Behind the Jungle Emperor vs The Lion King global debate

THE LION KING - Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble. (Disney)NALA, SIMBA
THE LION KING - Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble. (Disney)NALA, SIMBA /

He’s the Kimba before Simba, the emperor before the king, Fuji’s fearless feline before Disney’s prodigal prince. Was 1994’s The Lion King directly inspired by Mushi Production and Fuji TV’s 1965 Jungle Emperor? All we can say is, there are noticeable similarities.

Let’s start with the title.

When writer Osamu Tezuka first created the manga in 1950, it was titled Jungle Emperor. But, when Tezuka’s story became one of the first color TV anime series, and began broadcasting in the U.S. in 1966, its publicized title was Kimba The White Lion. Sound familiar?

While Disney’s “Simba” from The Lion King had a fitting enough name as the Swahili word for “Lion,” the name is one letter off from the cartoon cub that proceeded Simba by over 30 years, and whose Aboriginal name means “Brush Fire.”

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Funnily enough, Leo (the Japanese character’s original name, which also means Lion) was initially going to be changed in the English dub to “Simba”, but an NBC executive insisted on the change to “Kimba,” believing the name Simba to be “too common” and may lead to difficulties maintaining rights.

And the story of Kimba is also rather familiar, though it starts out a bit different and with humans playing a bigger, more philosophical role.

The setting is mid-20th century Africa and mankind is beginning to take over the jungle lands. A white lion by the name of Panja (“Caesar” in the English dub) gives the jungle’s wild animals a safe haven but, after the lion angers nearby villagers by stealing their food for his fellow carnivores, a hunter kills Panja for his hide and traps Panja’s pregnant mate Eliza on a ship, bound for a zoo.

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Kimba (or “Leo” in Japanese) is born on the ship. Eliza teaches her son his father’s ideals–much like how Rafiki serves as a mentor to Simba about his father–and, when a tropical storm hits the boat, Eliza urges Kimba to escape. Kimba almost drowns but prevails and, at least in the manga, the stars in the sky form the face of his mother, who encourages him.

Gosh, where have we seen a lion’s face form in the sky to encourage their cub before? Oh yeah.

Anyway, guided by butterflies, Kimba makes it to his ancestral home on land, where he’s first cared for by humans and learns the advantages of their culture. Kimba later returns to his fellow wild jungle animals, bringing with him all he’s learned and on a mission for peace. The show follows Kimba’s life after he returns to the wild still a young cub, and how he learns and grows as a leader.

Kimba falls in love with and marries his childhood best friend, is harassed by hyenas, and then there’s Coco, a green parrot who spent some time living with humans and believes he should be put in charge of mentoring Leo.

Sure there are plenty of differences, but a few oddly specific details and the overall plot of both stories makes it stand to reason that Jungle Emperor and The Lion King are more than just two coincidentally similar lion stories.

At least, Fred Ladd, the English-language producer of Jungle Emperor, certainly thought so, referring to the story parallels as “stunning,” back in a 1994 interview.

And when The Lion King released in Japan, it caused an uproar among the country’s animators. Multiple Japanese cartoonists signed a letter urging The Walt Disney Company to acknowledge Jungle Emperor in the making of The Lion King. In total, 488 Japanese cartoonists and animators signed the petition, which then led to a protest in Japan.

As a response, The Lion King director Roger Allers stated it was “not unusual to have characters like a baboon, a bird, or hyenas” in films set in Africa.

Behind the Jungle Emperor vs The Lion King global debate
Photo: Disney’s The Lion King – Walt Disney Pictures /

Ah, yes. We forgot to mention Jungle Emperor sports a leading baboon character by the name of Burazza, a wise old mandrill who serves as Leo’s mentor.

But we digress. Tezuka’s family, as well as Tezuka Productions, have never pursued litigation against The Walt Disney Company for copyright infringement. And, as a partial owner of Tezuka Productions and the son of Kimba’s creator, Makoto Tezuka has always been adamant that he does not want to see his father’s works being turned into a weapon for people who have a personal vendetta against the business practices of Disney.

He believes that Jungle Emperor and The Lion King are two different stories with different themes, and noted in his book, The Genius’ Son, that if the latter was about a white lion who spoke with humans, then he would not be able to pardon the similarities.

Yet it seems like the more you look at clips of Jungle Emperor, the more you’re reminded of scenes in The Lion King–two cubs being hoisted up by giraffes, a lion cub being christened by the sun, animals bowing before their new king, Kimba and his family living on high-ground rocks…it’s pretty glaring.

But there’s one more detail that’s harder to overlook than most, which reveals itself in Disc 2 of the Platinum Edition DVD of The Lion King. It’s an early presentation reel of The Lion King, featuring a white lion cub following a butterfly.

In our opinion, it seems more far-fetched to say The Lion King wasn’t influenced at all by Jungle Emperor. But maybe it really is just a matter of great minds thinking alike.

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What do you think? Are the similarities between Jungle Emperor and The Lion King a coincidence or hardly best kept secret? Let us know in the comments below!