Wes Anderson‘s second shot at stop-motion animation is a film made up of two halves. One half is a breathtakingly gorgeous travelogue that explores and celebrates Japanese culture and the other half is a harsh indictment of politics, both foreign and domestic. Since politics play such a large role in the film, it has immediately become a lightning rod of controversy. It’s been accused of cultural appropriation and some have gone so far as to label it, and the director, racist.
There’s a very specific reason Anderson set the film in Japan besides his obvious love for the culture, but I’ll get to that in a second.
Isle of Dogs take place in the near future (which still feels very much like the 70’s), in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has exiled every single dog to a nearby island full of garbage. A super contagious strand of “snout flu” is running rampant amongst the dog population. To protect the citizens of Megasaki from the potential threat of cross species contamination, it’s decided to rid the city of any and all dogs. The Mayor even puts his money where his mouth is and declares his orphaned 12-year-old nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) loyal watchdog Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first dog to be exiled.
The people of Japan are tricked by this phoney display of altruism but what they don’t know, is the fact that Mayor Kobayashi comes from a long line of dog hating sons of bitches. The film opens with a detailed history of the war between the cat clan and the dog clan and how a lone warrior turned the tide to save all the canines. Suffice it to say, this is a revenge scheme generations in the making.
Six months after their exile to the isle of dogs, we’re introduced to a pack of wild and crazy mutts —Chief (Brian Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban)— fighting another group of hungry hounds over the contents of a trash bag. The fight perfectly encapsulates the themes of the film. At first, it’s hilariously over the top, like an animated comic strip cloud of fists and limbs protruding every which way but when the fighting stops, there’s real consequences. Chief bites the ear off of one of the other dogs and, even though it’s played for laughs, it’s not cartoony in the slightest. There’s a severed bloody ear on the floor and that’s the film in a nutshell. It takes the realism and makes it more palatable with cute doggos and exaggerated cartoon logic.
After spending some time with Chief and his crew, the film’s plot finally begins to kick in. Atari hijacks an airplane and flies to the trash island to find his best friend Spots. After stumbling across his wrecked airplane (of course he crashed the plane. He’s 12. What did you expect, Sully?), the pack quickly realizes why the little boy is there and since no other human has tried to rescue any one of them before, decide to help him find his dog.
All except Chief, who wants nothing to do with the little pilot. Without getting into spoilers, the scenes with Chief and Atari are the heart and soul of the film. One is an aggressive introvert with abandonment issues and the other is a 12-year-old desperately longing for a friend. Normally those hurdles, along with the language barrier (besides the fact that he’s a dog, neither speaks the same language and the film doesn’t subtitle the Japanese, so he’s as lost as we are), would seem insurmountable but because this is still a kids movie to some degree, the relationship has a predictably happy ending. It’s like the Odd Couple but with dogs.
The Dog Couple.
[Ed. Note: we’re sorry. We desperately tried to remove all of the dog puns from the article but the author paid us good money to look the other way]
The film is at its best when it stays with the dogs on trash island, but the film has more on it’s mind than just the doggy adventure. There’s the exchange student (Greta Gerwig), who is working on a conspiracy involving the Japanese government, the scientists trying to cure the disease and the Mayor who is placating the people with obvious lies.
While the subplots do tend to get in the way of the emotional arc at the core of the story, they’re there for a purpose. Anderson didn’t just throw them in to pad the run time, he’s making a statement. It might be a stretch to say the exchange student is an intentional nod to the parkland students and their cause, but the film’s ultimate message is undeniable: it’s about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
There’s a reason all the dogs speak English and the Japanese speak their native tongue and it’s revealed in the last monologue of the film given by Atari to, what is essentially, the audience. He says, in English, “Who are we?” which, taken on its own, works on one level but, applied to the theme of the film (which is change), takes on a completely different meaning.
Anderson intentionally cast Americans in the role of the victims and the heroes (as the dogs and the exchange student) so that American audiences will emotionally equate themselves with the “good guys” while watching a story that’s indicting them. The argument that this film is in anyway appropriating Japanese culture fundamentally misunderstands the plot of the film. The setting is crucial to the film’s politics.
Much like how Art Spiegelman used mice and cats as stand-ins for Jews and Nazis in his critically acclaimed autobiography Maus, Anderson substitutes the Japanese for sick dogs for his internment metaphor.
It’s subtle. He’s not beating you over the head with it but it’s there. But thankfully you don’t need a history degree to enjoy this film. In fact, most won’t even pick up on the subtext because as in important as the message is to Anderson, that’s only the foundation. The house atop that foundation is a story about a boy and his dog and that’s a story that transcends any language barrier or cultural difference.