Jungle Emperor Leo & Kimba the White Lion - Part II: Reviews
- Jungle Emperor manga (~1950)
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
It is said that Leo developed out of Tezuka's love for Bambi, and while both works have a subtle complexity, the scope of Tezuka's vision extends far beyond the WW2 analogies of Bambi. Certainly the love of drawing nature must connect the two; in works prior to Leo we can see how much Tezuka enjoys drawing non-human creatures (every kind of animal, dinosaurs, etc.) and so it only seems a matter of time before he would write a story where the main characters are animals.
The story itself (beginning before Leo's birth) and ending shortly after his death involves Leo's attempt to create a working animal society, and defending it from humans while also having considerable respect for humans. Throughout the story there is a sense of the progression toward an ideal society (though we can't quite see it yet.) Panja sees no problem with capturing domestic animals and killing them for food as a way to solve the problem of jungle animals eating each other. Leo rejects this notion and starts a farm and even a restaurant (I think this is actually Tomy's idea.) Leo rejects the general anti-human stance and begins systematically educating all of the animals. It is implied at the end of the story that Lune, with additional human contact, would continue to push the advancement of a society with equality for all forms.
A preliminary glance at the manga however might reveal precious little of this. On the surface Leo reads very much like Lost World (and looks quite similar too!) There are pacing problems and points where the plot goes too many different directions at once. Some of this may be due to part of the original work being destroyed and then recreated later. Part of it however is certainly just the nature of Tezuka's early work.
Leo is also a comic for a young audience (though not at the exclusion of an older audience), and so much of it is spent running about, having adventures. The more serious matters are there; but often not in the foreground.
There is also the human plot, which brews through the entire story then comes to boil in the final act. Since it is ultimately greed and nationality which bring Leo's life to an end, we might again embrace the early sophistication of Jungle Emperor, especially as Leo attempts to differentiate all that is good about humanity from all that is bad.
For the Tezuka readers, Kenichi, Mustachio, Lamp and Hamegg all make appearances; the later two playing their familiar evil roles. Those familiar with Kimba may be surprised at the wealth of plot elements both present and absent. At a little over 500 pages, Jungle Emperor is overflowing with ideas, but most are explored only briefly. There are whole episodes of Kimba spawned by one or two panels from Jungle Emperor, so a close reading can be highly rewarding.
In summation, I think this is the most accessible and least flawed of the Leo entries, but it also doesn't go as far as some of the animated pieces do. Some aspects of the story are poorly explained, and I'm afraid Tezuka's depiction of natives would no doubt offend many of our modern day sensibilites (despite having been lifted from Disney's own depictions, now of course edited from the likes of Fantasia and others.) Despite these and other problems I've mentioned above, Jungle Emperor is a strong effort, filled with a creative vision unparalleled by other manga and even sitting nicely alongside some of the best 20th century children's literature. This is easily one of my favorite works by Tezuka, and in truth the flaws I've mentioned here exist only because of how early Leo sits in Tezuka's career.
- Kimba the White Lion animated TV show (1966)
3.5 out of 5 (Japanese version)
3 out of 5 (English version)
Legions of Kimba fans: 6 out of 5 (who am I to argue with them???)
Kimba is a strange work. The fact that it actually came to be and worked well enough to hold a strong fan base and even encourage merchandising on an international scale remains a miraculous thing. From the beginning, the series seemed doomed to failure because of all the concessions demanded by NBC, turning Leo into a feline Astroboy who would never grow up and whose existence was mostly defined by fighting off poachers, bad lions and making new friends.
It is apparent however for those who have watched a good number of these episodes that Tezuka still manages to explore the themes he set out in Jungle Emperor. Much of this was accomplished through changing the order of events, and a heavy use of flashbacks.
Of interest is the further exploration of how the animals could actually be fed without the need for killing. Ludicrous as it might seem, Leo attempts to teach the young predators to be vegetarians--it not only fails, but even Leo eventually succumbs to meat cravings. In this aspect, the series is very intelligent in the way it addresses both the biological needs of the animals and Leo's own maturation.
