Director Wes Anderson with his cast of characters
ISLE OF DOGS A-
USA Germany (101 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Wes Anderson
Endlessly charming and exquisitely entertaining, offering a treasure-trove of cultural references, this beautifully conceived, subversive venture into Japanese culture is an absolute delight, inventing an imaginary world that in the worst way resembles our own, with political corruption becoming the norm, where a deceived populace is fed a string of lies from a populist politician thoroughly entrenched in demagoguery and fear-mongering, though viewed from the point of view of a tragically rejected animal formerly known as man’s best friend. Set 20 years into the future, Megasaki City, Japan has become an openly pro-cat culture that defiantly rejects dogs, stooping to any level to sway public opinion against the whole lot of them, leading dirty tricks campaigns to smear their good names, eventually infecting virtually every dog in the city with dog flu, then spreading lies and creating panic by informing the public this threatens to infect the human population as well. Getting a firm mandate to completely eradicate dogs from society altogether, they are eventually quarantined, and in a nod to John Carpenter in Escape from New York (1981), the entire dog population is rounded up and sent to an isolated uninhabited island of toxic waste and chemical ruin, not to mention garbage as far as the eye can see in a place called Trash Island. While not as far-fetched as it might seem, this exact same solution was proposed by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940, known as the Madagascar Plan, with Germany exiling Europe’s entire Jewish population to the African island of Madagascar, eventually scrapped for the Final Solution, resurfacing again during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s before the advent of protease inhibitor drugs, when a whirlwind of inaccurate information and negative publicity plagued the minds of ordinary citizens who wanted all those infected with the disease quarantined and sent to isolated internment camps. Only when people stopped dying did the hysteria from a panicked public calm down and a more rational public policy perspective was developed. Japan is the only nation that has actually been devastated by nuclear attack, the same culture that brought us GODZILLA (1954), a prehistoric sea monster, and a mutant survivor empowered by radiation that somehow ends up on the loose causing chaos in the streets of Tokyo, much like King Kong (1933) rampaged through the streets of New York. What works so beautifully is allowing the endless imagination of Wes Anderson’s whimsical universe to mix with this same lowbrow Japanese culture to create what will surely amount to a cult classic. Propelled by the beating drums of Japanese taiko drums that resemble a percussive attack mode, musical score by Alexandre Desplat, this is the longest stop-motion animation film on record, given a Hollywood A-list of actors doing voice impressions, filled with wry comedic touches throughout, becoming a cautionary tale on abuse of power, yet remaining poignant through the sheer brilliance of Anderson’s filmmaking.
Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura (the voice of Mayor Kobayashi), the political master of ceremony is Mayor Kobayashi, a gruff Toshirô Mifune style character that views his city as a model of decorum, with the spotlight always shining on him, while behind the scenes his villainous henchman Major Domo (Akira Takayama) is carrying out the dirty work, with legions of adoring fans cheering him on, many carrying small lap cats in their arms or wearing anti-dog insignia. What’s curious is how this information is transmitted, as there is a television commentator (Frances McDormand) live on the scene translating what’s happening in Japanese into English. But before the mayor carries out his edict, a little backstory is required, introducing Atari (Koyu Rankin), the Mayor’s 12-year-old nephew who was orphaned at the age of 9 when his own parents were lost in a tragic bullet train accident. The Mayor awarded Atari an army specialized guard dog named Spots to watch after him and be his bodyguard, a rare breed, a short-haired Oceanic speckle-eared sport hound fitted with a transmitter attached to Atari so they were virtually inseparable, that is until the Mayor made Spots the first dog shipped to Trash Island, despite the contentions of a leading scientist, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who claims to be close to finding a cure. On the island, a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) hierarchy takes over, with packs of dogs fighting over scraps of food, reduced to a cloud of dust, where the dogs astonishingly enough speak perfect English. As we are introduced to one band of brothers, their personalities take over, including Rex ,the always sarcastic Edward Norton, the lead commentator and de facto democratic leader, quick to take a vote, where he’s constantly reminded that he’s not the leader, King, Bob Balaban, a one-time dog spokesman for doggy chow, Duke, Jeff Goldblum, who seems to have a telepathic hotline to the latest gossip, Boss, Bill Murray, a former mascot for a Little League baseball team, and Chief, Bryan Cranston, the only stray in the group, who constantly reminds us, “I bite.” As they distinguish themselves in the trash heap, having to contend with deportations, prison camps, and the threat of extermination, we are transported back to a Japanese high school classroom setting where we are introduced to an American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) as the science class watches a news report of young Atari commandeering a prop plane to Trash Island in search of his dog, immediately capturing her heart. A romance and quirky adventure story soon intertwine.
