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Yes, Wes Anderson’s 'Isle of Dogs' Is Problematic — But It’s Also About Dogs!

Throwing out everything that smacks of privilege is hard to do when faced with a sweet film about love and loyalty.

By Dorothy Woodend 30 Mar 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

If you’ve ever loved a dog, met a dog, or played one on TV, then you will want to see Wes Anderson’s new canine opus Isle of Dogs.

You might look at dogs in quite a different fashion after seeing this film. I kept expecting them to open their mouths (snouts) and the voices of Bill Murray or Jeff Goldblum to pop out. But setting aside from the idea that dogs seem to rob human beings of their rational faculties, is Isle of Dogs a loving homage to Japanese cinema or another romp in the park for cultural appropriation?

This is a complicated question for an increasingly complex age.

Charges of myopic white privilege have been levelled against Anderson before, and they take on added weight in Isle of Dogs, with every single cliché about Japanese culture coming thick and fast. Sumo — check! Yakuza — yes! Ramen noodles — present and accounted for! Anderson maintains that the film is a tribute to the films and filmmakers he loves, most notably Kurosawa. But in this particular moment, the line between love and abuse is a thin one.

But before we get to the sticky stuff, it’s important to note what is good and great about the film, which is considerable. This is a generous, overflowing beast of a movie, brimming with luscious beauty. One is tempted to simply lap it up, to sniff every crotch corner of the frame for particularly delicious morsels. And, they are everywhere, crammed into the edges, sidling in for attention, butting your hand to make you pay attention and give them some love.

Isle of Dogs is also a return to the world of stop-motion animation that so beguiled in Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Like this earlier film, Dogs is twee on top, with something darker lurking underneath. It is a fallen world that we humans have created, not just for ourselves, but for all other living things as well, beginning with our very best friends, the doggies.

So, where to begin? How about a few centuries earlier in feudal (fictional) Japan? As, our shaggy narrator kindly informs us, in the age of the Samurai, two tribal factions went to war. Mortal adversaries — cats and dogs, and their human minions battled for hearts and minds. The outcome was a beheading of the cat-sanctioned champion, and the rise of a Boy Samurai and his bosom canine companion. Ever since that fateful day, the cats have plotted their revenge. (Isn’t that just like cats?)

Flash forward a few centuries, and the war has broken out again. Dogs have overrun Megasaki City, and this population surge has led to an itchy rash of dog-related issues, such as ticks, fleas, and the dreaded snout fever. Mayor Kobayashi declares a state of emergency and banishes all mutts, pedigreed show dogs, and even family pets to the barren wastelands of Trash Island. This state of exile begins with Spots (Liev Schreiber), his nephew’s beloved guard dog, much to the horror of 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin).

All of this history is revealed in a series of extended flash backs. But as soon as everyone has been brought up to speed, the plot trots off, following its nose towards some unknown destination.

Even as the people in power are arguing about the merits of the canine internment, the kids are taking direct action. Young Atari steals a plane, and beelines it for Trash Island. A little crash-landing later, and he makes the acquaintance of some local mutts including Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), who bites, as he likes to remind everyone. The dogs, abandoned by their owners and masters, are largely a good lot. They fight over scraps, and occasionally rip the living shit out of each other, but the majority of their time is spent taking votes, like any good cooperative, and reminiscing about their favourite foods.

After his bravura entrance, Atari is a little worse for wear. In addition to a rather impressive shiner, he has various cuts and bruises, as well as a chunk of metal embedded in his skull. But the power of his plight unites boy and dogs, and off they set, this motley crew, in search of the missing Spots.

Meanwhile back on the Mainland, Mayor Kobayashi is up to no good. Having killed off the only scientist able to conjure a cure for the terrible dog flu, Kobayashi is busily ensuring his pussified agenda is carried out by various members of the civic government, as well as the Yakuza underworld.

As the relationship between Chief and Atari gradually blossoms, we are greeted to the many horrors that the human race has visited upon the planet and its other residents. Trash Island is a ruined world. Animal testing facilities are only the beginning, there are trash incinerators, radioactive sludge ponds, and everywhere you look entire mountains made out of garbage. But even in a wasteland, beauty finds a way.

Here is where, Mr. Anderson goes to town. Isle of Dogs is a deeply beautiful film, so embroidered with endless interesting details that your eye wants to linger in every shot, tarrying long, tracing all of the colour and shapes. Certain things leap out: a shelter constructed out of coloured sake bottles that glitters like a stained-glass window, or an abandoned amusement park, grown shabby and sad. Has garbage ever looked more lovely and charming?

Trash Island is a little like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, wherein little boys were shape-shifted into donkey form, due to bad deeds and general misbehaviour. But in Anderson’s story, the Island has a way of bringing out the best in both man and beast. Cooperation, loyalty, perseverance, courage and love — yes, that stuff — come to the fore, even as the authorities with all of their robo-dogs, poison gas, hooks and nets are closing in.

