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.
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
The Dog of Flanders, a classic book by British-French author Ouida (a pseudonym for Marie-Louise de la Ramée：1839-1908) 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.
(She wrote this story after visiting Antwerp in 1871)
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 Japan.
It is the story of a Flemish boy called Nello and his faithful dog Patrasche. Nello and Patrasche lived in Hoboken (now suburb of Antwerp). They traveled into Antwerp every day with their milk cart and it was there in the Cathedral of Our Lady that they met their dramatic end.
In Japan and Korea the novel has been a children’s classic for decades and was adapted into several Japanese films and anime. Since the 1980s, the Belgian board of tourism caught on to the phenomenon and built two monuments honoring the story to please East-Asian tourists.
There is a small statue of Nello and Patrasche at the Kapelstraat in the Antwerp suburb of Hoboken, and a commemorative plaque in front of the Antwerp Cathedral donated by Toyota.
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…
Too Sad Ending
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.
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.
but The 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.
♪ Opening song (TV version)♪
The Dog Of Flanders (Opening of Movie version)