Movie Review: Isle of Dogs
By: Thomas Troyan
Wes Anderson makes very visually pleasing movies. Using colorful pastels, and precise framing and blocking, he’s developed a style which many filmmakers have tried to imitate and parody over the years. In 2009, he applied his style to the world of stop-motion with Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it looked fabulous. Almost ten years later, Anderson has returned to stop motion with his ninth film Isle of Dogs. The film takes place in a futuristic Japan, where all dogs have been deported to a trash filled island after an outbreak of a dog-flu virus. It follows the story of Atari Kobayashi, a 12 year old boy who journeys to “Trash Island” in search of his dog Spot, who was the first dog deported as part of this process. On the island, he encounters a pack of five dogs who decide amongst themselves to assist Atari in finding his lost pet. The film follows their adventures on Trash Island, while also examining the Japanese government, who are attempting to maintain an anti-dog sentiment to keep them isolated on the island.
To start, I do have to praise the animation and overall style of the film. The dogs all look stunning, and there is some truly wonderful split-screen effects throughout the movie that are creative and adds to the aesthetic of the film. Anderson’s trademark style returns in the overall colors, framing, and feel of the movie, but that wasn’t enough to carry this film for me. To properly explain my dissatisfaction, I feel I must start by talking about the role of Japan in this film.
Isle of Dogs takes place in a futuristic Japan, and as such, most of the human characters in the film speak Japanese. At the beginning of the film, we are treated to a disclaimer that all the dialogue in this film, minus the dogs’ barks, remain untranslated, the few exceptions being a few translator characters who speak English, most notably, an unnamed translator played by Frances McDormand, a few minor translator characters, and Tracy Walker, an American exchange student played by Greta Gerwig. Most scenes of the humans present viewers with characters speaking Japanese, with visuals providing context of what’s going on. The majority of these scenes were met with laughter from some of the audience, which begged the question to me if people thought there was something humorous about the scene, or if people just think other languages are funny.
Now, where this film becomes problematic, I feel, is Anderson’s treatment of Japanese culture. While nothing in the film is exceptionally offensive, I find it somewhat questionable that the connections made to Japanese culture only extend to things such as taiko drums and sumo wrestling. By not allowing any of the Japanese characters to have a real voice, we are left with stereotypical depictions of Japanese culture. The white characters are the only ones who are given real agency, including the dogs because, despite not being human, the five main dog characters are played by white actors. Not to mention that Anderson’s stated rule of “None of the dialogue in this film is subtitled” is broken at the end of the film. So you have to ask, why set this rule in the first place, or why even set this film in Japan?
The film suffers from the fact that it feels a need to exoticize and isolate the Japanese characters of the film, while presenting the white characters as the only ones that are understandable. Greta Gerwig’s character is made the savior of the film, as an investigative journalist for her high school newspaper, which deduces that everything in the Japanese government may not be as it seems.
While the film itself may not be offensive or disrespectful towards Japanese individuals or their culture, I feel it only uses the setting to tell a story about whiteness. Even then, the story it does tell isn’t that amazing. The only character that goes through any sort of development is Bryan Cranston’s character, the dog Chief, an outcast who was a stray before being deported to the trash island where he forms a pack with four other dogs who were previously domesticated. His character, as well as almost every other character in the film, is razor thin, without any real motivations beyond “We must help humans because it is what we are trained to do.” Chief’s initial reluctance is overcome without much actual character development, and was just unsatisfying. I also found some of the arc with Greta Gerwig’s character out of place and uncomfortable, as she develops a crush on Atari, who is only 12 years old.
Isle of Dogs is a very beautiful film that suffers from it’s treatment of Japanese culture as nothing more than an artsy background for a story that is ultimately bland. While the visuals may be stunning, that isn’t enough to carry the film. Instead, we’re left with a lackluster representation of Japanese culture, wrapped in a majorly white story, that, while not necessarily offensive, is wholly underwhelming.