I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson’s work, I won’t lie. Bearing that in mind, I approached the cinema for his latest, Isle of Dogs, with a lot of hope and yet some trepidation. Would he have lost his touch with his 9th film? Flashbacks to watching The Darjeeling Limited, a film that was undeniably well crafted but for me never quite came together, played in my head. Despite all this, you may not be surprised to hear that I loved it.
Set in the favourite time of dystopias, the near future, Isle of Dogs portrays the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where the Mayor has banished all dogs to a literally named Trash Island. Stealing a plane, one boy, Atari Kobayashi, is determined to bring home his dog, Spots, while a group of students unravel a conspiracy. The film is strangely prescient with its theme of Fake News, given that it had already entered production by the time Donald Trump began using the term in January 2017. Whether the film was reworked to accommodate this remains to be seen, but in a film featuring political corruption and manipulation of public opinion, it’d have been quite easy to fit it in.
Like all Wes Anderson films, his regular tropes make an appearance, from title cards to the framing of shots to the use of models. Given it’s an animated film, it’s somewhat difficult to avoid the latter, but the amount of effort made to bring these figures to life is extraordinary. After a while, you forget that these figures are even animated at all, and you begin to see some of the Actor in the way that their character moves and talks. I saw these models offscreen at an exhibition in London, and the detail put into every set is clearly conveyed through the camera and into the finished work, and I must congratulate the production, which was conveniently located only a few miles away from the real-life Isle of Dogs. As well as his tropes, many of his regular collaborators are back too, most notably Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Edward Norton, while also adding to his repertoire with others like Bryan Cranston and Yoko Ono.
It’s also important to address the backlash that Isle of Dogs has created in its wake. The depiction of Japan and its culture has raised concerns of cultural appropriation, which in some respects are justified. I’ll admit that I’m not best placed to give a opinion on this, but I can certainly see where some of the complaints come from, especially in the case of Tracey, an American Exchange Student and journalist who comes across as a bit of a white saviour. This is compounded by the fact that while the Japanese dialogue remains untranslated on the whole, their thoughts conveyed by their physical and vocal expressions except for the odd translation via Frances McDormand’s interpreter and others, her English speech carries a lot of the exposition. On the other hand, the film follows in the footsteps of Japanese works such as Princess Mononoke and Seven Samurai, in basing itself around the archetypal hero sacrificing themselves for their friends, their world, and the greater good, evidenced by the Legend that ties the film together. Overall, the film tends to indulge the odd stereotype, but on the whole gives a sympathetic view of Japan and its people.
In conclusion, if you’re a dyed in the wool Wes Anderson fan like me, then you’re going to enjoy it come what may. If not, then be prepared for a wonderfully whimsical journey into a dystopia that seems far too recognisable. Perhaps the best way of summing up Isle of Dogs was provided by the lady sitting behind me in the cinema. It’s just a bit weird, and for that I love it.