all over the country who are outraged by this," says Robin Leyden, a former animator in Canoga Park who wrote a history of the "Kimba" TV series. "People are screaming, especially when Mr. Eisner says, 'It's our original thing -- it's not based on anything else.' "

The co-director of "The Lion King," Rob Minkoff, says he was unaware of Mr. Tezuka's story during production. "What's amazing to me is that it didn't get brought up," he says, adding that he could not rule out the possibility that it was discussed before he joined the 4-year-old project in April 1992. The basic story line and many characters were already in place when he came on board, he says.

Since the film's release, Mr. Minkoff and co-director Roger Allers have been hearing about Mr. Tezuka from the Japanese press.

"Roger and I just got back from Japan, and the question came up quite a number of times," he says.

Many people in the animation industry say Disney artists would befamiliar with the work of Mr. Tezuka, a prolific artist who inspired Japan's post-war mania for comic books, created the popular film series known in America as "Astroboy" and who visited the Disney studios when he was preparing the TV version of his lion story.

The "Kimba" series was seen by many when it aired in the United States, including actor Matthew Broderick, who does Simba's voice in "The Lion King." In a published interview, he recalls being confused when he was first cast: "I thought he meant Kimba, who was a white lion in a cartoon when I was a little kid."

Disney has publicized the debt of "The Lion King" to "Bambi" and "Hamlet," but has been quiet about Mr. Tezuka, an omission that Mr. Smith says helps explain the anger of those who believe that Japanese animation has long been denied the credit it deserves in the United States.

Yet not everyone who admires Mr. Tezuka is upset. Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Productions in Tokyo, notes the similarities and says they have been much discussed.

"If Disney took hints from 'The Jungle Emperor,' our founder, the late Osamu Tezuka, would be very pleased by it," he says. "Rather than filing a claim, we would be very happy to know that Disney people saw Tezuka's work. On the whole, we think 'Lion King' is absolutely different from 'Jungle Emperor' and is Disney's original work."

Frederick Schodt, author of a guide to Japanese comics, "Manga, Manga," says the Disney story, while it apparently pays homage to its Japanese antecedents and many other sources, is quite different from Mr. Tezuka's original story.

No one claims that both tales are the same. Disney's story features a Hamlet-like plot in which the king, Simba's father, is killed by his own brother, Scar. Simba leaves and comes back as a young adult, and Scar is killed.

In Mr. Tezuka's story, Kimba's father is killed by hunters, and the evil Claw, who is not a relative, takes over the throne in Kimba's absence. In the TV series, Kimba remains an adolescent throughout, and the evil Claw is allowed to live.

Mr. Tezuka's story features interaction with humans and numerous adventures, many reflecting Kimba's attempt to adopt lessons of human civilization. "The Lion King" has no humans and centers on Scar's plot and his undoing by Simba.

And the similarity between the names Kimba and Simba looks less suspicious considering that Simba is Swahili for lion and has been used in other tales as well. In fact, Kimba in the TV series in the United States was supposed to be Simba but an NBC executive thought Simba too common, says Fred Ladd, the American producer for the Kimba series.

Still, Mr. Ladd says, "The parallels are stunning."

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