Of course, there is no real solution to the problem, but Kimba offers up one nonetheless in the form of an artificial meat substitute (actually suggested in Jungle Emperor, but not really explored.) The notion that scientists would be shipping endless crates of meat substitute to the jungle is obviously far too much for anyone to believe, but Jungle Emperor/Kimba remains a story of hopefulness and idealism--of what could be, some day.
There is also a more serious treatment of the conflict between Leo's ideas and Panja's, manifesting itself in an episode where the buffalo Samson offers homage to Leo in the form of domestic mules which he expects Leo to kill and relish. The problems we encounter in this episode exemplify the differences between the US and Japanese version, so it seems a good time to address this issue (and why I've rated the two separately.)
Let me first say that I have only seen one episode in the original language, however through conversations with those who have seen the series (notably Craig Andersen who runs KimbaWLion.com), in addition to the commentary by Fred Ladd present on the Kimba box set, the differences between the English and Japanese version become far more pronounced.
By fair admission, the cast for the English dub (and those involved with scripting, etc.) had neither access to the original manga, nor were often 100% clear on the script for the episode they were currently working on; that is, the series suffered from translating issues. It is hard to say at this late date where the fault lies, but in the completion of the English dub, many guesses had to be made, and then changes for US censors were made on top of those.
Regardless of the problems, the US Kimba had talented voice actors who clearly put their heart into the project, and there was also evident effort from Fred Ladd and Co. to do the very best with what they had. A lot of people feel this is a 5 out of 5 effort, however for myself, the many translating errors and sometimes story-crippling edits make the English dub of Kimba a difficult work.
Returning then to Samson; did I mention that Panja's solution of killing domesticated animals for food was edited from the first episode? How it then sneaks through in 'Great Caesar's Ghost' only exemplifies the problems dealt with by the US studio. Edits couldn't be 'taken back', and with 'Go White Lion!' already edited; the studio would have faced the difficult challenge of how to edit 'Great Ceasar's Ghost', where the conflict between Panja's and Leo's world-views are critical. In this instance we can see how Fred Ladd and co. decided to stick with the original plot and hope that the young audience wouldn't notice the oversight.
This however is minor compared to real damage to episodes such as 'Fair Game'. Not only are major plot elements obscured, but the actual meaning of the ending is altered in a way as to be nonsensical. Most blunders are not this extreme and seem to affect at most the consistency of certain events.
A serious effort was also made by NBC to tone Kimba down (as they had done with season 2 of Astroboy), so if we could sit down with both a Japanese and US print of Kimba we would probably find the characters were slightly different.
But we must not be too quick in assuming that if we could just change the language, Kimba would become a vastly different work. Making a few edits and changing the tone of the language now and then doesn't (at least for the most part) change a series. There are certainly a fair share of 'bummer' episodes, and parts that seem entirely addressed to 5 year olds. Not a blunder, just a creative decision by Mushi productions to make go-nowhere episodes for 5 year olds.
And then there are of course the very great things about Kimba. 'The Trappers' for instance deals with the confrontation between Leo and Hamegg, where Leo knows full well that Hamegg is responsible for his father's death. In this episode, Leo must weigh his position as leader (and the ensuing moral questions) with his great desire for revenge. Other episodes deal with serious themes like overpopulation, poaching and the relation between man and nature. These are certainly great episodes, but you will find them next to episodes about animals building an amusement park.
The animation should also be discussed. If you've seen the black and white Astroboy episodes, this is a vast improvement with a few moments of outstanding animation. Most notable is the unusual application of color. This was Mushi productions first animated TV series in color and their unorthodox approach gives Kimba a flair of the artistic, as well as distinguishing it from other animated films from this period. There is much that looks churned out however, and of course, like all other animated TV shows, a great deal of stock is recycled. I'm sure at least 10 minutes of stunning animation could be culled from this series, but much else has aged poorly.
