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The Strongest Girl in the World
On the Takahata-Miyazaki-Kotabe version of 'Pippi.'
Happy Thursday! This issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter is all about Pippi Longstocking — as interpreted by Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe.
That’s quite a lineup. In the ‘80s, Takahata and Miyazaki built Studio Ghibli into a creative powerhouse, and Yoichi Kotabe joined Nintendo — defining the designs for Mario, Bowser and more. The trio’s work got known around the world.
Before the fame, though, there was the Pippi series.
Interest and rumors have surrounded Pippi for decades. Back in 1971, Takahata took charge of this project, trying to turn European children’s literature into a Japanese TV cartoon. Writing, art and even animation tests were done. But author Astrid Lindgren rejected the pitch for unknown reasons. The series fell apart.
Even then, Pippi lived on. Elements of it reappeared in the team’s later projects — from Heidi: Girl of the Alps (1974) to Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). In fact, its whole ethos stayed in their work. The surviving art, documents and memories from Pippi Longstocking offer a glimpse at the roots of Takahata’s and Miyazaki’s filmmaking.
Today, we’re looking through these materials to discover what Pippi could’ve been, and what it can still reveal. Here we go!
Summing up the animated Pippi isn’t hard. Isao Takahata did it often — in interviews and in his writing for the show. The point of Pippi was to “liberate the minds of children.”1
The books about Pippi Longstocking portray her as “the strongest girl in the world” — she can lift a horse with one hand. She also has her own home and a suitcase full of gold, so she’s totally independent. As Takahata wrote in his planning documents, Pippi has all the power of an adult (and then some) without having experienced the trials of growing up. To her, the world is a playground where anything is possible.2
Animating the Pippi stories meant bringing this energy to the children watching TV. But making it for kids didn’t mean making it halfheartedly. Like the children’s films that Ghibli did later, this series was given intense thought and effort. The idea of working on Pippi grabbed Hayao Miyazaki because it seemed like a chance to make something good. “I thought there might be hope,” he recalled.
That said, at the time, Miyazaki wasn’t the visionary director he grew to be. Pippi wasn’t his project, and the books didn’t necessarily attract him on their own. It came down to Takahata — or “Paku-san,” as his friends knew him.
“I assumed Paku-san would make the content interesting,” Miyazaki said, “so I just wanted to create a proper stage or world for this work.”
For Isao Takahata himself, Pippi was more than a promising idea. It was a chance to revive his career. A few years before, he’d hit a dead end.
Things had started well enough. Takahata joined Tokyo’s main animation studio, Toei Doga, in 1959. Although he couldn’t really draw, he could really direct, and he took assistant director roles on films like The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963). Eventually, he solo-directed Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968), a landmark feature.
Horus changed the life of Yoichi Kotabe, its character designer. The film made him realize, “With animation, you can create a world you can grasp with your hands.”3 Takahata and his team, which included Miyazaki as a core artist, crafted a tangible world. It’s full of details that make it seem like it could actually exist. As Kotabe said:
Until then I’d been taking it relatively easy. But Horus: Prince of the Sun was Mr. Takahata’s first piece as director, so he gave it all he had. He put a lot of thought into what was expected of it, what he wanted to express and the underlying psychological characterization. […] And while I was trying to keep up with him, I started to get my own guts.
Yet Horus went overbudget and overschedule, and flopped when it finally came out. Takahata’s reputation with management was poisoned — he was banned from directing at Toei Doga. Even Miyazaki later called it understandable, given everything.
A few frustrating years passed. “Then came the most appealing invitation to create Pippi Longstocking,” Takahata remembered.
An outside studio, A Production, got in touch with him. It’d made a Moomin TV series in the late ‘60s that Toei workers watched with jealousy — its starting point was children’s literature rather than comics. “That in itself was a remarkable thing for us,” Miyazaki said. It seemed like a chance to do deeper, richer TV animation. A Production gave Takahata an offer to direct a show based on the Pippi books.
The decision wasn’t easy. Takahata was a key creative voice and union member at Toei Doga. He needed to drag trusted artist friends away with him, too — after all, he couldn’t draw. But he chose to leave and persuaded Miyazaki and Kotabe to join him. (“I felt that, to do meaningful work, I had to be with him,” Miyazaki later said.)
They quit together to make Pippi in 1971 — in a haze of ill will, uncertainty and excitement.
It was the three of them on Pippi Longstocking. The project didn’t get far enough to expand to a full team. “Our preproduction period was short,” Miyazaki said, “but very meaningful for us.”4
They worked quickly, each one sticking to their specialties.
Takahata laid out Pippi’s characters and worldview. He also wrote a “letter storyboard” (jikonte) — a sort of heavily detailed script. Miyazaki worked from Takahata’s ideas to draw the world, sketching moments and locations in his “image boards,” a type of concept art he’d started doing on Horus.5 Kotabe designed the cast and made animation tests. His drawings influenced Miyazaki’s, and vice versa.
