Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic gem pushes through the rough and comes out shining on the other side. Isle of Dogs is clearly a love letter to dogs everywhere, and, using the brilliant stop-motion animation that we came to adore so fanatically in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the film is undoubtedly another example of the director’s comedic genius.
Set in a very near-future, dystopian Japan, the tyrannical Mayor Kobayashi has banished the entire dog population to the isolated “Trash Island”, because of an epidemic in the canine species that now threatens humans. However, not all is as clear and as straightforward as the new mayor would like his people to believe; his young ward, Atari, flies to the island in a desperate attempt to find his dog, Spots, and with the help of five other dogs—Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief—uncovers a dark secret about the government’s true intentions. Voiced by an astonishing line-up of talent, including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig and Frances McDormand, this is not a film lacking in passionate, apt individuals.
Anderson is, as always, perfect in his visual comedy and hilarious timing. Every movement, every facial expression, has been achieved with such careful thought and precision that scene after scene will make your belly shake and your eyes crease in a state of constant laughter and joy.
We can thank the film’s insanely qualified crew of 670 animators for this, who worked tirelessly on each frame; as well as Anderson’s own commitment to the project, which included filming himself acting like the dogs to really capture the facial expressions and emotion that he wanted to appear on screen. The scale of effort put into this film was astounding and it will perhaps never truly be realised by someone sitting in the audience.
The story itself wasn’t particularly original or spellbinding, but the animation and the dog-filled cast stole the entire spotlight and made it easier to ignore any overused conventions or tropes. The in-depth characterisation was enough to pull me in and sweep me away into the wonderland Anderson created with such apparent ease. Chief’s constant warning—“I bite”, Atari’s love for his dog and naïve courage, and the pack’s gossiping and ability to slide between conscious, intelligent beings and flea-crawling, trash-eating canines, were some of the ways this film warmed my heart and entertained the audience to no end.
Isle of Dogs is also interwoven with songs from an incredible soundtrack, drawing heavily on the percussive rhythms of Alexandre Desplat and well-known Japanese music from films like the Seven Samurai. The soundtrack continuously revolves around what seems like Mongolian throat singing (I’m a fan), steady drum beats, horn-blowing and mischievous flute-blowing. It was perfectly attuned to each character and each moment; from the dramatic, to the flirtatious, to the soul-twisting scenes of real emotion. Opening with three Japanese men beating their drums and tapping their triangles, and closing with a similarly intense and uplifting track, this film will snap you up from the beginning ‘til its finish.
While there is no doubt that this film is golden, one cannot help but feeling uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of Japanese people and certain characters. While Japan is not only portrayed as a hard-line state on the brink of propagandist-fuelled dictatorship (albeit in the near future—c’mon people), audiences must remember that Japan is a democracy, ranked twenty-third on the Democracy Index, just behind the United States. Perhaps a flawed democracy at worst, it was naïve of Anderson to depict Japan in this way, because, arguably, his country isn’t much better. The film focusses almost entirely on Japan as an aesthetic, rather than a highly complex country and culture; instead, it chooses to use stereotypes to portray Japan in the way tourists would like to see it: as an exotic “Other”.
But perhaps what was most unsettling was the portrayal of Greta Gerwig’s character, Tracy Walker, an American exchange-student who quickly takes on the role of “White Saviour” against the savage Mayor Kobayashi and his regime. It is only Tracy who can see past the mayor’s façade, and who demands action from her mild-mannered classmates and the scientists who have found the cure for the dog flu. It is Tracy who, ultimately, takes a stand, while the Japanese are represented as docile and impassionate. I know that I, for one, did not feel like this film needed a White Saviour.
I was intrigued by how Japanese audiences received this film. While some agreed with my sentiments, brief research (reading some articles online) revealed that many Japanese people loved Anderson’s work and his portrayal of Japan, which they found to be slightly caricature-ish, but mostly highly respectful. While I cannot speak for the Japanese, I don’t believe the beloved director was attempting to disrespect their culture, nor has he achieved some kind of “cultural appropriation”; rather, he was drawing inspiration from the films of Japanese legends like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, and his love for the beauty of the nation itself. In this sense, this film is a love letter not just to man’s best friend, but to Japan.
Despite its various cultural mishaps, and perhaps unnecessary dialogue and characterisations, I have to forgive it all, because this film is such good fun and a genuine pleasure to watch; there is no doubt in my mind that you will want to go back for more and see it all over again in its full whimsical, side-splitting glory.
Isle of Dogs is in Perth cinemas now.
Images sourced from junkee.com and rollingstone.com.