In summation, Kimba the White Lion is a flawed work (especially the US version) overflowing with great talent and efforts made on all sides. Many of the faults seem entirely unavoidable, though one wishes NBC could have given a bit more slack on the reigns. Fans of the series will be quick to contrast the success of Kimba with the following series, Onward Leo!, where Tezuka had complete control. It is interesting to speculate how the compromises made with Kimba appear to have led to its commercial success.
So on one hand, it is very easy to be critical of Kimba: it does not always seem to know what it wants to accomplish, sometimes juxtaposing the big Tezuka questions with Saturday morning filler. Yet on the other hand we can see how this split personality seems to have given Kimba the charm that Jungle Emperor was lacking; and consequently, Kimba is remembered fondly by legions of fans. People will remember Kimba's Leo as the little lion cub that stood for friendship, loyalty and doing what was right (even when everyone else lets you down.) With Kimba, Tezuka tried to have all those good messages for kids, but also work in the more far-reaching vision of Jungle Emperor. Whether he succeeded at this of course remains up to the viewer.
P.S. Kimba's original soundtrack is incredible. I'll let the fans debate about the US 'Kimba' song, but the Japanese soundtrack is majestic and really quite moving. How did I forget to mention this earlier?
- Onward Leo! (aka Leo the Lion) animated TV show (1966-67)
My rating 2.5-3 out of 5 stars
This is effectively season 2 of Kimba where Leo is an adult and NBC has been kicked out. Tezuka apparently went into production without consulting NBC, hoping they'd just go along with it, but of course they didn't. The results are that Onward Leo! was not seen in the US until much later, and its dub, while more accurate than Kimba's, was on all other levels dramatically inferior (maybe 'terrible' is the correct term.)
You would expect that Tezuka would now get back to doing a close rendition of the manga, but instead we get something altogether different. Perhaps only 4 episodes out of 26 reference Jungle Emperor where the rest are off exploring new territory. Most of the cute, side-kick characters are gone, and the story begins to focus more on Leo's children.
To be blunt, Onward Leo! is much more hit-or-miss than Kimba; some episodes are very mature while others don't accomplish much of anything or seem like reject episodes from Kimba. The series is split in that the earlier episodes focus more on establishing Leo's role as an adult (which isn't as interesting as the manga) and fleshing out Leo's children (which does end up being pretty good for the most part.)
Perhaps the problem is that Onward Leo! takes place in the dead zone of Jungle Emperor between the resolution of the Queen Konga story arc and the beginning of the Mt. Moon expedition. With no real fertile ideas from the original story, the series loses the grand themes that Kimba had to work with (until of course it works its way back to the Jungle Emperor plot.)
At first I was pretty excited about this series since the compromises with Kimba were troubling, but ultimately, Onward Leo! does more to remind us of what was really good about Kimba. There are a lack of familiar characters to care about, and sometimes the whole thing simply loses momentum and falls flat.
That said, I still encourage seeing this series especially for those who have read the manga and seen Kimba. There are plenty of insightful moments and in some cases Tezuka is able to extend the plot still further. Certainly by the time one has completed these works, Jungle Emperor has becoming something else, a malleable set of tales with interweaving characters and alternate endings. More like a fairy tale or mythos; of course that's why I think Tezuka was so excited to do these. It wasn't to just put on film what he'd already done on paper. It was to do a bit of alchemy with some old ideas--and sometimes the magic actually happens!
Before departing this last work that Tezuka had direct involvement with, I'd like to also make some mention of the animation here. Although much of it is just the standard fair, like Kimba, there are real moments of genius. The weird coloration is still there, but there are also moments where the animation style becomes abstract and stylized. Is this a foreshadowing of tezuka's pursuit of more experimental forms of animation? The significance of their inclusion here is hard to say, but their excellence and emotional impact upon the film are undeniable. Again, a short collection of these phenomenal moments would be invaluable in showing the talent that the animators clearly had--given the limitations of time and budget.
