Isle of Dogs (2018)
March 22, 2018 9:12 PM - Subscribe

Set in Japan, Isle of Dogs follows a boy's odyssey in search of his dog.

Vulture: Wes Anderson’s animated feature Isle of Dogs might be the most lyrically disjunctive movie ever made: Nothing fits together and everything harmonizes, magically. The animation is stop-motion, reportedly inspired by such TV perennials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but filtered through Kabuki and late, formal Akira Kurosawa epics like Kagemusha and Ran. It’s a series of moving paintings, tableaux vivants, a goofy dog comedy, a grim totalitarian allegory. It’s sui generis. It’s the damnedest thing.

Slant: Then again, Isle of Dogs is surprisingly bleak for an ostensible kids' film: Kobayashi's pro-dog scientist opponent is assassinated (a poisoning rebranded by news media as suicide), and three of the leading dog ensemble are incinerated in one of the island's processing plants (spoiler: they survive). Himself a throwback to the autocratic nationalists of imperial-era Japan, Kobayashi sends drones and robot dogs to the island to retrieve Atari and terrorize his newfound posse—and their sinister eyes and gnashing teeth could be modeled after Toho's Mechagodzilla from the 1970s.

These twee phantasmagorias are finer-grained in their references than Fantastic Mr. Fox or 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which stole from the still-underappreciated Soviet-bloc animators Ladislas Starevich and Karel Zeman, respectively), but the conditions of late capitalism worldwide are such that it's worth asking why Anderson had to set this fairy tale in the real-life country of Japan. Using feudal history (Kobayashi's hatred of dogs traces back to a feud between shogunates) and remixed anime tropes (the characters appear hand-drawn on TV screens and faux woodcuts), the film yields only aesthetic answers: The images may be rich, but their context is shallow.

NPR: As is often the case with Anderson's work, the movie's formalism is itself a refined pleasure, especially with its approach to language. Courtney B. Vance's stentorian voice-over is in English, and the dogs speak English, but all the Japanese human characters speak Japanese and are performed by Japanese actors. (Rankin, who was all of eight years old when he recorded his dialogue, is half-Japanese, born in Canada to a Japanese mother.) All onscreen text, including the credits and the judiciously deployed subtitles, is shown in English and Japanese, and when Anderson translates the Japanese speech, he uses a number of ingenious methods, including an onscreen interpreter voiced by Frances McDormand. Equally inventive is the way that all video feeds seen in this stop-motion world display hand-drawn animation.

LATimes: The ever-contentious subject of cultural appropriation has haunted "Isle of Dogs" since before its recent premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Anderson won a directing prize. Bluntly put, does this white American filmmaker's highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?

For what it's worth, every one of Anderson's films is an act of imaginative plundering — a crazy-quilt of popular touchstones and personal influences, tailored to a specific milieu, designed to flatter his sophistication and the viewer's as well. Anderson's appreciation of Japanese culture is nothing if not wide-ranging: While it's no surprise to see him repurpose screen painting and pagoda architecture as superior design elements, his movie shows an admirable willingness to embrace the weird, the unnerving and the grotesque. The movie’s darker allegory of persecution and internment isn’t hard to miss, though, and the dogs themselves, with their tactile tufts of fur and Buster Keaton eyes, have an endearing, complicated humanity. In these cotton-wooled times, Isle may be deemed too bleak for children, and a warning wouldn’t be entirely wrong; the story, for all its snowglobe-diorama enchantment, doesn’t swerve away from the more ragged realities of poisoned hearts and mangled paws. But the bittersweet singularity of its telling speaks to every creature, big and small.

The Ringer: Isle of Dogs is visually dynamic in a way that reminds you not only who directed this movie, but also who that director’s influences are. It’s the little things, like the way Anderson stylishly foregrounds characters looking out at the horizon, that feel blatantly borrowed from, among other sources, classic American Westerns, which had in turn borrowed more than a few tricks from overseas, in the movies of Kurosawa (Yojimbo and Seven Samurai being prime examples) and others. It’s the kind of cultural crosscurrent Anderson would love: Japan by way of America by way of Japan.