What Takahata was making was in some ways an extension of the Horus philosophy, that tangibility. But it differed from Horus’s dark tone. When he outlined the Pippi series in 1971, Takahata wrote this:
… the most important thing is that protagonist Pippi asserts her existence in a way that is concrete, real, vibrant and alive — never the creators’ own self-righteousness or snideness — while spreading cheerful laughter, dreams and fantastic discoveries in abundance. It will liberate children from the oppression of reality and brightly illuminate their lives. That is the goal.
In order to do this, the two key things that will undergird the Pippi series will be devising and expressing Pippi’s everyday life, including quirky and fun kaji (housekeeping) activities that double as forms of play; and devising and composing the group of people who represent adult common sense and logic in various ways and form the anti-Pippi forces.
In 2014, Takahata said that the idea behind Pippi was “everyday magic.” It was a fantastical story, but based on the careful detailing of its characters’ day-to-day lives. Miyazaki argued that the failure to portray everyday things in depth (like the process of baking bread) was “the most lacking part about animation at that time.”
The Pippi character would take these everyday things and make them feel special. She broke the rules of the adult world, eating and getting dirty whenever she wanted. The “anti-Pippi forces” couldn’t stop her — she was her own boss, creating her own, strange life. This was the liberation that Takahata had in mind.
What would make it all work, Takahata wrote, was keeping the series as grounded as possible in the mundane things it was trying to elevate.
As he put it in that same 1971 document, realistic details were necessary to “make Pippi vivid and real in the child’s mind,” and to bring her world to life. He offered a number of bullet points for the team to follow:
We cannot avoid representations of extremely trivial, everyday actions like taking off shoes and putting them on, deportment and housework. Rather, representing them is one of the basic themes of the work. Likewise, we should not only depict the intentions and outcomes of Pippi’s actions, but also clearly depict the process of the actions in such a way that they themselves evoke enjoyment and interest. Moreover, it’s not just about drawing; Pippi’s gestures must be characteristic of her.
This means a return to the main current of thought on animation, so to speak. It’s not animation if it remains a naturalistic portrayal of real, everyday life. While depicting the behavior of the quirky girl Pippi, it is necessary to heighten the expressions in a way that expands children’s imaginations and lets them feel the freedom of play and the joy of discovery.
Can people feel a sense of reality if the expressions are just symbols or rote patterns? Unless a lively Pippi is lively, beautiful things are beautiful to the audience, joyful things are joyful and tasty things are tasty and substantial, only the story will be able to hold the audience’s interest, especially in the case of children. […] For animation, this is a major handicap, so it is necessary to use various devices, such as appropriate close shots and panoramic views that have been carefully crafted.
According to Takahata, it was a series that wasn’t ultimately about story or conflict resolution — even though those elements were planned to appear. Pippi was about life.
Pippi lived independently, taking care of herself, her horse and her pet monkey. Her unusual house, which Miyazaki designed to resemble a ship at Takahata’s request, stuck out.6 In fact, everything about Pippi contrasted against the lives of her more average neighbors, Tommy and Annika — and their parents, and the town at large.
Her energy was infectious to them, like it was meant to be for the viewers. But the Pippi series wasn’t just about fun and excitement. Takahata’s script revealed a certain loneliness to Pippi’s character, who’d lost her own parents. Her mother had died, but Pippi still talked to her, reassuring her. That psychological element from Horus was still at play, and it deepened Pippi. Once again, it made her more real.
When the Pippi project began, Miyazaki had never been to Europe, and he intended to create the show’s world without that kind of research. (Horus had been set in Europe, too.) Yet he ended up traveling to Sweden on a scouting trip nonetheless.
It wasn’t a typical move. “Even though it was only for one week, going abroad on location was an incident beyond common sense in the anime world of the time,” the magazine Animage later noted.
Takahata wanted to go but couldn’t. Kotabe didn’t go, either — he said it was out of his league. “It was decided that Miya-san would be qualified because he could think not only of the pictures but of the work as a whole,” Kotabe remembered. And so Miyazaki, toward the start of preproduction, went with executive Yutaka Fujioka to Astrid Lindgren’s hometown. They needed her approval to make the series, and Miyazaki absorbed everything he could about Sweden along the way.
He was wide-eyed. As he said later:
I honestly thought that I could depict Europe without ever having to see it. But once I was there in person, I keenly felt the profundity of the real thing. I realized that although we lumped it all in as “Europe” everything changes depending on where you are.7
Miyazaki used many, many details from this trip in his concept art, both before and after he came back to Japan. It wasn’t just the buildings or the people, but the tiny nuances. “[H]e remembered the form of the cheese, salami and terrine he ate over there, and drew the meal scenes in a very concrete way,” Kotabe said. “From that time on, Miya-san had a special obsession with representing food (laughs).”