In summation, Onward Leo is a sort of experiment in many ways. Not just in the animation department but more so in the plot department. It is clear that even if Tezuka started Kimba by wanting to do Jungle Emperor, by the time he got to Onward Leo he wanted something else. Don't take my ratings at face value since often they reflect more the faults than the strengths. All of this material by Tezuka in general has aspects which are of extremely high quality and they come through here, even if there are plenty of throw away episodes.
That said, there is considerable departure from episodes which do attempt to match up with the manga. Most notable is the changed ending where all the main characters live (as I have mentioned already, Jungle Emperor ends with Leo's death, proceeded by his wife's death.) Craig Andersen takes up the view that this is a positive change, however I think it undermines the cyclical nature of the story where Lune's story is starting out almost the same way it began for Leo, returning us to this sequence of orphaned Lion cubs.
- The New Adventures of Kimba (1989)
I have not actually seen this work but wanted to acknowledge its existence. Did Tezuka feel there was something more left unexplored in his Jungle Emperor stories? Regardless, this series saw his passing only six episodes in.
- Jungle Emperor Leo animated movie (1997)
My rating 3.5 out of 5 stars
Perfect movie adaptations rarely make for perfect movies. Jungle Emperor Leo gets high marks in all technical aspects and the soundtrack is fantastic, but the movie itself plods along as a very accurate rendition of the last 3rd of the manga (some of the same material covered in 'Onward Leo!') This film starts with the birth of Lune and Lukyo, and ends with the two as orphans. A great deal of the film explores Lune's time among the humans, while Lukio (much like in the manga) is more or less a non-character.
Despite the accuracy, there are actually several plot changes, though not in the inventive sort of way as we've seen in Kimba/Onward Leo! Most of them seem to have been created to simplify the storyline, make it work better as a stand-alone movie, or modernize it for the 21st century.
One nonsensical change is the inclusion of Hamegg during part of the story where he should already be dead, and clearly filling a different role. If Hamegg was just a generic bad guy and not a main character (or the father of another main character) this wouldn't seem so out of place, but as it stands it seems like a weird choice (why not use Lamp?) Adam Dandy has also been removed from his role in the circus, but this just seems an omission for the sake of simplification.
Similarly, Mustachio's role seems different; he doesn't know (or remember) Leo, which is startling since their friendship is central to the Jungle Emperor story. The advantage here (at the cost of the plot) is the hurdle that Leo must overcome in trusting Mustachio. It makes for a touching scene and almost makes the change in character worth it.
The 'talking animal' aspect has also been removed; which changes Lune's plot significantly since he was first caught and put into the circus because he could talk, whereas in Jungle Emperor Leo, he is just another circus act.
This may seem a fairly negative review, which it shouldn't, but I continue to believe that much of what made Tezuka's animated films special was his personal involvement. This one is a direct reading of Jungle Emperor, and I'm glad we have it. If it didn't exist, I'd be sending letters to Tezuka studios to make it, and yet, having it in my hands, it seems as though it could be better.
The film itself could be livelier, and while others have praised the animation, it lacks the experimentation and imagination (short of Lune's flying daydream) that we see in Tezuka's other films. And when it comes to tone, dare I say that this film is more somber than the original manga. The exclusion of the epilogue with Kenichi and 'Mustachio' hurts it as well. It would have been nice if Jungle Emperor Leo could have had a bit more fun instead of just marching right off to its inevitable demise. Somehow, Tezuka could manage that sort of thing even in the bleariest moments of Phoenix 2772. It could have been done here as well. Better still if they might have done ALL of Jungle Emperor as a three part movie!
In summation, this is a high quality film with solid production values and no glaring faults of any kind, yet lacks the passion of the earlier works. This is a very reverential reading of Jungle Emperor that should be enjoyed after you've read the manga or seen Kimba. The story is all here, but maybe the spirit of it has been missed?