Buried Treasure
The Dog of Flanders

by Justin Sevakis, Mar 6th 2008

Of the myriad forms of human expression that comprise art and popular culture, anime seems to truly excel over all the others at the depiction of one subject in general: nice, well-meaning kids getting completely crapped on by life.

I'm at a loss as to why the subject seems to come up so much; perhaps the older folks that make anime grew up during the years following WWII and wish to remind today's young whipper-snappers of just how good they have it. Maybe the Japanese just love pathos. Whatever the motivation, anime manages to use the artform's inherent abstraction to make for a much more intense experience than a live action depiction would allow.

The sight of a child suffering or in pain is inherently disturbing to most people, and seeing a real child on screen suffering evokes all sorts of defense mechanisms: immediately the brain starts thinking of the child actor, of the makeup they're wearing, and of the fact that the actual person they're seeing is well-fed, in education, and has perhaps tried a smattering of illicit drugs. Such defense mechanisms don't apply to anime -- in fact, it's more than likely that the one human being behind the character, the voice actor, isn't really even a child. So instead, those that can enjoy animation are able to personalize the experience. One can better identify with a character when there's no obvious limitation of being clearly somebody else.

The end result: nothing can wring the pathos out of situations involving kids like a cartoon. And for the Japanese, with their tradition of telling their kids devastatingly sad stories, there is one famous story that was pretty much fated to be animated.

The Dog of Flanders, a classic book by British-French author Ouida (a pseudonym for Marie-Louise de la Ramée) about a poor orphan boy in rural Belgium who dreams of becoming a painter, was first adapted into anime form in 1975 as a part of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater line of TV series. However, the book was popular among Japanese readers as early as 1908, when a Japanese diplomat in New York City read the New York Times' lengthy obituary for the author and, deeply touched, sent a copy back home to some friends. A translated edition arrived in Japanese bookstores a few months later, and it became one of the best-known children's stories in the country.

The story is undeniably compelling. One of the top rated shows in the World Masterpiece Theater library, audiences so connected to its young protagonist Nello that many started a massive letter-writing campaign, in the hopes that the show's producers would be more kind to him in the end than the original author. (After an emergency meeting, they decided to be faithful to the original story.) The series is still popular in reruns to this day, and a remake was produced in the early 90s.

Remarkably, despite the book's now faded fame in the English speaking world and its celebrated nature in Japan, nobody in Belgium had even heard of the story until the mid 1980s, when the story was first published in Dutch. Their first taste of the anime version would not come until Christmas Eve 2000, when Belgian national television aired this 1997 motion picture remake.

Set in a small village outside of the city of Antwerp, the story begins with Nello, a poor peasant boy being cared for by his grandfather after his mother died in childbirth. His best friends are Alois, the daughter of a wealthy land owner who disapproves of her being so close with such a scruffy kid, and his ever-faithful dog Patrasche, whom he took in after it ran away from its abusive owner, who treats his dogs like slaves.

Nello spends his days helping his grandfather with the farm and delivering milk, hoping to raise enough money to keep the tyrannical landlord at bay. But whenever he has a spare moment, be it with Alois or alone, he slips into the town chapel, where there stands a fantastic painting by his idol, the painter Reubens. His own work is amazing for a child of his age, and while he can't afford proper art supplies, he toils endlessly on the backs of scrap paper, practicing his craft.

But Nello's life starts unraveling when Patrasche's old owner notices the dog and, after a fantastic chase, is determined to reclaim it now that it's been nursed back to health. Nello's grandfather secretly uses some of the rent money to buy the dog so that Nello can keep it, but the boy catches on quickly and realizes the financial danger they're in. Still, his dreams lie in art, and a contest for young artists promises a way out: 300 gold Francs and a two year scholarship to an art school.

Meanwhile, the grandfather's health is failing, and Nello takes on the responsibility of tending the farm and delivering the milk himself. When the landlord notices Alois lending a hand shoveling hay, he reports his findings immediately to her father, who angrily forbids his daughter to see the boy again, and enrolls her in school to keep the two separated for most of the day.

Guilt over how upset and unhappy she gets makes her father give into letting her be with Nello, but he is still disapproving over having the boy around. She has a birthday party to which everyone is invited... but Nello is a no-show. Running to his house, Alois soon finds out why: his grandfather has just passed away.

Just as Nello is starting to have fun again, he is accused of setting the town windmill on fire, ruining the business of Alois' father and many other area farmers. Her pop's wrath makes Nello an outcast - his milk customers turn away his service, and he is left penniless. But with Patrasche at his side and his grandfather's spirit for inspiration, he comes up with a work of art suitable for a museum. Winning the contest would be the answer to all of his hopes and prayers...

The ending is devastatingly sad, and will have even the most jaded viewers in tears. It is also wonderfully poetic and truthful, about a world where not everyone gets a fair shake at life. The characters are human and, although there is a clear-cut villain, by the end it doesn't matter anymore.

