The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Lion King’ has been clouded by intellectual property controversy for 25 years. Here’s the story behind it.

Some think Disney copied ‘Kimba the White Lion,’ a Japanese anime from the 1960s. Others blame it on the circle of life.

Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter voice Simba and Nala in this 2019 remake of "The Lion King." (Video: Walt Disney Pictures)

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 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 theaters to see the newly released remake of “The Lion King,” the one story line that millennials who grew up with the animated original might have missed is the intellectual property controversy that clouded its 1994 release.

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. She thinks it’s picking up steam now — “Kimba” was trending on Twitter this week — because of the strong reaction, both positive and negative, to the live-action remake. “The Lion King” racked up nearly $185 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, and an additional $346 million abroad, according to the New York Times.

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“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.”

Branded as a Disney original, the 1994 blockbuster generated more than $312 million in domestic 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.”

As vice president of story development and production for the film (initially titled “King of the Jungle”), Fink oversaw the scripting and animation process from 1988 to 1992.

“Any idiot can have a good idea, and executing a story like that on that kind of scale required 1,500 artists,” he said. “I’m a guy who was in the right place at the right time.”

Fink said he has high hopes that the 2019 remake and the story’s “circle of life” message will stand the test of time. “Inevitably, everybody’s story ends there on the bluff, replacing your father,” he said. “That is a very profound idea for people. … It’s primal.”

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In “Kimba,” the death of the lion cub’s father was something Tezuka had to fight to keep in the script, Napier said. “In these days, you really didn’t have death in children’s film,” she noted. Tezuka “made some changes to make it more appealing to young audiences, but he wouldn’t get rid of the father’s death.”

Critics claim the animation style, characters and several specific scenes in “The Lion King” — such as a grown Simba standing on a protruding rock, the apparition of a dead parent appearing in the sky to guide the cub, the evil lion trying to throw off the hero, only for it to be reversed — 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 — a type of Japanese comic books and graphic novels. 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 television series in Japan in the 1960s and was renamed “Kimba the White Lion” for English audiences.

Madhavi Sunder, who teaches intellectual property law at Georgetown University, 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. “It was galling to learn that there were artistic elements of ‘Kimba the White Lion’ that were wholesale copied by Disney in the 1994 animated film version of ‘The Lion King.’ ”

Tezuka’s family and production company in Tokyo never pursued litigation. Yoshihiro Shimizu, the director of Tezuka Productions Co. who has worked for the company since 1981, said in a translated statement that many of their employees and animators thought “The Lion King” resembled “Jungle Emperor Leo.” But any similarities in their plots are based in the facts of nature, he said, and therefore are two different works.

“Under Japanese copyright law, factual elements and ideas are not protected,” he said. “We’ve never thought of filing against Disney.”

Ben Whaley, who teaches Japanese pop culture at the University of Calgary in Canada, said he has worked with Tezuka Productions for his research and found that the company typically endorses even amateur replications of many of Tezuka’s original comics.

“I think there’s somewhat of a symbiotic relationship in Japan between amateur fans who are replicating creative works and the companies themselves who are making these properties,” he said. “There may not be as strong of a notion of stealing and plagiarism in Japan when it comes to borrowing or parodying characters from pop culture texts.”

Andrea Horbinski, who researches Japanese manga and anime, said there was “definite borrowing” from “Kimba” in “The Lion King,” but that it may adhere to industry standards.

“The question of originality is often kind of emphasized, partly because of the structure of intellectual property laws,” Horbinski said. “But I don’t know necessarily if it’s the most important question in terms of creative works.”

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 the influence 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.

When “Kimba the White Lion” was aired in the United States, an NBC executive changed the main character’s name from Simba (Swahili for “lion”) because he found it too common, the U.S. producer for the Kimba series, Fred Ladd, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1994.

“The parallels are stunning,” Ladd said at the time.

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

“To Japanese Mr. Tezuka’s works are a national legacy.” Satonaka said in the letter. “Therefore, the respect and admiration we Japanese felt for Disney Co. is severely diminished. It is not possible to explain the damage inflicted upon our love of this aspect of Japanese culture.”

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, and that the accusation regarding Tezuka’s work wasn’t worth discussing.

“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 had never seen the show and really only became aware of it as ‘Lion King’ was being completed, and someone showed me images of it,” Allers said in 2014. “I could certainly understand Kimba’s creators feeling angry if they felt we had stolen ideas from them. If I had been inspired by ‘Kimba’ I would certainly acknowledge my inspiration. All I can offer is my respect to those artists and say that their creation has its loyal admirers and its assured place in animation history.”

Tom Sito, lead animator on “The Lion King,” told HuffPost Entertainment that the film derived no inspiration from “Kimba.”

“I watched ‘Kimba’ when I was a kid in the ‘60s,” Sito said, “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.’ ”

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 traveling to Hollywood to collaborate with Disney. Even if it wasn’t intentional, she said, Disney’s lack of knowledge about Tezuka’s work simply 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.’ ”

Frederik Schodt, an American interpreter and translator for Japanese media, would often accompany Tezuka on his trips to the United States, including to Disney World in Florida, the Disney animation studios in Burbank, Calif., a San Diego Comic Convention and talks at various universities. Tezuka met Walt Disney at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, and often repeated the story of Disney telling him that he knew much about Tezuka’s work and “hoped to make something like” “Astro Boy” one day, according to Schodt’s 1996 book, “Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga.”

“He worked his entire life to raise the radius of manga and animation and get the same recognition that literature and film and novels have,” Schodt said. “He was willing to tackle the most complex philosophical subjects and tackle human emotions in a way that normally had been done in film and novels and literature, and that’s his biggest contribution.”

Tezuka completed 400 manga books before his death in 1989, and his “Jungle Emperor” inspired generations of Japanese artists, Shimizu said.

“Today, 90 percent of Japanese TV animation works were based on manga works,” he said. “The serialization of ‘Jungle Emperor’ is the cradle of today’s Japanese manga culture.”

Schodt suspects the issue may not have been as well known in the United States after “The Lion King” first debuted because Japanese anime and manga were sequestered from American pop culture.

“But now anime and manga are part of American culture now,” he said. “They’re like sushi … part of the medley of American cuisine.”

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.”