(WARNING: This article contains light spoilers for Heidi.)
There’s a lot I could say about Isao Takahata’s 1974 TV series Heidi: Girl of the Alps. It’s an excellently crafted show in just about every aspect of its production that manages to be cozy, endearing, compelling, and heartbreaking all at once. It’s one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and one that gave me newfound appreciation for various aspects of the medium. One of these aspects in particular is the opening sequence.
That said, it’s likely some of you don’t know what Heidi is. So before we get into the meat of things, we should briefly get acquainted with Heidi’s history. Let us consult the Goats of Context, our resident experts on slightly obscure animation history (don’t laugh; they’ve been on hard times ever since PlayStation Home shut down).
Heidi: Girl of the Alps is a Japanese adaptation of the classic children’s book written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. It was produced in 1974-5 and directed by Isao Takahata – the same Isao Takahata responsible for Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, the 1982 adaptation of Gauche the Cellist, and many more works. In fact, a fair chunk of Heidi’s major creative staff is comprised of industry legends.
The majority of the series’ episodes were storyboarded by Yoshiyuki Tomino, the man responsible for Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Runaway Ideon, and a whole host of other renowned mecha shows. The character designs and animation direction was done by Yoichi Kotabe, who most will recognize for his work on the characters and 2D artwork in the Super Mario Bros. games. And lastly, the layouts were handled in each and every episode by none other than Hayao Miyazaki.
In its day, Heidi was an incredibly popular series which scored ratings too high to have been only watched by kids. Among other shows like Yamato, it helped bring a greater understanding of the wide audience that animation attracts in Japan. Its success led to the World Masterpiece Theatre, a beloved anthology series that would adapt children’s books for the next 20 years (two shows were later directed by Takahata; 1976’s Marco, 3000 Leagues in Search for Mother and 1979’s Anne of Green Gables). It’s been broadcast in thirty countries and dubbed into twenty different languages around the world, and may very well be Takahata’s most famous work.
However, it doesn’t seem to be that well-known in English speaking countries, perhaps due to the lack of an English localization (with the exception of an obscure dub produced for a fascinating compilation movie that the writer may examine in the future). Thankfully the series has long since been fansubbed into English and can easily be found if you know where to look, and its overall success has ensured home video releases are regularly in print and easily obtainable.
Thank you, Goats of Context, for… Oh, they’ve gone. That’s a bit rude. Where were we? Oh yes, the opening sequence to Heidi and why it stands out so much.
While the intro does a great job at establishing the breezy, joyful tone of the show, I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t really see what’s so special about it. It seems to be a standard opening sequence, with surreal imagery such as Heidi swinging in the sky that’s more representative of the series’ mood than anything literal. Otherwise, the only noteworthy aspect about it is perhaps the shot where Heidi and Peter dance as the seasons pass. (Supposedly animated by Toei Doga legend Yasuji Mori, based on footage he shot of Yoichi Kotabe and Hayao Miyazaki dancing in the parking lot. You can’t make this stuff up.)
However, what’s so remarkable about the intro is how its meaning changes over the course of the series, and its relationship to the world and characters.
A good way into the show, Heidi is forced to leave her home in the Alps and move to the city of Frankfurt, where she ends up staying for many episodes. It’s a very drastic change, not just in scenery, but in nearly every other conceivable aspect: the core cast is completely replaced with new characters, the colour scheme becomes more dull and dreary, and even the background music uses an entirely different set of cues.
It’s a change that Heidi can never fully come round to accepting, and she deals with it by frequently talking about and daydreaming of the Alps. What stands out about these daydreams is that they blur the lines between what’s happening in the world of the show and what’s happening in Heidi’s mind: she might be reading a book or talking to someone, but we see her returning to and playing in the Alps once more. The scenarios tend to be far more surreal than anything we ever saw when she did live there, which serves to highlight Heidi’s feelings.
So how does this relate to the opening sequence? Well, the one thing about the show that doesn’t change when Heidi moves to Frankfurt is the opening. Even though the rest of the series has changed so much, and we never once cut back to the previous core cast or that setting, the opening still features Heidi in the Alps, playing with her friends and enjoying life. At this point in the show, you might notice that the opening shares quite a few similarities with Heidi’s daydreams: the use of surreal imagery, the overall feelings of freedom and joy, and (in one memorable instance) featuring the opening theme “Oshiete,” complete with vocals.
The opening doesn’t just act as a way to introduce the show anymore. It’s now one of the main character’s daydreams: a fantasy about a home she holds dear and longs to return to, but can’t. In a way, keeping the intro the same is almost cruel, because it tricks you into thinking that we’re going to be back in the Alps and Heidi will be truly happy again, and then the episode starts and we’re still in Frankfurt.
And that’s exactly how Heidi feels.
By juxtaposing the intro with a new situation, we’re getting a further insight into Heidi’s emotions, and even empathize with her specific feelings about having to leave the Alps in her heart. This isn’t even something that’s left up to subtext or personal interpretation, as her homesickness and daydreams become more and more prominent the longer she stays in Frankfurt, eventually acting as the catalyst for the rest of the series.
While admittedly speculative, I’m certain the above interpretation was the intended reaction by the creators. Though Heidi always reacts to her surroundings with optimism and wonder, she never daydreams such vivid fantasies until she’s forced to go to Frankfurt. Contrast this to the opening sequence of Takahata’s later work Anne of Green Gables, which depicts its main character Anne riding on a horse through the countryside as it shifts and changes to amazing scenes of all kinds. This doesn’t take place within the world of that show either, but it establishes Anne’s tendency to romanticize the world around her and imagine herself in spectacular situations – something that’s a part of the series from the very first episode.
It’s perfectly fine for a show’s intro to not really have anything to do with the characters or how we view them if that’s how the creators are inclined, or if the elements are too separately created in the production to be melded together in any unique way. However, it’s so fascinating to consider how any element of the production can be used to further highlight and express certain ideas in the overall work if you either pick up on or create connections, and I’m so glad that Takahata and the many talented people who created Heidi were able to so with just the opening.
I’d like to give massive thanks to Nobaddy for listening to my pitch and assuring me that this did make sense outside of my own head, and similarly big thanks to ibcf for giving feedback and criticism that resulted in a more refined article.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.