Tuesday, February 21, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 51, "The Day the Sun Went Out"

"Oh, Kimba, Kimba... you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!"

"The Day the Sun Went Out" is on the short list of the very best Kimba episodes...this, despite being full of flaws, some of which are exceptionally irritating. But then, Cecil B. DeMille's last great movie masterpiece is also packed with similar cringe-inducing moments. That doesn't make The Ten Commandments any less iconic.

"Sun" features the most "mature," and most harrowing, of all of Kimba's many conflicts. Kimba and his sister Leona (introduced in "The Mystery of the Deserted Village") do no less than clash over the white lions' legacy and what it should mean in the future. Leona's reverence for the past and desire to preserve memories of the siblings' ancestors, in the tangible form of the white lion hides that she has guarded so proudly and so zealously for so long, runs headlong into Kimba's ambition to bring a more humane version of Caesar's dream to fruition. The resulting train wreck nearly ruins their relationship, and it also imperils their lives during a vicious conflict with The Black Four (cf. the "Jungle Fun" and "Pretenders" two-part story). We can legitimately respect the honorable intentions of both Kimba and Leona, which makes the break seem all the more painful. Had the TV series followed the lead of Tezuka's JUNGLE EMPEROR, in which Leona was Kimba's aunt rather than his sister, I don't think that the ep would have had nearly the emotional impact that it does. The wallop could have been even more devastating had several inexplicable lapses in tone -- some of which were the fault of the Titan crew, some of which Mushi Studios built into the story from the get-go -- been removed or altered. (Interestingly, the manga adaptation of this episode doesn't follow the filmed plot precisely -- and thereby suggests some alternate approaches that might well have improved the TV version. We'll address those a bit later.)

The episode manages to overpower its logical lapses and false moments due to the sheer grandeur of its theme and the sheer beauty of its visuals. As with the iconic vision of the despairing Kimba on the tree limb in "Jungle Thief," a particular image from this episode buried itself deep in my mind long ago, and I managed to preserve it during the long interregnum between my initial exposure to Kimba and my later rediscovery of the series. But it's just one of a number of wonderful images herein. The dramatic use of a solar eclipse to symbolize the shadow that has been cast over Kimba and Leona's relationship is probably the series' most effective use of visual metaphor... and it's not even the image that I remembered!

The Kimba of "Sun" is clearly drawn and depicted as an older adolescent, probably just on the verge of growing the "beautiful white mane" that a much younger, and more insecure, Kimba dreamed about during his memorable reverie in "The Insect Invasion." Why the Tezuka company sees fit to insist that such episodes as "Soldier of Fortune," "The Return of Fancy Prancy," and "A Friend in Deed" -- to say nothing of Episode 52, "Silvertail the Renegade," in which Kimba tries to avoid getting punished and spanked by Dan'l for an act of perceived disobedience -- are close to temporally concurrent with "Sun" is frankly baffling. I'm perfectly cool with the idea of letting "Sun" and "Destroyers from the Desert" be the "emotionally official" "last two episodes" of the series.

We don't waste any time establishing this ep's schizoid nature. A moody teaser, reestablishing Leona and the lonesome nature of her vigil in the deserted village, is immediately followed by a strangely out-of-place, older-than-dirt gag that can be traced at least back to here. Just think, the kids missed a golden opportunity to anticipate Donald's Nephews, not to mention Baloo, and try to convince Dan'l that it was Saturday one day early. (And, say, isn't Bucky the kids' teacher? Shouldn't he be heading to school, as well?)

Though it's not mentioned, I would assume that Leona and Kimba had established some means of communication before this, especially since Leona was bound and determined to stay with the hides and Kimba was well aware of that fact. At the very least, Leona was aware that Kimba was alive and well and therefore able to help her.

