The Mike Toole Show
All Dogs of Flanders Go to Heaven
by Mike Toole,
Isao Takahata passed away last week, which means that everywhere you look, there are tributes to and retrospectives of the great animator's work. This is wholly appropriate, and it gives me considerable pleasure in the sad face of Takahata's passing to see so many people recognize how vital his work was, be it his notable contributions to Studio Ghibli or his accomplishments in the years prior, on films like Gauche the Cellist and TV shows like Heidi, Girl of the Alps.
But this time, I'm going to shine the spotlight on something that Takahata worked on, but as support staff while he was in between directing projects. After finishing the exuberantly popular Heidi, Takahata was quickly offered the director's chair for another series by Nippon Animation and their sponsor, Calpis. But to realize this show, an adaptation of the novel From the Apennines to the Andes, research would have to be done. In the meantime, Takahata drew storyboards for a series directed by his old Toei buddy Yoshio Kuroda. That series, which captivated Japanese families every Sunday night in 1975, was called A Dog of Flanders.
Dog of Flanders is one of the anime medium's most celebrated entries. Every time someone like TV Asahi or NHK does a big story on the best, most popular anime of all time, Dog of Flanders is in the mix. But the story took a long, winding path to Japan – a century before it became a popular TV series, it was a popular British children's book, created by the writer Marie Louise de la Ramée. Ramée, who used the pen name “Oui'da,” was already a writer of some notoriety when she published Dog of Flanders in 1872. At the time, the industrial revolution meant that larger and larger groups of middle- and working-class families were learning to read and seeking out books for entertainment. Ramée spoke their language—while fairly well-off and fascinated with the aristocracy, she wrote about them from her own perspective, which made her accessible and popular with the masses.
A trip to the Belgian region of Flanders was enough to inspire Oui'da to create A Dog of Flanders, the tale of an impoverished but relentlessly optimistic teenager named Nello, who shrugs off his penury and low standing to pursue the unlikely career of artist. With his stalwart grandpa and beloved working dog Patrasche by his side, Nello pursues his dream of winning an artist's apprenticeship and seeing the famous works of Rubens that hang in the Cathedral of Antwerp. But Oui'da's work is ultimately a scathing critique of the moral vacuity of ordinary people; one by one, the townspeople around Nello turn their backs to his suffering, and he and Patrasche face a freezing winter alone. The book's ending is not a happy one.
Despite that, Oui'da's strong narrative and the moral character of her story caught on, and the book became a modest hit in both Britain and the US. The Dog of Flanders cinematic universe was born in the USA, courtesy of filmmaker Howell Hansell, in 1914. Hansell cast moderately popular screen and stage actress Marguerite Snow as Nello, which seems like sort of an odd choice since Snow was both a lady and 25 years old at the time, but casting young ladies as teen boys was a done thing in the early days of filmmaking. Hansell's short has not survived to the modern era, but it reportedly retains the morally upright but downbeat ending of the book. A decade later, Jackie Coogan, who'd recently shared the screen with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid and became one of the first child movie stars as a result, played Nello in the silent feature film A Boy of Flanders, with a surprisingly prolific and well-known canine actor named Keystone Teddy, a Great Dane, playing the role of Marmadu—er, I mean, Patrasche. Interestingly, this adaptation concludes with Nello and Patrasche, facing their end, being rescued by the penitent villagers who'd once scorned them.
They made another Dog of Flanders reboot in 1935 (yes, of course I realize that remaking Dog of Flanders isn't a reboot in any real sense, I just enjoy misusing that word for such a serious, renowned classic) with some kid named Frankie Thomas as Nello, and far more importantly, Lightning the Wonder Dog as Patrasche, who they'd renamed Leo in this film. Lightning was an early animal film star, headlining a number of his own movies in the 1930s. He looks like an extremely good dog. This Flanders redux also concludes with Nello and Leo surviving that freezing Christmas eve in Antwerp. 1959's Dog of Flanders film was actually shot in Belgium and Holland, giving it a touch of authenticity that previous versions had lacked—and it still had that winsomely happy ending. I understand why a filmmaker would want to do this for a kids' movie, but it's interesting that this sort of became the trend for adapting the story for the big screen in America. It would go down exactly the same way in 1999, in a Warner Bros. feature film shot entirely in Belgium.
While American filmmakers were taking Oui'da's harsh but fiercely righteous tale and contriving to make it gentler, it made its way to Japan. The book was discovered by a Japanese scholar in New York, who was sniffing out English-language books that might be good to send back to Japan for publication there. This gent read about Oui'da in her obituary in January of 1908, and quickly purchased a copy of Dog of Flanders. This led to the story being published in Japan later that same year. Interestingly, at the time Japanese publishers tried to avoid using western names, so Nello is referred to as Kiyoshi, and his faithful dog is Madara, and his would-be girlfriend Alois is called Ayako. A more faithful translation would emerge in 1929, and from there, Dog of Flanders became a staple of children's reading lists in Japan.
