Hybrid Heidi: Japan’s distinctive appreciation of a Swiss icon

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsWhen I was a child, one of my favorite picture books was a simplified version of Johanna Spyri’s book “Heidi.” How I longed to sleep like Heidi in a loft, frolic with goats and drink goat’s milk from a mug at a big wooden table! I even brought the dog-eared book to Japan after my marriage, thinking what a shame it would be if my future children did not have the opportunity to similarly engross themselves in this marvelous story.

My worries were completely unnecessary. There is no chance of growing up in Japan without knowing Heidi, thanks to the 1974 anime series “Alps no Shojo Heidi” (Heidi: A Girl of the Alps), an early collaboration between Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a wonderful work that is much loved in Japan. A friend told me that her rather taciturn husband bought the whole set of all 52 episodes. It was ostensibly for their daughter, yet he looked as relaxed and happy as she’d ever seen him, sitting on the sofa as he worked his way through the series.

The anime has further served as the basis for many other Heidi-related creations. For example, in 2013 Japan Post released a set of 10 Heidi stamps based on the anime. It has also played a role in a variety of TV commercials including Kasugai Seika’s Milk no Kuni (Country of milk) candies, Bathclin Natural Relax bath powder and Trygroup Inc.’s Try tutoring service.

Perhaps the strangest was a 2009 commercial for au’s cell phone service Gan-gan Talk (Full-blast talk) featuring singer Anna Tsuchiya blasting out a rock song extolling the benefits of the service. Suddenly a backdrop of anime Heidi’s face appears, and Tsuchiya bellows, “Heidi mo bikkuri!” (Heidi’s surprised, too!) as various points of the service unroll over Heidi’s eyes (Domestic calls / 24 hours / Free). At the end, a voice asks, “au happy?” Happy, perhaps — flabbergasted, most definitely.

Sometimes the representations stray rather far from the essence of the story and anime. Last September, an animated Hungry Days commercial for Nissin Foods’ Cup Noodle reimagined Heidi and her friends Peter and Clara as high school students. Heidi is in love with Peter but is insecure, wishing to be as attractive as Clara, who for her part suggests that Heidi could be more fashionable. In a scene typical of Japanese high school TV dramas, as Heidi stands on a swing and Peter sits on the one adjacent, she anxiously notes that Clara looked cute that day. Peter jumps up, places his hand over hers on the chain of her swing, reassures her that he likes her just as she is, and kisses her gently. Umm ... seriously? #NotMyHeidi.

To be sure, “Heidi” is loved throughout the world, but Japan has clearly taken her on as one of its own enduring cultural icons. Why Heidi? Raz Greenberg, an anime researcher, believes that “Heidi” has worked well as a vehicle to convey Japanese values and practices. He suggests that Miyazaki found elements in three classics of Western children’s literature — “Pippi Longstocking,” “Heidi” and “Anne of Green Gables” — that resonated with him and allowed him to formulate creative expressions of the complementary yet often conflicting Japanese social concepts of giri (duty) and ninjo (human feeling). “Pippi Longstocking” also inspired two short films featuring a young girl befriended by a panda father and cub, “Panda Kopanda” and “Panda Kopanda Amefuri Circus” (Panda Kopanda rainy day circus).

Greenberg argues that in all of these stories an orphaned girl is portrayed initially as living in the moment, letting her imagination run free, but over time comes to understand the demands of the adult world, in a progression from ninjo to giri. Nevertheless, in Miyazaki’s take on the stories, ninjo ultimately manages to coexist with giri, rather than being supplanted by it.

In the first part of “Heidi,” the eponymous heroine is completely free to lead a carefree and innocent existence with her grandfather in the mountains. This is suddenly curtailed through her removal to Frankfurt and her duties as a companion to sickly Clara. This world of giri is painful, and preys on Heidi’s health, which recovers when she returns to the mountains. Yet, Greenberg notes, Heidi does not completely revert to her former way of life, but rather synthesizes and reconciles giri and ninjo in this third phase, continuing with her studies and other obligations while able once more to experience her emotions in an unconstricted way.

Media researcher Fabienne Darling-Wolf similarly views Takahata and Miyazaki’s anime version of “Heidi” as an important Japanese cultural representation. In her aptly titled paper, “The ‘Lost’ Miyazaki: How a Swiss Girl Can Be Japanese and Why It Matters,” Darling-Wolf notes several themes of “Heidi” that emerge in later works by Miyazaki, most notably “Tonari no Totoro” (My Neighbor Totoro), that are distinctly Japanese. In particular, Darling-Wolf observes three motifs in the “Heidi” anime that are of important cultural value in Japan.

The first is the cheerful ganbare persevering spirit that Heidi exhibits in each new and scary turn of her life, including the beginning of her life with her gruff grandfather and later coping with Miss Rottenmeier, the stern and disapproving housekeeper for Clara’s family. Next, Darling-Wolf points to the focus on nature and seasonal change in “Heidi,” an important element of Japanese culture. Finally, she also notes the role of the pine tree behind the grandfather’s house, which serves as a regular “character” in the anime, appearing in many episodes. The tree is animistic, speaking to Heidi throughout the series, adding a Shinto aspect to the story.

Darling-Wolf observes that Miyazaki’s “Heidi” has received relatively little attention from researchers. It is possible that some are more interested in his explicitly Japanese works, perhaps believing that these have greater authenticity. But the enduring love for Miyazaki’s Heidi on the part of several generations of Japanese people demonstrates the limitations of such binary thinking. Insufficiently Japanese? Heidi mo bikkuri!

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.

(The next installment will appear May 5.)Speech

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