By Unpopular Demand: a Review of Alfred Jodocus Kwak (1989)

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Here it is: your hip, new, anime review. And yes, while Alfred Jodocus Kwak isn’t all that hip or new, it does technically qualify as an anime. There’s your little tidbit for the day.
This, among other facts, is part of the interesting history behind this show (which I will abbreviate to AJK for convenience’s sake) which not a lot of people are familiar with. Of course, a TV-show that was successful for a period in the Netherlands over 20 years ago isn’t expected to be all that en vogue anymore. But since AJK is such an exemplary piece of a unique TV-period, it would be a shame to see it fall into oblivion. That, and Alfred is absolutely adorable. Look at his little shawl!
Luckily, there’s people like me who have a soft spot for these types of shows, and put them up on YouTube for the progeny to witness it. I recently decided to rewatch it through said medium, having seen most of the episodes as a kid. And I’m glad for doing so, because the experience was quite different from what I actually remembered. These are my findings.

So, what’s it about?
The cartoon centers around Alfred J. Kwak, a duckling living in the fictional world of Great Waterland, alongside all different kinds of animal friends. He loses his family shortly after his birth, and is raised by a friendly mole named Henk. As Alfred and his friends grow up, they have all sorts of adventures.
Simple stuff.

So, how does this show qualify as an anime?
Well, it’s up to you to decide, really. Some people get picky on semantics (especially in the deep, beyond-redemption ends of the anime-fandom), but the reason AJK would be called an anime is because it was animated by Japanese animators in a Japanese style. Yet, the show is thoroughly Dutch (a constant barrage of windmills, the polder-like environments, Alfred’s nest being a giant clog, etc.). An odd combination if there ever was one. And yes, it actually aired in Japan, too. Though most Dutch people have problems doing the full pronunciation of Alfred Jodocus Kwak, the Japanese Chiisana Ahiru no Ōkina Ai no Monogatari: Ahiru no Kwak doesn’t roll off the tongue any easier.

So, how did this show happen?
Herman van Veen, a beloved artist/musician of the Netherlands, created the AJK theatre production in 1976, along with an original soundtrack. It was in 1989 that the production was translated into an animation through a collaborative effort between the Netherlands, Germany, and surprisingly, Japan.
It was an interesting period for Japanese animation, which at the time as quite a few steps ahead of Europe in terms of animation methods. The Japanese style had begun to gain commercial success, and a few European entrepreneurs managed to partake. The late eighties to early nineties was a short-lived period of European-Japanese animation which gave life to series with typically European tales with the finely detailed, hand-drawn animation from Japan. There are quite a few noteworthy examples: Nils Holgersson (1980), Boes (1987), Dommel (1988), Moomin (1990), and the list goes on.
The result we see today is an array of “Dutch anime”; a completely unique chapter in TV-history, which is now slowly sliding out of the general public’s vision. Coincidentally, the distinct lack of reviews on these shows are not all that unconnected to this fact.
And here we are now.

So, is the show any good?
Kinda.
There are a few kinks to get around when trying to assert how good a show is as it’s almost 30 years old. One of them being that the original target audience now consists of flab-bellied 40-year-olds dragging their spawn through Ponypark Slagharen. Presumably.
My point is that the original audience isn’t there anymore. It’s hard for people to view the world the same way as they did when they were kids. For a show aimed at children, the most important factor to me is how children view it. A children’s show can be horribly flawed in a multitude of ways but if children enjoy it, then the goal has been achieved. Simple as that.
But children today are not what they used to be. And if my knowledge of children could tell you one thing, it’s that they probably wouldn’t like AJK at all. The reason for this is that the show has a very low tempo. The average child’s span of attention probably isn’t durable enough to handle the everyday conversations the show’s characters engage in. Not to mention the overarching storyline which requires you to see every episode in the right order, which can’t be expected of any TV-watching child this day and age (if only because of broadcasting timetables). The show is very much dialogue-driven, with long scenes and relatively little visual humor for today’s standards.
This isn’t to say that the show isn’t visually appealing. The animation is way beyond what one should expect from a Dutch show from the ‘80s. The backgrounds are hand-painted, the movements are crisp and detailed, and the scenes are often wonderfully fantastical. The Japanese co-creators outshine the Dutch and German collaborators in a lot of places during the show.

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What the show might lack in terms of tempo it makes up for in atmosphere, though there are two main atmospheres the shows treads in: cutesy, slice of life-homeliness, and on the other hand dark, dangerous tenseness.
The younger me was more attracted by the latter, while upon rewatching the show I was more pulled in by the former. There is a certain innocence that stems from the “quieter” parts of the show that manages to pull me back into a nostalgic mindset, which, admittedly, feels kind of nice sometimes.
However, this is not necessarily a good thing, as it exposes another weak point of the show: it can be a bit antiquated. There are numerous occasions per episode where you can tell the show was made a long time ago, which causes one of two things: the viewer either adapts to the old-fashioned style out of recognition, or there is a disconnect, which I assume is more likely to happen among younger viewers. Not only are the character’s activities old-fashioned, but so is their way of speaking.
Which brings me to what I expect to be the most polarizing part of the show: the voice acting (at least, in the Dutch version). One should remember voice acting in the Netherlands wasn’t a thing 30 years ago. There was no special training, no real standard: it was just for kids’ entertainment. As such, there are quite a few characters with performances that sound kind of… phoned in. Some characters will be dramatically overacted (most notably the lisping jellyfish and the perma-purring cat), while others will sound downright uninterested. A common occurrence is that you will hear a voice actor speak as if they are quite literally reading a storybook to a child.
While this can have its own special type of charm, it certainly has the capacity to take you out of the story. Since the show is so dialogue-driven, it is all too easy to listen to the show as if it were a radio play. It just shows how the voice acting serves as an unintentional glimpse into the past of cartoon-making. It’s charmingly amateurish, but it can also be distracting. You either love or hate the show because of it.
As a final note of assessment, I have failed to mention perhaps the best part about the show: the soundtrack. If you don’t think this shit is the tits, I’ll hunt you down like the uncultured swine you are. I mean, I would, if this stuff didn’t make me so darn happy. But still, shame on you.
The music is very unique for as far as anime soundtracks go, and it’s a major part of the series’ tone and recognizability. In any case, it’s pretty dope.

So, what, you expect me to watch this?
Kinda.
AJK has a rich history for a kids’ show, especially for Dutch television. People don’t have to love it, but they should at least recognize and remember the things a kids’ show is capable of. The educational themes AJK touches upon (such as fascism, apartheid and environmentalism) are way beyond what any other children’s show has attempted to attain, especially back in the day. Sadly, I honestly don’t believe a contemporary child would be able to focus on the show enough to learn real lessons from it. However, the show tried something no other show has tried to achieve since, and that alone makes it an exceptional piece of entertainment. It was an intersection of international creative sparks coming together at just the right moment.
In an ideal world, AJK would get a new series that would be able to focus on the same themes while also having a streamlined, modern narrative. Sadly, the animation part isn’t likely to happen again: hand-drawn animation is simply too time-consuming and expensive compared to the alternatives these days. But one can dream.

On that note, Herman van Veen announced a new AJK production being in the works, ten damn years ago. A feature-length film, no less!
Where is it, van Veen?
I’d put up a petition if I could be bothered, but what the hell. Let’s just be grateful for what we have. I learned that from Alfred himself.

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