Wes Anderson’s films have always hewed closely to the intertwined strands of the fantastical and the storybook. But this essential impulse, evident in his trademark aesthetic, has never been more apparent than in his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. The opening is only the first sign: a prologue told by a monk that closely parallels the events to come. This time, however, the setting is markedly different from his heretofore Western-centric films: Japan, sometime in the future, specifically in the fictional city of Megasaki. After the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-conceived the story) orders the exile of all dogs to the neighboring isle of Trash Island on the grounds of an infectious “dog flu”, his distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in an attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon landing, he is joined by a gang of dogs, whose most prominent member is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray fiercely opposed to domestication. What follows is in essence a men-on-a-mission film, interwoven with student-led investigations into the possible governmental suppression of a cure for the virus.
Isle of Dogs thrives upon this fairly straightforward premise, stringing together a fleet series of encounters by imbuing with a sense of weight, either comedic or emotional, through the careful building of a constellation of distinctive characters. Anderson’s films have long had an off-kilter balance between arcs and individual moments, and this movie is largely tilted towards the latter: to name just one of the most piercing examples, the first flashback (of many), which shows Spots and Atari’s first meeting, has enough emotional heft to sustain a full half of a lesser film. Ironically, despite the enormous cast, the heart of the film ultimately feels as if it belongs to two or three figures (Atari, Chief, and Spots), but the ways in which they affect those around them consistently prove to be thrilling and, often, more than a little moving.
However, there are certain aspects of Isle of Dogs that many have found objectionable, stemming from a perceived insensitivity towards Japan. The main issue, for some, stems from the core conceit of the film in its manner of conveyance, as the fairly frequent Japanese spoken by the human characters is unsubtitled, albeit often translated through various devices (including a translator voiced by Frances McDormand), while the dog barks are rendered in English by American voice actors.
[I must state here that, despite my status as an Asian-American film critic, I cannot speak as an authoritative voice upon the precise nature of Isle of Dogs‘s sensitivity to Japanese society and culture. (The fraught relations between China and Japan alone is a can of worms too large to get into.) All I can convey is my own perspective upon this set of issues, and it lies squarely with the film, or at least my perception of the film’s intents and status within the present culture.]
It is important to stress once more that the Japan depicted in Isle of Dogs is a fantastical one, perhaps the most fantastical of all Wes Anderson worlds. Of course, this alone does not solve the issue, but what the movie repeatedly reveals itself to be deeply concerned with communication and understanding, both of a verbal nature and of one more deeply connected with friendship and love. Relationships are forged through the breaking down of barriers and notions about others throughout the film, through both split-second decisions and nigh-ceremonial transferences.
Correspondingly, Anderson’s choice to leave most of the Japanese unsubtitled seems fitting, especially as carried out throughout the film. So much of Isle of Dogs is mediated, as if told by a storyteller, from the prologue to the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) to the profusions of self-description that hint at even more expansive personal stories. Correspondingly, the addition of one additional “barrier” often produces unexpected, productive effects, engendering both Anderson’s love of whimsical fictitious devices – no more apparent than in the “Simul-Translate” machine – and moments of revelation: the slight pause in translation as the translator truly processes what the speaker says, the description of an action that places it in context. Admittedly, the decision to eliminate conventional subtitles entirely feels a bit too much – one or two extended conversations feel shortchanged by this gambit – but for most of the film, particularly in the many rally scenes in Megasaki, it functions rather well.
All this being said, Anderson’s touch, and the care he takes on a cultural level, is even more apparent in the portrayal of both Megasaki and Trash Island, especially in the way his direction shifts to accommodate the setting. More than the voices on the parts of both the dogs and the humans, Anderson relies on the intricate details of the stop-motion puppets and sets to flesh out the characters. Laid out in 2.35:1, the faces of a line of dogs or humans often dominate the frame, with one element shifted to the edge as a means of further emphasis. Just as key are the locales surrounding these figures: the mounds of trash, contrasted with the retro-futuristic stylings of the Megasaki skyline, which in turn are contrasted by the fairly traditional depictions of the streets of the metropolis; one shot of a bar and the outside street feels straight out of an Ozu film. Anderson’s manner of direction, especially as shown in his other stop-motion effort Fantastic Mr. Fox, is still evident, but it is fused in Isle of Dogs with a presentational, close-up-heavy compositional style that recalls woodblock prints and Japanese directors like, to my eyes, Kon Ichikawa (and not the overtly dynamic visual sense of Kurosawa, the most often cited comparison by both Anderson and other reviewers). Anderson allows certain moments to linger, to grow out of their environs, and this sense of patience balances out the more plot-driven elements.
Despite and in many ways because of its understandably complex and potentially problematic status, Isle of Dogs is, above all else, a deeply earnest film, one brimming with optimism in the face of injustices, one that believes that differences can be overcome. Given this, I can not and will not fault a film this willing to embrace the culture of its setting, one that, to name only the most prominent example, gives such loving care to the preparation of a fateful five-part sushi dinner. Japan is not fetishized but faithfully, lovingly engaged with; when shot in such vivid, tactile close-up, a face is a face, no matter what language it speaks.