Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 14, "Journey into Time"

IMHO, "Journey into Time" is pretty near perfect. This episode knows it has a first-rate story to tell -- namely, the history of the white lions, as originally presented by Tezuka in a flashback sequence in JUNGLE EMPEROR -- and it faithfully reproduces Tezuka's version almost panel/scene for panel/scene. When it makes changes, they are almost always good ones. At the same time, the TV adaptation provides additional texture and gravitas by couching the story within a wholly original tale of spite-fueled discrimination aimed at Caesar and his offspring. Next to the prejudice evinced by Kitty's prideful old uncle King Specklerex (Ray Owens), Speedy Cheetah's apparent resentment of the white lions in "Fair Game" is powder-puff stuff. Astro Boy frequently addressed the issue of prejudice in robot-human relations -- though more so in the manga than in the TV series -- but here, the dagger is aimed straight at Kimba's heart and soul, momentarily leaving the young prince to question his very identity as a lion. The fact that Kimba's whiteness is his "scarlet letter" has an obvious connection to America's racial troubles of the mid- to late 60s. If all this sounds heavy-handed, it honestly doesn't come off as such. We ultimately learn that Specklerex is only using the "fur card" as a cover for a more general antipathy towards Caesar and Kimba's line... and that the elderly lion king has rather more noble features than your bog-standard Bull Connor-esque bully. Then, too, the white-lion backstory that takes up the middle portion of the ep is so fascinating that it winds up soaking up most of the viewer's attention.


This episode also features a critical moment in the relationship between Kimba and Kitty. Kitty played a role in Tezuka's version of the story as well, but a very different one; she told the history of the white lions to Kimba. In Tezuka's continuity, Kitty was an acolyte of the natives' "white lion cult" presided over by Kimba's aunt Leona and maintained for thousands of years, so she'd certainly be "in the know" regarding leonine lore. Kitty's decision to become Kimba's mate was complicated by her feeling of responsibility to Leona and the cult. (The TV series blunts the edge of this theme a bit by turning Leona into Kimba's sister and removing the subtheme of Leona's desire to have Kimba succeed her as cult leader -- though, in the later ep "The Day the Sun Went Out," brother and sister do have a blow-up over the white lion hides that Leona is tasked with guarding.) In "Journey," Kitty is more of a supporter of Kimba's as the latter tries to cope with his new-found knowledge about the legacy that he has been asked to uphold... only here, Kitty's support becomes physical as well as emotional. The Titan crew plays Kimba as pretty clueless (albeit in an endearing way) about this particular development, but an important development it surely is.

You can't really appreciate how artfully "Journey" adapts Tezuka's white-lion narrative without seeing some of Tezuka's original work, so I'll be sprinkling a few panels from JUNGLE EMPEROR (which I have in Japanese digest form) into my post as appropriate. That alone will probably make this the longest Kimba-related post I've done to date, but no matter. This ep eminently deserves such treatment.

An impressive opening sequence quickly establishes Specklerex as, in a sense, more conventionally "noble" than Caesar, due to his lineage and the level of respect given to him by other lions. We even get a hint that Specklerex might be an "Ur-lion" of sorts, due to the Narrator's claim that ALL lions were once spotted like him. Of course, with great ancestry often comes great hidebounded-ness, and the combination of Dan'l's bean-spilling and Cassius and Claw's gloating hints at the conflict to come -- though it doesn't specify the weapon that Specklerex will wield in said conflict, making that ultimate assault more shocking than it would have been otherwise.

Do YOU want to be the one to throw out the first water balloon at the lion convention? Didn't think so.

Notice that Kimba evinces shock -- but not anger -- when Specklerex first insults him and only really gets his fur in a twist after Specklerex drags Caesar into the argument. This clearly suggests that Kimba, while completely without superior airs, harbors a great deal of subconscious pride in what his father -- and he himself -- represent and have accomplished. It's no wonder that he would be vulnerable to ostracism and an assault on his psyche.

After Kimba gets beaten down, Specklerex shows his first sign of humanity -- or would that be "leonicity"? -- when he accedes to his niece's wishes and spares Kimba's life. In his comments on "Journey" on Craig Andersen's Web site, Bob Thing compares Kitty's actions here to those of Pocahontas on behalf of John Smith. That seems like a good analogy to me, but it definitely helped Kitty's cause that she apparently didn't describe Kimba -- physically, or in any other way -- to her uncle following the two young lions' previous meetings. Had Specklerex suspected that Kitty was "involved" with Caesar's son, then Kimba probably would have been waylaid before he ever reached the convention. (For that matter, why doesn't Specklerex have a problem with the fact that Kitty, like Kimba's mother Snowene, is technically a "white lioness"? Is Specklerex secretly ashamed that one of his ancestors may have "gone astray" once upon a time?)

