Leave it to Wes Anderson to make an island of trash look beautiful. Or if not beautiful, exactly, then at the very least visually appealing. Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s second stop-motion animation film after Fantastic Mr. Fox, takes us to a dystopian Japan, where Mayor Kobayashi of the fictional Megasaki City has banished all dogs to “Trash Island,” ostensibly due to the outbreak of dog flu and snout fever. The film has an almost fairy-tale quality to its storytelling, as it frequently invokes images and aesthetics of old myth and legend. A narrator introduces the tale, and tells us a story that even includes chapter titles, as we follow a group of dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Burry, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum), Chief, a former stray and the de facto leader of the pack (Bryan Cranston), and a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who travels to the island in search of his own dog, Spots.
Despite the fairytale-like, folkloric quality of the presentation, and the young boy-dog relationship at the emotional center, this film is probably one of the least childlike or cute of all of Anderson’s oeuvre. In fact, I was surprised at how decidedly un-cute it was. The dogs are mangy, inflected by disease and covered in gashes. Even the young boy, Atari, has a bloody face and a black eye, and the bruising on his face starts to turn green. The film is still incredibly visually striking, but it does not have the same pretty, pastel, almost dollhouse-like effect that other films like The Grand Budapest Hotel have. It’s impossible to absorb all the detail that goes into each frame of the stop-motion sequences, as every bit of Trash Island, every hair on the dogs’ bodies, and even every background is rendered in impeccable detail, almost to the point of hyperrealism. One scene, in particular, showing a chef carefully preparing sushi, stands out as a sequence with intense attention to detail—the forty-five-second sequence apparently took more than six months to research and produce, as the team wanted to get each step right. The plot that we follow in this rich visual world is somewhat of a (literal) shaggy dog story: Atari wants to find his Spots, the dogs want to help him and get off the island, and they have a series of quirky encounters along the way. The ending is anticlimactic, but the film seems more concerned with the telling than the details of the meandering journey, because everything else, from the jokes to the cuts, feel perfectly timed.
But once we reached the end of the story, the film left me with a question: whose story does it tell, exactly? While all the barks of the dogs have been “rendered into English,” the Japanese in the film remains un-subtitled, though some portions are translated by an interpreter (voiced by Frances McDormand). This choice has proven controversial: though it is used in part to emphasize the inability of dogs and humans to understand one another through language, critics note that it also implies that it is primarily the dogs’ story we are meant to follow and empathize with, rather than the one of the Japanese people. Though there are never any moments where we are not able to get the gist of what characters like Atari are saying, based on the context or their facial expressions, it is not quite the same—we do not get to hear their words, or laugh at their jokes, or hear the nuances in their language. I’m honestly not sure how the presence of subtitles would affect the experience. In a film that is already so dense with visual information, would subtitles prove to be too distracting, causing us to pay more attention to the English words than the characters’ intonations or facial expressions? Translating more of their words verbally into English also does not seem to be a solution; letting Japanese characters speak Japanese feels more important to me than understanding every word they say. The film, and some of the critical reactions to its depiction of Japan, raises important questions about who can tell what kinds of stories, and what constitutes respectful storytelling. Though Anderson is often referred to as an “auteur,” and his signature style is undeniably present throughout the film, it is overly reductive to consider Isle of Dogs as primarily the work of one man, and the issue of the nature and burden of representation is incredibly complex.
One character who embodies the film’s conflict toward representation is Tracy, a white, English-speaking, American exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig). I’ve had problems with Anderson’s films in the past in terms of their lack of female representation, so I am in some ways grateful for a female character that isn’t primarily defined by her status as an object of affection. But Tracy’s Americanness is interesting—her presence in this story is likely a byproduct of the very subtitle issue just discussed, as she provides an opportunity for a character to communicate information to us in English. But if that is the case, why not have a multilingual Japanese student? Though a whole classroom of Japanese students spearheads a campaign to free the dogs from Trash Island, it is the voice of Tracy whom we get to hear most clearly, making it feel as if the Japanese are being cast as the other even within their own country. In fact, the Japan depicted in the film seems to be largely the Japan of Western imagination, as experienced through cinema or popular culture. Though there are numerous references to elements of Japanese culture, with scenes of kabuki performance or sumo wrestling, nods to the films of Kurosawa, and a score by Alexandre Desplat heavily featuring taiko drums, Isle of Dogs could really be set anywhere with few edits to the script, as most of the aesthetic references do not delve much deeper into Japanese history. The motivations for Mayor Kobayashi’s totalitarian politics remain muddled (he bans dogs for his own economic benefit; he bans dogs because he loves cats), and the broader political statement is unclear. When a dog-droid battle results in a mushroom-cloud explosion, we do not even get a moment to consider the history and trauma that such an image exhumes.
Ultimately, Isle of Dogs becomes a story of absence and invisibility as much as one of visual pleasures. As is common in the fairy-tale model, parents are largely absent from the story, as are most of the dog’s owners. To an extent, this absence extends to women as well; I have long felt largely unsatisfied by the way female characters are written in Anderson’s films, and this is no exception. While we have Tracy, a Yoko Ono-voiced scientist, and a former show-dog named Nutmeg, their agency is undercut by their definition in relation to the male figures given more screen time, as they have schoolgirl crushes on Atari (Tracy), sob over the death of a colleague (the scientist) and catch the eye of Chief (Nutmeg). But perhaps this seeming exclusion is purposeful, as the film explores marginalized space and hints at what remains unseen: the banished dogs and Atari, an orphan and Mayor Kobayashi’s ward, are literal outsiders and underdogs, without a place in their society. Just like fairy tales often contain far more darkness than we remember, Isle of Dogs has some truly disturbing things lying in wait behind the colorful canine characters and the classic dry Anderson humor. But most of the potentially dark underbelly still remains shadowed: the film gestures to Japanese history without going into it, and hints at some real abuse and suffering, without fully exploring the after-effects of pain. Dogs are yanked away from their humans, and basically left to die on an island of trash, and most of the population (save for Atari and the vocal group of students) are pretty much fine with this kind of mistreatment. How do the people of Megasaki reckon with their complicity in banishing dogs to the island, and their support for a mayor who uses his power for his own benefit and kills off his opposition? Why didn’t anybody else besides Atari come looking for their dogs on Trash Island? “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” These are the questions the film raises implicitly, and in the case of the last one, asks directly. Perhaps the film does not seek to answer these questions, but instead prompt consideration of that which is beyond what is immediately depicted. Though Isle of Dogs left me wishing for more nuanced representation, and more complexity to the dog-human bond at the core of the story, it was still an enjoyable story, and a pleasure to watch. Perhaps my standards are just too high, and perhaps I am unfairly placing a large burden on this film to cover a wide array of difficult issues. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with fantasy and aesthetic pleasure, and the film looks like it would be right at home in the pages of a storybook. In any case, it is left up to the viewer to not get too lost in the dazzling visual spectacle of the film, and be sure to consider that despite the immaculate attention to detail, some details might still have been rendered invisible.