Other European sources colored the project, too. Miyazaki’s father-in-law gave him a collection of Russian art by Ivan Bilibin, which inspired a softer, more storybook style for Pippi’s backgrounds. Meanwhile, a number of Kotabe’s sketches show the clear influence of Junior and Karlsson (1968), a Soviet cartoon based on Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-Roof book series. It all added up to a new look for Japanese TV.
Pippi was promising. The team was energized. But it wasn’t to be.
In Sweden, there was ultimately no meeting with Lindgren — according to Miyazaki, she said she was tired. The Japanese crew came home empty-handed. Before long, it became obvious that Lindgren wasn’t going to approve the series, and it was canceled.
“Mr. Takahata, Miya-san and I were at a complete loss,” Kotabe later said. “It was quite a jam. That project was the whole reason we’d left our company, and now it was dead in the water.”
Left without a plan, they started bouncing around to different TV shows — Miyazaki and Takahata worked on A Production’s Lupin the Third (1971–1972), for example. But they weren’t that excited about this stuff. Pippi had been a dream project for the group, and these definitely weren’t. It took a while for them to find their footing again.
At the same time, in retrospect, both Takahata and Miyazaki admitted that Pippi Longstocking might’ve been no better of an experience if it had actually gone ahead. The ideas and concept art were beautiful, but extremely ambitious. As Takahata said, “Looking back now, I don’t think that at the time ... A Pro was set up to realize what we had in mind.” More than likely, the series would’ve imploded during production.
Instead, they were left only with the idea, the what-could-have-been. And that became fuel.
Much of Pippi was recycled into Panda! Go, Panda! (1972), another Takahata-Miyazaki-Kotabe collaboration. It kept happening. Soon, Pippi’s impact was felt in Heidi (1974), the trio’s first unqualified success: a hit with critics, audiences and even its own team. Heidi pushed hard into the everyday-life aspect that, in many ways, began with Pippi.
That was Takahata’s take, at least. He called Pippi the “first step” in his style of grounding even fantasy in the specifics of everyday life. Miyazaki has argued that Horus got there first, which is true, but Pippi made it all the more concrete. Horus to My Neighbor Totoro is a giant leap — but Pippi to My Neighbor Totoro is a believable one.
New projects often feel scattered and vague, but Pippi was different. The series was a kernel of something. It seemed to be fully itself after a short time in preproduction, and its spirit never really went away.
Just reading Takahata’s “letter storyboard” beside the art feels like watching the show play out. It’s almost familiar — in a good way. The reason might be that it’s doing something we all recognize today, instantly. Something it shares with the Takahata and Miyazaki work that followed. Toward the end of Takahata’s script, we read:
Pippi’s face is a little strange. Her nose twitches and she murmurs —
“… I somehow get the feeling that Mom is worried about me tonight… That’s what it is, she’s worried!”
She stands up in the washtub and, without wiping her feet, runs lightly to open the door.
VILLA VILLEKULLA, EXTERIOR
She comes out running, stands under the window, looks up at the sky and shouts —
“Don’t worry about me! I’m staying on top of everything!”
Pippi’s voice is swallowed up by the high, wide open starry sky. Her clear eyes are charming as she stares into the beyond.
That’s our story today! Thanks so much for reading.
This is one of several Animation Obsessive issues to touch on Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s early careers, way before they were established hitmakers. A few others include:
A Visual Tour of Toei Doga (for members)
An Animated Dance for the Ages (for everyone)
Hayao Miyazaki, Union Man (for everyone)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Favorite Film (for everyone)
We plan to write more about this subject before the end of the year — stay tuned.
See you again soon!
Takahata uses this language many times in his interview for The Phantom Pippi Longstocking (2014), the book that forms the basis of today’s issue. It contains interviews with him, Miyazaki and Kotabe, plus concept art and reprinted documents from the project.
From Takahata’s “memorandum” for the Pippi series — where he outlines the spirit of the show and the personalities of its characters (Pippi’s especially). The document is included in The Phantom Pippi Longstocking, but it was also published in the October 1985 issue of Animage, accessible via Anim’Archive.
From Kotabe’s interview in The Phantom Pippi Longstocking. The longer block quote right afterward comes from his 2008 conversation for Iwata Asks, which we use several times.
From Starting Point 1979–1996 (“Hayao Miyazaki on His Own Works”), also used a few times.
Miyazaki says that he started painting image boards on Horus in his interview for the book Hayao Miyazaki Image Board (1983).
Another detail from Animage (October 1985), via Anim’Archive. Also the source for the line about Miyazaki’s trip to Sweden defying common sense.