I really enjoyed 'Isle of Dogs.' In his first film since 2014's 'Grand Budapest Hotel,' Wes Anderson once again unleashes (nailed it) his unique vision; this time to tell a story about a boy and his dog.
We open on the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki in the not too distant future as an outbreak of snout fever has seized the city's canine population. With fear rising over the possibility of dog flu crossing to the human population, the cat loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to trash island. First to go is Spots (Liev Schreiber) the personal guard dog of Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the mayor's ward. Devastated by the loss, Atari flies to trash island and with the help of a few discarded doggos he begins a journey to save Spots. What follows is a heartfelt tale of the loyalty displayed by our four legged friends and an inquisition into what we owe them in return.
A lot of layers are buried in 'Isle of Dogs', but before unpacking those we should touch on the controversy around this film. Following the release, Anderson has drawn some heat for his portrayal of Japan with some critics calling it out for tokenism, cultural appropriation, and white savior narratives. Especially problematic is that this isn’t even the first time Anderson has faced such claims as his 2007 film ‘The Darjeeling Limited.’ As a white guy in the US, my thoughts on this probably don't carry all that much weight on the subject, so I won't get too deep into it.
I will, however, give a quick synopsis of my thoughts and say that Anderson has stated in interviews that this movie is inspired by legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. It's clear he made an effort to compile a diverse voice cast and even co-wrote the story with Nomura. That said this is a movie set in Japan that all but ignores the country and trivializes most of the Japanese characters. Tracy Walker, the American student journalist voiced by Greta Gerwig, undoubtedly does fall approach that white savior trope, which is frustrating because it is so unnecessary. Ultimately, I appreciate that Anderson made the effort to create an homage to Japanese culture, but he and the whole US film industry need to be more conscious of how they portray other cultures.
If you are interested in a deeper look at the controversy shrouding ‘Isle of Dogs,’ I’ve got you covered. For a defense of Anderson’s portrayal give Moeko Fujii’s “What Isle of Dogs Gets Right About Japan" a read. If you want to hear more about why the film is problematic, check out Nina Coomes’s “Isle of Dogs and Japan in the Western Imagination.”
On its surface 'Isle of Dogs' is sweet and funny, littered (did it again) with clever little dog jokes. The story of how we repay the loyalty of our four legged friends. It's the kind of movie that is fun and vibrant enough to hold the attention of someone who wants to shut off and just enjoy their time at the theater. Of course, anyone that knows Wes Anderson films is aware that his stories are told on multiple levels.
That's where 'Isle of Dogs' shines. Buried beneath the surface are allegorical layers to be found by whoever wants to dig deeper. The first of these layers is the unavoidable political one. Every movie these days is viewed, intentionally or not, through the Trump Lens and with Anderson's latest, I think it may be deliberate. Whether inspired by Trump or any of the other world leaders swept to power by this recent nationalist wave, Mayor Kobayashi certainly fits the mold. His campaign to rid Megasaki of canine companions feels representative the global anti-immigrant sentiment and his obfuscation of the facts around a dog flu holds a clear parallel. Even the setting seems like a not so subtle commentary by Anderson. Most of the story takes place on Trash Island, a literal island of garbage dotted with relics of a once thriving metropolis. It’s as if he’s displaying the downfall of society in the face of totalitarianism in the background of every scene. Perhaps the more interesting subtext though is the role the press plays. We discussed earlier how Nancy Walker is a big piece of a problematic white savior narrative, but a much more generous view would be that she is actually representative of press itself and that the institution is our true hero.
All this makes ‘Isle of Dogs’ sound overcharged by politics, but that isn’t exactly true. Unquestionably those elements are present, but they aren’t in your face and they’re layered enough that you could miss them if you’re not looking close enough. That's why ‘Isle of Dogs is so good; it offers something for everyone. If you want a whimsical child's adventure story, it’s there for you, and if you want something deeper and more biting (had to get one more in), then that can be found as well.
Anderson crafts these narratives better than just about any of his peers. ‘Isle of Dogs’ certainly isn’t his pinnacle, but it’s still better than what most modern directors are capable of. Although the problems surrounding the film weigh, I really enjoyed it and I think it’s worth your time. 8/10