How much can I rave about a show before the reader begins to doubt me? How much praise can I heap before he suspects nothing could reach the height of the words? However much, trust me, I could laud Alps no Shoujo Heidi (Heidi, Girl of the Alps) up the red cliffs of Falknis and back without overstatement. This is one of the most beautiful anime ever made, the plot as compelling as the characters living it are lovable. A venerated classic, its visuals of yesteryear are so exceptionally realized and dwelt on that they haven’t their match in the spare-no-expense productions of today, the music energetic and joyful at opening and end, subtle yet ethereal in between.
The temptation on encountering this special anime might be to ascribe its glories to simple fidelity to Johanna Spyri’s novel Heidi, given its own canonical reputation and unabated popularity. To be sure, unlike the last-reviewed Swiss Family Robinson, this series follows the source very closely, the credit for which goes to director Isao Takahata; Hayao Miyazaki was among the other contributors, as viewers may guess from the flight motif in the opening. Takahata’s themes have seen criticism, by Recovery of an MMO Junkie director Yaginuma Kazuyoshi in AnimeRight News interview, among others, but Heidi, Girl of the Alps can bear no such objections. It is the perfect paean to rustic life and olden ways, and like many of Miyazaki’s later works is a heartfelt (and appreciated) tribute to European culture.
For any readers who don’t know the story, Aunt Dete is hurrying five-year-old Heidi, overdressed in layers of clothes, through the Swiss village of Dörfli and up the Alm mountain on a hot summer day as it begins. Dete has cared for orphaned Heidi for years, but with a promising new career lined up, she‘s marching her niece up the heights, to leave her with her grandfather, known by all locals as the Alm-Uncle. A gruff old man with a rumored dark past, he lives an isolated life, raising a pair of goats in a hut beneath the boughs of three great fir trees, shunned by the villagers the rare times he ventures down to sell cheese.
After stripping to her petticoat and running with the goats that goatherd Peter leads up the Alm each day, the already invigorated Heidi makes it to the Alm-Uncle’s hut, and the uncle is hardly more than told he’ll have the care of a young girl than Dete runs off. But the awkward moment is short. Heidi’s love of the mountain’s beauty, the goats and wild animals, and her rampant curiosity—captured wonderfully in the opening theme—warm the Alm-Uncle’s heart, and soon they are close friends. The particular delights of the anime set in here. Heidi’s cosy bed of hay in the loft with a gorgeous little window, her daily ascent to the pastures where she spends afternoons playing with Peter and the goats, her befriending Peter’s blind Grandmother, for whom she is a rare solace in age, are lifted right from the book; even the names and traits of the goats are largely the same (incidentally, I noticed the sound for the bleat of her favorite, a smaller goat named Yuki was reused in the Swiss Family Robinson anime, a failed attempt to repeat earlier success).
Other plots expand upon Spyri’s story in the best way: in the book, it never seems to rain on the Alm, so it’s a special delight that an early episode features a storm. There are a few changes. Peter is nicer, and not slow to speak as in the book. The Christian element, which develops near the middle of the novel, is lessened; but judged in its own rights, the anime, which features the Grandmother’s favorite hymnal, from which she longs to hear old favorites she can no longer read, has an unmissable religious content.
As the weather and seasons change, the anime stuns again and again with the gorgeousness of the setting. The music, which could have been perfunctory in a program for young viewers, never settles into full routine, beautiful trills of notes coming forth as new sights delight Heidi and the viewers. Heidi’s excitement helps simple things, like making cheese or woodworking, interest us too. When she gets close not only to goats, but to finches, deer, and other creatures, it is just therapeutic. Have you ever passed by a petting zoo, wanting to visit, but a bit shy, not wanting to be the only adult petting the animals? This show can feel like the visit you were waiting for. But the animals aren’t unduly romanticized either, with their uses and working relationship to humans treated throughout.
Years pass. Cherishing Heidi so, the Alm-Uncle hasn’t even sent her to school in the village, threatening trouble. And one day, Aunt Dete returns, with a new scheme. Herr Sesemann of Frankfurt is seeking a companion for his daughter Clara, who has weak legs and is mostly homebound. Dete recommends Heidi; should anything happen to Clara, she reasons, who knows? Heidi might become the heir. Tricked into thinking she can return that day, Heidi leaves, to begin a new chapter of her life in Frankfurt. How will she fare in very different circumstances? Will she ever return to the Alm-Uncle, the Grandmother, and the mountains?
Where Heidi is just adorable, always petite and childish, Clara is ladylike and a wonderful presence, and sure to become a favorite for any on the lookout for SFW, dainty waifus. In the book she can be something of a blank, but the anime develops her personality and makes her presence more meaningful.
Aunt Dete has bad character, and Fraulein Rottenmeier, who keeps order in the Sesemann household, is the caricature of a fun-banishing governess, but this is a harmonious series without any real bad guys. Okay, there is one villain. Surprise, it’s Crunchyroll! In its early days, the site had Heidi available free to stream. But after they took the thirty pieces of silver, they yanked it! I found a comments page, still up, filled with queries from fans of the series asking, “Dude, where’s my Girl of the Alps?” https://archive.is/CLAou Thankfully, there are many anime sites today that carry the series, in English courtesy Silver Zero Subs.
Every otaku has moods for one genre or another, but if your aim is just to watch the best series that you can, this will be your next choice. As I’ve said before, an anime better than this is not extant. A greater happiness, than this, your soul could not contain.