By Cleo Robins.
“I wish somebody spoke his language.”
Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation has been in the back of my mind ever since I discovered his deliciously quirky selection of films a few years ago. His strict aesthetic, combined with meandering stories of idiosyncratic characters and strained family relationships are remarkable in one feature film, let alone nine, and I was anxious to see what he would produce next. I had high hopes for Isle of Dogs, and I was not disappointed in any way. In his newest film, Anderson not only ushers us back into his wonderful world for another brief couple of hours but plays a few new political and philosophical cards that we never knew he had in his hand.
The plot of Isle of Dogs revolves primarily around a twelve-year-old boy, Atari Kobayashi, who courageously mans a small aircraft and crashes on Trash Island, where his despotic uncle, Mayor Kobayashi, has exiled all the dogs of Megasaki City. He is on a mission to find his lost dog and best friend Spots, and is helped enthusiastically, bar one, by “a pack of scary indestructible alpha dogs.” Within this overarching storyline are woven the tales of American exchange student Tracy Walker, who tries to expose the corrupt dealings of Mayor Kobayashi and his lackeys, and also the story of Professor Watanabe, who is developing a cure for “snout flu”, the canine epidemic that prompted Mayor Kobayashi to exile all dogs from the city.
All the different subplots are inextricably linked, and by the end of the film, intertwined in a way that reveals the film’s underlying message. Isle of Dogs is not just a quest for a lost dog; it is a compelling tale of the power of political propaganda, of the social and cultural ostracization it produces, as well as an appreciation for the simplest and most profound of relationships – the bond between a twelve-year-old boy and his dog.
The film’s depiction of the deliberate marginalisation of a social group by politicians is something not uncommon for contemporary viewers to see. The film draws many parallels between political hate campaigns throughout history, most notably the Holocaust and the relentless prosecution of the Jews by the Nazi party. Like the Nazis, the Kobayashi mayorship uses intense propaganda to turn citizens against a group in their society, in the film’s case canine pets who had previously been accepted and cherished. The film’s political message makes it all the more relevant to audiences today, as the case for inclusion and multiculturalism becomes an increasing focus and topic for debate in contemporary society. The call for the embrace of differences has never been stronger than it is today, with endless streams of stranded refugees looking for a better life, often barred by nationalist and xenophobic governments. Isle of Dogs champions the case for tolerance, for inclusion over ostracization and in simple terms, for love over hate.
As well as gushing praise for Anderson’s latest edition to his quirky collection of films, Isle of Dogs has also received some criticism for its lack of female heroines and purported cultural appropriation.
Anderson’s storytelling style, in general, is very character driven. As a result, his characters are almost all meticulously developed and given their own unique traits. Gender roles within his films, however, are not always completely balanced. To date, none of Anderson’s movies feature a female protagonist (besides Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom, but even then, the twelve-year-old girl is only one half of the unconventional relationship that drives the plot). If being hypercritical of Anderson one could argue that stronger female protagonists need to be showcased in his work, rather than his seasonal rotation of kohl-lined muses and disturbed teenage girls, all with romantic links to other male characters. However, I do believe that many of Anderson’s characters transcend the restrictions of gender, with all his male characters being vulnerable and heartfelt, unlike any other representations of the gender that I have ever seen. As a female, I have often found myself identifying with a range of Anderson’s characters, male and female, who more than conforming to any gender stereotypes, or challenging them, for that matter, encompass all the oddities and assets that underpin what it means to be human.
Also brought under fire has been the film’s portrayal of Japanese people, with some critics attacking the film for what they see as cultural appropriation. The character of Tracy Walker, for example, has been branded as a stereotypical white saviour role. However, as Japanese-American writer for the New Yorker, Moeko Fujii, notes, Tracy’s bold championing of the Pro-Dog cause is swiftly ended by higher powers. Tracy is a brave and innovative character for sure – but she is no saviour. And the Japanese characters need no saving. Young Atari is more than capable of escaping his guardian to search for his lost dog and is no way pigeonholed into the role of just another Japanese person. In fact, it is Atari and his profound relationships with the residents of the “isle of dogs” that drives the film’s plot and ultimately its resolution. To once again use the words of Moeko Fujii; “To say that the Wes Anderson film dehumanises the Japanese is to assume the primacy of an English-speaking audience.”
The director’s conscious artistic decision to abandon subtitles in favor of interpreters, or at times, no translation at all, only serves to strengthen the argument against cultural appropriation in Isle of Dogs. The lack of subtitles allows the creators of the film to encode certain message that will only be understood by a Japanese audience. The film also captures the subjective nature of translation, through the wide array of translation methods portrayed. Japanese dialogue is relayed to English speaking audiences via either an official translator, whose interjections of her personal opinion make her somewhat unreliable, a high school exchange student, whose fiery adolescent characteristics make her similarly unreliable and a translation machine, which gives the translations a sterile quality.
It seems the only reliable and intimate forms of communication are the emotional ones between Atari and the dogs of the film. In this way the film’s championing of tolerance and inclusivity is heightened and the lack of a shared language brings to light some profound ideas about human society. It seems Anderson is using his beloved dogs to illustrate a poignant point: dogs do not need language to communicate with us, and neither should humans need language to communicate with each other.
Perhaps we too, like the dogs of this film, should disregard the notion that language is a barrier, and take up the idea that fundamentally we are all the same, regardless of our cultural background or the society we have been brought up in.
Despite many political undertones, at its core Isle of Dogs is a story about the spiritual bond between man and man’s best friend. The plot takes you on an emotional ride, sometimes making you laugh and cry at the same time and will appeal even to those viewers who do not have an extensive knowledge of Anderson’s works. Isle of Dogs is the complete package: a poignant and entertaining plot, as well as a profound statement about human society. And what better way to make this statement than through the story of a band of scruffy yet loveable dogs?