In 1974, Nippon Animation were riding a wave of popularity thanks to their TV shows Rocky Chuck and Heidi. Their sponsor, Calpis, was pleased—earlier TV projects from TMS and Mushi Production were fairly successful, but troubled and uneven productions—so the Sunday night programming slot was rebranded Calpis Children's Theater, and director Yoshio Kuroda was given permission to travel to Belgium in order to research A Dog of Flanders. Kuroda went to see the Cathedral and Rubens' paintings, but discovered they were under renovation, so he had to settle for exterior scouting of the cathedral. Antwerp itself was a modern city by this time, so finding good research material was challenging. At a loss, Kuroda went to the local tourism board and asked to borrow a copy of the book in Flemish. He was stunned when the local officials and librarians told him that they didn't have a copy, and weren't really familiar with the story.
See, Oui'da's tale may have been set in Antwerp, but the story never caught on there. This wasn't enough to unsettle Kuroda, who finished his research, went back to Japan, and directed one of the most charming, captivating, and beloved TV anime ever made. His version of Nello, designed by the inimitable Yasuji Mori, is a bit younger, a round-faced, blue-eyed boy of perhaps twelve, who guilelessly helps his grandpa sell milk in the village, befriends the shy Alois, and practices his art. Over fifty-two episodes, we get to know Nello and the people in his world. We start to root for him, but just as in the original book, things don't go well for the boy and his dog. After all, one of the central messages of Oui'da's book is that you should take refuge in what brings you joy, because that might be all you get in life. To hear Kuroda tell it, his creative partners on the show were gently suggesting that maybe they should craft a happier ending for Nello, or bring the series to an end without depicting the child and his dog freezing to death in the cathedral. Fans watching at home, who knew damn well what was in store for Nello after having read the book, started a letter-writing campaign that also urged a kinder fate for their boy artiste. But Kuroda's contact at the show's sponsor Calpis, who ultimately called the shots, was a Christian, who suggested that the director retain the sadness of the original story, but give it a spiritual flourish. And thus, a classic TV show's place in the anime pantheon was cemented.
This led to Dog of Flanders' popularity surging and surging in Japan. Tourist junkets to Antwerp were arranged, and folks got the same rude awakening that Kuroda got years earlier—nobody in the real Flanders knew about the story! Over the years, the region has slowly embraced Oui'da's tale and its effect on foreign visitors. In the mid-1980s, the book was finally translated into Dutch, but interestingly, the anime version found no traction on TV. Network programmers were confounded by the show's visual style, which featured a somewhat authentic-looking Antwerp, but one populated by townspeople who dressed and acted like Dutchmen and women. To Kuroda and his team, this seemed like a minor difference; after all, Flanders and Holland were right next door! But it kept the TV anime from being shown widely in the very region in which it took place. A small statue commemorates Nello and Patrasche in the village of Hoboken, but even that surprises visitors from Japan—its version of Nello looks downcast, and Patrasche is surprisingly diminutive, not the burly working dog he's portrayed as in most film and TV adaptations.
That quirk seen in the statue—the unusual depiction of the dog-- would come back again in the 90s, when A Dog of Flanders revival took hold in Japan. The revival involved Kuroda remaking his classic series, but it actually started at TMS, who decided to make their own Dog of Flanders adaptation, entitled My Patrasche. The thinking behind this TV series was interesting; it's more compact and closer to the original book's narrative, but it still features the work of character designer Shūichi Seki, an artist who'd previously defined the look of many Nippon Animation classics like Tom Sawyer and Lucy-May of the Southern Rainbow. The biggest difference, however, was the depiction of Patrasche. The Nippon Animation Patrasche was cute as hell, a friendly and happy-looking canine. But there's no such dog that actually looks quite like the cartoon Patrasche, who appears to be a weird homunculus of St. Bernard, German Shepherd, and Shiba Inu.
The Hollywood versions of Dog of Flanders have tended to go with having Patrasche played by a shepherd mix, or a Great Dane, or some sort of large, muscular mutt. But that wasn't quite right, either, because Danes aren't native to Flanders. So the TMS version went the authentic route, presenting Patrasche as a genuine Flemish Bouvier, a stocky and shaggy dog. In my mind, they made one crucial mistake—they gave the dog chillingly human eyes. Dog eyes don't look like people eyes, man. They're a little darker, with larger irises and pupils. When I see eyes like Patrasche's up there, you know what I think of?
