There are some controversies which just never go away. That’s even true for the monolithic Disney, who’s long-lasting controversy surrounding their 1994 animated feature The Lion King and Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion has resurfaced yet again following the former’s “live-action” remake.
It’s already seemingly common knowledge at this point, but there’s no denying the shocking similarities between Disney’s The Lion King and Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion.
Not only do they both feature similar villains in the form of Scar and Claw, but Disney’s 1994 film often straight-up copies many scenes from Osamu Tezuka’s 1960s TV anime – as this video from filmmaker and animator Alli Kat showcases (in fact, her entire YouTube channel is a treasure trove of Lion King/Kimba content).
Of course, Disney has always denied that their film might be a “copy” of Tezuka’s, and have even denied that he influenced the production in any way, shape or form.
In their defense, there are more than a few differences between The Lion King and Kimba the White Lion that are worth highlighting. Tezuka’s original featured human characters alongside the animals; put more emphasis on civilization vs. nature than the “circle of life”; and several aspects of the characters, such as species, color, and names were changed quite drastically from the original.
The thing is – as Pablo Picasso may or may not have said – all great artists steal. Osamu Tezuka is no different from Disney, or the directors of The Lion King Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, in this respect. His manga Jungle Emperor (on which Kimba the White Lion was based) borrowed heavily from Bambi, Disney’s 1942 animated film that Tezuka was a big fan of.
From this, it’s clear that the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy isn’t so simple as it may seem. But, still, it persists.
Why, though, is the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy still going so strong? These are, after all, two animated works that released quite a long time ago, by two creators who strongly respected and admired each other. Neither has attempted any legal action against the other, either.
In one respect, you could put this down to a matter of timing. Those who grew up with The Lion King (such as myself) are now becoming adults and producing media criticism, and to find out that an influential childhood classic might actually be a “copy” of another is both shocking and sensational.
This is why information on the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy has increased in recent years, particularly on YouTube. In turn, the release of Jon Favreau’s “live-action” remake of the 1994 film means that such content is relevant in the current landscape of rapidly changing, ever-shifting popular culture.
Yet, it’s important to note that the outrage felt towards this controversy is almost uniquely Western. Western anime and animation fans are the ones producing new takes on the controversy, not Japanese ones.
Historically, there have been Japanese voices who have raised issues with the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy. Take this letter signed by mangaka Machiko Satonaka to the Disney company at the time of The Lion King’s 1994 release, in which she claims that “the works are so similar, it cannot be coincidental” and that “It is not possible to explain the damage inflicted upon our love of this aspect of Japanese culture.”
Yet, as Satonaka hints, the prevalence of Disney fandom in Japan – as seen in the popularity of such sites as Tokyo Disneyland and games such as Kingdom Hearts – means that many Japanese people’s first reaction to the controversy is one of pride, not shock. A Japanese classic influenced a Western, Disney classic – what is there to get angry about?
East vs. West?
The question then necessarily becomes: why are Western fans so angry about the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy, and why are they keeping it alive?
Interest in Japanese animation and popular culture, while becoming more and more mainstream, still remains a niche hobby that only a minority of people in Western, more specifically English-speaking countries share.
The fact that only a minority of people share this hobby necessarily leads to a fierce, subcultural love for the lifestyle. This means that events such as Anime Expo and Japan Expo, while only appealing to a minority of people, can continue to thrive and put on incredible world-class events. OTAQUEST also benefits from this to some extent.
Yet, the subculture status of Japanese pop culture fandom also leads to a fierce desire to defend the culture from outside, corrupting, often more mainstream forces.
We already saw the effects of this surrounding the release of the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell film, which not only diluted the content and meaning of the story to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences, but also provoked controversy with the “white-washing” casting of Scarlett Johannson as the Major, traditionally an Asian character.
As we saw with Ghost in the Shell and, indeed, with the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy, this defense is necessary as outside forces tend to disrespect the original, either by changing the content or straight-up refusing to even acknowledge it’s existence.
In general, this could also be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, as the Western Disney uses its stranglehold on the world of popular culture to disrespect diminutive, subculture and “alien” Japanese properties such as Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion.
Holding Disney as a company accountable for their actions is especially important given their dominance at the global box office and the stranglehold on popular culture this affords them, especially with their recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
Inciting the Lion King and Kimba the White Lion controversy is therefore not supposed to simply retread the same, tired ground – but to keep Disney as a company and as a global leader in popular culture from abusing their power, as they have done in the past.
It’s unlikely that the controversy will ever go away, no matter how much Disney would like it to – especially when Jon Favreau’s 2019 “live-action” remake made no attempt to rectify the original’s mistakes, either.