The guy who wrote BAD TV and ridiculed Kimba's talking to Caesar's hide in "The Insect Invasion" must have missed this episode. Try laying "He looks just the same as he did alive!" on a family member at a funeral parlor, Leona, and see how it dances. Here is where we begin to get the impression that Leona's devotion to preserving the hides has gone beyond mere fidelity to white lion tradition and mutated into something resembling an obsession. We Catholics, to be sure, understand the historical and spiritual importance of sacred relics, but Leona seems to have laid aside the fact that her ancestors' legacy continues to live on -- in fact, to grow and mature -- in the form of her brother the pelt-keeper.

"... and I'm SO glad you used Parsonizing to keep Father's hide looking so clean and new."

Back we go to the village for the process of hide removal, and in the middle of another windstorm, to boot, because that's just what this episode needs -- more windbags! (Sorry, Greg, but I had to use it once.) Kimba really shouldn't be all that surprised at the number of hides on display, since he's visited the village before, but perhaps this comment was meant for viewers who'd missed "Mystery of the Deserted Village."

The "shrine on the Upper Nile" is probably located on the White Nile, since that tributary of the river flows closest to what we would normally believe to be the central-African location of Kimba's kingdom. I wonder when Leona found the time to leave the village and research the location? Did her friends the okapis help her then, too?

The Black Four's sudden appearance and attempt to sabotage our friends' climb up the rapids seem to come out of nowhere. I'd like to think that they're acting out of pure malice -- and, just perhaps, a desire for belated revenge on Kimba after the events of "The Pretenders" -- but we'll learn later that they have a very practical reason for wanting to stop Leona's efforts. The log-attack and rescue scenes are very artfully done on screen, but the manga adaptation provides even more exciting visuals (no neat rows of hides floating downstream there!) and also amps up the danger quotient, as Kimba must actively rescue Leona from drowning without the assistance of a convenient bridge to counteract the powerful current.

The post-crisis feelings of relief and affection (symbolized by Kimba patiently licking his sister back to consciousness) quickly give way to mutual recrimination, as Kimba and Leona fall out over "a few missing hides." The TV episode and the manga adaptation have rather different takes on who was "primarily responsible" for this breakup. In "Sun," the onus appears to be on Leona; Kimba doesn't even lose his own temper until Leona has blown off her "softie" sibling and gone off to locate the missing hides. Kimba's true anger at Leona, as things turn out, will fester for a while before the full extent of its malignity can be fairly measured. Ironically, though Kimba seems to be less at fault on screen, the decision to make him look like the aggrieved party here will make him look much worse later on in the episode.

In the adaptation, while Leona definitely kicks off the dispute, both Kimba and Leona get in plenty of licks (and not of the affectionate kind) before they part company, and Kimba is the one who turns tail and runs, leaving Leona clearly agitated over what has come between them. Kimba likewise displays a belated regret that is absent in the TV version, in which he'll next be seen learning about Leona's capture by The Black Four. The manga version is superior, I think; the severity of the quarrel is heightened, while the post-argument displays of emotion by both characters help to engender sympathy for each. I wish this version had been filmed; it would have been pretty deep and mature stuff for 1966, even by Kimba's standards.

The lengthy sequence that begins with the chief okapi (Gilbert Mack) running to tell Kimba of Leona's fate ends with a heartbreakingly dramatic image: Kimba in the shadows, an apparent prisoner of his pride, abandoned by his taken-aback subjects. Had this story been adapted in American comic-book form, this would have made for one killer cover. Unfortunately, the "emergency report" scene that goes before leaves an awful lot to be desired, particularly when it comes to dramatic structure. Gil Mack is given the thankless task of delivering a big, thick wad of expository dialogue (and you thought I was kidding about "more windbags," eh, Greg?), and, while he does his best, his use of exaggerated voices to represent characters' speech gives the scene a semi-comic tone that really doesn't fit. The okapi's ribbon-tongued crying jag, by contrast, is on Mushi, rather than Mack; it makes the infamous crying scene in "Destroyers from the Desert" look artful by contrast. The visuals remain powerful, with Kimba's simple turning (read: bowing) of his back in response to Leona's plight reminding us, as no mere words could, that Kimba is the son of the imperious Caesar. But it's not hard to imagine how this scene could have been dramatically improved.