Is that problematic? We already know Anderson makes movies about, and arguably for, hipsters, and that his films have been subject to the same criticisms that plague hipster culture broadly—namely, the blind borrowing of other cultures and the effete cosmopolitan posturing that comes with it. I’ve tended to feel that the minority characters in Anderson’s movies aren’t ciphers, but rather testaments to who got there first: who invented the styles Anderson’s white characters are drawing from. The three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited are a mess of borrowed styles—one has literally copped random items of his dead father’s clothes—and never seem to be of any place in particular, being displaced in every possible way. They lack a center, which, in that movie, is a source of grief and confusion. That, to me, is the white hipster’s condition: rather than dominate any authentic culture or style, they are excluded from them all. It’s a condition of having to borrow. Hipsters can only ever approximate the cultures they mimic, and what I see in Anderson’s movies, with all their fussy production value and ornate style, is the same celebration of that hipsterish ability to curate an identity that everyone criticizing him sees. But I also see characters struggling to escape the inherent dissatisfaction of having to curate an identity, and that stands out. I love Anderson’s movies, but I’ve never really envied the people in them.

Rolling Stone: It's art cinema instilled with a child's sense of wonder – which is also true of of the quirky auteur's live-action films, from Rushmore to The Grand Budapest Hotel. Following 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson returns to stop-motion and puppets, but this time with a deep bow to Japan and its iconography. Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu are sampled frequently. Cultural appropriation? Maybe, but it works like a charm.

Variety: Either way, Anderson’s Japanophilia is intricately expressed, as present in the film’s unexpected, tensely deliberate pacing — in which the director’s professed debt to Kurosawa doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it sounds. It’s more blatant in Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully sparse, louring score, which sounds like precisely nothing else the melodically inclined Frenchman has ever composed before — setting the whole film on edge, the soundtrack blends a steady tremble of Taiko drumming with, of all things, the occasional interpolation of Prokofiev’s “Troika.” “Why not?” appears to have been the guiding principle behind much of “Isle of Dogs,” and it serves the film well more often than not.

Vox: That Anderson finds inspiration in the work of many Japanese directors isn’t all that surprising, given how he favors precision and symmetry. In this film, he’s taken it further, drawing on Japanese styles of theater, illustration, and storytelling for a tale about a pack of dogs and a little boy in search of a place to belong.

How you feel about the film’s employment of Japanese culture likely depends on how well you feel Anderson succeeds at paying homage to those films rather than just using them for his own devices. I think it sometimes succeeds — largely because the film makes the choice to have most of its Japanese characters speak in Japanese, sometimes with an interpreter (voiced by Frances McDormand), and sometimes without.


Barks Office Report: What It’s Like Watching ‘Isle Of Dogs’ With Your Dog

‘Isle of Dogs’ Production Team Dove Into Japanese Art and Culture

"Isle of Dogs": Wes Anderson and the Problem of Evil

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs Sparks Cultural Appropriation Controversy

Isle of Dogs Opens Up an Interesting Conversation About Appropriation
posted by MoonOrb (37 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can someone tell me if bad things happen to dogs? I like Wes Anderson a lot and loved Fantastic Mr Fox but the trailers for this looked really upsetting. The dogs were so hungry and fighting over food! I don't mind spoilers--if bad things happen to dogs I am not seeing this.
posted by leesh at 12:14 PM on March 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I Love Dogs!
posted by mochapickle at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

leesh -- If that's a concern for you, did you know that there's a whole site devoted to answering that and related questions for many movies?
Does the dog die?
posted by Nerd of the North at 8:14 PM on March 23, 2018 [10 favorites]

I might be getting a skewed view because a friend of mine is not only an LA Times film critic but is also of Japanese ancestry, but it seems the PoC film Twitter peeps are not down with the protrayal of the Japanese characters at all.
posted by sideshow at 11:01 PM on March 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Why is this movie set in Japan? We're not sure either. It has a white savior character. Yuck. I usually like Wes Anderson movies, but this is a HARD PASS from me.
posted by xtine at 10:29 AM on March 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

I saw it today. Spoilers.

I thought it was OK, but the critique about cultural appropriation and white savior characters are unfortunately pretty true. Japan is a modern country that is more than the sum of its parts most often adopted by Western media, but unfortunately a lot of that is present here. Anderson is skilled enough so that it's not as noticeable as when a less skilled artist uses these lazy shortcuts, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still there.

The characters also have problems. As mentioned, Tracy is a weird character, who seems to exist solely to provide an American, English-speaking perspective to the human side of the story (since Atari is over on the dog island, and the conceit of no sub-titles means that we only have translations when it's diegetically sensible to put the translator character in there). The movie does fall into two odd stereotypes that Tracy 'overcomes' in her host culture: strict honor codes, and also timidity. I've seen these same stereotypes used in Japanese produced media, but since that is coming from within the culture, I think it takes on a different valence. If the solution wasn't "an American character solves these problems", then I don't know that it would've been a problem here, since a large part of the theme is about our reactions to authority.