We've seen the "brooding Kimba" scene before, in "Great Caesar's Ghost," but here, Kimba's spirit is clearly far more deeply wounded. Tom and Tab's subsequent routine (with Ray Owens and Gilbert Mack doing their level best to paper over those awkward Japanese lyrics) therefore has the unpleasant feel of buzzards stooping to roadkill, making these normally dopey villains seem far more sinister than is their usual wont. And why is it always zebras who are the first to abandon Kimba?

Bucky, Pauley, and Dan'l could play dress-up to buck up Kimba's spirits in "Great Caesar's Ghost," but it takes the human Roger Ranger -- and the marvelous convenience of a "jungle library" -- to provide Kimba with the evidence of his true lineage. I have no problem with that, despite its deviation from canon. I do have to wonder how overdue those books of Roger's are, however. It's not as if there were a book depository just behind the next tree.

The establishing shot of the throne room of Pharaoh Tut-Tut (Gilbert Mack) is almost an exact copy of a panel from Tezuka:

The animated Tut-Tut is blusterier (and burlier) than Tezuka's Pharaoh, but both kings "stop the music" and express their dissatisfaction in exactly the same way, by tossing down a goblet. Thrates' (Hal Studer) mortal sin, the one that earns Tut-Tut's adviser the bum's rush out of Egypt, was originally not a direct challenge to Tut-Tut himself, but appears to have been to Tut-Tut's queen. The TV version preserves Thrates' verbal slapdown of the queen (selling the robe to feed the poor) but doesn't make it THE reason why Tut-Tut banishes him. This works better, I think, making Thrates appear more sympathetic and the victim of his own dogged honesty. Incidentally, the animated Thrates' appearance and attitude leads me to believe that he's not an Egyptian at all, but something similar to a Greek Cynic or Stoic, if such individuals could be imagined to exist in the Egypt of B.C. 3000.

Both manga and anime jump from Thrates' banishment to the appearance of "the spirit of the Sphinx," but there is no visual evidence in Tezuka that Egypt "grew poor" as a result of Tut-Tut failing to heed Thrates' warning. For that matter, neither is there any real visual evidence of poverty in "Journey"! The Titan crew must have been responsible for inserting the idea of the "fulfilled curse." Some may find the inclusion of this notion a bit preachy, but it actually makes some sense, given that Egyptian civilization is well known to have experienced both dizzying peaks and grim valleys. It also makes the role of Kimba's ancestor (let me stick with the "ancient civilization" motif that I used when discussing Specklerex and call him Ur-Kimba) as mediator between humans and the gods seem all the more significant. Indeed, judging by the visual symbolism Tezuka used in this panel, Tezuka appears to have conceived Ur-Kimba almost as a Jesus Christ figure, come to rescue the Egyptians from their sins.

Tezuka provides the explanation for Ur-Kimba's advanced abilities before Ur-Kimba actually reveals himself to the Egyptians, as opposed to it being parenthetically inserted during the events of "first contact." "Journey" actually does much more with this revelation than did Tezuka, who limits the byplay between Thrates and his pet lion to a single panel:

(Notice how they even brought the fire in Thrates' cell into the animated version. Great eye for detail.) "Journey" gives us the all-important payoff shot of Ur-Kimba actually drinking Thrates' formula, which is, after all, the key moment in the history of the white lions. It's interesting to speculate on how, exactly, this potion operated -- specifically, what sort of genetic changes it must have made in Ur-Kimba and, by extension, his descendants. If the formula improved only Ur-Kimba's mind and its effects could not be passed down to future generations, then obviously its influence would have been severely limited. We are forced to conclude that the formula permanently upgraded certain genetic qualities in the white lions AND that said qualities could be passed on to offspring when Ur-Kimba, or any other white lion, mated with a normal female lion (as would have to have taken place during the early generations, and probably at many subsequent times as well). Talk about a dominant genetic trait. In essence, Kimba is a mutant... which makes the racial aspects of this episode even more intriguing.

