Isle of Dogs Review
If you come to a Wes Anderson movie for intricately detailed and beautifully realised visuals, then you are going to be in for a treat with Isle of Dogs. The director’s second foray into stop motion animation (following 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox) is one of the most astounding animated projects ever produced, with every frame packed with the obsessive amount of detail we’ve come to expect from the aesthetically precise filmmaker. But beneath this fanatically designed surface is a film lacking heart, or any shade of warmth - a film about the relationship between mankind and man’s best friend that feels oddly averse to showcasing any emotion of its own.
Set in near-future Japan, a dog flu virus has been spreading across the country’s canine population, with the general public turning against their pets. Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki City comes up with a solution - shipping all dogs off to a vacant “trash island” just off the city’s coastline. The first dog to be shipped off is Spots, who belongs to Kobayashi’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin); six months later, Atari crash lands on the island in search of a beloved pet whose existence is now illegal in his hometown. Acquiring the help of a group of strays led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), they help Atari track down his dog. Meanwhile, over on the mainland, Mayor Kobayashi is challenged by a rival politician/scientist who has found a cure for the dog virus - but his sudden death leads foreign exchange student Tracey Walker (Greta Gerwig) into believing a conspiracy is at play to keep dogs from re-entering the lives of their owners.
Anderson’s film has been widely criticised in some corners for its cultural appropriation, and after seeing the film, it’s hard to fathom any viewer who would argue against this. The story itself never feels particularly specific to Japan; the vaguely dystopian nation under authoritarian rule that the director presents us with is entirely divorced from Japan’s current political reality, with the villainous mayor character far closer in ideology to a world leader like Vladimir Putin (at one point, he blames criticisms of his policies as being foreign propaganda, in the most telling parallel) than anything distinctive to this film’s setting. With narratively pointless excursions to sumo wrestling matches and sushi restaurants, as well as an overwhelming abundance of Japanese typography and visual alludes to Kurosawa, it’s hard to escape the reality that Anderson set his movie in Japan purely for the purpose of his film’s visuals.
The story doesn’t require a Japanese setting specifically, and the film’s attempts to portray Japanese culture feel awkward - there is no escaping that this is a dystopian Japan created by an outsider who leafed through a couple of travel guides, watched a Toho monster movie and decided on using this locale based entirely on that. Because, quite frankly, the portrayal of both Japan and the people who live there is as conceptually lazy as it is visually breathtaking (possibly the first time a film has ever possessed this central paradox). Anderson does deserve plaudits for casting Japanese voice actors in all the Japanese roles, but even this well-intentioned idea feel ill-conceived; for example, our main protagonist is called Atari, a name for a video games company and not a name a Japanese parent would ever give their child.
Refraining from whitewashing the voice cast is only an achievement if the roles themselves are built around more than a lazy Japanese stereotype. Naming non-Western characters is definitely not Anderson’s forte - one of the other Japanese speaking roles, voiced by Yoko Ono, is literally named Yoko Ono for no reason other than an uncharacteristic lack of imagination from one of cinema’s most visually imaginative directors.
You could argue that the realism of the Japanese setting isn’t particularly necessary considering the vague near-future dystopia that the story takes place within. But this all just makes me return to wondering why Japan was selected as the setting in the first place, beyond Anderson’s surface level visual obsessions. Isle of Dogs does make for a fitting companion piece to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which equally explored the early stages of far-right authoritarianism taking hold in society, and did so with a surprising sincerity that effectively countered the offbeat comic charms elsewhere. The difference between the two efforts is that Anderson’s latest purely uses a real world political parallel as nothing more than a plot mechanism, not using its effects to delve deeper into character relationships as he did in his previous, superior offering.
This lack of deeper exploration into the characters means that this is the rare Anderson film where the jokes fall flat due to an icy detachment. However, there is a more pressing character issue that has gone somewhat under examined due to the more prominent accusations of cultural appropriation - Greta Gerwig’s foreign exchange student Tracey Walker, a high school senior who falls in love with the 12-year-old Atari over the course of the drama. This might be the most distasteful element of the film, sandwiched into a narrative strand that the film could easily live without (do we really need to see investigative reporting of the story, that has no impact on the story itself?), and even given a romantic pay-off of dubious taste. Has the physical appearance of Tracey Walker, designed with freckles to appear much younger than a high school senior, led this inappropriate relationship to fly over the heads of most viewers?