You see them every day, dangling from your student’s backpacks and adorning their pencil cases. Trinkets and curios of popular characters your students subscribe to, and for the most part they are recognizable, like Totoro or Hello Kitty. But sometimes a character so cripplingly bizarre pops up that you suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of a vaguely unsettling generation gap, as you are grossly uninformed as to what is popular with your students. Care to be let back into the loop?
A viral sensation is sweeping Japan’s youth, and this time it is not mind-numbingly kawaii. Teinenpi Shoujo Haiji （低燃費少女ハイジ）is a mini web series commissioned by Nissan to help promote their new economical car, NOTE. It stars everyone’s favorite Swiss orphan, Heidi, as she goes in search of the meaning of “Teinenpi,” a Japanese word that translates as “low fuel consumption.” The ads have since gone viral and sprouted a plethora of merchandise that every generation J-er with a disposable income wants for their keitai strap.
What is it that makes the ads so popular? Heidi is already a well-known character in Japan due to the success of the 1974 anime, “ Heidi, Girl of the Alps “ (アルプスの少女ハイジ）directed by Isao Takahata, a long term colleague of Hayao Miyazaki and co-head at Studio Ghibli. The charmingly wholesome characters won their way into the hearts of Japanese people, which is why thousands of Japanese tourists flock to Switzerland every year, presumably in search of Swiss children and/or chocolate.
But it was in May 2010, when Zuiyo Co, producer of the original Heidi anime, collaborated with Studio Croccodile, that the ads took shape. The disturbed overactive minds at Studio Croccodile are responsible for creating off-beat projects roughly approximating the things you that you saw when you spent two nights in a sanatorium that one time. Heidi’s new character design was entrusted to Studio Croccodile’s Satoshi Fumihara, brain-child and director of the satirical anime “The World of Golden Eggs.”
Golden Eggs fans will be familiar with the show’s unique character designs, which you might already be familiar with, if you have seen Mickey Mouse’s rhombic counterpart around town… Fumihara is also responsible for Cubic Mouth Mickey & Friends, a parody of popular Disney characters with angular bodies and cubic mouths. If the empty soulless stares don’t get you, the mouth agape in shrill hysteria might. And yet these are legitimately licensed Disney products. They are popular with young adults, just like Mickey. Like Mickey, if all his adorable Disney features were removed and replaced with the horrifying, disfigured remains of your shattered childhood.
Borrowing from Golden Eggs’ crazy humour and in keeping Fumihara’s character design, Teinenpi Shoujo Haiji is what happens when overworked advertizing CEOs consort alongside animators with ADHD and a loose grip on reality. As such, the characteristics of the original Heidi characters have been completely warped. The once sprightly Heidi has become a wildly gesticulating serial harassinator, singularly bent on acquiring the information she wants. She is joined by Peter, the Goatherd, boorish and staggeringly inept at everything he does. Grandpa, originally a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, is now your garden variety psychopath. Finally, Clara, Heidi’s childhood friend, is now insufferably show-offy and suffers from megalomaniacal inclinations.
There are currently seven episodes available on Youtube or on Nissan’s website. Unfortunately not all of them have been subtitled, but are still worth a watch:
- Episode 1, The Mountain Echo chapter: “What is Fuel Efficiency?”
- Episode 2, The Peter edition: “Peter the Goat Herder”
- Episode 3, The Grandfather edition: “What Grandpa Knows”
- Episode 4, The Candy edition: “Grandpa’s Omiyage”
- Episode 5, The Clara edition: “Clara’s Temptation”
- Episode 6, The Jet-Set edition: “Off to Frankfurt!”
- Episode 7, At Clara’s House: “The People at Clara’s House”
Episode 1 features Heidi frolicking in the Alps, aggressively greeting everyone she comes across until Alm, the mountain giant appears. She harasses him by asking “低燃費って何？” (What is fuel efficiency?”) and while he tries to explain , she bombards him with the same question again and again. Soon enough she is ignored. End scene and cut to product.
If you like the series, you can download some widgets such as a clock or a screen saver, from Nissans website. Or you can go to any mall and buy an air freshener with a picture of one of those creepy goats on it.
Exactly why it is they chose to mix Heidi with the concept of fuel efficiency? One can only assume that addling your brain with the strangeness of it all puts you in a somewhat vulnerable mental state, weirding you out of your fragile mind until there is nothing left but some vague association to economical vehicles. But one thing is certain: you will never forget what teinenpi means.
So next time you see your students toting around some Heidi paraphernalia, call out “Teinenpitte nani?” and perhaps for a moment you will not be quite as archaic as you feel.