"And this special formula, My Pet, will provide you with
retractable claws that can pop from your... Oh. Never mind."

Ur-Kimba's gag-laden "first contact" with the awed Egyptians (from Ur-K's initial entrance into the throne room through the wrestling match) is basically identical in both the manga and "Journey," though the animated version tends to make the gags slightly less cartoony than did Tezuka. For example, consider the gag in which Ur-Kimba "brushes aside" the feast that the Egyptians prepare for him:

The Tezuka version is funny, in a silly sort of way, but I love the casual disdain with which the animated version of Ur-Kimba pushes aside the table. It's almost a John Updike/Ted Williams moment: "Gods do not answer letters." "Journey" also provides an upgrade by using mock hieroglyphics to depict the influence of Ur-Kimba from youth to adulthood; Tezuka, by contrast, provided only a simple panel of Ur-Kimba as a grown lion to make the same point.

The appearance of the Kickapeel tribe marks the first "official" appearance of black African natives in Kimba. It's noteworthy that the Kickapeel chieftain is only seen from the back and the Kickapeel dancers in silhouette. The animators were definitely playing it safe here, as Tezuka originally conceived the Kickapeels to be pygmies. Even so, notice that Tezuka's chieftain is wearing exactly the same costume, headdress, and accouterments. (BTW, who is that next to him? Bosko?)

"Journey"'s subsequent introduction of Livingstone into the story is, to my mind, a master stroke. Not only does it provide a perfect excuse to introduce the deserted village near Kimba's jungle -- a site which will be featured in several future episodes -- but it firmly ties the fanciful souffle of legend and lore on which we have just supped to the meat-and-potatoes of a well-known African adventure story. Tezuka's tale, by contrast, does show the horde of white lion hides but then tails off with Kimba and Kitty racing across the savanna. You have to be doing something right to beat a key narrative by a master comics storyteller in so many different areas, and this magnificent sequence certainly does that.

Buoyed by learning of his family's role as (in the words of Bob Thing) "priests and princes" to a tribe of humans, and further fortified by Kitty's strong show of support -- not to mention her revelation that Specklerex's racism was a product of her uncle's jealousy of Caesar, rather than the cause of it -- our back-to-normal hero confidently confronts the old lion and then acquits himself nobly during the fight with Specklerex' retainer Fang (Gilbert Mack). Fang has to cheat in order to reduce Kimba to his level, whereas Kimba displays the ability to "hammer-throw" Fang while underwater. You can be sure that Specklerex took the latter feat of Herculean strength into account when "forgiving" and making up with Kimba. That's taking nothing away from Specklerex' basically honorable behavior here; since Fang cheated, the old king technically didn't have to keep his promise to Kimba to "study and get an education" (whatever that may mean... perhaps taking out a card at the "jungle library" is involved?), but he does so anyway. By so doing, he more than earns a second appearance, which he will duly get in "Adventure in the City." (He doesn't completely cover himself with glory there, either, but the point is that he GOT another chance.)

You have to hand it to Kimba... especially since he shouldn't HAVE hands.

The last couple of scenes of this wonderful ep are just the teensiest bit flabby, with Kimba completely missing the point of Kitty's mountaintop comment and making his usual speech about wanting everyone to "live in peace." After Kitty behaved so forwardly in vaulting to Kimba's side -- though I take issue with Bob Thing in believing that her "spring into action" was more the result of a clumsy jump-cut than any sort of invitation to leonine hanky-panky -- you would think that Kimba would be able to take at least a fraction of a hint here. A comment or two about Kimba's (1) pride (in his ancestry) and (2) humility (in wanting to be the best ruler he can be) would also not have been out of place. But these are only quibbles. In its maturity, essential seriousness, and breadth of vision, this definitely has to stand as one of the best episodes of an animated series that I've ever seen.

Up next: Episode 15, "Scrambled Eggs."


Mark Lungo said...

A very thorough and well-written post, Chris. It really makes me want to watch the episode. However, the article's first screen grab, the one with Kimba holding his ears with a pained expression on his face, cries out for a funny caption. Something like, "No! No more [insert your least favorite singer/band here], please!"

Chris Barat said...


I wanted to use a quote, honestly, but couldn't come up with one that wouldn't render the scene banal (at least to my mind). Maybe I should run one of those "Fill in Your Own Caption" contests??


Chris Barat said...


Well, I finally added a good caption while I was repairing broken links today. Not my most inspired, but hey...