Sunday, May 1, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 12, "The Hunting Ground"

"The Hunting Ground" is the first of three consecutive Kimba classics -- episodes packed with enough references to key moments in Tezuka's manga to rival one of Mari Luna's stuffed burritos and tackling such heavyweight themes as betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, pride in one's ancestry, and irrational discrimination. It's tough to find fault with anything in these eps, but, at least in the case of "Ground," one can try. Captain Tonga makes a much stronger impression here than in "Catch 'Em If You Can," but the mistakes and irrationalities of that first flawed appearance are never far from one's mind, and some contradictions do rear their ugly heads along the way. Then, just when it appears that we're headed for a dramatic, climactic conflict between Roger Ranger and Kimba and Tonga's ruthless minions, the mysterious Mammoth of the mystifying Mt. Moon enters the picture... and the Titan crew literally throw up their hands. No surprise there, as the sudden appearance of both the "magical, mystical mountain" and the Mammoth make no sense unless one is familiar with how both will interact with Kimba as an adult in the manga. Here, Tezuka (who always wished that Kimba had covered Kimba's entire life, it seems to me) and the American crew were working at cross purposes... but the entire sequence nonetheless manages to work, as a tantalizing series of images if nothing else.

"Ground" features one of the series' best one-shot characters: Bella Donna (Sonia Owens), Tonga's female lion slave (there is no other way to put it). Like Claw's right-paw adviser Cassius, Bella Donna is much more of a buffoon in the manga. While Bella is the supposed leader of the motley crew of beasts who have thrown in their lot with Tonga, Tezuka allows her to get battered from pillar to post by Mary (in her role as tribal queen) and even Mr. Pompus. In this respect, Tezuka handles Bella rather like a comical villain's sidekick from a Disney feature film. The TV Bella is more sinister, and the pathos inherent in the character is much better realized as a result, though the deal is once again queered by some unfortunate censorship.

Notice how much darker and more overtly philosophical Ray Owens' opening narration is here than in "Catch 'Em." How much better this would have been as an intro to the ruthless Tonga (who now appears to be a government functionary -- which would render her ruthless jungle-grabs and raids more believable). An effort of sorts is made to provide some linkage to the events of "Catch 'Em" in the adjutant's (Gilbert Mack) description of Kimba's efforts to help the compound's animals escape and Tonga's mention of Kimba's ability to elude "the greatest hunters." The "retcon" introduction of Kimba by name, though, only raises additional questions... for example, how would the adjutant or the pilot know what Kimba's name IS?

Nice bit of continuity in the reuse of the bucktoothed guy (Hal Studer) bringing Turkle (Mack) into the compound; he was also seen doing pretty much the same duty in "Catch 'Em." It does seem a little strange that turtles are included in the list of animals to be rounded up, but Bella Donna had to have somebody to talk to in her first scene... since we quickly learn that she CANNOT speak to Tonga. (This "retcon," I can get behind.) More good linkage follows as we get a callback to the events of "A Human Friend" and Roger's relationship with Mary (exactly what did he see in her, again?). The theme of Roger's loneliness for human companionship would be taken up again in the very next episode, "The Trappers," but here, Mary appears to be the sole focus of Roger's longing.

In the manga, Bella Donna was but one piece of an elaborate plot to capture Kimba; the scheme also involved natives. In that respect, despite her vicious treatment of Bella, Tonga is showing a great deal of faith in her lion lackey's ability to get the job done on her own. Bella spins the tall story pretty well, too... and then blows it (at least, IMHO) by claiming to be able to physically identify a character (Turkle) whom she shouldn't know. Kimba's concern for his subjects, however, mutes the alarm bells that should be sounding by this time.

The spike-trap scene is completely canonical, right down to Kimba avoiding being speared in the end by dumb luck. It is a little different from the manga, though, in that Bella originally took the plunge first (she was a bit of a buffoon, remember) and then Kimba saved her, only to be tricked into the pit. The animated Kimba actually comes off looking worse in that he falls victim to "fool me twice" syndrome. This scene, with its similarity to the "help me, brother!" scene between Scar and Mufasa, was a key exhibit in the "Lion King filched from Kimba" argument, and it's very easy to see why.

