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The Next Anime Butchery
By Justin Sevakis
I have just seen the most wondrous film. It's anime, and it's domestically licensed, although I highly doubt most of you have seen it. In fact, I'm willing to bet almost nobody reading this has.
Most anime fans have evangelized about a particular title before, including myself on countless occasions, and our words of praise often fall on deaf ears, even those of other fans. For every "Grave of the Fireflies", which was recently christened into Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies" hall of fame, there are countless other classics we can't get normal people to pay attention to.
Well, listen to this one, I implore you... not just because it's a fantastic work of art that deserves a much bigger audience than it has, but because there's much at stake here.
It's called "The Dog of Flanders". Few Americans have heard of the story, itself an internationally famous 19th Century Flemish novel by Oui'da. This, no doubt, contributed to the dismal failure of an English language motion picture released last year based on the story, which was so ineptly produced that the film as well as its release was a total loss.
Set in Belgium, the story revolves around a nine-year-old named 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, 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 take it back 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 Alois' father and many of the area farmers. Her father'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...
But this is not a Disney release. 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.
There's no blood shed, no flesh shown, and not one glimpse of fan service. There are no musical numbers, no talking animals, and no comic relief. The vision, right down to a beautifully rendered CG finale, is uncompromising, and the result is something that the whole family will truly enjoy.
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, a la Angela's Ashes. 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.
Pioneer, predicting the live action version would be a modest success, licensed the movie version of this well-respected anime (a TV series was also made decades ago - by the Miyazaki/Takahata team if memory serves - but is too low-budget and dated to be marketable in America), and produced an English version, featuring an impressive array of Hollywood has-beens and almost-weres. Then, breaking the cardinal rule of anime releasing for a second time in the name of marketing, they got out the scissors.
The last time they did this, as you may remember, was with the 80's remake of Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion). The show wasn't great, but after they reduced the first six episodes to an hour and rewrote most of the dialogue to be the most awkward, cliché-ridden dreck ever produced, it was unwatchable.
Had they done the same to this masterpiece, I would be calling for heads on a platter, but this time they've shown some restraint: they only cut eleven minutes from the film. And they've made an uncut subtitled version available. What did they remove? Some of the scenes of animal abuse (central to the plot), some mild violence (Nello is thrown against a wall by Patrasche's old owner), and a few scenes that they deemed too slow to hold an American's attention.
To add insult to injury, this is the only version that will see a DVD release. The uncut Japanese version will not be included at all. DVD collectors are used to seeing more footage, new scenes and extras, but Pioneer seems to think that pleasing the most anal-retentive of parents is more important than the fans that already buy their products. Even most parents would want to see the entire thing, I'm willing to bet. (For the record, their hacked version of Kimba was an incredible market failure.)
If it was the only way the film could get a theatrical release or be shown on TV, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much what was done, but this editing is without purpose. It doesn't make the film more accessible, or even encourages its release. It doesn't expand the audience, it shrinks it. Simply put, it's the work of arrogant North American producers who can't leave well enough alone.
"Dog of Flanders" is a masterwork. To cut one frame of it would be a sin. To cut eleven minutes is unforgivable.
But don't take my word for it... Go buy yourself a copy of this breathtaking film on uncut subtitled VHS and drink it in. Then ask yourself how anybody could fathom cutting a single moment from such a work. Then wonder why you would buy a DVD of such a butchery.
Then take action. E-mail Pioneer from their web page at http://www.pioneeranimation.com and let them know that this is unacceptable. Let them know that you would be more than willing to buy Dog of Flanders as it was meant to be seen on DVD, but refuse to touch the monstrosity they're releasing. According to a recent query of a Pioneer representative, Pioneer management takes the feedback very seriously. Not only would a large response save the original Dog of Flanders on Region 1 DVD, but would prevent such an act from happening again.
Dog of Flanders is not a hit, despite cross-trailering on Pokemon tapes. It remains our secret. Roger Ebert is not going to write a commentary on this like he did the comparatively mild alterations done to Eyes Wide Shut. If the few that know about it won't demand it uncut, no one will. It's up to you.