Critics a great amount more talented me have been discussing the ramifications of Wes Anderson, a white American male director, making a film based primarily in a futuristic depiction of Japan. Justin Chang of the LA Times said it best in that many of Isle of Dogs’ Japanese-speaking foreign characters in the film have been reduced to marginalization because of Anderson’s painstaking commitment to his own vision. While the project was co-written by Kunichi Nomura, I still felt put off by one of the greatest directors working today failing to rise above homage to a culture that is not his own. Then again, as a white male critic who won’t purport to know more about Japanese culture than your average joe, I believe that I don’t possess the know-how and vocabulary to touch upon such matters more than the above paragraph. So, I leave that to people who know what they’re talking about, like Angie Han of Mashable, Karen Han of The Daily Beast and the aforementioned Justin Chang.
Above the cultural appropriation, Isle of Dogs is one of the most vividly imagined animation works in recent memory. A project stilted by its own commitment to plot and a grand vision. Anderson’s emphatically detailed universe he’s created is so brimming with detail that I’m thinking about much of its aesthetic qualities more than anything. Such is the case with many of the director’s projects. His previous animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, felt like one of the first times I truly believed the larger-than-life personalities that the auteur employs made sense in the grand scheme of things. Isle of Dogs is no different, even when its focus becomes unwieldy.
In the near future of Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has banned all dogs to trash island after spreading propaganda that an outbreak of “snout fever” could cross into the human gene pool. Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the ward of the mayor, takes it upon himself to find his dog Spots, the first canine to be banished to the wasteland of trash island. There to help him is the enigmatic Chief (Bryan Cranston), who dislikes everything to do with obedience. Along the journey, the duo starts unearthing secrets dangerous to the mayor’s rule. Stateside, foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) starts to unearth many of those same secrets. What follows is a race against time to save all canines on trash island.
Of the 101-minute running time, I can only recall Isle of Dogs slowing down a small handful of times to dump exposition. I’m more of a fan of when Anderson kind of free-wheels with his characters, letting them come upon profundity and conclusion naturally. In this, everything is so driven by the thrust of story that you will all but miss the physical gags and crushing melancholy brought on by the dogs’ loss of purpose. This is the kind of film that already understands that dogs are inherently vessels to pour warming emotions into, so Anderson shakes things up a bit by putting them through some mortifying acts.
The voice cast is second-to-none, as you might imagine with the talent involved. Anderson and Co. perfectly cast big personalities to have big personalities in their characters. For instance, Jeff Goldblum plays a pup who’s a huge fan of gossip. The actor is built for the kind of role that plays off and even heightens the persona that pop culture has created of the man. Same goes for Harvey Keitel, who ends up being the silent MVP of the emotional turning point of the film. His typecasting as criminals with an overwhelming burden is turned on its head here. He’s one of the few people involved that gets to play a character suffused with deep emotion that isn’t a narrative tool or quirk meant to add personality.
Many of the visual eccentricities used by Wes Anderson make everything move at a clip unparalleled by any other studio animation project made today. It’s clear here that Anderson has a love for Japanese cinema, but even the noblest of efforts can come off slighted when misinformed. Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is riffed off of a couple of times and it kind of provides a basis for the extent of Anderson’s dedication to culture here. On one hand, the director makes films that seemingly only exist in his head and that makes sense. On the other, he goes to lengths great enough to profess to be a minor expert on the matter of Japanese culture, and that’s why many of his decisions come off short-handed. A white character becoming the voice of reason that also slaps a fictionalized version of Yoko Ono? That alone should cause anyone pause.
But where does that leave us, the viewer, to engage with something that’s problematic like this? Between the love for an aesthetic so minutely detailed and a disdain for those who mishandle cultural influences is a difficult middle ground. All I know is that Isle of Dogs is important not only as an artifact to be studied and picked apart but also as a base for those to grow from.