What connects busloads of Japanese tourists, the Rubens masterpiece Descent from the Cross, and a dead dog? The answer lies in Antwerp, a city otherwise known for its fashionable shops and thumping nightlife.
The unusually high number of Japanese sightseers in the city is linked to a little boy called Nello and his faithful canine companion, Patrasche. While A Dog of Flanders is not a tale that would ring any immediate bells in Britain, it is beloved of the Japanese, who teach it in schools and churn out animé films based on the story.
The basics of the 1872 children’s book are as follows: a poor orphan called Nello from a suburb of Antwerp befriends an abused dog, Patrasche. They happily deliver milk together until the boy falls in love with the wrong girl. Her father accuses Nello – an aspiring artist – of starting a fire, so boy and dog become outcasts. They are eventually found frozen to death in Antwerp’s cathedral in front of Descent from the Cross.
I could not speculate what it is about the story which appeals in Japan in particular, although most adaptations have apparently scrapped the unhappy ending for something more uplifting.
But sure enough at Antwerp’s majestic cathedral, groups of Japanese stand in awe in front of Rubens’ painting. The owner of one restaurant I dined in rolled his eyes. They have 100 beers on the menu, but when the Japanese come, they only want to drink one thing: Patrasche beer, complete with picture of boy and dog on the label.