From Heidi to Totoro: How Switzerland fuelled a Japanese anime revolution

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.

From Heidi to Totoro: How Switzerland fuelled a Japanese anime revolution

Far from the Swiss Alps, the cherished 19th-century storybook character Heidi has 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 “Alps no Shojo Heidi” (“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, including Kotabe.

He was subsequently recruited by video game pioneer Nintendo to redesign a host of characters in Mario.

Heidi also boosted the standing of director Isao Takahata, best known for the animated war film “Grave of the Fireflies”, and Hayao Miyazaki, creator of films “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro”.

The two joined forces to set up the celebrated anime Studio Ghibli.

Heidi's Japanese adventure is explored in an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, running until October 13.

Kotabe has been invited to take part in the event to explain the genesis of the character he first began sketching nearly four decades ago.

Japanese animator and character designer Yoichi Kotabe poses next to cartoon boards from the Japanese animated series “Heidi, daughter of the Alps” during his visit to an exhibition titled “Heidi in Japan” at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP 


“The goal was to have a little girl who was 'kawaii', as cute as possible,” he told AFP, describing how he had first drawn her with large eyes, a big smile, but also “little braids”.

But he said that when he presented his first sketches, a specialist on the 1880 novel by Johanna Spyri pointed out that “Heidi is a five 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.”

Kotabe was prompted to rethink her image and gave Heidi the ruffled, short, dark locks that fans of the series saw 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 seeped into the public perception of the character.

And yet, the animated version of Heidi who would go on to be dubbed into 20 languages almost never came about.

Sketching the Swiss Alps

Takahata had initially wanted to adapt the story of Pippi Longstocking to the screen. But Swedish author Astrid Lindgren turned down the offer, saying she feared the Japanese director was interested “only in money”, Kotabe said.

So the director turned his attention to another classic of children's literature, 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 said, 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 said, describing how the team had spent a month furiously sketching their surroundings.

Takahata, who died last year at the age of 82, was known for the realism of his animations and attention to detail in depicting ordinary life and nature.

'Piece of art'

“People see (Heidi) as children's entertainment,” Hans Thomsen, an art history professor at Zurich University and curator of the exhibit, told AFP.

But the series is in fact “a piece of art”, he insisted, 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 hinting at the series' success in Japan are also on display, including Heidi-adorned bento boxes, origami kits and packs of fondue cheese.

“The images of Heidi and her adventures in the mountains have had a strong impact on the Japanese, both young and old,” Veronique Kanel, of Swiss Tourism, told AFP.

But she added that the series had 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.

Kotabe recalled how surprised he had been in the 1970s to see “no visible traces of Heidi” in Maienfeld.

The TV series he helped create has changed that, with its success reflected in a dedicated Heidi museum, special hiking trail and souvenir shops.

“Today, everything in Maienfeld has to do with Heidi,” Kotabe said.


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Macron faces defining moment as he takes on two crises at once

Simultaneously battling the twin crises of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and a resurgence in Islamist attacks, French President Emmanuel Macron faces a defining moment that will determine the success of his presidency and even his chances of reelection.

Macron faces defining moment as he takes on two crises at once
Macron visits the scene of a knife attack in Nice last week. Photo: AFP

Macron came to power in 2017 on a wave of optimism that he was a transformational leader who would bring much-needed reform to France and restore its confidence as a player on the global stage.

But for two years he has been beset by a succession of crises, first, from 2018 to 2019, more than a year of “yellow vests” protests against his reforms, and then a crippling nationwide strike last winter over changes to France's pension system.

And just when the strikes dwindled and Macron began talking confidently about what was to come in the “second act” of his mandate, the world was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced a nationwide lockdown.

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As France was beginning to recover from the economic hit of that lockdown, the virus surged again, forcing Macron to announce a fresh lockdown last week.

The country is now in shock after the beheading of a teacher and the killing of three people in a church, attacks that have been blamed on Islamist radicals and which have propelled the fight against terror to the top of the agenda. The motives behind the shooting of a priest in Lyon on Saturday are still not clear.

The current period is the toughest for Macron since he came to power, said Bruno Cautres, political researcher for the Paris-based Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po (CEVIPOF).

When confronted with the “yellow vest” protests, the French leader had the “political capacity” to respond to the demands and came up with a package worth 10 billion euros, he noted.

“This permanent pressure is offering us no respite,” admitted an advisor of Macron's administration, who asked not to be named.

“We have lost the control of the agenda.”

'Succession of crises'

No-one can blame Macron for the emergence of the pandemic but the government is under pressure from critics who accuse it of having failed to prepare for the second wave.

“The virus is circulating in France with a speed that even the most pessimistic forecasts did not anticipate,” the French leader said in an address to the nation announcing the new lockdown, prompting an outcry from medics who had indeed warned of such a scenario.


And while France is united in its outrage over the deadly attacks, there are questions over why security services failed to watch the assailants, and a debate over whether his strategy against Islamist radicalism is too hard or too soft.

For almost two years Macron has been unable to impose his own agenda in the face of fast-changing events, said Cautres.

“The French have the impression of going through a succession of crises that never go away.”

'Worst job in the world'

As France enjoyed a relatively normal summer, unaware of the ferocity of the coronavirus wave that was to follow, Macron hoped to regain the initiative with a 100 billion-euro relaunch plan and a strategy of “living with the virus”.

Since then however, attempts to move forward on an ambitious agenda of green policies, economic change, and the overhaul of France's pension system have been stymied by external factors.

This is a particular concern for a president who has never enjoyed wild popularity – with the latest Ifop survey giving him a 38 percent approval rating — and whose party flopped in local polls earlier this year.

Eyes are already focused on the 2022 presidential election where Macron's most likely challenger will be far-right leader Marine Le Pen. He hopes to avoid the same one-term fate as predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.

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But if he wants to emerge victorious, the French leader needs to “finally get results”, said prominent political commentator Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet.

“If the health situation does not improve by the end of the year or the beginning of 2021 it will be truly very difficult for him. He will be held directly responsible.”


“At this anxiety-inducing moment, Emmanuel Macron probably has the worst job in the world.”

But political analyst Pascal Perrineau said that even if a majority of French was “not convinced by the president and the majority then they are even less so by the opposition”.