Yeah, that's right: The Shaggy Dog of Flanders. Other than that, there's nothing wrong with My Patrasche—it has a solidly charismatic performance by the great Megumi Hayashibara as Nello, and an appropriately melancholic ending that was only included as a special video-only bonus. In the intervening years, this series has quietly disappeared from home video, never making the leap to DVD. Grainy VHS rips patrol the fringes of YouTube; hopefully, they'll eventually lead to a digital revival.
But Patrasche-mania was only beginning with the 1992 series. A few years later, in 1997, Nippon Animation led a production coalition in the making of a feature-film Dog of Flanders. The movie, once again directed by Kuroda, is quite good, but feels a little redundant next to the TV series—while Kuroda takes pains to make the film's background much more authentically Belgian (which would pay off with a 2000 TV airing in that country, finally exposing the locals to the anime story that had become so beloved) all the film really does otherwise is slightly tweak the character designs (Patrasche now looks like a St. Bernard with a German Shepherd head) and make the key moments look prettier with state-of-the-art digital animation. With the dog, the film's publicity team faced the same problem—Patrasche wasn't based on a real dog, so they had to procure a more accurate real dog for PR appearances. They found a beautiful white Flemish Bouvier to bring to Japan, and there are amazing videos of literally hundreds of fans queuing up to meet this random Bouvier from Antwerp, whom the people had decided was the real-life Patrasche.
In America, Pioneer took a look at Dog of Flanders's pretty animation and classic story and decided that it would need celebrity casting, so Sean Young and Robert Loggia were brought in to play supporting characters, with Loggia putting in a nice turn as Nello's grandpa. (Right now, I am assuming you are pausing to watch the Robert Loggia Orange Juice Commercial Experience. Remember to resume reading when you're done!) Amusingly, while the film was deemed a little too long and brutal and had ten minutes chopped out by Pioneer, the ending was kept in place, albeit preceded by a treacly montage to try and soften the blow.
So, that's the story of The Dog of Flanders, and how it led to an anime phenomenon. The thing is, almost everyone ends that story here, instead of also talking about the 2015 version of the anime. The classic anime opening sequence depicts Patrasche towing Nello around the skies of Antwerp, like so:
Lovely, isn't it? Makes me look forward to those long-ago Sunday nights. As for where the last arc of this column is leading, let's head into the modern world of weird, dumb low-budget comedy cartoons! In the mid-2000s, an artist named Ryo Ono was enlisted by the studio DLE to create a cartoon for TV Asahi. Ono, under the alias FROGMAN, created a pretty damn funny one-man flash cartoon called The Frogman Show. The biggest stars of The Frogman Show were Eagle Talon, a charmingly incompetent league of villains anchored by Yoshida, a sour-looking, trash-talking young man. The Frogman Show eventually ended, but the public's appetite for cheap, weird cartoons starring Eagle Talon continued all the way to 2013. After that, FROGMAN got to work on his next project: a feature film called Tensai Bakabon: The Resurrection of The Dog of Flanders. As I mentioned in a previous column, I kinda couldn't believe that anyone would use the tragic, heartfelt story of Nello and Patrasche as fodder for a bizarre comedy, but, well…
FROGMAN did it! FROGMAN did a lot of stuff in this movie, including voicing a very creditable impression of Masahi Amenomori as Bakabon's Dad. The story here is simple: an evil secret society (FROGMAN sure loves his evil secret societies) has determined that the true name of Bakabon's dad is the code word for activating a doomsday device. They can't coax it out of him themselves, so they decide to have a boy befriend dad's kid, Bakabon. Their boy will be the nicest, friendliest boy ever: Nello, from that Dog of Flanders cartoon that everyone loved!
The film itself is a cheaply-made flash cartoon that's a mixture of bog-standard Tensai Bakabon jokes, cultural and political swipes, and a breathtaking series of “I can't believe they went there” moments involving Nello and Patrasche transforming into demons from Hell and running amok. Taking a classic character and making them evil isn't anything new, but something about doing this routine on someone like Nello is hilarious every time. Throughout the film, Nello repeatedly asserts a classic line from the TV series: Patrasche isn't just a dog, he's his friend! Patrasche is smart enough to figure out the wifi without needing to check the manual! Patrasche can make sense of the train schedules! And so forth. Don't let anyone tell you that the 2015 version isn't a totally authentic Dog of Flanders story, because it is!
A few weeks back at Anime Boston, at my version of Anime Hell, I covered much of what was discussed in this column, mostly because I wanted to show people the Resurrection of The Dog of Flanders. Doing so required a certain amount of careful study and context, because these shows made by the likes of Kuroda, Takahata, Miyazaki, and their cohort in the 70s are unbelievably rich, rewarding shows. They're also true cultural touchstones, so it's not surprising that The Dog of Flanders is resurrected every once in a while. After all, Rubens' triptych still hangs in the Cathedral of Antwerp, and so we can still expect that someday, Nello and Patrasche will show up to gaze upon it again.
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