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‘Isle of Dogs’ (review)

Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin,
Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson

Screenplay by Wes Anderson
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola,
Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton,
Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban,
Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe,
Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand,
Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami,
Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber,
Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito,
Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham,
Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki,
Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Narrated by Courtney B. Vance

 

Maaaaan… white people ruin everything.

That is what I thought walking into the ninth and latest films by Wes Anderson.

You would think I may be referring to the fact that I was about to see a film set in a fictional future Japan, made by a white Texan, starring white people as dogs. You may think that however you would be so very wrong.

I thought that because my social media feeds had recently exploded about “cultural appropriation” and “”whitewashing” and all the other “trigger” words you would expect to in the wake of another film about another culture is made by some white dude.

Well, I wasn’t going to let that spoil my viewing of this stop motion animated film. So, I went into this screening with a relatively clean slate, once I cleared the vitriol of others from my head and let the story speak for itself.

And I am glad I did.

What I watched was a visually gorgeous love letter to Japanese culture.

Isle of Dogs tells the quasi fantastical tale in a futuristic, fictional Japan.

A young boy, Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, sets off on a mission to save his beloved dog and bodyguard, Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber. Along with all the other pooches, Spots has been exiled to “Trash Island”, an abandoned island off the Japanese archipelago. Due to an overpopulation of canines and the diseases they have developed and spread throughout Megasaki City in Japan, Mayor Kobayashi, voiced by Japanese radio personality and co-writer of the movie, Kunichi Nomura, has decreed that all dogs must be eradicated. Through Atari’s journey we discover the why, how, and what has happened to these abandoned house pets as they scrounge for a living in a junk wasteland.

The dogs, all played by slew of Anderson alumni, are brilliant.

Newcomer to the Wes Anderson troupe, Bryan Cranston voices, “Chief”, the leader of the pack of dogs set to help the young boy with a mission, is excellent. He is teamed with Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum as they traverse the toxic Island to complete the boy’s mission. In her first Wes Anderson film is Scarlett Johansson as “Chief’s” possible love interest and misunderstood bitch “Nutmeg”. Also popping up as various pups are Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, Roman Coppola, Anjelica Huston. Rounding out the cast is Courtney B. Vance as “The Narrator”.

What was really refreshing about this ode to Japanese culture is Anderson’s appreciation of Japan’s rich history and story telling. Steeped in a love of Japanese films, the influence of Akira Kurosawa and Seijun Suzuki can be felt throughout the film. Their art and prose can be felt from the opening shot to the end credits. The care and detail he has added to this beautiful film as well as his use of a bevy of Japanese artistic story telling techniques enhance the viewers enjoyment of the story; from wood cuts to manga and anime.

From Kabuki Theater to television dramas. This gives the film a depth and breadth most other filmmakers would either miss or not care about in their films. I think that Anderson’s painstaking attention and dedication to detail that is inherent in all his films, is almost second nature here and thus adds such a lovely patina to the movie.

It stands to reason that if you are not a fan of Wes Anderson films then you will not like this one.

It has been said that if you have seen one Wes Anderson film, you have seen EVERY Wes Anderson film, and this is true. I personally don’t see a problem with this as I love Wes Anderson films and all their quirky repetition. I love his symmetry, the whip pans, the zooms, all the wide deep focus shots, and the terrible but sympathetically tragic weirdos that populate the worlds he creates.

It was both stunning and refreshing, for me, to see him perfectly capture his vision in his first foray into stop motion with the sublime and wonderful The Fantastic Mr. Fox. That he was a able to wholly recreate his live action style and brand of film making in an animated film so well was… well, fantastic. He does so again with aplomb with Isle of Dogs and the meticulousness inherent in stop motion animation lends itself to his style of film making.

As I mentioned earlier all the canines are voiced by English speaking actors. Additionally, all the Japanese human characters in this film are played by Japanese actors and actresses.

The Mayor’s right hand man, and person “pulling the strings”, Major Domo, is voiced by Akira Takayama. Professor Watanabe, the scientist determined to cure the “Dog virus” is voiced by Akira Ito. His assistant, Assistant Scientist Yoko-Ono is brilliantly voiced by… you guessed it, Yoko Ono. The only two non-Japanese actors playing humans are Academy Award Winner and Anderson alum, Francis McDormand as the English interpreter and Greta Gerwig, the American exchange student, Tracy.

In the world of the aforementioned Hollywood “whitewashing” and “cultural appropriation” it was so excellent hearing and seeing Japanese characters being portrayed by Japanese actors and actresses.

Almost entirely in Japanese with little to no subtitles, only bits and pieces necessary to the plot are translated to English by the English to Japanese translator, Interpreter Nelson (McDormand). During the course of the film, translations are used sparsely where it makes sense via television news reports or during political rallies and meetings. There is very little use of English subtitles throughout the film. Almost none of the Japanese is translated to English so like the dogs in the film, the non- Japanese speaking audience is forced to watch and go along as the story unfolds. It is a brilliant bit of filmmaking here by Anderson and his co-writers.

By forcing the audience to pay attention to every detail of the action it is up you to not miss out on what is about to happen. As I speak little to no Japanese I liken it to watching The Seven Samurai without subtitles (how I first watched the movie when I was a kid) where the film became an intricate pantomime. Except in this movie the few small nuggets of English are just enough to help me understand what is actually going on.

I suppose the only real trope that happens in this film is the old “great white hope” idea in that it is the American exchange student who rallies with her fellow Japanese student dissidents to help take down the corrupt Mayor and his cabal of anti-canine pundits. Even this idea is kind of turned on its head and she doesn’t become the “savior” figure so much as the loud mouthed American who won’t shut up and basically bulldozes her way into leadership of the student opposition.

In the end, isn’t the bitter truth that that is kind of what we do as Americans? Rush in where angels fear to tread. If you don’t think so, then you may actually be part of the problem.

This film has heart in abundance.

The emotions I felt while viewing overwhelmed me. The pain of Atari’s love for his bodyguard/pet to the loyalty and determination of the dogs to help Atari on his mission. I was truly invested in this boy’s unfaltering focus. The humor was spot on and I guffawed as much as I “awww’d”. There were more serious moments then the usual Anderson films the restraint and subtly actually did more to enhance the the emotion and elation I felt throughout.

The more I ruminated on this I realized that that may have been the intention all along. By having Kunichi Nomura join him along his traditional co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) not only was the film able to be respectful to the culture and people it represents but the storytelling itself was reigned in and the usual overtness of some of Anderson’s personal film tropes were subdued as well as a result. All in al this film was a treat.

I love Isle of Dogs and I highly recommend people see it. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did. To paraphrase the other Asian film reviewer at the screening I went to who said, “I have not seen a film that embraces and appreciates the Japanese culture, like this, in a very long time.” and I agree.

I made arrangements to view the film again at the second press on Monday. The children in the second viewing of the movie, with an audience, were mesmerized and loved it. They were transfixed on the story and even with the lack of subtitles they were fully invested and cheered, laughed and cried. The idea that kids will not understand a film that they either have to read subtitles in or isn’t in their primary language is a bunch of bull because the kids at this showing loved every minute of it and talked about it and the finer details on their way out.

The only other film I have ever gone to a second screening was Kubo and The Two Strings, another stop-motion film, produced by Laika Studios, that is a wonderful appreciation of Asian fables. Not quite the tear jerker that Kubo is, Isle of Dogs, however, does not fall into the old Hollywood pitfall of under representing the culture it so loves and honors that that film did.

 

 

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