When I was 15 I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Japan with about thirty other 15-year-old boys, mostly from Japan, but also from other Pacific Rim countries. I was able to spend a few nights with a host family in Tokyo and tour the city a little, before being shipped off to spend time in the mountains doing team building type activities, and learning about the countries represented at the camp from the campers. It was a formative experience that (though at first terrifying) introduced me to people from many different walks of life, and many different cultures. I fell especially in love with Japan – I was fascinated by the snippets of culture, of history, and the food and people that I was exposed to over those two weeks, and it never quite left my system.
As an adult my wife and I travelled to Japan again (her first time), and it was exactly as wonderful as I remembered. 1.
Watching Isle of Dogs I had the distinct impression that Wes Anderson had a similar experience during his formative years, and that like me, his experience with and understanding of Japanese culture doesn’t run much deeper than an appreciation of and love for the surface of the country’s culture. I have no doubt that he has affection for Japan and its people, but at no time during the watching of the film did I ever feel like it was anything other than a white guy’s love letter to a foreign and “exotic” land.
I’ll admit that I am not sure if that is bad thing or not, but I would say that it is not expressly a good thing, either. I will leave that to others to decide, but I will say that, despite these first few paragraphs discussing the elephant in the room, it was not something that affected my enjoyment of the film.
And I enjoyed it a lot.
After the dog population of Japan is ravaged by dog flu and snout fever, they are banished to Trash Island in an effort by Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki, Uni prefecture, to ostensibly stop the possibility of the illness spreading to humans. Twelve-year old Atari, ward of the Mayor, travels to the island in order to find and rescue his faithful dog, Spot, who was the first canine to be shipped off to the island. Once there he befriends a pack of wild-ish dogs who help him on his quest, while also inspiring an intrepid young reporter at the school newspaper to uncover the larger and darker truth behind the Mayor’s decree.
Wes Anderson has a style and cadence to his films that deeply appeals to me, though I understand how it can be too much for many people, and I think his storybook approach is very well suited to animation, and stop-motion animation in particular. His camera movement and at times idiosyncratic framing just so perfectly captures the oddness of the characters and the world he creates here that I would be hard-pressed to think of any other way it could be done and still be effective.
I think anyone with a dog will appreciate the characters of the dogs, and the affection that Atari feels for Spot. That relationship is both the catalyst of the plot, and the heart of the story, though it is very much from the point of view of the dogs, instead of the boy. He is largely a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner on the Isle of Dogs, driven home by the fact that he speaks only in Japanese, with very little translation for either the audience, or the dogs, who “speak” English. 2 Yet somehow, not unlike between real people and their real dogs, Atari is able communicate with Chief and Spot and Rex and Duke and King and all the rest with little trouble.
There is magnificent work being done by the animators in this film – they have taken the hand-crafted style that Anderson used in Fantastic Mr. Fox and refined it. There is some wonderful subtle work being done both with characters and environment that brings the world to life in a way rarely seen in family entertainment these days.
I say “family” though I am not sure how the children in my audience felt about it – Minions this was not. The jokes are very much character driven, and there is a mean streak in the film that, while prevalent in the 80s, is rarely seen in family and kids films here days. And it is not meanness for the sake of it, but again it feels like it comes from character – these are dogs after all, and dogs are known to get a little mean from time to time.
On the whole I found Isle of Dogs to be a delightful film, though it is not without its issues. Aside from the affectionate outsider viewpoint of the filmmakers, I think it runs a little long, and I am not convinced that the character of Tracy, a foreign exchange student, needed to be a foreign exchange student. I suppose the film is making a point about outsiders and about foreigners, but after one viewing that point did not make itself known to me.
Far more effective were the themes of friendship, and of heroism – the decision to do what is right, even at the risk of great cost to yourself. Which is something we can never get too much of.
- Admittedly we did not travel much outside of Tokyo, so I would never claim that our experiences (on either trip) were even close to representative of all that Japan has to offer.
- I saw it pointed out elsewhere that it feels like the Japanese characters are the foreigners in the film, and I can’t really argue with that, though I think it was a purposeful, if odd, choice.