Warp and Woof
By Simran Hans
Isle of Dogs
Dir. Wes Anderson, U.S., Fox Searchlight
“Before the Age of Obedience.” According to the prologue to Wes Anderson’s stop-motion comedy Isle of Dogs, this is the golden stretch of Japanese feudal history in which dogs once roamed free and were celebrated as man’s best friend. Using an animated Japanese woodcut print to explain the rise and rule of the fictional cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty, it sets up the idea that the dog days are over, defining dogged obedience as doggy oppression.
Much like the storybook, photo album, yearbook, stage play, and dollhouse framing devices used in Anderson’s previous films, the woodcut preamble visually and structurally constricts the world he has created. The film’s imaginary setting of “Megasaki,” a purple-skied metropolis 20 years in the future, in the Japanese archipelago, is part of a pretend, parallel universe; pickled in nostalgic references to Japanese culture and cinema, this diorama might mimic real textures but it exists independently of the real Japan. The ornate, distancing fake-ness of this frame narrative and its implicit limits are Anderson’s get-out-of-jail-free card, and he slams it on the table almost immediately. Establishing the made-up history that is the story’s starting point allows the director to manage expectations about any need for fidelity—or sensitivity—to real-world politics.
Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs unfit to live among people. Citing a slideshow of anime-style images that show the outbreaks of “dog flu” and “snout fever” sweeping the city, he calls for all dogs to be deported to Trash Island, starting with his young nephew Atari's beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), or “Dog Zero,” as his canine compadres frequently call him. In an act of heroism, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) missions to the pooch-only penal colony to recover Spots, while back in Megasaki, a group of politicized scientists get to work on a Dog Flu vaccine, and American foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) takes steps to prove her conspiracy theory that the city’s “besieged underdog-dogs” have been poisoned by the government as part of a genocide operation.
Though technically Atari is the film’s protagonist, Anderson is more interested in the mangy mutts that populate Trash Island. A dystopian, doggy Alcatraz, it is home to Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). An endearing, craggy crew, they pose as “a pack of scary alpha dogs,” but they’re really a gossipy bunch of house pets. “I’ve seen cats with more balls than you dogs!” yaps ringleader Chief, hardened by life as a stray. Yet, though he chews off—and spits out—the furry ear of a rival, Chief and company are more bark than bite. These dogs are deliberators, neurotic overthinkers who bitch and bicker before deciding to scrap over a garbage bag teeming with flies, fleas, and maggots. “I want my master,” pines Norton’s Rex, while Boss woofs about the fact that all the bitches he likes are “never in heat”; these are sensitive Good Boys. It is a Wes Anderson film, after all.
Not all the dogs are terribly distinct; side characters are more sharply drawn, like Tilda Swinton’s all-seeing, TV-obsessed pug Oracle, Harvey Keitel’s indigenous mongrel Gondo (unfairly accused of cannibalism by the other dogs), and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a sultry pedigree showdog who appears aglow atop a heap of rubbish and strikes up a screwball flirtation with Chief. Not that this matters to Anderson, who tends to lean on gags rather than character or plot. There’s wit in the wordplay offered by the animals (and inherent comedy in animals talking) with Chief commanding his fellow dogs to “stop licking your wounds,” and Rex darkly recounting the hangdog tale of a banished hound who committed “suicide by his own leash.” However, many of the film’s funniest jokes are visual: Kobayashi steps out of a Japanese bath, his nude body revealing an elaborate back tattoo of a cat, and a group of scientists slurp celebratory shots from their test tubes.
The meticulously detailed wasteland that Anderson has created is rendered with his typical craft and care; from its rippling glittery seas to a glowing rainbow cave of empty sake bottles to the wall of garbage that backdrops a military-precision line of elongated shadows, there’s no doubting that, as evidenced by 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, this is a medium that suits the director’s perfectionism. Seemingly unencumbered by the practical limitations of the stop-motion animation format, he frequently finds inventive ways in and out of the frame, the image sliding and scrolling horizontally like an arcade game. Elsewhere, a creative use of split-screen tracks Spots’ journey to Trash Island like the overhead maps on the back of airplane seats, while a God’s-eye shot of a kidney transplant is sublime in its doll-like details. These aesthetic decisions have a conviction—and a precision—that unfortunately the film’s other designs lack.
With its pounding, Taiko-drum-influenced score by Alexandre Desplat, hand-drawn anime inserts, and even a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Katsushika Hokusai’s Edo period print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (dogs surf this one), Anderson pays seemingly good-natured tribute to Japanese film, music, and art. Akira Kurosawa’s presence is felt in the hard-boiled Chief, in Atari’s samurai-like search for Spots, and in Dogs’ trash-heap shantytown setting (lifted perhaps from his 1970 drama Dodes’ka-den). Yet not all of the film’s evocations of Japan translate as benign: repeated images of cotton-wool mushroom cloud explosions are detached from their historical context but still conjure the American WWII bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Elsewhere, peas of green wasabi paste are repurposed as poison, a joke about deadly foreign fare that feels like low-hanging fruit. This pick ’n’ mix of cultural signifiers half-heartedly introduces a series of coded ideas about “Japanese-ness” that the film has no interest in engaging with.
This isn’t helped by Gerwig’s (white) character, who spearheads the film’s Free Dogs movement, breaking the story (and taking the credit for doing so) about the mayor’s master plan in the school newspaper. It’d be foolish to take a film about talking dogs too literally, but when Tracy grabs a weary Japanese chemist voiced by Yoko Ono by the scuff of her lab coat, and screams, “Do I have the story? On the record?” in her face, her brusqueness creates an uncomfortable colonizer/colonized power dynamic between the teenaged reporter-in-training and her source.
Odder still, the film’s Japanese characters are unsubtitled, while “all barks are rendered in English,” according to a note provided in the opening. Frances McDormand voices an interpreter, translating Kobayashi’s anti-dog press conferences into English from a box in the town theater’s gallows, literally speaking for Megasaki’s citizens. This tool, used to privilege the dogs’ point of view only serves to further distance them (and the viewer) from their Japanese neighbors. In ethnically delineating its humans, the film sets up a curious, racially coded divide between dogs and the Japanese (as opposed to the more convincing conflict of dogs vs. people). Anderson locates humor in this gap, framing Chief’s inability to communicate accurately with Atari as a charming hurdle, easily jumped by the dog’s animal instincts to protect (and play fetch with, in a scene played for maximum cuteness) his would-be master.
The film closes out with a haiku, written and read by Atari. “Whatever happened/ To Man’s best friend/ Falling spring blossom.” The poem’s opening couplet, which also appears in the prologue, exposes the film’s fundamental anxiety. In this universe, dogs (all of whom are voiced by white, American actors) are no longer the dominant animals. Isle of Dogs confronts the themes of autocracy and media misinformation, but the conceit its drama hinges on (“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?”) is a cheeky kind of propaganda itself. Is Anderson so desperate to imagine what it feels like to be Othered? Given the painstaking intricacies and aesthetic inflexibility of Anderson’s imagined worlds, it’d be naïve to write off this uneasy detail as an oversight, or even less likely, as a design flaw.