It’s always fascinating to see how a director decides to follow-up a huge success. The popularity of Wes Anderson’s meticulously designed doll house narratives, has allowed him to become the kind of director that generates a following big and loyal enough to be considered both a well-respected auteur and a commercially valuable filmmaker. Fittingly for a director obsessed with stylish surfaces, the Wes Anderson name has become a brand. He had the biggest success of his career a couple years ago with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which did incredibly well financially (making almost 150 million dollars worldwide – by far his biggest commercial hit), won a bunch of prizes including five Oscars, and earned Anderson the first Best Director nomination of his career. The success of Grand Budapest solidified him as one of the “biggest” directors in the world. How do you follow that?
According to Wes Anderson, you follow it up by returning to the world of stop-motion animation. His first foray into the format, a delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, was the movie that lifted him out of the most divisive period of his career and pushed him into his current status as a celebrated artist. He retreated to animation at the lowest point in his career, and has decided to return at the highest. His newest movie is Isle of Dogs, a canine romp set in a futuristic Japan in which a corrupt government spins a conspiracy against dogs – exiling them to an island full of trash called, appropriately, “trash island”. Narratively, it’s the story of a young boy looking for his dog. Thematically, it’s a tale about the darkness of authoritarian governments and fear-mongering.
Isle of Dogs comes at a crucial point in Anderson’s career, and could be remembered as a turning point for a hermetic director who has slowly been forced to come out of his shel and engage with the world around him. As a piece of animation, Isle of Dogs shows a master operating at the top of his game. As a movie about politics, it shows an author willing to go into new and fascinating territory. As a movie about Japan, however, it presents a man whose unique aesthetic blinds him toward the potential problems that arise out of the way he has decided to portray Japanese culture.
With those three points in mind, and being the massive Wes Anderson fan that I am, it becomes clear that the best way to try and decipher Isle of Dogs is through the prism of three of Anderson’s previous movies, each of which relates to an integral aspect of this latest movie’s DNA. Two of them have already been mentioned: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The third is one of Anderson’s least successful ditties: the Indian travelogue The Darjeeling Limited.
Let’s start by thinking of Anderson’s career in animation. Back in 2009, Anderson was coming off of releasing the two biggest flops of his career in a row. Safe for a couple loyalists, the critical consensus around the filmmaker was that he had grown too enamored of his signature aesthetic and abandoned any interest in compelling story-telling. Watching those flops now one realizes they are much more touching and interesting than initially decided, but back then, Anderson seemed to be in a rut. So he decided to fight these “style over substance” accusations by diving into animation, a medium that is literally built around the belief that style is substance.
The result was Fantastic Mr. Fox, which many would argue remains the artistic pinnacle of Anderson’s career. The movie, as mentioned above, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, about a sly Fox who leads a ragtag group of woodland critters against a trio of gruesome farmers. The movie is energetic, almost manic, in a way that Anderson’s cinema hadn’t been before. He usually balances hectic chases with melancholy pauses, but this was non-stop. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox is like being on the fastest train in the world. It whooshes past so fast it looks dangerous, but the tracks are so secure and the train so well designed there is no chance of an accident.
The movie didn’t do much at the box office (it was probably too idiosyncratic for family audiences), but it was a critical hit. Even Anderson’s detractors liked the film. Some of them suggested stop-motion was the director’s natural environment and that he should work exclusively as an animator. And stop-motion animation in particular is the perfect medium for an artist as obsessed with detailed beauty as Anderson. In case you don’t know, stop-motion is the process in which you move miniature models one frame at a time in order to create the illusion of movement. Thus, with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the dollhouse director played with a literal dollhouse. The result then was delightful, and Isle of Dogs is an even more impressive piece of animation.
One when talks about stop-motion animation one must understand how exhausting a a form of animation it can be, and how the medium caters to controlling artists. In a stop-motion piece, every single bit of movement no matter how tiny is the result of time consuming effort. With this in mind, jaws are bound to drop during Isle of Dogs, when you see the seamless way in which the dogs’ hair ruffles in the wind, or the forceful choreography of the Taiko drumming trio that opens the film. Anderson, along with the unbelievably talented animators who worked on the film have, quite literally, crafted one of the most beautiful movies of the year.
This attention to detail extends to the better parts of the movie, narratively speaking. A lot of the comedy comes from seeing stereotypes about dogs rendered through Anderson’s signature cocktail of dry humor and affectless melancholy. There is, for example, a little pug called Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton) who is believed to be psychic because she can understand human t.v. And an even more delightful Husky (Jeff Goldblum), who seems to know all the rumors that go around the dog island. But there’s more to this movie than silly dog humor (for better and worse). In order to get into it, let me give you some more plot details.
In future Japan, mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has decided that the best way to get rid of the “snout fever” that is affecting the dogs and is bound to spread to humans is to quarantine the city’s canine population in an isolated island. What Kobayashi doesn’t know is that his ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), is determined to find his exiled dog Spots and bring him back. So, Atari flies (and crashes) a plane into the trash island and joins a pack of alpha dogs in order to reunite with his lost pet.
The emotion comes not only out of Atari’s relationship with Spots (and later with a self-proclaimed stray voiced by Bryan Cranston), but from seeing the hardship endured by the exiled dogs. Using dogs as a metaphor for refugees (or any oppressed minority) is quite effective -at least emotionally. After all, people tend to extend a greater amount of empathy to dogs on-screen than they do any human character. Anderson is famous for killing animal characters in his movies, so he doesn’t shy away from the darkness of his premise, even though he shows unexpected overwhelming warmth toward the dogs on his island.
