Thursday, January 10, 2013

Japanese Haiji vs. German Heidi

The visual difference between a faded 16mm print used for TV broadcasting and a remastered Blu-ray is obviously striking. But when a show is released with two different soundtracks by two different composers, faded colors become irrelevant. Even if you don't understand a word of Japanese or German, these clips will speak for themselves.

Arupusu no shôjo Haiji (1974 aka Heidi, girl of the alps) is probably the most well-known Japanese TV series in Europe. It has been a real breakthrough not only for Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Series" but also for director Isao Takahata and "scene designer" Hayao Miyazaki - who drew every layout of all 52 episodes himself.

After so many film and TV adaptations (American, German and Swiss) it is safe to count Takahata's version among the most faithful - if not THE most faithful - retelling of Swiss author Johanna Spyri's 1880 "Heidi" novels about the surfacing town-country conflict of industrialized societies. Of course, alterations had to be made and incidents had to be added in order to keep 52 21-minute episodes (not counting credits and episode previews) interesting.

But this enormous running time leaves room for a leisurely pace that allows the audience to experience the many faces of nature. Needless to say that even in such a tightly budgeted show the founders of Studio Ghibli squeezed in many shots of animated weather (especially wind and changing seasons).

So if you are able to look beyond the very limited animation and stereotyped character design you will discover a well researched and touching tale of a girl who learns to love nature only to be sent away to a German city that has "no wind and no trees".

The sound of music
Of course, the melancholy atmosphere is greatly influenced by the soundtrack - Takeo Watanabe's music in particular. Although there are only five or six themes used in the first 18 episodes that take place on the mountain pastures above Maienfeld (Graubünden, Switzerland) the cues fit the action perfectly. These tunes range from jaunty (for Josef, the dog) to elegiac, but the underlying emotion is always one of longing. At times, Heidi's music seems to come straight out of an Italian film of the era.

But - and this is an enormous but - you only hear these tunes in the original Japanese language version (and the feature-length version released to US theaters in 1975). In German speaking countries most people associate Heidi with tunes by Gert Wilden.

Since I couldn't bear watching anime series as a child (they always looked like a series of badly drawn and dubbed still images to me and had nothing in common with my conception of animation) I have never seen more than a few minutes of Heidi. Although now I have learned to accept this Astroboy-as-a-little-girl design approach (thanks to a "fan sub project"), I doubt that I would have been as taken with this series had I been forced to watch it in German.

Before the days of high definition
Before talking about the soundtrack let me remind you that Heidi was conceived and broadcast as a TV series. It is therefore not surprising that the German DVD box set uses a print that seems to be too high on brightness and contrast and displays some color cast.

TV screens used to be quite different and very small in the 1970s, black was a middle grey at best and around Europe some people still had black and white monitors. For all we know, the picture we get on the German DVD may represent the original viewing conditions much closer than the meticulously remastered transfer of the Japanese Blu-ray.

left: German DVD - right: Japanese BD
Pushing the brightness in dark scenes so that TV spectators could at least see what was going on was not uncommon...
...the greenish cast and the bleaching outlines, however, are hardly there in the original negative.

Contrast is much higher on the left, but actually Heidi's clothes look more natural. The interior around the old woman is definitely colder (closer to blue) in the left and warmer (closer to brown) in the right image.

Heidi's colors are warmer and more harmonious on the left (A-F) but the color contrast between her shirt (C) and her skin tone (D) is stronger on the right. While overall contrast is lower, the greenish sleeve (C) seems to stand out a little too much.

In a different mood

While the Swiss are quite used to hearing Swiss characters on TV not talking in their native Swiss German but the standard version of the language as spoken in Northern Germany, it is fairly unusual however that when a German producer decides to rebuild the whole soundtrack from scratch including the music he does not substitute the Japanese score with a Swiss score. Instead Moravian-born German composer Gert Wilden who was at the time best known for his music for erotic films was hired to rescore the entire series.

My comparison starts after the credits sequence because the catchy title songs can be easily found on youtube. So let's listen to the very beginning of episode 1:

Note: all examples Japanese first, German second.
The Japanese opening is full of tension and foreboding. The lonely girl Heidi is introduced with a lyrical accordion. After that we only hear the silence of a village at dawn and a girl waiting in anticipation. Wilden's music (starting at 1:43) seems like a rhythmical stock track that just fades in. It is already jaunty and sounds more like the background in a commercial for a Bavarian resort than a score to a deserted early morning scene. Moreover, the music does not change when Heidi is introduced and goes on even during the rooster scene until the first line of dialogue. No matter what style of music one prefers it is obvious that the different approach to scoring changes the scene far more than the differences in color.

It sounds as if the German producers went to great lengths to undermine Takahata's basic mood of slow pacing (long silent moments) and longing (melancholy themes without a constant drumbeat). And to be honest, it seems strange that Heidi's voice sounds so much older in German.

