Heidi, Girl of the Alps #1 - Some Thoughts
Welcome, one and all, to one of the greatest truimphs in the careers of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. This is the first episode of 1974's Heidi, Girl of the Alps. I'm afraid that no English subtitles or dub exist for this show. We'll just have to soldier on as best we can.
Perhaps, even, this would be a great opportunity for all devoted fans to work on translating the script. The internet is perfect for something like this. working together, editing a collective work that otherwise would be lost. The fansub community does so much, but still there's much of anime's rich history that remains beyond their reach. So share and pass along, kids!
This series marked a triumph after many years of struggle and toil. The starting point, as always, was Horus, Prince of the Sun, in 1968. After the movie's failure at the box office, Takahata was ousted from the director's chair at Toei. He would not direct again until he and Miyazaki joined the rest of the gang at A Pro with Lupin III in 1971 and '72. Even then, the two served as the "directing team" - although you can pretty easily tell which of the Lupin episodes were Miyazaki's, and which were Takahata's.
Takahata wanted to bring anime into the realm of literature, of character drama, and away from the American Disney formula. Several projects aimed to move in this direction, and I suppose you could include the infamous Pipi Longstockings project, which fell through and brought back to live as Panda Kopanda. But they were really only steps to that final destination, movements towards the promised land that Horus (and Hilda especially) proclaimed.
With Heidi, Takahata finally had the means to achieve his goals. A rich literary work from Europe, known to all the world, and paced just perfectly for a 52-episode television series. Heidi is perfect for adaptation; the ideal test for the skilled filmmaker to draw upon its pages and pull out all those necessary details that bring it to life. Which is to say he or she must also interpret a work, for they must build upon it and stretch it out. I don't believe that a film or tv adaptation that follows a book to the letter, and nothing more, would be poor. But it would be missing...something. The animation medium aims to bring us into these worlds, deeper and more immersive than ever before.
With Heidi, Takahata Isao demonstrates his mastery of this form. It is no coincidence that nearly all of his works have been adaptations from outside. Only Pom Poko, Ghibli's 1994 film, was an original. Horus really got the ball rolling, but it's Heidi that earns the title "masterpiece." From here, it's only a matter of connecting the dots; from Heidi to Marco; from Marco to Anne; from Anne to Ghibli. I don't think it's possible, really, to get to the depth of Studio Ghibli without getting to depth with Heidi, Marco, and Anne. You're hearing the notes, but not the music.
A little bit about who did what. Heidi is often regarded as a Takahata-Miyazaki work alone, or sometimes credited solely to Miyazaki. This is just ignorance rearing its head, since the master filmmaker who gave us Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro is the most easily recognized. We're still piecing together their history in 2008.
Hayao Miyazaki's role in Heidi was a crucial one, and it shaped his own work immensely. He served on layout and continuity. Incredibly, he worked the layout on every episode of the entire series! This was unprecedented, and demonstrates to his single-minded obsessiveness towards his work. He would perform the same duties in 1976 with 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and the first 13 episodes of Anne of Green Gables, before leaving for Telecom, where Castle of Cagliostro awaits.
Layout is pretty simple. It means you create the landscapes and environments for each scene. You're the set designer, of sorts. This is necessary for creating a believable landscape; you need to believe that you're inside the home of Heidi's grandfather, and know where everything is placed. Likewise, you need to believe you really are in Frankfurt, as a three-dimensional place, and not simply a series of drawings.
Takahata's documentary neo-realism is totally dependent on successful layout. And Miyazaki provided that in droves. He created endless drawings, from every conceivable angle, and all in immense detail. We've seen Miyazaki's drawings for storyboards and e-konte at Ghibli. Now imagine that level of attention brought to a 52-episode series, not a 2-hour movie. Then add in the level of creative input this degree of creative control permits. The result is almost staggering. No single person has ever repeated the same feat. And remember, Miyazaki performed this not once...but twice.
Yasuji Mori, the "soul of Toei Doga," was originally part of the team, but illness forced him to withdraw. He did, however, make one notable contribution, and that's the shot of Heidi and Peter dancing at the opening. He filmed Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe and then animated from there. It's too bad that Mori couldn't continue, since he was such a towering giant at Toei. If he had stayed, the look and style of Heidi would be greatly different.
Instead, that role was fulfilled by Yoichi Kotabe, and his equally talented wife, Reiko Okuyama, by his side. Takahata gave Kotabe the title of Character Designer, the first for anime. It's safe to say that this remains his best-known work...unless you included Pikachu, I guess. Is there a more universal, iconic anime character than Heidi? One more immediately known around the world? Kotabe's style is fairly iconic, working with simple gestures, but it's extremely effective. It's also very diverse, as the series shows Heidi and everyone else in an endless array of poses and angles. This isn't the simple cartoon drawing style of, say, Hanna-Barbara. Westerners still tethered to the Walt Disney paradigm of animation will complain, but if you can get past that, and understand another paradigm, one that is more natural, one more resembling manga and comics, you'll come to appreciate this show.
I think Kotabe outdid himself on Marco, with an even larger and more diverse case, but it's hard to top Heidi, Peter, and Clara...and the Grandfather, and Joseph the dog, and...well, you get the idea.
The pilot episode is, as I've said, a triumph. It is nothing less than Isao Takahata's vindication, his final definitive victory over the Toei studio, those clueless suits who could never imagine anything beyond Disney. But Takahata saw beyond that, to the modern anime era, and with Heidi he exploded those boundaries further, ushering in an era of literary anime shows, emotionally complex character drama, and a documentary realism and attention to detail unsurpassed. Heidi unleashed the annual series World Masterpiece Theatre, a jewel of Japanese animation for 25 years.
For me, this pilot episode is a thrill to watch - as thrilling as the opening scene with the wolves in Horus. All of the elements of the series are on display, all the main characters are introduced, and we quickly find that these are people we like. We're going to like Heidi and Peter, and Heidi's Grandfather, for once, is not an ominous creature to be feared, but a strong, resilient man of few words. The dramatic scene between Grandfather and Heidi's aunt will be replayed again at the end of Act One, with all the expected emotions and tears.
And hardcore Ghibli freaks will have a field day spotting all the riffs. I counted around a half-dozen. Maybe you'll find more. There's Heidi running up the hill, which was later quoted in the openings for Future Boy Conan and Anne of Green Gables. There's a closeup of grinning goats that reappears in My Neighbor Totoro. There's Heidi throwing her clothes all around and running up the hill, which we see again in Pom Poko and Nausicaa. There are pillow shots of nature, including one of bees over flowers that I also saw in Anne.
And there's the best Heidi riff of them all: The Heidi Tree - that low-angle shot of the giant trees near the episode's end. From Heidi's view, she is greeted with a massive trunk and branches stretching to the sky. It's an iconic shot, which reappears numerous times over the course of the series. And it's quoted and riffed again and again and again. Where else can you find The Heidi Tree? Future Boy Conan. Anne of Green Gables. Gauche the Cellist. Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. Laputa: Castle in the Sky. My Neighbor Totoro. Umi ga Kikoeru. There may be more. You'll just have to see for yourself.