This balance between dark themes and earnest emotion seems to be the core ideal of the current part of Anderson’s career. He has realized that the repressed emotions he usually gives his characters work best when surrounded with the darkest possible situations. This might sound like a disastrous recipe for a director who works mostly in comedy, but the juxtaposition of colorful comedy, deeply existential drama, and gigantic socio-political ramifications works surprisingly well.
This was most apparent in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a masterpiece in which Anderson imagined a luxurious pink hotel (another dollhouse of sorts) and dropped it into a fictitious version of Europe on the eve of the Second World War. It shouldn’t have worked, but the way Anderson frames the movie through the memories a man whose melancholy for a time of delicate beauty that simply slipped through his fingers and was flattened by history is immensely affecting. It’s a story about the things that seem frivolous and meaningless, until they are lost to humanity’s darkest impulses.
There are similar layers to Isle of Dogs‘s approach to darkness. First, are the “suffering” that the dogs must endure. The dogs on “trash island” are all struggling to survive, scavenging for anything edible, and with some of them having been victims of cruel scientific testing. The second layer is the reason for the dogs’ suffering. It’s the demagogy of Mayor Kobayashi, the politics that surround him, and the attitudes of the city of Megasaki. It’s in this second layer that houses virtually all of the movie’s weakest elements.
Anderson’s willingness to explore the nature of political oppression and mob mentality is admirable and prescient for a moment in which the world is trending toward totalitarian authorities. But the reasons for choosing Japan as the setting for this movie seem dubious. The plot machinations (and there are many) that go into explaining the extend to which Kobayashi’s plan is a conspiracy are numerous, complicated, and never truly satisfying. It is suggested, but never truly understood why the Mayor hates dogs, and the psychology of the citizens that side with him. It’s frustrating, though perhaps that’s what makes this kind of evil so scary- it doesn’t need an explanation.
But a messy plot isn’t the biggest problem with this movie’s Japanese angle. Its depiction of Japanese culture is bound to raise some eyebrows. It’s easy to see that Anderson isn’t really interested in depicting any sort of “real” Japan, but rather a fantastical version of the country made up of everything the director associates with Japanese culture. It’s an approach he has used in depictions of other places (and cultures), and it has mostly worked. The Japan of Isle of Dogs isn’t any further from reality than the New York of The Royal Tenenbaums or the European nations of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson’s cultural pastiche doesn’t have the same ring when applied to a country, culture, and people who have a history of misrepresentation on American screens.
It’s fair to say that virtually every culture (even parts of American culture) has been misrepresented by Hollywood, but the extend to which mainstream American media has mistreated Asia and Japan in particular is particularly bad. From World War II propaganda to Long Duk Dong, Hollywood has been consistently insensitive, and thus, no matter how heartfelt the intention, Anderson’s free-association version of Japan doesn’t sit well. Everything in the movie’s Japan is a reference -sumo wrestling, kabuki, haikus, godzilla- and some work much better than others.
Film critic Peter Labuza points toward a sushi-making scene as an example of the movie’s interest in playing with points of view, and I agree with him. The sequence not only shows Anderson’s knack for composition, as well as beautiful animation, but turns a detour into a funny reveal and then a crucial plot point. Then there are moments like when a plane explodes and forms a mushroom cloud that may or may not be intended as a reference to the A-Bomb, but is undoubtedly an unfortunate choice for a movie set in a city called Megasaki.
Another dubious element is Anderson’s decision to have the (human) Japanese characters speak in their native tongue without subtitles. It’s a strange decision on many levels. First, because most of the dialogue is translated anyway by a translator character voiced by Frances McDormand. Second, because it creates a layer of distance between the audience and the Japanese characters that doesn’t work as intended. The moments that lack translation require the characters to over-express dialogue and movement in ways that make them seem unusually big and cartoonish for an Anderson movie in which characters are always reserving their emotions.
If the idea was to embrace the dogs’ point of view and have the humans at a remove, then a better choice would’ve been to have the dogs speak English and the humans communicate in barks (as suggested on Twitter by Griffin Newman). An even more dubious elements is the character of exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an American girl who leads the resistance against Mayor Kobayashi in asub-plot that comes off as yet another white-savior narrative. The ways in which one can wrestle with this movie’s Japan are numerous and have been better explored by a number of Asian American film critics such as Justin Chang, Jen Yamato, and Ingoo Kang.
But even then, there is something outside of specific choices that makes the human parts of Isle of Dogs not work as well as they should. It makes me think of another Wes Anderson movie set in Asia. The Darjeeling Limited, in which three white brothers work out their grief by making their way through India. There are undoubtedly problematic elements in the movie, but they are balanced by a couple of crucial choices. Yes, the protagonists are white Americans, but the movie’s focus is reflective of the characters’ own self-absorption. It is ultimately a movie about westerners using Asian culture to relief their own neuroses.
Second, and perhaps most crucial, is the fact that Darjeeling is a live action movie. The Indian actors are there, and the white protagonist must meet their humanity face to face. Moreover, the movie is not only set but filmed in India, a country that cannot be tamed by Anderson’s will, no matter how obsessive. He can put up as many layers of design as he can, but at the end of the day, India is still India.
Anderson’s stop-motion Japan, on the other hand, was virtually created by his own hands. The same absolute control that makes Isle of Dogs such an impressive piece of animation makes Anderson’s version of Japan so hermetic it becomes airless and problematic. The half of the movie that focuses on the dogs is quite moving and highly effective, but the half that focuses on Japan doesn’t quite work. It’s those parts of Isle of Dogs that make me, a devoted Wes Anderson fan, understand what people mean when they say that he director’s meticulous style makes them feel like they’re never invited to play in his sandbox.