Saturday, February 5, 2011

THE BEST OF KIMBA: Episode 1, "Go, White Lion!"

UPDATE (4/19/13):  Scratch the YouTube worries.  Kimba is now available for free on Hulu and I will be redoing all of my links to direct readers to Hulu to watch episodes.

Time to get this puppy (or white lion cub) underway. I would be interested in feedback regarding how I have arranged this first entry.  The YouTube videos of the episodes of Kimba have the embedding feature disabled, so I'll have to break my comments into parts linked to the appropriate vids on YouTube itself. Or should I provide one single link to the start of each episode, let you watch it on YouTube, and then comment on the ep as a whole? I'll start with the former method, but please let me know which you would prefer, if you happen to have a preference.

Happily, I can show you the original opening and closing sequences for Janguru Taitei Leo (Jungle Emperor Leo) as it was broadcast on Japanese TV in the Fall of 1965. That's no less than the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra providing the soundtrack.

These two impressive sequences tacitly reveal the "low-level tension" that existed between Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Studios and NBC Films, Tezuka's American distributor, regarding how this new project was to be developed. Mushi and NBC had worked smoothly together during the earlier production of Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), with NBC providing funds to allow Mushi to improve its production quality as the series went on. Tezuka's original print version of Astro Boy, however, was a lengthy series of adventures that were only loosely connected, if at all. Jungle Emperor was something else again: a graphic novel that ran to over 500 pages and told a continuing story, namely, the life story of the white lion Leo and his family. Tezuka's original proposal to NBC included the entire story, but NBC didn't want to touch a property in which the hero dies (and is literally eaten) in the end. The two sides ultimately reached a compromise: Mushi would produce a 52-episode series starring young Leo, and, if the series was a success, NBC would consider buying a follow-up series in which Leo would be allowed to grow up. In the back of his mind, however, Tezuka was already thinking of the adult-Leo series as a done deal, and he wound up springing the 26-episode sequel on NBC by surprise after the renamed Kimba the White Lion had already become a syndicated hit. This 26-episode follow-up was much more in the somewhat grimmer spirit of the manga, though, and NBC passed on it. It wouldn't be broadcast in the U.S. until 1984, and it made next to no impression then.

The positioning of the credit sequences clearly indicates that Tezuka's real interest was in getting to the era of the adult Leo, who, inspired by his experiences in the human world, has painstakingly built a jungle kingdom in the face of obstacles "foreign and domestic." In their article on Kimba, Fred Patten and Robin Leyden remark on the "ponderous awesomeness" of Tezuka's original concept, with its deep ruminations on the nature of civilization, the conflict between the forward-thinking and the backward-looking, and so forth. While they may have overstated things just a tad -- the manga has plenty of slapstick humor to leaven the tension -- the opening bit does give you some of the flavor of what Tezuka would have done if he had had complete creative control of the series. The adolescent prince Leo's "arrival" in the closing sequence is accompanied by a quickened tempo and a somewhat lighter "feel," reflecting NBC's wishes. (Unsurprisingly, NBC chose to use this as the opening of Kimba, complete with a peppy new theme song.)

NBC's caution over what the American audience would "accept" aside, there was no getting around the deadly seriousness of "Go, White Lion!", the series pilot. We've seen many superb curtain-raisers in TV animation since, but, within the limits of a half-hour broadcast, you'd be hard-pressed to name a modern series with a stronger pilot than this. The original version was so powerful, in fact, that NBC asked Fred Ladd's Titan Productions writing and dubbing crew to tone things down a little. The version below is the "revised" version, completed just four days before Kimba debuted in many national syndicated markets on September 2, 1966. A few copies of the original version, recorded in November 1965, did slip through the cracks, and it is available... but I don't own it. (I know some of you are shocked. What can I say, I lead a busy life.) If/when I get a copy, I'll discuss it here. You can, however, see a brief clip of a relevant portion below.

