Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional city of Megasaki, where all the dogs have been exiled to Trash Island.
The beauty of an Andersonian world is rooted in its inexplicable nostalgia. Whether it be the symmetry of his shots, the impeccable color schemes, or the quirks of his characters, Wes Anderson makes me sentimental for a world I never even knew. Max Fischer in Rushmore never fails to stir intermittently painful memories of unrequited childhood crushes, just as my heart somehow still longs for the candy pink walls of the Grand Budapest Hotel. After swooning at not only Fantastic Mr. Fox’s charm but also Anderson’s ridiculous attention to detail, I couldn’t help but walk into Isle of Dogs with high expectations — too high, I worried, only to later realise the futility of my doubt.
Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional city of Megasaki, a city with a historical vendetta against dogs. Mayor Kobayashi has exiled all dogs to Trash Island, where they run amok scavenging for food and exchanging amusing dialogue. The tale follows Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s 12-year-old dependent, who is on a mission to rescue his banished pet Spots. Aided by dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Atari ventures through the aesthetically genius terrain of Trash Island to find his beloved dog. We, as the audience, are blessed with scenes of an ethereal glass-bottle cave, the white utopia of a spotless science laboratory, majestic mountains of debris, and even walls of perfectly aligned cubes of garbage. Only Wes Anderson can make trash look this good. Meanwhile, the mayor plots to retrieve Atari, and scientists work on a cure for the dogs’ illness, the reason for which they were expelled from Megasaki City in the first place. To add to the cohesive chaos that creates an Andersonian plot, high school journalists led by foreign-exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) investigate the mayor’s dishonesty. Here, I choose not to disclose the ending, for Anderson expresses best through cinema what I could never capture with words.
I will not deny the bias in my review of Isle of Dogs; I am a huge Wes Anderson fan and a shameless one at that. Other reviews, however, have been less love-struck, accusing Anderson of cultural appropriation and questioning why the star dogs are voiced by a purely white cast. Does Anderson use Japanese stereotypes for aesthetic gimmicks? Is Isle of Dogs yet another targeted tug at the Western world’s Japanophiles? I’ll be frank: I have seen movies that hijack other “more exotic” cultures, bleaching and distorting their authenticity in the process, but I do not believe Isle of Dogs to be one of them. Even with (or perhaps despite) my limited knowledge of Japanese culture, I felt Anderson’s creation of Megasaki and the microcosm within to be, on the contrary, an endearing homage to Japan.
Moeko Fujii, born and bred Japanese, sheds a refreshing light in her New Yorker article on the ever-piling opinions of Anderson’s cultural fusion. Anderson pays his respects to Japan, she argues, splitting equally the weight of cultural importance in Isle of Dogs through not only “his cast of twenty-three Japanese actors but [also] in his depictions of how exactly a Japanese TV-news anchor transitions to a new topic (‘This is the next news’), what milk cartons for elementary schools look like (labelled ‘extra-thick’), or how a couple of scientists might celebrate—with a clink, ‘Yo—oh!,’ and a clap.” It seems Wes did his homework after all. Perhaps those that condemn Isle of Dogs merely cannot see the authentically Japanese nuances that are organically woven into the fabric of his filmmaking. I know I missed them. As for his use of an all white cast, I wonder: would a Wes Anderson movie be a true Anderson without Bill Murray or Edward Norton? Given Wes Anderson’s historical use of recurring actors, I’ve personally given him the benefit of the doubt in his casting choices. But to each their own, I say.
Anderson’s choice to tackle the artistic portrayal of another culture in such a sensitive time as ours is a thorny challenge, albeit brave. But my attention, frankly, was not on the degree of cultural correctness in a stop-motion animation about dogs on an island full of trash. I believe Wes Anderson is Wes Anderson for the way his cinematography makes you feel, not his adherence to PC standards (or lack thereof). As a work of art, his visual landscape is a lullaby for the eyes. In his endeavor to fuse his distinct style with Japanese culture, it is true that Wes Anderson has furthered important conversations. Yet, what rings stronger than any conceptual revelation is the feeling of Andersonian tenderness that lingers long after.