Today, Japanese tourists come to Belgium to visit the cathedral in Antwerp where the story's final scene takes place. Many of them, gazing upon the same Reubens paintings as Nello did in the final scene, get misty-eyed. There's a small statue of Nello and Patrasche, and Toyota has sponsored a commemorative plaque. However, for decades nobody in Belgium had any idea that a story about their village had touched the lives of so many Japanese. Ouida only briefly visited Antwerp before writing her story, and writing in English, her story had simply never made it back to its country of origin.

It wasn't until Jan Corteel, a tourist officer in Antwerp, heard about the book from these tourists in 1982 that Belgium started learning the story of Nello and Patrasche. Corteel researched the story restlessly, finding that the story took place in a small village called Hoboken (now an industrial area) and discovering records of the actual windmill and Alois' father's estate (and possibly Alous herself -- there was a girl of about 12 that lived there at the time Ouida visited). Initially it wasn't well received -- the Belgian people are similar to Americans in that they don't really appreciate sad stories, and the reminder their ancestors' difficult lives wasn't exactly something they wanted to bask in. Further, the TV series (whose animation has not aged well) looked too Dutch, and didn't reflect the styles and culture of Antwerp. Belgian television would not play it.

Upon embarking on this movie remake, director Yoshio Kuroda decided to work closely with cultural officials from the country to ensure that this adaptation would be as faithful as possible to what would have taken place. Kuroda's decades-long pedigree of modestly budgeted children's TV series (including several World Masterpiece Theater entries) means that he doesn't fall into the trap of many anime directors, getting drunk on a movie budget and trying to bite off too much artistically. Instead, he maintains a relaxed pace and a strong tempo. The haunting soundtrack by Taro Iwashiro (best known to anime fans for his work on the Rurouni Kenshin movie) enhances the mood to an astounding degree without being overwrought, and can be given much of the credit for the film's effectiveness.

Geneon, then Pioneer Animation, decided to bring out this 1997 movie adaptation in order to cash in on the live action movie Warner Brothers had in production. Released under their short lived Pioneer Family Entertainment label, they chopped over 10 minutes out of the movie and dubbed it with then faded C-list celebrity Robert Loggia (Woah, Robert Loggia!) playing Grandpa. The editing is horrid and jarring, robbing the film of its deliberate pacing and much of its impact. At the critical ending scene, a mawkish montage is cut in with an overbearing musical swell. It's enough to make you gag.

The live action movie, meanwhile, was a horrible failure on every level. The filmmakers, in attempting to make the story family-friendly and palatable to the American parenting agenda of shielding its young from any trace of suffering in the world, removed every last vestige of misery, leaving little else. Critics savaged it as saccharine and uneven, and the film itself reeked of wholesomeness to the point where kids refused to touch it. With nothing else to sell the title, Pioneer's release died on the vine. (Amusingly, in excising much of the violence against kids and animals, they had committed nearly the same mistake as Warner Bros. had.)

It's easy to see why this wouldn't work in a live-action version. For Nello and his surroundings to be properly filthy in real life would make the entire movie incredibly dismal and dirty; this is why few films about poor people in olden days get made. Animated, with simple character design and artwork that isn't flashy but gets the job done, the story takes on the child-like sense of wonder and optimism of its main character. And when the inevitable happens, it continues unflinchingly, neither insulting intelligence nor being condescending.

Meanwhile the strange journey Nello and Patrasche have taken from Belgium to America to Japan and finally back to Belgium is the subject of a new documentary by filmmakers Didier Volckaert and An van Dienderen. Patrasche: A Dog of Flanders - Made in Japan compares the Belgian lukewarm reaction to the Japanese obsession with the story, and reflects on why that may be. Among their more interesting findings is that there have been no less than six American movie adaptations of the story since 1914, and every single one of them has changed the ending to be a happy one.

I haven't seen this documentary yet (I plan on it), but A Dog of Flanders is one of my all-time favorite anime motion pictures. It doesn't suffer from the slow pacing and limited animation of the TV series, and is every bit as devastating as it ever was. And if the Japanese have any say in it, the story will be around yet for generations, making each new successive class of children cry.

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Pioneer's out-of-print DVD release is the dub-only hack-job, and is best avoided at all costs. Luckily, the subtitled (and ONLY the subtitled) VHS release is uncut, and while not exactly easy to find, can be had if one looks hard enough. The Japanese import DVD is unfortunately not subtitled and out of print. I've been told that Geneon's license has since expired, but given how poorly the title sold I'm not holding my breath for a re-release.

Strangely, the documentary Patrasche: A Dog of Flanders - Made in Japan is much easier to get, provided you have the technical means to play it. Released only last year, it's available directly from the filmmakers' eBay shop for the remarkably low price of €12 (just over $18 as of this writing). Worldwide shipping isn't bad either. The issue for most people will be that the DVD (which, despite being in Dutch, has English subtitles) is in PAL mode; therefore most people will only be able to play it on their computers. An NTSC version is available, but since it's only intended for Japanese audiences, there are no English subtitles on that version.

(Note that the eBay shop is in Dutch, but your American eBay login will still work, and if you've ever used the service you can figure out what everything says.)


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