If there’s one thing Wes Anderson is good at, it’s making his movies look good. Like, really good.
From the super-symmetrical, pastel-candy fairytale of The Grand Budapest Hotel to the surreal brights of The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s obsessively detailed, distinctive worlds are compelling – even sometimes at the expense of their plots.
His latest film, Isle Of Dogs, is set in 2030s Japan, in the fictional city of Megasaki, after a series of natural disasters and a long, corrupt mayoral dynasty has made the population meek and easy to scare.
So easy that only a handful of Megasakans oppose the plan of sending all the city’s dogs – even the pampered house pets without the signs of the canine flu and snout fever – to Trash Island, even though dogs are the best things ever to happen to humans. (This is both one of the underlying premises of the film and also an opinion I personally hold.)
It seems the chaos has led to a bit of a regression – Anderson loves the 1960s, so why let a little thing like the inevitable advances in everyday technology over a significant period of time get in the way of him thrashing his signature aesthetic in another movie?
The stop-motion characters are rendered in 2D animation whenever they’re on screens, most of those screens are monochromatic, and nobody has smartphones or a computer that looks like it was made after 1985.
And as with his other movies, the characters speak with a slightly detached, flat style – well, the dogs do. Most of the human characters speak in (un-subtitled) Japanese, sometimes for whole conversations. These choices, and the, uh, relaxed pacing might be what’s reportedly been sending more than a few audience members to sleep in screenings.
The Anderson whimsy is in full flight here, and not just when it comes to the retro styling. His version of Japan is a symmetrically-framed wonderland of samurai myths, cherry blossoms, kabuki theatre, sumo wrestlers, sushi, speeches that end with haikus, haikus that end with oblique natural imagery, and corrupt politicians with Yakuza tattoos.
Even the names seem carefully chosen so as to not seem too alien to Western audiences: the lead human character is named Atari Kobayashi, combining the nerdy familiarity of a game console brand and a famous Star Trek reference (Kobayashi is not an unusual Japanese name, but still recalls the Kobayashi Maru).
A scientist called Yoko Ono, voiced by Yoko Ono. A military villain called Major Domo (a pun in English, and also perhaps as in… domo arigato?).
And almost all the dogs, though supposedly named by their Japanese families, have stereotypical American-style names, for some reason: Duke, King, Chief, Boss, Spots. (One exception, Gondo, may be one of the many Kurosawa shout-outs peppering the film.)
It’s a beautifully rendered, painstakingly composed cartoon of Japanese culture, and one that’s already copped criticism from plenty of writers.
Karen Han at The Daily Beast called it “gross”:
There’s no discernible reason for Anderson’s chosen setting beyond wanting to ape Japanese aesthetics that wouldn’t feel like a stretch, or wishful retroactive thinking. … Though “cultural appropriation” may seem overly harsh as a way to describe the film, on the purest level, it’s absolutely true. It’s strange to me that Isle of Dogs largely seems to be getting a pass for it, while one of Anderson’s earlier films, The Darjeeling Limited, has been called out for its cultural tourism.
Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com, like several other writers, couldn’t get over the pushy “white saviour”, American exchange student Tracy:
[A]s entertaining as it is to look at “Isle of Dogs’, I couldn’t get past Anderson’s usual clumsiness when dealing with minorities. This is a film where a character is literally whitewashed, an act that makes him more agreeable afterwards. “Isle of Dogs’ treats this as a sight gag. It plays more like a confession.
Angie Han at Mashable was sympathetic to the message of the film, but still found the cultural appropriation gets in the way:
The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their “exotic” cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings. … [I]n treating Japanese culture like superficial embellishments, Japanese people like unknowable others, and Japan itself like an endearingly quirky playground for yet another white American narrative, Isle of Dogs‘ messaging about protecting the vulnerable falls flat.
They’re far from the only ones asking why Isle Of Dogs needed to be set in Japan at all, beyond the fact that Anderson liked the idea of, well, borrowing the aesthetics to incorporate into his own style.
Also, it’s not as egregious, but worth noting that if you were hoping for the cinematic equivalent of sitting at an outside cafe table on a Saturday and exclaiming “Look at that good boy!” every time a pup trots past, you’re also going to be sorely disappointed.
The dogs are, for the most part, good boys. (The only female dogs are there to be love interests for our lead mutts, except for Tilda Swinton’s tiny pug Oracle, who sadly only says about nine words).
However, there’s a sly, uncomfortably human quality about the stop-motion doggos. It’s not just that they’re speaking dry, conversational American English – like the rest of the film, like so much of Anderson’s work, they lack warmth, despite their very pattable animated fur.
But hey, at least it’s pretty, right?