As the next clip demonstrates, the notion of a female narrator that clearly reflected the novel's female author has been replaced by a standard male narrator as well (the same had been done to Cinderella when it was partially re-dubbed around the same time, as you can hear here):
In addition to the narrator, again the elegiac tune with the small sentimental changes is replaced with an alpine oompah oompah tune (0:38) that doesn't even sound Swiss to me. During the narration the music at least seems to be explicitly scored to the film.

The next example consists of two sets of clips that show how both the dramatic/scary and the sentimental scenes are toned down by Wilden's score:
The Morricone-like tension of the argument is de-emphasized and the sad good-bye sounds a lot more down-to-earth in the dub.

Occasionally, the Japanese version includes a genuine Swiss song like "jetz wei mer eis jödele":
In the German version however any reference to Swiss German is carefully omitted (even the word "Dörfli" which means "little village" is treated as if it was the name of the village) and replaced by narration.

Just to show that this is common throughout the series, here's another moment where story takes a backseat to mood:
It seems that Western television always had this urge to move the story forward. Somehow, Japanese children seem to have been considered more patient. It's interesting, by the way, that the music (behind the narration) of these later episodes resembles the Japanese score more closely.

Early on, Heidi has a dream which is a good example of the differences in relying on music, silence and soundeffects in an eerie and touching scene:
Again the power of silence and "time standing still" is minimized by the German score. And again a song (this time Japanese) is replaced by narration.

In following example the Japanese version is scored during the pan down from sled to the children (0:10) while the German soundtrack contains music during the pan down along the fir trees (0:55) and vice versa!

There is a strong indication that the sound effects have been rebuilt as well:
Is it just me or did they simply paste one single "moo" about four times on the German soundtrack?

The reason of this comparison is not to deride Wilden as a lesser composer than Watanabe - for all we know, he was only following the producers' directions. The reason of this post is to demonstrate how much music can change the way we experience a film even if the pictures are identical.

The German soundtrack may have been put together with utmost care and really good intentions - maybe they didn't want to upset or bore German children with storytelling that was deemed too Japanese, and certainly sentimentality wasn't very popular in those days. After all, Wilden's music is crucial to the way generations of German speaking children have experienced and loved Heidi.

Ultimately it is a matter of taste which scoring approach one prefers but only one of them is true to Takahata's vision.

Note: Up to date, there is no DVD available that includes both language versions simultaneously. There's not even an official release that features English or German subtitles yet.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

2013 Preview: A Bob Clampett Year
Bob Clampett (May 8, 1913 - May 4, 1984)
Last April, I have tried to revive this blog by increasingly writing about live-action films. Since analyses of Japanese films have become such a large part of this blog lately, I have decided to add a table of contents as a separate page at the top. I also hope that this listing will finally get some of the more labor-intensive articles about lesser known masters like Kore-eda the attention they deserve.

In the meantime, thanks to my preoccupation with Studio Ghibli films animation is once again central to Colorful Animation Expressions. This year I intend to continue my series of analyses of red - green complementary contrasts. But I also intend to make 2013 a Looney Tunes year: In one way or another I plan to celebrate Bob Clampett's (and to some extent Frank Tashlin's) 100th birthday by dedicating roughly one post a month to his (and occasionally Tashlin's) films.

But first I feel obligated to guide you to Steven Hartley's audacious attempt to review EVERY Warner Bros. cartoon ever produced: Likely Looney, Mostly Merrie! 

2012 Review: Impressive Motion Pictures
Digital drawing inspired by two production stills from Anna Karenina.[O.I.]
Of all the new releases I have seen in 2012 the following few were not necessarily the "best" films I have seen but the ones that left the deepest impression (in alphabetical order):

  • ANNA KARENINA (Joe Wright, 2012): Tom Stoppard's English stage melodrama adaptation of Tolstoy's epic novel playfully staged by Joe Wright combining 1930s Technicolor esthetics with 19th century ballet choreographed to Dario Marianelli's sweeping score.
  • BRAVE (Brenda Chapman/Mark Andrews, 2012): for all its shortcomings and compromised vision I found it to be the most tactile CG-feature coming out of Hollywood yet.
  • DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011): Visceral, vibrating, self-contained. A strong central relationship and a most pulsating interplay of sound and pictures make up for a slightly lightweight story.
  • HALT AUF FREIER STRECKE (Andreas Dresen, 2011): Eastern German kitchen sink realism at its best. The most impressing of three strong films about slowly dying family members (the others being Haneke's masterpiece Amour and David Sieveking's Vergiss mein nicht).
  • KISEKI - I WISH (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2011): Not Kore-eda's best but one of his warmest and most easily accessible. Undramatically emotional.
  • LE PRÉNOM (Patellière/Delaporte, 2012): A French comedy with so many twists and turns that it surmounts last year's Carnage in every particular.
  • THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011): Great acting and a human story that struck a chord with me although living in Hawaii is about as alien to me as living on the moon.
  • TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Thomas Alfredson, 2011): One of the most sensual 1970s spy thriller adaptations: crammed with details, engaging, puzzling, dense as well as calm and impenetrable at the same time.
  • WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Lynne Ramsay, 2011): A disturbing masterpiece that delivers on every level. Highly topical in a year of so many nihilistic massacres.