If you were expecting a tidy and concise creature, you’re in the wrong movie. Plot-wise the film is a shaggy beast, filled with flashbacks, sidetracks and long meandering dog-legged trips that inch the story forward, and then back again.

The duality of Anderson’s films, like his carefully bifurcated screens, often comes down to a split between freedom and control. The two things do battle throughout Isle of Dogs as well, specifically in the figure of Chief, a former stray, who is driven to bite the hand that feeds him, quite literally. Even as his fellow canines are happy to embrace the confines of human bondage, Chief stands alone, a lone wolf, er, dog. Add in a couple of romantic subplots, involving Chief and a glamorous show dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), as well as the presence of a tow-headed exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) and you have enough plot for about 15 films, but Anderson ropes in a few more twisty bits involving the rise of student protesters, the fragility of the democratic process and the nature of loyalty.

So, will the underdogs have their day? Will love between man and beast triumph over evil? Is it still OK to love something that is problematic?

The controversy that has dogged (heh) the film is well-warranted, and yet, there is much to treasure here. Not the least of which is the love between animals and people, but also between filmmakers and the auteurs they love. But where does homage stray into uneasy territory?

As a number of critics have pointed out, the world created in Isle of Dogs isn’t really Japan, it is Wes Anderson world, a place that has little relationship with the actual world. Borrowing from other films and cultures has long been a licence given to film auteurs. But perhaps, the licence has now been revoked.

Much has been made lately about whether the age of the auteur is indeed over. This notion however, pertains largely to male white filmmakers of a certain age. Terry Gilliam, Michael Haneke, Woody Allen, among others. While Anderson hasn’t been implicated in quite the same fashion, as some folk have also pointed out, Dogs includes a veritable superstar list of whitewashing candidates from Tilda Swinton to Scarlett Johansson. Whereas all of the characters, voiced by white actors, are allowed to talk in their usual way, the same privilege is denied the Japanese cast, who are presented in different forms of translation. Add in the presence of a white heroine, who galvanizes her fellow student-activists, and you’ve got some issues.

Anderson must have anticipated that some of his choices were highly questionable. A fuzzy-headed freckled white teen (voiced by Greta Gerwig) choking a Japanese scientist (voiced by Yoko Ono) may not have been the best idea. But, there is no clearer definition of privilege than thinking just because you want to do it, it should be done.

But here’s the tricky part: throwing out everything that smacks of privilege is hard to do. Not only because love has multiple tentacles — tear off one suckery arm, and there is another one to take its place — but also because it feels like something of a slippery slope.

I am happy to jettison certain filmmakers, and really the idea of never seeing another Woody Allen film fills me with perfect happiness. But it gets far more complicated with filmmakers like Cassavetes, Bergman or Hitchcock. And, also Wes Anderson.

Even, as I was watching Isle of Dogs, registering where things were a bit troubling, I was still smitten with the beauty of the thing. As a filmmaker, Anderson has built his brand on an ornate, almost baroque attention to the visual pleasures of detail, precision and symmetry. There is so much to be loved here, artistry, craft and vision.

Beauty, itself, is a seductive thing, and part of you wants to capitulate, to let your senses be ravished, to drown in the gorgeously constructed, artfully assembled glory of it all. Isle of Dogs, it must also be stated, is a film about dogs, and anyone who has ever spent much time with these creatures knows that a set of beseeching eyes inside a furry face has a way of a circumventing all rationality. Still, any audience with a degree of maturity can hold multiple feelings and reactions to a film inside their head, with only a little gentle juggling.

But can you really extricate that which is good from that which is problematic? Certainly! And, perhaps, it was ever thus. But it involves some discomfiting conversations, occasional awkwardness and embarrassment, as well as being called out on your own privilege. In a number of conversations with other women lately, I have felt insufficiently militant about my choices. It is not fun feeling like a Vichy France Feminist. In the discussions happening around Isle of Dogs, critics like Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have made the most salient points. It is well-worth seeking out a diversity of ideas and opinions, in order to question and sometimes reframe your own reactions.

Still, there is so much that is rich and strange in the film that cannot be denied. And at its fuzzy heart, there is a sweetness that stays with you, assuaging some of the more boneheaded bits. All of the things that dogs invoke in humans — courage, honour and a certain kind of purity — I cannot give those up for the life of me.

Animation explained

If you’d like a peek inside the inner workings of the wonderful world of stop-motion animation, VIFF/Vancity is offering two workshops with the Isle of Dogs lead storyboard artist, Jay Clarke, on Thursday, April 12 and Friday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Annex (823 Seymour St.).

As the nice people at VIFF explain: “Jay Clarke, who already collaborated with Anderson on Grand Budapest Hotel, charts his collaboration with the visionary auteur from development through later phases of the production. Mapping his journey from the storyboards through a live drawing session on the big screen, Clarke reveals his sources of inspiration, his philosophies of drawing and how he imbues his animated creations in films with human emotions.”  [Tyee]

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