I confess: the first thing I thought at the end of Isle of Dogs is, “What an absolutely delightful and utterly original movie!” I was bothered by some very unoriginal narrowness of the female characters: the only female dogs with any significant presence in the film are defined solely as the mates of the male dogs; the male dogs are, of course, drawn as varied and complex characters, and this is very much their story alone. But I was willing to overlook that — though it still chafes — because the movie on the whole is so deliciously odd and manages to pull off the rare feat of being funny and sad at the same time. This isn’t a movie that it feels like we’ve seen a thousand times before — or even once before! — not in its story and not in what it literally looks like, with its lovingly crafted stop-motion animation bursting with sweetness but also constantly poking at itself with a winking mockery. I can forgive a lot with a movie that genuinely surprises me, as this one did.
But was I overlooking stuff that I shouldn’t forgive? My screening took place before the release of the film on either side of the Atlantic, but there had been festival screenings, and critics and film lovers were beginning to talk about the movie, and beginning to talk in particular about whether writer-director Wes Anderson has engaged in unseemly appropriation of Japanese culture. In fact, we’ve been talking about this since the prerelease publicity started and we saw how many white Western actors Anderson had voice-cast for his cartoon set in Japan. So I knew this conversation was happening. Even if I hadn’t, I’d have had to be a blind ignoramus not to know that I was heading onto uncertain ground with a movie set in Japan and steeped in Japanese culture (and pop culture) and iconography told by a white American.
So, is Isle of Dogs problematic? Has Anderson overstepped what he should have seen as his rightful bounds and blundered into a tricky situation that he could have and should have avoided? Is Isle of Dogs offensive? Is it racist? I... I don’t know. The only criticism on this front that I have any confidence in offering is that the only human character with any meaningful presence in the film is a white American foreign-exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) who has a tinge — though just a tinge — of the awful white savior trope about her. But the rest of it? To me, Isle of Dogs looks like an affectionate homage to Japanese pop culture from anime to monster movies. It looks like a respectful celebration of Japanese culture... though maybe it’s only the trappings of that culture that are on display, and maybe there’s nothing respectful in that. Maybe Isle of Dogs is utilizing the Japanese setting merely for its exoticism. I fully admit that that exoticism does appeal to me. Is it okay to enjoy such exoticism as long as you don’t mistake it for true appreciation or understanding?
I don’t know.
Has Wes Anderson engaged in unseemly appropriation of Japanese culture? I honestly don’t know.
I do know that I love how Anderson — with his cowriters Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura — have created a love letter to dogs and their relationship with humans from the dogs’ perspective, and what happens when dogs are separated from their beloved and pampering humans. What’s more, he uses the fact that most of his Western audience won’t understand the language the humans are speaking to enhance that dog’s-eye view. You see, most of the Japanese dialogue is not translated or subtitled: the people speak Japanese, and the dogs’ language is rendered for our ears as English. So the dogs don’t understand what the people are saying, for the most part, anymore than we do. (In a few instances, a few setting-the-stage scenes that don’t feature the dogs, an interpreter [the voice of Frances McDormand] translates the humans’ speech for our benefit. It’s like something we might have seen in a 1950s Godzilla movie brought over to America and rejiggered for an English-speaking audience.)
The dogs are on their own because, “20 years in the future” in “the city of Megasaki,” mean Mayor Kobayashi (the voice of Nomura) has ordered all the animals exiled to “Trash Island” after outbreaks of “dog flu” and “snout fever.” But then 12-year-old Atari (the voice of Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s ward, sneaks onto the island to try to find his dog Spots, who had been the first to be expelled from the city. (Atari? Really? It is actually a word in Japanese, and sometimes a name, it seems, but I’m sure Anderson et al picked it for its Western connotation.) There, he meets the pack led by gruff Chief (the voice of Bryan Cranston), a proud stray who doesn’t “believe in masters,” and his pals Rex (the voice of Edward Norton), King (the voice of Bob Balaban), Boss (the voice of Bill Murray), and Duke (the voice of Jeff Goldblum). The dogs are able to get the gist of what Atari is after — he has a photo of Spots — and they agree to help him. Because they remember and miss their masters. (Chief’s love interest is Nutmeg, voiced by Scarlett Johansson; the other lady-love dog doesn’t speak, which is even more troublesome. Tilda Swinton voices the mysterious dog Oracle, whom Chief and his pals consult in the search for Spots, but she appears only very briefly.)
Could Wes Anderson have achieved the marvel he achieves here without the Japanese setting? Probably.
Not a spoiler: Chief may just come to appreciate the joys of being a boy’s dog. *happy sniff*
Could Wes Anderson have achieved the marvel he achieves here without the Japanese setting? Probably. (The humans could have spoken in an invented language, for one thing.) The joys of this film are many, and that appealing exoticism is but a very small part of it. Just listening to the cast of Anderson regulars with their very distinctive voices and personalities gone doggy is huge fun. There’s a surprising tenderness to the animation (and sometimes a clunking goofiness), and an empathetic expressiveness to the dogs’ faces and body language: this movie is one of those examples of animation being truer than live-action. I won’t apologize for loving this movie, but I wish I didn’t have to feel like maybe I should.
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