Our perception of the world never solely lies in how we see it, but also how we hear it. Intermittently throughout Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, Jeff Goldblum’s Duke relays a variety of rumors he’s heard to the rest of the alpha dog pack, despite they’re being exiled on the refuse-infested Trash Island and a majority of these rumors coming from mainland Japan. Perhaps the secret joke within the material is about dogs’ higher hearing range than humans’, and maybe there’s even a subtly comedic dig at the film’s modern-day Kobayashi empire’s inability to control the dissemination of vital information.
Arguably, the demise of just about any oppressive regime begins with their oversight in visually-spread propaganda becoming dialogue silently obtained and passed along among dissenters. It’s an intriguing form of disconnect informing the film’s fictional history of conflict between canines and the Kobayashi empire, because if you were an authoritarian descendant of dog-hating ancestors, recognizing dogs’ listening superiority, wouldn’t your first move be to exile them?
At that point, an outbreak of snout fever combined with a virulent history of anti-dog sentiment becomes the perfect vessel for your motives, especially as it taps into the rhetoric regarding any species or group of people’s supposed nature. In this film’s case, any of Mayor Kobayashi’s (Kunichi Nomura) public speeches to his many supporters can be broken down to “We are Japanese, so we hate dogs. And because of dogs’ inherent nature, they are our enemy.” Of course, such dystopian bombast gets mucked up by one oft-repeated question: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?”
Between Isle of Dogs and The Post, we’ve recently had some damning, insightful looks into the ruthless quashing of information and the harmful spreading of falsehoods, as well as both films differently exploring how a combination of history and prevailing ideologies/dialogue can indirectly inform one’s identity for the worse. Anderson’s film, in particular, like he’d previously done with Fantastic Mr. Fox, pokes and prods us to ask ourselves deeply existential questions as to whether or not it’s in our nature to behave in a certain way.
Chief (Bryan Cranston) gruffly stands up to the fact that he’s a stray – of course, in this universe among dogs, a signifier of otherness – and aggressively proclaims his tendency to bite, but he admits he doesn’t know why he bites. And though young protagonist Atari (Koyu Rankin) is a Kobayashi and distant nephew of the Megasaki mayor, it’s clear he doesn’t buy into the vicious propaganda his uncle perpetuates. Our identities are primarily the direct or indirect cause of circumstance, as Anderson additionally argues with characters like Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), specifically bred and trained to be a show dog, and the so-called ‘cannibal’ pack of Trash Island.
With confronting mortality being another common thread through each scene, perhaps the only concept truly in our nature is our survival instinct, which, as underscored by the film’s human characters, can be shamelessly perverted and abused by willful misleading to preserve oppressive power dynamics. One need not be reminded why such narrative territory sadly remains prescient and incisive, because in many ways, the vast and varied political realities of our world make it a proverbial trash heap anxiously awaiting the one or many who’ll light the match.
Thematic interconnectivity, of course, isn’t the only reason why Anderson’s latest venture maintains his reputation for richly palatable satisfaction. You’ll hardly read a single review that doesn’t praise the film’s stunningly realized stop-motion animation, and though Anderson and the 3 Mills Studios crew in East London undoubtedly create sumptuous tapestries balancing the ornate and the minimalist, complemented by Anderson’s typical eye for color, it isn’t so much their presence as it is their implementation in the storytelling that makes each frame so integral.
In an interesting move, while the Japanese human characters often speak in their native tongue, Anderson mostly opts against subtitles in favor of English interpretations during public speeches broadcast for a supposed global audience, or sometimes no interpretation at all, letting non-Japanese speaking viewers experience the emotion and rhythmic patterns of the language. In the latter’s case, it compels these audience members to rely on the visuals and the context they provide so that the storytelling can still properly flow and create momentum.
