With typical fastidious passion Wes Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation, this time to weave a story about a pack of alpha dogs living on an island of exiled dogs, a boy who wants nothing more than to get his boy back, and a tale of political corruption and abuse of power. It is frequently unpredictable in its storytelling, gloriously eccentric in its humour, and, as is frequently becoming more common in Anderson’s later work, surprisingly heartwarming as well. There is a question about whether Anderson is guilty of cultural appropriation that needs to be discussed, but we will get to that in a moment.
Anderson’s second stop-motion animated movie, the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox, proves to be the perfect medium for the meticulous story-book director and in Isle of Dogs he shows he has not only become adept in the medium but is arguably its new master. The movie is set twenty years into the future in the fictional Megasaki City where a mysterious epidemic of canine flu and the impending threat of cross-species transmission has made almost all of its citizens amenable to cat-lover Mayor Kobayashi’s executive order to banish all dogs to the nearby Thrash Island. Six months later, with the island now inhabited by former pets and stray dogs, an airplane crashes onto the island with Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) onboard. He is the Mayor’s ward and his personal dog Spots was the first one to be shipped off to the island; his sole quest is to get him back. When he lands he meets a rag-tag group of self-proclaimed alpha dogs named Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Together they join forces to travel across the wasted landscape Thrash Island to reunite a boy and his dog.
Of course this being a Wes Anderson flick, you can rest assured that though the basic plot sounds like your run-of-the-mill road trip movie the way in which it is carried out is filled to the brim with subplots about scientists trying to find a cure, politicians trying to consolidate power, and an anti-Kobayashi faction of students working to bring the man down. All of this happens in some of the most meticulously designed you will ever see, making it impossible to catch every detail in one viewing. This is both a blessing and a curse because it means repeat viewings are always going to be rewarding but it is also leaves you feeling helplessly like you might have missed something important the first time around.
For someone whose entire calling card is his incredible attention to aesthetic detail, its surprising that this is easily his most ugly looking movie. This is an intentional choice but it is jarring to see his symmetrical style married to trash heaps, maggot piles, and some of the mangiest looking mutts. When these dogs fight, and this is an event that happens often, there is very little holding back as they bite, scratch, and tear each other apart often leaving each other brutally injured. These dogs are also all sick and show it in the way they hack, cough, and sneeze their way through their journey. Bleak dystopia is a genre that Anderson has not strayed into but he shows himself as adept in illustrating that world as any other. Meanwhile his rendering of Megasaki City is an incredibly textured place as Anderson borrows from the great Japanese masters like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki to render a place that doesn’t look out of place from Anderson’s usual storybook sets but is also a vibrant and new place.
It is at this juncture that we should talk about the elephant in the room, namely whether or not Wes Anderson is guilty of appropriating Japanese culture for nothing more than entertainment purposes. This is a problem that Anderson has run into before with The Darjeeling Limited which can be generously described as “three spoiled white man-children use the rich cultural history of India for their own selfish awareness purposes” (of course, I do argue that the point of The Darjeeling Limited is that we are meant to mock the three man-children for that purpose). In Isle of Dogs all of the dogs communicate to us in perfect English while the human characters for the most part speak in Japanese that isn’t translated to us as viewers. The reason for doing this is that humans and dogs only understand each other partially and seeing as we are meant to have the perspective of the dogs it makes sense that we shouldn’t be privy to the details of the human’s conversations. However this defense falls apart a little because we are given frequent English translations for some parts of the dialogue and one character, the American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), almost exclusively speaks in English too which renders the Japanese speakers as being the “other” in this story. This isn’t helped by the fact that apart from Atari, it is Tracy Walker who is shown to be the human with the most agency in this story (or at least the most vocal one) which perpetuates the “white saviour” myth and opens Anderson up to the charge of cultural appropriation.
However it is also unfair to say that Anderson is only interested in using the Japanese setting as a backdrop. As I mentioned earlier, the mise-en-scene for this movie is astonishingly immersive. Various locations in this movie look like they came straight out of Japanese paintings while the music is evocative of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (this movie providing the world with yet another amazing and surprising score from Alexandre Desplat). In addition there is something subtly powerful about a story of forced exile and internment told in a Japanese setting echoing American abuses of its own Japanese Americans (and while we are at it, the political aspect of this story is one that finds some surprising resonances with our contemporary American political situation without explicitly preaching about it). And while Anderson’s Japan is clearly not an approximation of the real Japan, it is about as real as the Rushmore high-school or the Grand Budapest Hotel or whatever land Steve Zissou ends up travelling to. In other words, his Japan is a loving outsider recreation of his own experiences of Japan, shaped largely through Japanese film masters like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Seijun Suzuki, and Hayao Miyazaki. In fact it is not a stretch to say that of all of Anderson’s storybook settings, this is the one he spends the most care and love in recreating.
As a half-Asian man myself, I ultimately found the setting less an act of colonialism and more of a respectful homage to a rich culture by a white man. Understandably other people may feel less or more comfortable than I am with his use of Japanese culture, and I cannot invalidate those experiences. As Alison Willmore so eloquently articulated, just because something is meant as an homage doesn’t mean that it can’t be problematic. I do think Anderson opens himself up to accusations of appropriation with how little agency he gives his Japanese characters in shaping the story but for the most part skirts the line. But when compared to less elegant appropriation of other cultures like last year’s double whammy of Ghost in the Shell and DeathNote, this movie’s presumed cultural faults barely registers for me.
But lest we forget, this is ultimately a story about dogs and about our primal relationship to them. Even in his eccentric and affected way, Anderson is able to wring out a whole lot of emotion from the simple premise of a boy going after his dog. The movie is also, as I have already discussed, an astonishing example of craftsmanship and meticulous care. While I doubt it will win over anybody who already feels negatively about Anderson’s work, it is a worthy addition for his fans (and I count myself one of them) while being a fairly good entry point into his work (although for my money Fantastic Mr. Fox or Rushmore are better entry points). And in the seemingly popular resurgence of dystopian science fiction, Isle of Dogs stands as one that is ultimately a hopeful one, whether that hope is found in doing enormous things like combating corruption and taking down evil powers or in the simple friendship and companionship of a dog and his boy – an affirmation of what is essentially humanity’s longest relationship with a creature. And in this climate, maybe that’s enough.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schrieber
Runtime: 101 minutes