ZURICH – Heidi and Super Mario may not seem to have much in common but anime and video game aficionados will detect the signature style of Japanese character designer Yoichi Kotabe in both.
Far from the Swiss Alps, the cherished 19th-century storybook character Heidi played an unlikely role in the creation of Japan’s now booming anime industry.
The story of the little orphan girl who goes to live with her gruff grandfather in the mountains took Japan by storm in the 1970s with the animation series “Arupusu no Shojo Haiji” (“Heidi: A Girl of the Alps”).
The 52-part TV show, which became a worldwide hit, marked a turning point in the careers of its creators. It boosted the standing of director Isao Takahata, best-known for the animated film “Grave of the Fireflies,” and Hayao Miyazaki, creator of “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” who joined forces to set up the celebrated Studio Ghibli anime company. Kotabe, meanwhile, was recruited by video game pioneer Nintendo to redesign a host of characters in Mario.
Since July, The Swiss National Museum in Zurich has been celebrating Heidi’s Japanese adventure in an exhibition titled “Heidi in Japan,” which runs until Oct. 13. Kotabe, who was invited to take part in the event, explains the genesis of the character he first began sketching nearly four decades ago.
“The goal was to have a little girl who was kawaii, as cute as possible,” he says, describing how he had first drawn her with large eyes, a big smile and sporting “little braids.”
When he presented the sketches, however, a specialist on the 1880-81 novel by Johanna Spyri pointed out that “Heidi is a 5-year-old girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather, who is not very friendly. He is not going to do her braids every morning.”
Prompted to rethink Heidi’s image, Kotabe then gave the character the ruffled, short, dark locks that fans of the series will recognize from the first episode in 1974.
Although many adaptations of “Heidi” have been made for film and TV over the decades, Kotabe’s version has thoroughly influenced the public perception of the character. Yet the animated version of the story, which went on to be dubbed into 20 languages almost never came about.
Takahata, who died last year at age 82, had initially wanted to adapt the story of Pippi Longstocking to the screen. Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, however, turned down the offer, saying she feared the director was interested “only in money,” Kotabe says. So Takahata turned his attention to the Swiss classic of children’s literature instead, and the team of Japanese animation artists headed to Switzerland to study Alpine cabins and pastures around the small eastern village of Maienfeld.
“This was entirely new for us,” Kotabe recalls, pointing out that he had never been outside of Japan before. “The time was very short, so we were aware that we had to gather as much material as possible,” he adds, describing how the team had spent a month furiously sketching their surroundings.
“People see (“Heidi”) as children’s entertainment,” says Hans Thomsen, an art history professor at the University of Zurich and curator of the exhibition. But he insists the series is in fact “a piece of art,” pointing to its “creativity, visual impact and ability to move people.”
The exhibition consists of a large number of animation panels, aquarelles and sketches of baby goats observed by the artists during their Alpine excursion. Objects highlighting the series’ success in Japan, including Heidi-adorned bento boxes, origami kits and packs of fondue cheese, are also on display.
“The images of Heidi and her adventures in the mountains have had a strong impact on the Japanese, both young and old,” says Veronique Kanel, of Switzerland Tourism. But the series also allowed “this image of Switzerland as a paradise of Alpine nature” to be spread around the world, drawing huge numbers of tourists to Heidi’s remote valley.
Recalling his visit to Maienfeld during the 1970s, Kotabe says he was surprised to find “no visible traces of Heidi.”
The TV series he helped create has changed that, with its success reflected in a dedicated Heidi museum, a special hiking trail and souvenir shops.
“Today,” Kotabe says, “everything in Maienfeld has to do with Heidi.”