Our pack of dogs greets Atari after he crash lands on top of a trash heap, but amusingly none of the dogs speak Japanese, so the “little pilot” curiously remains unsubtitled throughout. Holding out a picture of his dog, the entire crew sets out on an adventure to find him, exploring the far regions of the island, revealing dark historical secrets in the process. But first, they have to contend with a special ops militarized rescue team, complete with a Terminator-style robotic steel dog and trapping nets that kidnap Atari. Surviving by the skin of their teeth, Chief is left hobbled by injuries afterwards, running into a perfectly groomed purebred showdog, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), with papers! Trained to do tricks, she performs one for him in his dire predicament, informing him what’s missing in the trick, like juggling balls with her feet, which is quickly visualized onscreen in his imagination. She’s the one who convinces Chief, who mistrusts all pet owners, to help the little pilot find his dog, using impeccable logic, “Because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those.” While at the same time, Tracy goes on an extensive journalistic search for the truth, exposing a massive suppression of the Science Party, who quickly develop a cure for dog flu, but the mayor refuses to distribute the product, as dog disease is the perfect rallying cry for his party, which is only gaining momentum in support. To make sure word never gets out, the nefarious Major Domo poisons the sushi served to Professor Watanabe under house arrest, calling it a disgraced suicide. Meanwhile, to the astonishing 60’s tune that no one remembers, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band - I Won't Hurt You - YouTube (2:23), the crew walks to the other end of the island, crossing abandoned factories, a trash-processing plant, and remnants of what was an experimental canine torture chamber, which recalls horrific images of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1966), as these remaining dogs have all been seriously altered and deformed. It’s here they discover Spots, the leader of the pack, protector of the infirmed, suddenly spurred into action when once again Mayor Kobayashi sends in another drone team with more robotic dogs, with Spots and his small army joining forces with Atari to the rousing musical refrains from Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), unleashing a secret counter maneuver against the invaders, where a flashback sequence also reveals Spots and Chief are not only the same breed, but brothers, with Chief offering a heart-rendering story about how he blew an opportunity to have a comfortable home, remaining exiled afterwards, ostracized from society. This touching family reunion plays into the finale, along with a hacker from Tracy’s class who sabotages the mayor’s doomsday scenario, as well as Tracy’s extensive journalistic exposé in her student newspaper The Daily Manifesto, building to an extraordinary finale that suggests buried underneath the political morass of corruption and deceit lies true human virtue, which offers more hopeful outcomes so long as it has a chance to see the light of day. What’s particularly astonishing in this film is just how light-hearted and ingeniously comical it is while also subversively probing such hideously dark themes that personify the world we live in today. It’s like holding a mirror up to our appalling reality that emphasizes xenophobic and racist rabble-rousing in contemporary American politics and asking if there isn’t a better way. While it may not be on the same level as 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Moonrise Kingdom in reaching the pinnacle work of Anderson’s career, it comes close and confirms what an amazing artist he is, continuing to work at such a high level, with no one else in the world producing anything like this.
There has been a misguided outcry of criticism against Anderson’s use of a white American high school girl, the only non-Japanese student in the class, to save the day in the end instead of allowing a Japanese character to rise from their own ranks to produce similar results, where suggestions of American imperial superiority or racial backlash have fueled the extreme. Similar charges have been leveled against Disney, by the way. Culture writer Angie Han at Mashable, Wes Anderson's cultural tourism undercuts the heart of 'Isle of Dogs', called Tracy’s character a “classic example of the ‘white savior’ archetype – the well-meaning white hero who arrives in a foreign land and saves its people from themselves,” adding that the movie “falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their ‘exotic’ cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings.” Prominent critics have also raised questions of cultural appropriation, including Justin Chang at The Los Angeles Times, Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' is often captivating, but cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation, who suggests “It’s in the director’s handling of the story’s human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore…Much of the Japanese dialogue has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions…The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing…You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn’t want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation. But all these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.” To this one needs to add…Hogwash! More celebration than appropriation, this is taking the era of political correctness way too far, offering little to nothing in terms of appreciating the merits of the film. Only in an era of self-obsessed social media would these charges rise to a level of significance. While this may matter to some and should not be dismissed, it actually misses the heart of the film, which is overwhelmingly in Japanese, retaining the original language, where much of the dialogue remains unsubtitled (as the dogs don’t understand a word Atari is saying), continually emphasizing a prominent central focus layered in feverish reverence for Japanese cultural references, where it’s so unmistakenly a labor of love, an ode to Japanese arts and cinema (Anderson met with the curator of Japanese Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his storyboard artists visited the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), which is essentially what fascinated Anderson in making this film, expressed so eloquently by Jessica Kiang from The Playlist, Wes Anderson's 'Isle Of Dogs' Is A Good Boy, A Very Good Boy [Review]:
But on a more immediate and visceral level, the meticulous dedication and joyous commitment Anderson displays to a set of aesthetics he clearly worships are to some extent self-justifying. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Anderson created a fictional Eastern European country in order to exploit a loose set of cultural and aesthetic associations without having them tied to pesky real-world history or geopolitics. And here he creates a fictional city in what might as well be the fictional country of Japanderson — the better to remythologize the myths that Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the whole Godzilla industry so brilliantly exported, and that have clearly intoxicated him so thoroughly. No one could come out of “Isle of Dogs” with a sense of disdain for Japanese culture: Anderson’s Japanophilia is as infectious as snout fever, and peculiarly reverent, without a shred of condescension.
Indeed, buried in amongst the surprisingly potent political commentary (the clash between demagogues and experts; the limits of democracy when decisiveness is needed; the value of journalism in the age of propagandist “fake news”) there is a further undercurrent about the value of outsider perspectives, and how much better we are when we blur the lines. It’s exemplified best by Alexandre Desplat’s stunning score, which combines traditional Japanese taiko drums in a rolling, rumbling, semi-martial rhythm, with unexpectedly whimsical and inescapably Western-sounding instrumentation – saxophones and clarinets, even a little whistling. Like the film it envelops and rounds out so lushly, the music is a meeting of mutually curious and mutually complementary worlds, and like the proud, resourceful brave and loyal dogs of this ‘Isle,’ even when they’re reunited with their masters and fetching sticks in time-honored tradition, neither is subservient: no one is anyone’s “pet.” As far as representation goes, the stunning, brimful, extraordinary “Isle of Dogs” can’t really be said to do anyone’s culture a disservice. Except cat lovers, who should probably mount a boycott.