Isle of Dogs is a densely detailed gift to enthusiasts of many esoteric domains. First and foremost it’s a delight for Wes Anderson devotees. An elegant objet d’art created for stop-motion animation lovers, anime freaks, Otaku of all varieties, dog lovers, and anyone who enjoys a ripping adventure about the underdog (!) taking on an oppressive regime.
Spots (Liev Schreiber) is the bodyguard dog and companion of 12 year old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), ward of mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki city. The Kobayashi family since feudal times have long hated dogs and prefer cats, so in a culmination of centuries of pro-cat bias, Mayor Kobayashi uses an epidemic of “dog flu” as an excuse to quarantine all dogs to an island where trash is dumped. His mwa-ha-ha ultimate plan is to euthanize them. He sends Spots to the island first. Atari steals a Junior Turboprop XJ750 plane and crashes it on the island to find Spots. The voice actors for the dogs are a recognizable cast of stars including Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the protagonist canine Chief played by Bryan Cranston channeling Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg in dog form.
“Atari steals a Junior Turboprop XJ750 plane and crashes it on the island to find Spots.”
The level of detail is overwhelming in the stupefyingly masterful stop-motion animation. Anderson’s first stop-motion feature, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is very good, but looks like a proof-of-concept test run compared to Isle of Dogs.
Despite the animation and the playfulness, this is not a movie for young children. In the same way that a lot of anime is not suitable, Anderson gives us gritty dangers and violence that might be too much.
Anderson is the Hieronymus Bosch of film. Like the Bosch paintings, there’s such detail in this movie on so many levels that it will stand up to endless viewings. It’s also a film that can be revisited for years where a new insight catches you with each viewing. The film won’t change, but as your life experience brings you new layers of understanding you’ll find Anderson was there ahead of you and has some meaningful reflection to share.
Another delightful entire world to explore awaits you in the soundtrack. Alexandre Desplat has captured iconic Japanese drums in a way that evokes the beautiful sounds of Geinoh Yamashirogumi in Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal touchstone anime film Akira. Yet for all that masterful scoring, the take-away earworm when you walk out of the theater is the pensive track I Won’t Hurt You by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
“Anderson’s first stop-motion feature, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is very good, but looks like a proof-of-concept test run compared to Isle of Dogs.”
Regarding cultural appropriation, Anderson did everything possible to avoid it except to actually be Japanese. He was careful to respect Japanese culture while working in a specific satirical fairy-tale idiom. One of the screenwriters is Japanese: Tokyo native, actor, and writer Kunichi Nomura was brought onboard (as writer and voice actor) specifically to create the story from a Japanese perspective and not one simply imagined by Westerners. Anderson looked to his revered idols Miyazaki and Kurosawa for inspiration. The film is an exaggerated version of Japanese culture, but it is not whitewashed. Japanese actors are cast in Japanese roles. Untranslated Japanese is spoken. Every instance of written English is translated to Japanese Kanji (actually, the reverse of that, the Kanji comes first).
Anderson is an American so his take on Japan and what he loves about it are too. The film is made for Americans and riffs on our common associations with Japan. The kid is named Atari. The city is called Megasaki City. The evil Mayor is Kobayashi, a name that scores a direct hit on Star Trek fans from the un-winnable Kobayashi Maru scenario in The Wrath of Khan (that’s a reach but I choose to hope Anderson loves nerds that much). When the rescue drone crashes it sends up a mushroom cloud. The subtle point is this is not Japan, but rather a whimsical satire of the model of Japan that Americans have in their heads.
The worst among Americans could twist this affection for Japan into mocking and racism. Anderson cannot be held accountable for the worst of us. If that’s the new standard, then no artist from one culture can explore another culture in their work. How sad and provincial would that world would be? There’s nothing in here that one wouldn’t see in an anime film. There may just be no room in the world for a story set in Japan created by an American, but when the American is Wes Anderson you at least know it’s been handled as delicately as possible.
A master filmmaker at the peak of his powers created this art for you with a cast and crew of equally fine performers and artisans. I have said before that some films have admirable qualities but leave me cold because their essence isn’t why I watch movies. Isle of Dogs is why I watch movies.
Isle of Dogs (2018). Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura. Starring Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton.
9 out of 10