REVIEW: Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” refuses to sit and stay


Hell hath no fury like man’s best friend scorned in the new Wes Anderson film, “Isle of Dogs.” Set in the futuristic dystopian city of Megasaki, the film’s main characters — or canines — were show dogs or actors in dog food commercials before being deported to the post-apocalyptic wasteland Trash Island. The mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), uses the sudden influx of a dog centric disease to persuade humans to abandon their dogs. All over Trash lsland are posters promoting the rise of Kobayashi and his cats. The film’s young boy hero, Kobayashi’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin, “Juken”), refuses to abandon his dog, Spot. Teamed with a pack of dogs, Atari searches the island for Spot while also evading capture by his uncle’s military force. The only critic of this authoritarian society is the white American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha”), a middle school newspaper editor, who has also been critiqued as the white-savior of the film. 

Production of “Isle of Dogs” began in April 2015. The stop-motion film required the creation of nearly 900 puppet characters and several thousand faces, all by hand. Audiences may be surprised to find out that all of the dog puppets had real hair which was sheared from dogs and alpacas. 

Anderson said that his directorial influences for this film were notable Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. Other obvious influences include a “Lady and the Tramp”-esque love archetype and Richard Adams’ “The Plague of Dogs,” which also tells a tale of dogs being hunted by the government after being abused in a science facility.

The film is  classic Anderson. Hipster humor brimming with deadpan jokes and amazingly detailed oriented stop-motion frames, “Isle of Dogs” still has a couple of flaws. This film heavily relies on stereotypical Japanese ideals and morals to shape its plot. Anderson’s Japan is full of sumo wrestling, sushi rolling and Yoko Ono sipping sake. However, these tropes could have been utilized on purpose. The film was also co-written by Kunichi Nomura (“Lost in Translation”), to make sure that Japanese culture was displayed authentically. A large part of the comedy portrayed in this film relies on translation and how phrases are comprehended over cultural lines. Anderson made the decision to have all of the human characters speak their native language without subtitles. All of the dogs, however, speak in English-translated barks. Critiques of the film also point out the inadvertent selection of white actors who have had a history of whitewashing Asian films, like Scarlett Johansson (in “Ghost in The Shell”) and Tilda Swinton (in “Doctor Strange”).

Anderson uses Japan as an aesthetic in this film; it’s not malicious, yet it does “other” Japan and labels it as mystical for Westerners. Before the film premiered, critics questioned whether “Isle of Dogs” was paying homage to Japan or just appropriating it, and could the two be separated when the creator is not of Japanese descent?         

Moeko Fujii of The New Yorker noted cultural references that go right over non-Japanese speakers heads and appreciated the inside jokes. Fujii also observed the influence of the popular Japanese folktale, “Oni-ga-shima” (similar to the film’s Japanese title “Inu-ga-shima”), which also follows a boy who fights evil with a pack of dogs.      

Through all of these influences, Anderson has been able to produce his ninth feature film in an original and touching way. “Isle of Dogs” is a quirky comedy that sparks a meaningful discussion about the politics surrounding the story.