So where does Kimba take place, anyway? Yes, I know we're in Africa -- the Omniscient yet Unseen Narrator (Ray Owens -- and thanks, Joe) helpfully provided that info -- but where in Africa, exactly? The original "plan" of the animated Jungle Emperor posited Central Africa, but, by the looks of things, we must be in South Africa. You see broad veldts, busy ports, large European-style cities, and, above all, plenty of white people like the ruthless hunter Viper Snakely (Owens) and his omnivorous sidekick Tubby (Gilbert Mack). You even hear a sort of an Afrikaaner inflection in the voice of the "game warden" (Mack) who criticizes Snakely for failing to snare Kimba's father Caesar. The somewhat "denatured" version of Africa that we're presented with here probably exists because the manga's depiction of black Africans as the dreaded "ooga-booga," living-in-huts natives of stereotypical lore was "no sale" even in 1966. You can see a remnant of this in the sight of the native huts near the warden's office. Black characters -- and even an actual native or two -- do appear on screen later in the series, but Kimba generally treaded very cautiously when it was obliged to display scenes of human civilization. (Needless to say, the series ultimately caught flak from blacks who criticized the show's lack of modernized black Africans -- one of the reasons why Kimba disappeared from general circulation in the late 1970s.)

Caesar (Owens) is depicted reasonably accurately -- if anything, his actions are toned down. Tezuka's Caesar (Panja, originally) thought nothing of torching native villages to make his liberate-the-animals point. Unlike Kimba, there's no evidence whatsoever that Caesar would have taken a cue from human civilization at any point, his line about "someday they'll learn" notwithstanding. Kimba defended the rights of animals to live in peace with one another but would never have gone so far as to "unchain" livestock. Those father-son "conversations" might have been interesting to listen to...

Caesar's reaction to Snowene's (Billie Lou Watt) baby announcement would probably cheese off Kimba's OLDER SISTER Leona, who'll appear twice in future eps. Still, the all-important status of the "alpha male" was certainly believable in an animal-kingdom context. BTW, though Snowene is tan-colored, she is officially supposed to be a "white lion."

The conning/trapping of Snowene and dispatch of Caesar are drawn straight from the manga, with an extra element of drama added in that the showdown takes place in a ravine. In the manga, Caesar was slain in a native stockade (and only after he had nearly destroyed the place). The relative ease with which Snakely does the deed only serves to emphasize how vulnerable the animals are in the face of human civilization. There seems to be a flash of a Christian theme as well when Caesar speaks his dying words to Snowene. It sounds almost like an "Annunciation" moment to me, especially in the way in which Caesar essentially "prearranges" for Kimba to get his name. I don't know whether this explicit intention was in the Titan crew's mind, but the gang reassembled some 15 years later to dub the Bible-based series Superbook and The Flying House, so it's certainly possible.

The deaths of Caesar and Snowene bring to mind one of the supreme ironies concerning the Americanized Kimba. As we'll see, the series had the notorious habit of frequently camouflaging obvious character deaths with phrases like "I'll just lie down here and rest a while..." Yet the series BEGINS with the cub Kimba losing both of his parents, so why wasn't it considered acceptable to admit to the deaths of future one-shot characters? Certainly, the deaths-that-weren't-really-deaths in Kimba were nowhere near as gratuitous as the accidental deaths that many a character suffered in, say, Speed Racer. Most every death in Kimba carried some meaning, up to and including redemption of the dying character. Why play it safe to such a ludicrous extent?

The mice who befriend Kimba on board the ship are taken from the manga -- if not from the exact same place in the manga. In Tezuka's original, after the ship carrying Snowene went down, Kimba drifted for a bit before being picked up by another ship, which had the mice on board. The little fella with the tie (Watt) even ultimately accompanied Kimba on his first adventure in human society. It's easy to see why the animated retelling of the story "telescoped" this sequence into a more compact form.

Kimba's leap from the porthole is almost an exact copy of Tezuka's version, right down to the dramatic back-shot of Kimba poised with his paws on the hole looking down at the sea. Snowene's "info dump" MUST have been far more extensive than the one depicted on screen, however. It's tough to buy Kimba progressing from a baby who can barely speak to a young lion who is capable of striking out on his own in just one scene. Also, in episode 2, "The Wind in the Desert," Kimba evinces some knowledge that he wouldn't have had if this were the only backstory that Snowene had provided concerning Caesar and his jungle kingdom.

The dramatic storm sequence is still mightily effective even after 45 years of progress in the quality of TV animation. The music box adds a mournful motif that was not present in the manga.

