Wes Anderson makes a return to the world of animation with Isle of Dogs, and it's no surprise to learn that the film is a visual treat from the director of other visual delights such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Darjeeling Limited.
The jaw-dropping setting this time is a dystopian near-future Japan, where the entire canine population of the city of Megasaki has been exiled to a not-so-pleasant place called Trash Island, which is essentially, as the name implies, a giant offshore rubbish dump.
This fiendish slur on man’s best friend has taken place at the behest of the hound-hating mayor, Kobayashi (Konichi Nomura), who is more “dear eternal mayor” in a Kim dynasty fashion than bumbling old chap with a gold chain around his neck. The banishment follows a, possibly fabricated and certainly vastly exaggerated, outbreak of canine flu which was allegedly threatening the human population.
Step up our hero, Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned distant relative of Kobayashi who the mayor has adopted as a PR stunt. His dog, Spots, was the very first to be banished so, like any 12-year old boy, he hijacks a plane and sets out to Trash Island to find his beloved, hooking up with a gang of alpha-male canines played by big names such as Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton and Bill Murray along the way.
Needless to say, the visual attention to detail is second to none, and full of typically Anderson-esque vast tableaux, meticulous set pieces and contradictions. Trash Island is a grimy, filthy place of the highest order, yet somehow simultaneously a place of breathtaking beauty, while the furry cast members, despite being bedraggled, starving and sickness-infested, are some of the cutest leads you’ll find, ironically all the more so when they get into a scrap, which is frequently.
Liev Schreiber, who plays Spots, has described the film as a homage to dogs, and it is. But it is equally a homage to Japan. The beautifully constructed sets reek of traditional Japanese culture, while to say that Anderson gives a visual, audio and conceptual nod to Akira Kurosawa would be understatement in the extreme.
Anderson’s love of Japan is clear, although he does sail a little close to Orientalism at times – much of the Japan we see is the kind of place you’d find on a teenage Manga fan's bedroom wall. At the same time as he clearly loves Japan, and I haven’t yet decided whether this is a form of soft racism or simply Anderson being wilfully, and typically, contradictory, the actual Japanese characters are given little room for empathy.
While all our doggy heroes speak fluent American English, the Japanese characters (aka baddies, Atari aside) speak entirely in their native tongue, not even honoured with translation unless through the mouth of Frances McDormand’s interpreter. That could be forgiven as a simple plot device – a dictator is seeking to retain the support of his people by condemning “otherness,” so the two need clearly demarcating, if one group being dogs isn’t already clear enough.
What is a more puzzling turn of events is when Greta Gerwig’s hero, an American exchange student, shows up to lay bare Kobayashi’s wicked machinations in the school newspaper. Could a Japanese student not have done this?
Perhaps I'm reading too much into what is a visually stunning, quirkily entertaining, and often amusing canine caper, but Anderson does have some form here – in a similar vein, The Darjeeling Limited wasn't without its fair share of Third World fetishism as our white heroes indulged in their voyeuristic spiritual journey across poverty-stricken India from the luxury of a first-class train carriage.
It’s for this reason I haven’t rated the movie slightly higher – as a work of animation it is beyond reproach, aesthetically, rhythmically and wondrously hitting the target every time. As a cultural statement, it just leaves a few too many uncomfortable question marks.