For candor’s sake, it’s a bit of a ballsy move meaning each set design and character movement has to be absolutely precise in communicating a certain plot point, lest those who don’t know the language get hopelessly lost in the narrative. And aside from insignificantly few moments where crucial plot and thematic information is spoon-fed to non-Japanese viewers, it’s a move that places trust in their ability to follow along and understand each moment’s significance, not condescending to them, and is to that extent a refreshing storytelling method.
It proves a double-edged sword, however, in the movie’s sketchy traversing of ethical grounds. While the film’s overall treatment of Japan and its history lacks the implicit imbalance of power and air of Western superiority to be considered cultural appropriation (as I am a white man, please take my opinion with a pinch of salt), it does occasionally slip into modes of cultural tourism and Orientalism, with the omission of subtitles or translation altogether being a key component.
It’s during scenes such as Duke’s saying to the group, upon listening to Atari speak passionately, “I wish somebody spoke his language,” in which the film unconsciously coerces non-Japanese viewers to view the Japanese characters as some form of other, particularly the Eastern ‘other’ in the eyes of the Western normative, drawing upon stereotypical renderings of Japanese people through the lens of otaku culture made pervasive in Western media consumption.
Generally speaking, Isle of Dogs’s depiction of various facets of Japanese culture, such as sumo wrestling, kabuki theatre and ukiyo-e paintings comes with the sort of neutral, semi-respectful distance found in an Andrew Zimmern or Anthony Bourdain Travel Channel program, but with the lens of ‘otherness’ engendered by Anderson’s particular use of language, it’s difficult not to then see these things through a perspective of peculiarity; that these integral parts of Japanese history are ‘exotic.’ The Tracy character, voiced by Greta Gerwig, is also uncomfortably positioned as something of a conventional white savior. She isn’t the hero, but she is a hero aiding the pro-dog rebellion in saving the Japanese people from themselves.
Isle of Dogs just doesn’t quite reach the heights scaled by Anderson’s best works, yet it also doesn’t quite belong in the company of his lesser efforts, occupying a strange middle ground he’s invariably avoided throughout his career. If the discomfort felt with this film’s handling of and sensitivity toward Japanese culture weren’t enough to keep it from his best, a relative failure to create an engaging tonal balance compared to previous films is enough to frustrate on its own.
It isn’t any particular fault of the characters themselves in terms of depth or their performers, though the massive ensemble does infrequently prove a little too unwieldy, but rather some awkward pacing and scriptwriting choices that prevent us from total immersion in this world. Though Anderson is widely regarded as a master of mixing melancholy and whimsy in his storytelling and direction, here he’s aimed more towards the former – how couldn’t he with the previously addressed philosophical undercurrents – only to sometimes undercut these feelings with deadpan humor.
He’s successful with the imbalanced balance – or balanced imbalance? – he’s striven for, partially thanks to some winning vocal performances, particularly from Cranston and Rankin, but a plethora of flashbacks dominating his storytelling, providing necessary context for the ongoing scene, creates a regrettable whiplash-like effect tossing and turning the viewer into unease. Disappointingly distracting from the thrust and halting any momentum generated, their overabundance in an already brief runtime necessary due to the constraints and challenges of stop-motion filmmaking highlights some questionable, even convenient character choices made for the sake of brevity.
To be honest, it’s hard to think that everything I’ve described added up to an equally magical and infuriating viewing experience on par with watching a latter period Nicolas Winding Refn film for the first time, minus the aura of stylistic pretension surrounding thematic voids. Not since The Neon Demon (viewed back in August, for proper context) can I recall liking a film as much as it exasperates me in retrospect, but Anderson has done it yet again – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou being the other example. Isle of Dogs was as much a marvel to witness as it is a pain on my mind.
Perhaps it’s the intellectual and technical brilliance as well as the assembled vocal personnel tipping it over the edge, but I cannot say it was a wholly satisfying picture. At the very least, it wasn’t as dreadfully dull a depiction of canine uprising as White God, and maybe it’s that realization partially driving up the score. By comparison, Isle of Dogs has the charm of Fantastic Mr. Fox, though that’s just as unsettling a thought.