Reviews of Heidi (1881) and related work

Heidi (1881Text)

Johanna Spyri (writer).

Read in 2022.

In what appears to be the 1870s or so, an orphan of five is left in the care of her gruff paternal grandfather, nearly a hermit in the Swiss Alps. Rumour has it the old man killed somebody in his youth, and it’s probably true. Even under the snows of winter, he does not come down from his cabin to the village. Over the course of the next three years, the little girl prospers greatly, learning to herd goats with a poor local boy and make cheese with her grandfather, who is invigorated by the girl’s love of nature on his altitude. It won’t last.

Heavy on wishful medical pseudoscience and anti-intellectualism, Heidi is still an engaging and influential portrayal of the invigorating power of children that can be read by both children and adults.

References here: NiNoKuni (2019).

text fiction series

Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974Moving picture, 12 hours)

Takahata Isao (director), Miyazaki Hayao (scene designer, layout artist).

Seen in 2015.

Heidi is probably the most iconic iteration of its annually refilled programming slot, the first to become a huge hit with girls, and the last iteration under the banner of Calpis Manga Theater.

The backbone of the show is a faithful adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s two-part novel, but the Christian message has been replaced by child psychology. The first arc (episodes 1-16) is dominated by romantic notions of the Alps as implausibly craggy and Disneyesque, but even that is arguably faithful to Spyri’s prose, and the arc is amply supported by Heidi and her grandfather’s personal growth. The Frankfurt arc (17-33) is compelling viewing, where the biophilic theme is deepened by unromantic contrasts. The ultimate psychological culmination is delayed until episode 35, wherein Heidi almost panics thinking back on the experience.

In the last arc, the alpine environment is a little more realistic on the whole, with more focus on bugs and flowers than on curiously uneroded rock. The romanticism persists, now in the form of the grandfather’s wisdom extending to the intuition that a handicap is psychosomatic and curable by play and unnamed herbs. The last handful of episodes are too sugary for my taste. I would rather have done without the animals collectively jumping in place when the humans are happy (e.g. episode 35).

I went into this series thinking the old man, or Joseph, or Peter’s grandmother, would die along the way, but despite Takahata’s occasionally Bergman-esque dream sequences, such as the abandoned cabin imagined from Frankfurt, it’s all pretty tame in the final analysis. Fortunately the faint indication, in episode 36, that Heidi and Peter will end up a couple is left dangling, as in the book.

Takahata’s patience is wonderful, demonstrated by the use of clothing and silence—from Heidi—in the first episode. The hand-crafted visuals and sound are solid for their time. According to a Mike Toole retrospective, this is partly because Miyazaki invented an intermediate form between traditional storyboards and key animation for this show, refining the former as a basis for the latter. They were called layouts, and because it was a new concept, Miyazaki did thousands of them. The result is a world-class gem of the analog TV animation era.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, Anne of Green Gables (1979), Castle in the Sky (1986), “On the Periphery of the Work” (1987), “The World of Anime and the Scenario” (1995), “What Is Important for Children” (1996), “I’ve Always Wanted to Create a Film About Which I Could Say, ‘I’m Just Glad I Was Born, so I Could Make This’” (2005), Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (2014), March Comes in Like a Lion (2016), Wild Austria: Created by Water (2018).

moving picture adaptation World Masterpiece Theater Japanese production animation fiction series