... And now, that unforgettable image of an isolated Kimba is nearly piddled away completely by what Mushi presents -- and the Titan crew is therefore forced to present -- as the jungle prince's incredible obtuseness. "What did I do wrong?" has rarely sounded as hollow as it does here. It was obvious at the end of the previous scene that Kimba was already conflicted and harbored some guilt feelings over his decision, so Kimba's obliviousness doesn't ring true at all, and the exaggerated "snubbing" sequences are mere overkill. Dinky even seems to have gotten the wrong cue from the director when he smirks in response to Kimba's attempted greeting.

Again, I think that the manga adaptation handles this better. There, Kimba does get a direct snub from one of his erstwhile friends, but his subsequent overhearing of treetop gossip reflects the changed attitude of his subjects towards him far better than any "mere" back-turning ever could.

The imagery of the eclipse scene, culminating in Kimba's tearful repentance, speaks for itself. Boss Rhino's little rhyme about the superstition (which Kimba, of course, initially blows off) actually makes little sense in context, since Kimba's betrayal of his sister took place well before the eclipse began. It also seems highly unlikely that Kimba would know how to tell time (!) but not have any idea what an eclipse was. (At least he didn't copy Dan'l Baboon in "The Gigantic Grasshopper" and attribute the eclipse to the Devil.) But the visuals simply overwhelm you here...

The moment that haunted me for years finally arrives when Kimba reaches the shrine and tackles The Black Four on their own turf -- and terms. My vision of "a huge room with white walls" came from this shot of the leopards menacing Kimba:

This is a copy of the pygmy's shrine from JUNGLE EMPEROR, the place where Leona and Kitty served as acolytes. The main difference is that the stone lion is rendered much more realistically. Speaking of realism, Kimba bleeds on screen during the initial fight with The Black Four for the first and only time. He certainly came close to doing so at the start of "Destroyers From the Desert," and he was much more badly hacked up there than he is here, but there's something about the sight of that one trickle of blood that freezes one's attention -- not to mention bringing to mind the Crown of Thorns.

For some odd reason, characters who disappear underground in this episode, as Leona did earlier and Kimba does here, are apparently expected to shrivel up and blow away. It doesn't seem to have occurred to The Black Four -- whose hideout, after all, this is -- that there may be a way to escape the cistern and get back inside the shrine. Kimba, like Leona, finds the escape hatch quickly enough, but not before we get another beautiful visual, this one of Kimba shaking himself dry:

Nothing "cubsy-cutesy" about this maneuver; that's a man-shake! So Kimba and Leona have their tearful reunion and... oh, dear, Leona's reaction to Kimba's appearance is simply not the "done thing" in circumstances like these. "I knew you'd forgive me and come back to help" sounds horribly smug, don't you think? So Leona knows how to get out of the caves but has simply been stumbling around in the dark, waiting for little brother to get with the program and save the "helpless" female? It never occurred to Leona to escape, rush back to Kimba's jungle, make up with her brother, and enlist his aid in person? No WAY can I buy this. The manga adaptation handles Leona's fate in a much more straightforward manner by having Leona be rescued from captivity at story's end, after Kimba, with assistance from his late-arriving subjects, has subdued The Black Four. This might strike you as a little more sexist than the filmed version, but at least Leona had a REASON for passivity in this case. (It also adds a certain frisson to the proceedings; what did The Black Four have planned for Leona once Kimba was disposed of?)

There's possibly a bit too much comedy thrown into the scene in which the other animals come to help Kimba and Leona beat The Black Four, and "out of sight, out of mind" is invoked once again when Bucky's jugging of the vanquished quartet is implicitly equated to their permanent defeat. (Perhaps our friends intend to suffocate the B4?) But the emotions displayed at the end of this infuriating, unforgettable adventure are real and truly "Heart"-felt. Sure, it could have been much better on screen... but it's plenty good, and powerful, as it is.

Up next: Episode 52, "Silvertail the Renegade."

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