‘Isle of Dogs’ review: Making trash look kawaii

Early this year, after the world premiere of Isle of Dogs at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, Wes Anderson was asked an inevitable question at a press conference: how much of the film mirrors the time we live in? Anderson, half expecting this query, replies without pretension, “I simply wanted to tell a story about dogs on a trash island.” The American filmmaker’s honesty makes it challenging to sieve intention from interpretation in Isle of Dogs, which has all elements to be allegorical, commenting on fascism, xenophobia, fear-mongering and propaganda. Yet, there’s a charming sense of carefreeness to his narrative, where visuals are paramount and commentary is a byproduct.

Set in a cat-dominated Megasaki city, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) demands all dogs be sent off to a trash island. He claims that they are incurably infected by “snout fever” and must be quarantined. The mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), sets off on an expedition to find Spots (Liev Schreiber), who is the first to be banished.

Isle of Dogs
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Cast: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura and Yoko Ono
  • Story line: A 12-year-old boy sets out to find his banished dog

It’s a thought that could possibly germinate only in the mind of Anderson, a filmmaker known for his hipsterism and childlike wonder, to take the repulsiveness of garbage and place it in the kawaii setting of a futuristic Japan. It’s even more Anderson-esque to execute this idea through stop-motion, using traditional techniques of puppets, dolls and hand-drawn 2D animation. What we end up with is a visual splendour, so meticulously executed that it would take repeated viewing to fully grasp the intricacy of details.

Anderson has gone on record to call this film his tribute to Japan, the classic animation of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, 2001) and samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, 1950). From minimalism to pastoral landscapes of ukiyo-e art (which Anderson paradoxically uses to depict trash island), from witty haikus to clever intertitles, the film is drenched in Japanese art and culture. Language adds a sheen of authenticity and another layer of complexity to keep the audience constantly engaged. While humans speak in their original tongue — Japanese for all, barring an American exchange student — dogs speak in English. In many portions, Japanese is left untranslated, with a conspicuous lack of subtitles. For an English-speaking viewer, thus, the film would be seen through the eyes of the dogs, while Japanese viewers presumptuously would know more.

Like Anderson’s 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited, which set in India, Isle of Dogs has also been accused of cultural appropriation. Beyond the ‘white saviour’ trope of an American exchange student saving the day, one wonders if there’s more to Anderson’s decision of keeping Japanese uninterpreted. There is so much to be read in the film that Anderson’s claim of it originating simply as the story of dogs in a trash island seems like a distant, unimaginable past.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 3:50:46 PM |

Next Story