As a long-time resident of Japan whose interaction with the local culture is circumstantial, I don’t believe I have much to add to the conversation that has surrounded Wes Anderson’s latest entertainment and which mostly has to do with whether the director has exploited that culture without really understanding it. At first glance, I was more offended by the anti-cat bias of the storyline, but that, as they say, is just me. Narrative films rarely take the trouble to make whatever milieu they depict accurate in every sense since dramatic considerations usually come first. Generally speaking, if the dramatic elements work for me, I will appreciate, if not necessarily enjoy, the work on hand, and while I’ve had problems with Anderson in the past, I have come to like his movies the more I see them, which means he’s either getting better or I’ve just become used to his purposely quirky presentation.
That said, I prefer his previous stop-action animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, to Isle of Dogs, probably because I like Roald Dahl as a writer better than Wes Anderson as a scenarist. As usual, the plot of the new movie is busy to the point of delerium, an attribute that seems instilled by some sort of neurotic need to be challenged as a visual artist. Anderson is nothing if not an obsessive, and his intricately plotted stories are simply a means of testing his ability to achieve them filmically. This Japan exists only in his imagination because while he has openly admitted to the movie’s genesis as a homage to the Japanese films and directors he loves his characters have more in common with Anderson “types” and (thankfully) avoid traits that might be identifiable with national stereotypes. Consequently, the main speaking parts are given to dogs whose “barks” have been translated into English and spoken by famous actors, including Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Tilda Swinton, and Jeff Goldblum. (This particular element, by the way, has been confounded by the local distributor, which has provided Japanese audiences with a dubbed option.) Linguistically, the movie is a mish-mash of two languages—English and Japanese—in all their filmic permutations, be it directly spoken, subtitled (or not), or simultaneously interpreted. That Anderson can pull it off is a measure of his skill but not his coherence.
Cognitive dissonance, in fact, is built into the premise. The fictional Japanese city of Megasaki scapegoats dogs because the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also helped conceive the story) prefers cats in accordance with some possibly made-up historical references to the shogunate. Consequently, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the canine pet of his orphaned nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), was shipped off to the island that serves as a municipal dump when he was young. Atari, as an adolescent, steals an airplane and flies to the island to find him, only to discover instead a whole society of dogs with whom he can’t communicate and who aren’t familiar with Spots, or, as they cryptically refer to him, “dog zero,” since the ostensible reason for the banishment of dogs is a disease called snout fever.
As with Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the complex back story is designed as bulidup to an elaborate action sequence that involves lots of Rube Goldberg contraptionality and each of the myriad characters fulfilling some kind of personal thematic transcendance. The main difference is that, as with almost any cartoon, the action can get distressingly violent without abandoning its comic tone, but the overall impression is that the plot elements in the second half, which include the intrigues of an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) assisting Atari in his battle to save Spots and destroy his uncle, seem to have been devised in a vacuum. They’re in turn stimulating and cute, but only make sense in a stand-alone context. Anderson once again proves he’s a genius without necessarily producing a masterpiece.
In English and Japanese. Now playing at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shibuya Humax Cinema (03-3462-2539), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (03-5979-1660.
Isle of Dogs home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2018 Twentieth Century Fox