Unfair play results in turnabout

So... I guess that Tonga's first capture of Kimba didn't really happen? Suits me fine. It also appears that Roger has "gone native" during his time in the jungle with all of the Tarzan tricks.

Kimba's tickle-torture of Bella is the closest that the lioness comes to getting the slapsticky treatment that she often received in the manga. The ensuing fight with Kimba (in which our hero appears to pull absolutely NO punches when it comes to dealing with a female foe) makes up for this, being far more serious of a duel than the quasi-comical maulings dealt out to Bella by Tezuka. Sonia Owens makes Bella sound absolutely terrified when she pleads with Kimba (fruitlessly, at least at first) to let her out of the cage. Billie Lou Watt, for her part, segues from disbelief to anger with great skill during the "If you haven't seen Turkle..." speech. The voice actors were in prime form here.

Clearly, the "Kimba radios Tonga to return" bit completely flies in the face of what happened during "Catch 'Em," since the whole scene relies on the fact that Tonga doesn't know Kimba can speak. I think that we can safely euthanize "Catch 'Em" at this point, don't you? Apparently Tonga is also less of a boss than we thought, since someone must be in a position to "give her orders." We learn in the later "Such Sweet Sorrow" that the amnesiac Mary had been "adopted" by the head of the Hunting Ground... maybe that fellow is still in overall charge?

Weirdness kicks in as Mt. Moon -- aka "the mystical mountain" -- begins to exert its strange force. The mountain is the home of JUNGLE EMPEROR's McGuffin, the "Moonstone" that supposedly possesses awesome powers and that numerous individuals and countries invade Kimba's jungle kingdom trying to locate. In the manga, the natives, rather than the employees of the Hunting Ground, are the superstitious ones. Perhaps this is Tonga's group's equivalent of "going native" to match Roger's acquisition of Tarzan-like abilities?

Under what authority can Tonga arrest Roger, I wonder? "Disturbing the peace of the jungle" wouldn't seem to qualify, especially since the "mystical mountain" is doing a good job of that all by itself.

Bella's demise (I'm not buying the "you rest now" business, and neither are you) really is sad and touching, the more so because Bella would have been preserved had she not fallen victim to her own misguided loyalty to Tonga. Sonia's voice acting plays no small part in putting the scene over. I don't believe that Bella had any sort of formal "farewell scene" in the manga, and it's just as well, considering the way in which the character was treated. Emotionally, this "deathbed repentance" is far more satisfying.

Had Tonga been as diligent in chasing Kimba at the end of "Catch 'Em" as she is here in pursuing Kimba and Roger, the fate of all of those rescued animals might have been very different. But pursue the pair she and her minions do, until Mt. Moon and its guardian Mammoth (Sonia Owens) appear and toss the entire episode into hotchpot. The Titan crew literally had NO idea what was supposed to be going on here, so they were forced to wing the rest of the ep as best they could... and they did a pretty darned good job, I'd say. "It's only another stupid animal!" is a perfect line for Tonga, and Kimba's willingness to face down the Mammoth so as to protect Turkle from harm makes for a great scene. In the manga, Kimba's first encounter with the Mammoth -- who scared away Jungle Queen Mary and her natives much as she scares away Tonga and her men here -- occurred when Kimba was considerably older, to the point of having grown a mane, so for the cub-Kimba to show a willingness to go against the odds in this way is really impressive.

As things turned out, it was wise for Kimba and the Mammoth to speculate on a future meeting; they would indeed meet again, in "Such Sweet Sorrow." The Narrator, by contrast, plays it a bit safer, rehashing plot points and quoting from Shakespeare to invest the puzzling scene with dignity-by-proxy. Working without a thematic net in this manner is unheard of today, of course -- I tend to call this whole era of Americanized anime an "Heroic Age" in that dubbers and writers often were tested to the limit to make complete sense of what they were being fed from Japan -- but the very vagueness of the conclusion of "The Hunting Ground" makes it one of Kimba's most noteworthy moments.

Up next: Episode 13, "The Trappers."

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