Look: If you like Wes Anderson movies, you will probably enjoy Isle of Dogs. And if you find his brand of deadpan humor, fussy and intricate frame compositions, and reliance on the same pool of actors less than charming, then this movie probably isn’t for you. Of course, those two camps aren’t the ones who really need a review of this film anyway. The group that might be on the fence is the one filled with people who have enjoyed the occasional Anderson joint, but are concerned that maybe Anderson should be staying in his not-at-all Japanese lane, especially in today’s cultural climate.
Basically, did Wes Anderson manage to make an homage to Japanese cinema without it feeling like cultural appropriation? And the answer is: Maybe? But it’s complicated, and I’m not the person who can judge that.
According to IndieWire, Anderson developed the story, about dogs living in a garbage dump, with collaborators Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.
“But we had also been talking about wanting to do something in Japan, about Japan, something related to our shared love of Japanese cinema, especially [Akira] Kurosawa. The story could’ve taken place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan.”
Once they decided to weave in Japan as the setting, they brought actor Kunichi Nomura on-board as the fourth screenwriter to help them nail the atmosphere (Nomura also voices the villainous Mayor Kobayashi in the film). And to the film’s credit, effort is made to maintain a certain authenticity in the face of Anderson’s typically artificial style. The dogs all speak English, but the Japanese characters don’t. Sometimes their dialogue is translated, via literal translator characters (the main one is voiced by Frances McDormand) or other in-context manipulations. And other times, as is typically the case with the “little pilot” named Atari, the Japanese dialogue is left untranslated. The audience, both in the theater and the dogs around the boy, are left to infer the meaning based on the facial expressions and other cues.
Luckily, the stop-motion animation leaves nothing to be desired when it comes to evoking emotions. Eyes brim with tears. Teeth clench. There are so many subtle details, in the characters and in the surroundings, engaged in telling the story that I never once wanted subtitles. But perhaps because of the cultural complications at play, the story itself stays relatively simple: In the city of Megazaki, the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi has banned all dogs to an offshore island of trash to protect the populace from a virulent dog-borne disease. The first dog sacrificed for the protection of the public is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog belonging to the Mayor’s orphaned ward, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin). But the bond between the boy and the dog is strong, and after a few months, the child manages to steal a small plane and crash land on the island to search for his missing furry friend. He is rescued by a pack of dogs with lordly names: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray), all former beloved pets who are struggling to adjust to their new life as filthy scavengers in a desolate land. The fifth member of their pack is a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), a tough dog who doesn’t believe in masters and also occasionally bites. He doesn’t understand why the pack votes to help Atari, but he goes along with the group to help in the search. Their odyssey takes them through a landscape of litter and demolished factories, and they find help along the way from unlikely sources, including an Oracle (a pug voiced by Tilda Swinton) who gets her visions from peering at television sets.
Meanwhile on the mainland, a scientist works to develop a cure for the illness plaguing the dogs so they can be returned to their owners (alongside his assistant, Yoko-ono… voiced by Yoko Ono), while a group of teenage journalists and hackers, led by an earnest American exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), investigates whether the dog banishment is part of a larger, more sinister plot. The film is a technical marvel to behold, but the plot, though mostly enjoyable and emotionally satisfying, is ultimately unsurprising and a bit thin.
I mean, do you love dogs? Then you’ll probably like Isle of Dogs.
The movie works best if you can ignore the fact that it didn’t need to be set in Japan. Anderson could have set it anywhere. But it speaks to the advancements in our cultural dialogue that I, personally, couldn’t ignore it. I found myself questioning every choice and my reactions to them through the whole movie. The inclusion of Japanese cast members and other creative influences was reassuring, but I’m not sure if it overcomes the obvious “but… why?” of it all. I mean, are any haikus recited? Are there any scenes featuring kabuki performers? Oh, you betcha. But I don’t have the perspective to police how successful this fantasy fictionalized allegorical Japan is, or if it’s offensive, or if maybe it’s both. All I can say is that the movie was, well, exactly what I expected. And I enjoyed it, because dammit — I love stop-motion wizardry, and gossipy canine Jeff Goldblum, and deadpan humor. But I could have enjoyed all that without the cultural tourism, even if that tourism was performed with the utmost respect.
As to whether the Kurosawa homage contributed something to the film, all I can say is that I’m in the mood to go watch some actual Kurosawa now. And when I’m in the mood to watch some Wes Anderson, this will be a solid option on the list.