At the end, Tracy also seems to be a sort of prize for Atari, just as Nutmeg is a prize for Chief, and neither one of those relationships really feels earned or organic.

At the same time, the villain's villainy (and cat affinity) is also pretty vague. That's less of a problem, but it seems like the movie's biggest flaw is its human characters.

I guess the other side of that is that this is a great movie in a technical sense. The stop-motion animation is some of the best I've seen, there are playful uses of practical effects that are funny and beautiful, and the set design is gorgeous.

The plot, aside from character problems, is a good adventure story. Anderson manages to tie together 3 different strands together in a way that never feels rushed or cluttered. The movie flew by, and I felt that it was the perfect length to tell its story.

I dunno, it was pretty good, but I wish it was way better, and it's hard to excuse the really messy to Japanese culture for technical ability. I'd put it a bit above Darjeeling (which has a lot of the same problems), but it's far from my favorite Anderson film, and not a great follow-up to Grand Budapest.
posted by codacorolla at 7:37 PM on March 24, 2018 [9 favorites]

Thank you for that codacorolla, I've been trying to decide if I'm going to go see this one or not.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:01 PM on March 24, 2018

Leesh - the basic premise involves dogs who are sick from a terrible disease so every dog at the very least looks obviously sick and hurt.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:17 PM on March 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It is going to be in Baltimore for ONE DAY tomorrow. Is this some sort of weird special run before a general audience run, or do I need to dash out and see it tomorrow??
posted by ubiquity at 8:32 AM on March 26, 2018

Wikipedia says it's slated for wide release April 6th, so you're probably safe.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:44 AM on March 26, 2018

Previously from September 2017.

Saw it on Sunday. Hot take: This is Wes Anderson's Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will. Brilliant filmmaking with racism at its core.
posted by larrybob at 11:55 AM on March 26, 2018

Satire from Philip Huang: Isle of Dogs Gets Asian Culture Wrong.
posted by larrybob at 2:11 PM on March 28, 2018

I hear a lot about appropriation or representation of Japanese culture, but does the film make any attempts to actually criticize the culture or is it just taking elements of it for aesthetics?
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:30 PM on March 29, 2018

In the worst case, I think you could interpret the film as deliberately caricaturing Japanese culture as totalitarian and/or overly conformist — the plot revolves around a local politician exiling all of the dogs in a Japanese metropolis to a nearby landfill island. The politician comes off as a megalomaniac and the populace as easily cowed, so it's not a great look. It would be a better look overall if Anderson hadn't scripted in an American exchange student as one of the heroes of the film's third act, but, sigh.

Still a finely made movie in many ways, but Anderson doesn't seem to have a real feeling for Japanese culture beyond his reverential references to Kurosawa films. Which represent, themselves, only a mere fraction of Japanese cinema tradition, though they're arguably the best-known exemplars. I mean, clearly Anderson intends this to be entirely respectful, but he's not the best judge.

I thought Emily Yoshida at Vulture did pretty good work in tracking down native Japanese speakers who had seen the film to ask how it played to them.
posted by Mothlight at 1:22 PM on March 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

There's more than Kurusawa. There are references to famous artists, bunraku, woodcuts, and more.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:00 AM on March 30, 2018

Yes, lots of visual inspiration from art of the Edo period, and then there are the anime-style graphics that appear on video screens, too. One of Anderson's production designers mentioned that they looked at Naruse, Suzuki, and (I think) Ozu films, too, so a lot of that stuff may have made it into the set design. I guess I feel like the primary cinematic reference is straight-up Seven Samurai but I'll enjoy checking myself when I watch it again.
posted by Mothlight at 8:22 AM on March 30, 2018

At the end, Tracy also seems to be a sort of prize for Atari, just as Nutmeg is a prize for Chief, and neither one of those relationships really feels earned or organic.