I have also enjoyed Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Stephen Chbosky's coming of age drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the two beautiful silent films The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) and especially Blancanieves (Pablo Berger), a contemporary retelling of "Snow White" in the style of Spanish films of the 1920s. But ultimately, none of them left a lasting impression.

The Joy of Revisiting Favorite Films in a Different Context
Although the new releases still outnumber the older movies I have seen during 2012, it was once again a lot easier to compile the list of (re-)discoveries. This is probably due to the fact that I have been analyzing the works of several directors including Terence Davies, Clint Eastwood, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Akira, Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao as well as historical subjects like horror films around 1960 or three-strip Technicolor films.

Many films have probably resonated with me more deeply than new releases simply because I have already seen and liked them before while gaining new insight by seeing them within a larger or different context. I also like to revisit interesting or favorite movies for the sake of reliving the emotions and discovering how my focus changes according to my growing older. As a matter of fact, I keep seeing many more facets every time I revisit a film.

My top ten (re-)discoveries of 2012 in historical order (* marks films I have never seen before):
  • Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
  • High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952)
  • Le Notti Bianche* (Luchino Visconti, 1957)
  • Nashville* (Robert Altman, 1975)
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976)
  • Il Casanova di Fellini* (Federico Fellini, 1976)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
  • Distant Voices, Still Lives* (Terence Davies, 1988)
  • Ju Dou* (Zhang Yimou, 1990)
  • After Life/Wandafuru Raifu* (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 1998)

All roads lead to Italy
Chalk drawing from a Casanova still
I have made it a tradition to sum up my foray into Italian cinema at this point and although I did not ostensibly focus on any specific Italian director's work, connections to Italy popped up anywhere from Clint Eastwood to Takahata Isao whose depictions of everyday life (from Haiji, 1974 to Omohide Poro Poro, 1991) strongly remind me of Italian neorealism. On the other hand, Miyazaki's least rationally coherent excursion into intuitive storytelling, Howl's Moving Castle (2004), prompted me to revisit Fellini's underrated Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965) which, in turn, overwhelmed me more than ever in terms of color design.

In anticipation of Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) I have also been catching up on some lesser-known Spaghetti Westerns. Coincidentally, this year's Locarno Film Festival held a screening of Sergio Leone's opus magnum Once Upon a Time in America. As an almost four hour long collection of imaginative set pieces it left a considerably stronger impression than when I first saw the same cut years ago.

Finally, two of the films in the list above were photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno, one of my favorite cinematographers: He handles the black and white of Visconti's dreamlike Dostoevsky adaptation Le Notti Bianche as gracefully as Fellini's inventive color extravaganza about the adventures of Casanova.

A more refined understanding of Technicolor
After looking at so many American Technicolor films Fellini's Giulietta and Casanova served as a welcome shakeup that put conventional color schemes into perspective. I have been lucky enough to see Fantasia (James Algar et al., 1940) twice this year, once with live orchestral accompaniment in a brutally oversaturated digital projection and once as part of a Technicolor retrospective in glorious 35mm! The projected print of the 1990 restoration looked a lot darker (like a real Technicolor film) and less sterile than the current BD.

Still from Technicolor's live-action debut La Cucaracha.
In connection with this retrospective (which included Lloyd Corrigan's legendary 1934 short La Cucaracha), I have also stumbled upon the book "Color Design in the 1930s: Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow" (Scott Higgins, 2007) which not only provides detailed color analyses of carefully selected color films but also proves my point that the rules appointed in the 1930s still govern our color perception to this day. Actually, it puzzles me how I managed to not notice this study before.

For those interested in the technical history of color film Barbara Flückiger's "Timeline of Historical Film Colors" is an online database to bookmark.

Contemporary Color Concepts
This year's only animated feature that stood out to me in terms of color was Le Tableau/The Painting (Jean-François Laguionie, F 2011)which I will probably get back to in a future red-vs-green post.

In some live-action fantasy films, however, the prevalent blue-yellow scheme of past decades was refreshingly forsaken in favor of combinations of red, blue and white as seen in Hugo (based on a variety of historical concepts as is expected from Scorsese), Andrew Stanton's John Carter (a movie otherwise best forgotten) and some segments of Cloud Atlas (Tykwer/Wachowski, 2012).
Unfortunately, I don't have a HUGO BD at hand and therefore have not found a good illustration of this fresh red and blue contrast (I have been able to closely analyze the DCP, I'm not just assuming).

Hugo (2011) along with Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) also made the most imaginative use of 3D, even if neither of those movies excited me as much as seeing Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) in 3D.