I usually think of the world of Wes Anderson films as separate from our everyday world, but Isle of Dogs couldn’t be more relevant. The movie positions us in Japan, twenty years into the future in a city ravaged by dog flu and snout fever. As a result, Mayor Kobayashi quarantines all of the dogs in the city to nearby Trash Island, much to the dismay of his ward Atari. As an act of resistance, Atari then commandeers a plan and flies to the island to rescue his loyal dog, Spots.
As it turns out, the quarantine is a conspiracy started by Mayor Kobiyashi’s administration, and he preys on the fear of dog flu in order to get re-elected. As a result, major issues in this movie include the media and its flaws, issues of translation, silenced voices, government corruption, internment, and young people who have the power to change everything. It probably sounds pretty bleak, especially for a stop motion movie about dogs, and to a certain extent it is. It wasn’t a sugary sweet confection like many of Anderson’s other films, but it didn’t have to be.
All the same, the film still contained the impeccable design and depth of emotions signature to a Wes Anderson film. From the graphic opening credits to the drums and whistles composed by Alexandre Desplat, the atmosphere was established right away. Anderson managed to make an island literally overflowing with a trash into a magical place, with a lit up mansion of sake bottles and remnants of a theme park, complete with pagoda slide. There were of course, the signature overhead shots of a kidney transplant and a strangely graphic sushi preparation to remind you who made the movie you were watching, in case you had forgotten.
This movie is also one that pulls at your heartstrings (and all of your other emotions, for that matter). There’s something about a persecuted scientist asking “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” while a tear rolls down his face or the image of a twelve year old Atari offering several dogs piece of a Puppy Snap dog treat while gently saying “biscuito” that made me tear up without a second thought.
I also appreciated Anderson’s treatment of and celebration of Japanese culture. In reviews of this movie, people have gone different ways, claiming he appropriated Japanese culture while others claim that he respectfully and accurately portrayed this culture that isn’t his own. I was particularly interested by the translation in the movie or lack thereof. At the beginning of the film, a note onscreen informs the audience that the characters will be speaking their nature language, occasionally translated by interpreter or foreign exchange student, while the dogs’ barks will be translated into English. Often, the Japanese in the movie isn’t translated at all, leaving the audience to decide what the characters might be saying, further exploring the theme of translation. The more I read about this movie, the more I discovered that there are small references to Japanese culture both hidden and in plain sight that I would have never caught without reading about them.
All in all, I was impressed by this movie and the strength of Wes Anderson’s creative vision. While this movie easily fits into his oeuvre, it also set itself apart and shows Anderson’s growth and attention to the present reality in which his films exist.