He’s brave, but always searching for a peaceful solution — he’s got a parrot, a deer and a baboon for buddies — he’s covered in white fur — he’s Japanese — but he’s far from human. “Kimba the White Lion,” the Japanese anime, was the highlight of my mid-’70s school days. I’d rush home for lunch, sit in front of a plate of Mom’s french toast and turn on the tube for the cartoon character who stood above all others. But that was a long time ago.
Today, thanks to the Right Stuf International, Inc., Kimba once again runs across spinning, stylized African tundras in all of his former syndicated glory. Until recently, Kimba was only available to fans as “Kimba the Lion Prince” on disappointing, poorly recorded tapes that changed the original song, character voices and even some of their names. Now Kimba’s original voice and roar is restored, along with that quirky, catchy theme song, allowing you to reignite any former fascinations or discover them for the first time.
In the very first episode, “Go White Lion,” we enter a tragic and beautiful jungle where death is the beginning and “only the strong survive.” The majestic white lion Caeser is king of the jungle and intent on seeing all animals set free from “the beast with a brain,” man. Man retaliates by recording Caeser’s roar, and tricking and capturing his pregnant wife, Snowlene. When Caeser attempts to free his wife, he’s shot and killed, and Snowlene is loaded on a ship she’ll never get off.
Kimba, son of Caeser, is born in a cage, but small enough to escape. Snowlene sends him off to rule his father’s kingdom and goes down with the ship in a vicious storm as Kimba dives into the sea alone. But it’s not just a sea — he leaps into a high-contrast visual labyrinth of jiggling white squiggles in a black void that twists and morphs. Kimba swims through abstractions of stars and globes, through ethereal oceans of vivid oranges, blues, pinks and gold.
Osamu Tezuka, creator of Kimba (and “Astro Boy”), wowed Japanese audiences back in the ’50s and ’60s with his attention to detail and cinematic perspectives, and his ability to continue the flow of action. Tezuka’s a Japanese icon credited with reinventing and jump-starting Japanese comics (or manga) into the incredibly successful and popular enterprise it is today, earning him the title Manga no Kamisama, the God of Comics. He made his impact by cutting back on dialogue and leaving more room for images, allowing for greater focus on visual appearance and movement of characters. Manga and anime are serious stuff in Japan, and Tezuka set the tone by developing them into successful visual vehicles of communication.
So “Kimba” is not just a prepubescent pacifier; it’s an expressionistic portrait of the African jungle through Japanese eyes. It’s a repetition and patterning of the beauty and movement of nature for the eye’s sake. It’s a collection of universal truths out of the mouths of animals, emerging from and tied together with an amazing and dramatic sense of composition and color, all ruled by a white furry leader who’s cute as a button.
Oh, those big, adorable eyes with a sparkle, those precious black-tipped, pink-in-the-middle white ears, and that tuft of fur over the brow that changes in expression from cartoon-happy to “this-is-no-joke” angry. He’s still a baby, but a baby destined to lead his animal kingdom — so he swims back to Africa led by the spirit of his mother in the shape of a constellation and a path of butterflies in the sky.
Unfortunately, “Go White Lion” is where Tezuka’s intended chronological order ends. Back in 1966, when “Kimba” first aired in the United States, NBC didn’t care that Kimba was created as a developing character who grows, mentally and physically, throughout the series — because episodic order is hard to control in syndication. The Right Stuf wasn’t concerned either. So although each VHS “Kimba” volume contains four high-quality 25-minute shows, except for “Go White Lion” the order is muddled.
But don’t let that stop you from a romp in Tezuka’s artistic vision, a place where peace is king, but not when it means slavery, a place seen from the animals’ perspective, where most humans are dangerous hide- and fortune-seekers, but can still be learned from.
In “Jungle Thief,” the animals are starving from a drought. Kimba decides to learn from humans and start a farm. When the elephants won’t help, Pauley the Parrot tells Kimba, “They’re too lazy to lend the other animals a hand.” Kimba replies, “No, Pauley, they don’t believe in what we’re doing.”
“Kimba the White Lion” is a sophisticated animated voice for differing perspectives. If you’re looking for acceptable TV for your kids, you can’t get any better than this. Kimba is always trying to understand the irrational, whether it’s the mischievous, destructive bully Wiley the Wild Cat or the human-hating Boss Rhino. And he always forgives, which is a necessary lesson, no matter how old you are.Anita Schmaltz checks out the wide world of performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org