Kimba first displays his distinctive qualities during the magnificent swimming sequence, which takes a handful of panels from the manga and expands upon it in visually spectacular fashion. Here is where Kimba, in my view, differs most dramatically from his heroic predecessor, Astro Boy. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that, while Astro Boy was a character to whom things happened, Kimba was a character who made things happen. (I, meanwhile, am filling the "wondering what happened" role.) Astro Boy was built to be a boy robot and remained one, despite acquiring increasingly human qualities as time went on; Kimba matured. Astro Boy was forever being sent off on "missions"; Kimba was the ultimate proactive protagonist who set larger movements in motion. At the end of "Go, White Lion," Kimba -- with a little friendly encouragement from the fish and the Richard Haydn-voiced stork (Owens) -- takes matters into his own paws and begins paddling his way towards his destiny.

Snowene's starry soliloquy was somewhat more dramatic (and lengthier) in the 1965 dubbed version, as can be seen below. Watt's slightly different voice for Kimba is also noteworthy. (True story: the Titan crew's original attempt to dub this ep was cut short by the famous Northeastern blackout of November 9, 1965.)

It would be mere carping to point out that Kimba really shouldn't know what butterflies are. That trip back to the jungle would have to wait a while, anyway -- Kimba's sojourn in the human world would intervene. More anon.

I'll close with a few words regarding that eternal controversy: Did Disney's The Lion King (1994) crib from Kimba? Visual evidence abounds that it did. My own interpretation of the evidence has remained pretty consistent: one or two parallels might have been mere coincidence, but there are simply too many similarities to refute the "copycat" theory. In statistical parlance, the P-value is too small for all of these similarities to have arisen by chance alone. Nearly two decades after the original controversy, however, I realize that, even if The Lion King didn't rip off Kimba in any way, shape, or form, it couldn't have done Kimba a bigger favor. Recent attempts to do semi-"straight" live-action adaptations of Speed Racer and Astro Boy served mainly to (in the case of Speed) make many folks wonder what they'd seen in the original anime or (in the case of Astro Boy) barely joggle the status quo of a character that hadn't been seen on American TV in years. The Lion King controversy, by contrast, practically invited those "in the know" to carefully examine the strengths and weaknesses of the supposed "source material" and actively encouraged those who'd never seen Kimba to give it a try, especially after the 2000 VHS collections and the 2005 Ultimate DVD Set became available.

Up next: Episode 2, "The Wind in the Desert."


Ryan Wynns said...


Amongst other things, this post has caused me to reflect on how very, very different 2011 is for us than circa 1995 was! I remember reading your occasional nods to Kimba in WTFB (in particular, your story of finally finding a videotape of a certain episode that had haunted you for decades -- that was a very powerfully written piece!), and, though I was very intrigued by the series, I had no way of seeing it. (Save, perhaps, via my postal service-facilitated "fannish" contacts, coming across the right Xeroxed mail order catalog, and shelling out $30+ per tape. Which my allowance and the money from doing chores for my grandfather wouldn't have supported on an ongoing basis.) But now, as soon as I saw this post, within mere seconds and a couple compulsive clicks, I was watching the episode on YouTube! (And, that brings me to your question: taking in the episode as a whole and then reading your post unbroken works very well for me!)

Now that I've finally seen the first episode (and thus, any Kimba, ever), I've -- just from this this introductory installment -- developed a since admiration for the series, and completely understand why it has always meant so much to you. Even though it's clearly aged, and I'm relatively jaded, the pathos still comes through, and the two-punch tragedy (Caeser's death, and then Kimba losing his mother) is executed in such a way that it's imparted both staggeringly and profoundly. This is a masterful, outright visionary "setup" episode.

Though the animation was out of necessity limited, it's clear that the poses were rendered with care, and that an atypical level of consideration went into the art overall. (The "lighting" of Caeser and Snowene's parting moments, the recurring image of the cloudy, moonlit night sky.) (And even the now-quaint, "tinny" audio quality is charming!)

Offsetting the predominating "epic drama" thrust with the antics of "cartoony" sidekick-type characters reminds me of the balance that, in comics, Jeff Smith would fine-tune to a science 20 years later with Bone.

Now that, after 15 years, I've finally managed to see an episode, I only hope that the relentless, ever-barreling forward pace of life (or at least of mine), always leaving much undone, forgotten, and obliterated in its wake, allows me to see the rest, and sooner than later. (Seems far more doable than Dark Shadows, anyway...yeah, that ambitious viewing project really worked out for me!) Great job, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of your detailed Kimba episode posts. (And I can't wait for the proposed future, similar project entailing your updated thoughts on DuckTales, as well!)


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to chime in and congratulate you on your first kimba episode analysis; I look forward to future installments.