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.


Jake Walters said...

Terrific job here. I really enjoyed what you had to say. Keep going because you definitely bring a new voice to this subject. Not many people would say what you've said and still make it interesting. Well, at least I'm interested. Cant wait to see far more of this from you.

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Oscar said...

Oh no--I can't believe they reworked the music in that way--it's a travesty! In the Spanish (from Spain) version, all of the music is original, with the lyrics in Japanese. The score is so moving (I particularly love the dog's music and the song of the trees behind the cabin). That dream sequence is one of my favorites of the whole series--gah! They completely ruined it with that schmaltzy music. I don't think the people handling the score understood the deep, lonely emotional content of the material.

I found your post after googling around to dig up more info about the original narration in Japanese. I have watched the series dubbed into Spanish several times and was wondering if a narrator was used in the original.

After seeing your clips, it looks like the style is fairly similar, though the Spanish (female) narrator is a bit more syrupy. It's really a shame we can't see the original Japanese reliably dubbed, because there are times when I suspect that the Spanish version may have altered some of the religious subtext/tensions in the original--this was produced, after all, during the Franco years. What got me googling was watching the episode with the first meeting with Peter's grandmother. She somehow comes across as a hyper-religious Spanish abuela.

Oswald Iten said...

Hi Megan, a real comment at last!
You could find out about the religious abuela in the Japanese version with literal English subtitles here:

It is a fan sub project, but at least half the episodes are up.

Unknown said...

To my opinion, German musical restoration of Heidi saved children from getting into a deep boredom and sadness. I remember watching the series on TV when I was a kid in Turkey. Heidi was a subject of a kind of scorn or a comedy among me and my friends. It was the dubbed Japanese version, of course. Now I watch the show (German version) with my kids and I am contented that they rejoice while watching, that they look forward to the show, and that they sing the tunes afterwards.
I don't believe a child is likely to have such joyful impressions from the anime by watching the Japanese version: Again: the power of soundtrack...
I congratulate Gert Wilden for his great talent in composing such dramatically dense music from rather simple and apparently irrelevant material (e.g. flute, electric piano, and bass guitar).

Oswald Iten said...

Hi Selim, that's an interesting point. The scoring is certainly very powerful... I didn't watch any of the anime series regularly when I was a child. But I later found out that all those that kept me intrigued despite the limited animation were the ones with the original japanese musical scoring left intact. Heidi on the other hand felt completely wrong. But this is probably increased by the fact that even a child can recognize that the German/Tyrolian sounding Wilden music is completely wrong as a substitute for Swiss folk music which it clearly seems to imply. To me it sounded like "Heidi in Musikantenstadl". Wilden certainly masters his craft, it just didn't work for me. It's a question of personal tastes of course, since many children in Switzerland also sang the Heidi-song along. And actually it is great to hear, that there are still children introduced to Takahata's work this way.

Unknown said...

Excelent jod, now I know the name of the song "Jetzt wemmer eis jödele". I want to know the name of the other song, please and the performer of the songs. I love these songs since I was I child and I watched Heidi.

ZakDrizzt said...

Hi Oswald. I'm from South Africa and grew up with Heidi. Here in S.A it was dubbed into Afrikaans with the Gert Wilden score. The opening credits song was sung by a popular Afrikaans singer, Karike Keuzenkamp and it became a huge hit in S.A. The show was huge in South Africa, and to this day anyone over 35 remembers Heidi fondly. I remember that when it was on in the early eighties, you could get all sorts of memorabilia about the show, colouring books, sticker books, toys etc. My sister had a chain with a Heidi pendant. The complete series is available on DVD here in Afrikaans.

Unfortunately most people in S.A. that remember Heidi fondly, have no clue that it is originally Japanese, and have no clue about it's association with Studio Ghibli. I recently showed Princess Kaguya to some friends and they were blown away. When I told them that it was the same director as Heidi, they were speechless.

Thank you for dissecting the importance of the music. Although that Afrikaans intro song will always have a special place in my heart, I much prefer the Japanese original.

Anonymous said...

Please answer me:( What is name music german version epsisode 8 end, the flute music?

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous,
I searched the tune played with two flutes in "TV Friends Forever - Der Original Sound Track Heidi" CD, but could not find it.
It is played when Heidi comes together with either Peter or Clara and both are happy and calm, so I conclude that the song can be titled as "Friendship" or "Friendship Tune". :-)
Searching the CD for you, listening to even the first seconds of every tune touched me very deeply and brought me to tears. That is because I was abandoned by my wife six months after I wrote the lines above on Jan 25, 2015. At that time, I had planned and made the necessary reservations for a trip to the land where Heidi is supposed to have lived and although my wife told me about her abrupt decision to divorce after a 12-year relationship just two days before the trip, I did not cancel it and went to Heidiland with her and my two little children, with whom I used to watch the Heidi series while waiting for their mother to come home in the evenings. You can guess how I felt when visiting those beautiful countryside with my family, now broken to pieces, and with my two kids, unaware of anything.
Now Heidi is on TV once again, this time with its 3D version; but it attracts the attention of neither my children nor myself.

Oswald Iten said...

Dear Selim, thanks for your heartfelt comment and taking the time to research the song, anonymous was looking for.
@Anonymous: Unfortunately I do not know the title of the "friendship" tune eiter.