Mayor Kobayashi has exiled Japan’s canine population to a deserted garbage-dump island. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a political satire meets boy-and-his-dog stop-motion animation. Megasaki represents a futuristic Nagasaki. A post-apocalyptic motif is seen through numerous explosive dust-clouds. The country’s dark history is only lightly touched upon, but as with many Japanese films, there is a lurking fear of atomic weapons and natural disasters (even in the campy context of Godzilla type monster movies).
Kobayashi, Kitano, Kurosawa…
What do these names have in common?
Anderson’s second animated feature pays tribute to them. Takeshi Kitano’s name may only splash across the screen briefly, but Kobayashi (as in Masaki) is the family name of the main (human) characters. Kurosawa (Akira) is an admitted influence on Anderson’s sense of symmetry and artistic expression. The whole thing is highly stylized, creative eye-candy, and gives a nod to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (excerpts from Fumio Haysaka’s music are heard a few time) and Yojimbo (latest Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat’s score is clearly influenced by composer Masaru Satô) while caninizing elements of the Spaghetti Western.
Anderson and his co-screenwriters Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman are all admirers of Japanese Cinema. Some of the visuals are inspired by 19th Century woodblock prints, and allude to sumo, taiko, and sushi. Though Anderson enlisted the help of buddy Kunichi Nomura (the fourth screenwriter, who also lent his voice to the Mayor’s character) to fine-tune the cultural authenticity, some viewers might feel these elements are watered down for American audiences. Most Westerners are only familiar with these clichéd Japanese symbols.
Anderson has already been criticized for imagineering a Japan full of marginalization, beyond just exiled pups. Some might not digest the idealized generalizations of Japanese culture. It appears that the director did a ton of research, and had no intent to belittle a culture he is obviously fond of. However, he does fall into stereotypes that bruise the story’s endearing qualities. Appropriation was likely not meant as a plot mechanism but it will still irk certain viewers who know anything at all about Japan.
Anderson was going more for emotion and poetry than flat-out word-play or visual gags. But alas, the tears appear mechanical and the pauses used to emote come across a bit empty. The trouble is perhaps in the cadence of the emotions conveyed. Maybe the failure is in the medium, which is furrily tactile and drippily moist when eyes gloss over, but never quite hits the mark. There is something very plastic about especially the human characters, but this is part of the animation’s charm as well. Dogs’ legs do not move in an identical manner to real-life dogs. Eyes blink in a half-robotic way. One would figure these were aesthetic choices taken to create an overall cartoony look, even if the creatures both human and animal also retain certain realistic traits.
Animation Director Mark Waring and lead animators Jason Stalman, Anthony Elworthy and Kim Keukeleire have done a terrific job, with their entire animation team. The craft of stop-motion animation has sadly been overturned by digital technology. It’s nice to see something once again made by hand, even if it has also been assisted through After Effects software and other contemporary animation techniques. Definitely worth a look, but don’t expect any grand epiphanies. An Anderson piece through and through, it carries the same good and bad as all his previous efforts. It keeps his trademark style, it looks good, the dogs are cute, but there is nothing terribly new under the sun.
Isle of Dogs hits select cinemas March 23rd, 2018