Here Be Canines

Koma Inu_edit
Koma Inu (temple dog) in Tokyo.

Wes Anderson returns to the theatersand to animation. Isle of Dogs takes his audiences to a dystopian Japan. But does it get lost in translation?

Wes Anderson is back. Four years after The Grand Budapest Hotel, we finally get another one of his wonderfully whimsical adventures. Returning to the stop motion form for the first time since the fabulous Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Anderson proves with Isle of Dogs that he can still innovate in the medium—while, not surprisingly, very much giving the film his individual stamp at the same time.

It’s almost a truism to say that those who like Anderson’s signature style will almost certainly also like Isle of Dogs, while those who don’t won’t be converted by his latest movie, either. Anderson’s attention to detail, his dry and often random humor, his aesthetic appreciation for the hand-crafted and the imperfect: either you love it or you don’t.

That is not to say that Isle of Dogs doesn’t have enough new charms to go around. The cleverly integrated theme of language and (un-)translatability especially makes this

Samurai with dog, from a print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

movie unique (though Anderson certainly took a leaf out Sofia Coppola’s book here): All human dialogue is given in the original language that the characters use, though on-screen interpreters sometimes translate for the audience. But can you trust them? (Especially since one of them is introduced as an intern.) And what about the considerable portions of untranslated Japanese? Anyone without a solid knowledge of the Japanese language is left to guess.

With the dogs’ barking rendered in English, the film really focalizes its narration through them. The pack of canine protagonists, in turn, also happen to be some of the most charming and vivid characters that Anderson has written for the screen to date, and beautifully animated to boot.

Isle of Dogs has received some criticism for its depiction of Japanese culture, as well for what was perceived to be its usage of the “white savior” trope. While I would leave the former issue to the judgment of the Japanese themselves and those who are knowledgeable about their culture, I tend to disagree with the latter point of criticism. It’s not like the notion didn’t occur to me at all at some point during the movie, but the way the plot is constructed, in my opinion, doesn’t really allow for that conclusion, once everything is over.

The character who is supposed to be the “white savior” certainly plays an important role in the political cause depicted in the film—but eventually, she is more of a figurehead for that cause than its sole driving force. Indeed, if anything, it is Atari (a Japanese boy and the film’s only human protagonist) and his canine companions who save the day, albeit with a little help from their friends. Since those friends are mostly Japanese, though, I really see no reason to take issue with the politics of the film. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that Anderson seems to poke quite a bit of fun at his naive “white savior” character—as, by the way, at most of his protagonists.

In an age where everything gets sucked into the maelstrom of politics, even an eccentric outlier like Wes Anderson must lose his innocence. In Isle of Dogs, though, he shows us how through a unified effort and a common cause, a haphazard group of dogs, scientists and school kids (both Japanese and American) defeat the politics of evil. And isn’t that, in the end, a hopeful political message?

Isle of Dogs (US/DE 2018). Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson. Cinematography: Tristan Oliver. Starring (as voices) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig and Scarlett Johansson. 101 min.

Images adapted from Wikimedia Commons files: “TakaoKomaInu“, “Dog – Hata Rokurozaemon with his dog“.

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