That was crazymaking. Like - Nutmeg couldn't have even come along on the adventure and gotten to know Chief a little better? Tracy had to get a huge crush on Atari before even meeting him?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:06 AM on April 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, even in terms of underdeveloped Anderson female characters, those two relationships stood out.
posted by codacorolla at 5:28 PM on April 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really liked this film. If you are a dog person, I think you will like this film as well. It's mostly a cute story about a dog forming a bond with a human, from the dog's point of view.
posted by spudsilo at 9:56 AM on April 4, 2018

I took my family last night and we absolutely loved it. Second only to Black Panther it was easily one of our favorite movies of the year. At dinner, I brought up the concept of cultural appropriation with my two kids (12 and 14), after first defining it. They were confused by why it was wrong when it seemed so respectful and done with obvious admiration and affection. They also asked about all the Japanese names in the credits and how it could be wrong with so many Japanese people working on the film. They both have loved anime for years and Japanese food and culture. They asked if they should stop eating Japanese food and drawing their own anime characters. My younger kid is even teaching herself Japanese and asked if that was wrong. I told them I didn't think it was, but to keep in mind the issues appropriation creates.

Frankly, afterward, I felt like a real asshole for ever bringing it up. I inadvertently took a dump all over something they really loved. It was one movie we all loved intensely and I went and shit all over that feeling with my little lesson on sensitivity. It kind of bummed them out. If I had it all to do over again I'd probably have let them learn about the concept through some other example.
posted by Stanczyk at 3:08 AM on April 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I assume Professor Watanabe in his sunglasses is a visual reference to the comedian Tamori.
posted by Grangousier at 4:12 PM on April 8, 2018

Perhaps before quizzing your kids about cultural appropriation you should've taken some time to understand it yourself.
posted by codacorolla at 12:40 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I didn't quiz them on it. I relayed to them the fact that people were bringing it up in regard to this movie. Are you implying that I don't know what it is?
posted by Stanczyk at 12:43 PM on April 9, 2018

I agree that this was a beautifully crafted movie with some really problematic (racist, sexist) elements. The soundtrack was really well done - very spare in places, down to just a single wood block.

It's strange and disappointing really, because there's no reason the story had to be framed as taking place in Japan.
posted by jeoc at 9:10 AM on April 14, 2018

It's strange and disappointing really, because there's no reason the story had to be framed as taking place in Japan.

Well, except that Wes Anderson doesn't wake up and decide to make a movie about dogs, and then choose where to place it. This - and the last couple-few of his films - are more about design than narrative. It feels like almost a game of making the stories and characters as thin and arbitrary as possible, to demonstrate the degree to which visual style and context can re-inflate them. It's not a dog movie which happens to be set in Japan, it's a movie about Japanese design which happens to be about dogs.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:56 PM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some of the last few links in the comments on the thread on the Blue suggest why it's set in Japan.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:09 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I saw it tonight, a week after I returned from my first trip to Japan.

I had two thoughts while watching the credits:

1) It was very problematic, but at least there were a lot of Japanese artists who worked on it and were credited (ha ha no that’s not true at all).

2) On a Wes Anderson production, the “junior grip” is probably a precocious 12 year-old in a smart uniform who leads the department.
posted by chrchr at 10:12 PM on April 22, 2018

Making the assumption that no Japanese people contributed, or if they did, they were children, really minimizes the contribution of those who did.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:30 AM on April 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

There were Japanese voice talents, however, there is little if any Japanese contribution behind the camera, and that is what I observed while watching the credits. No writing credits. No production credits. No production design or art direction credits. To the extent that Japanese artists were involved in the conception and production of this film, they went uncredited. However, I do not wish to minimize the role that Japanese artists did play in this film and I thank you for pointing it out.

My joke about precocious 12 year-olds applies to any Wes Anderson film.
posted by chrchr at 8:11 AM on April 23, 2018

Kunichi Nomura got co-writer and casting director credits.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Okay, let’s try again: I was excited to come here to discuss the film after finally seeing it yesterday. I am disappointed with its treatment here, where the majority of comments were made before the commenters in question even saw the film.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 10:28 AM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

The thread on the Blue (linked above) had more balanced comments. If you haven't checked that out yet, Barack Spinoza, you might be interested. Particularly towards the tail end after people had had a chance to watch it and articles were linked.
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:07 AM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the heads up!
posted by Barack Spinoza at 11:25 AM on May 17, 2018

Okay, let’s try again: I was excited to come here to discuss the film after finally seeing it yesterday. I am disappointed with its treatment here, where the majority of comments were made before the commenters in question even saw the film.

That's pretty disingenuous. At least half the comments are from people who obviously saw the film and of the rest, several are from people asking about the film. That doesn't equal a majority commenting on the film without seeing it.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:10 PM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sorry about that. Disingenuous is a little strong. I disagree with your assessment of the thread but there is obviously a difference between criticism and dumping on something that hasn’t been watched.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:12 AM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

You’re right: “majority” was hyperbole and I regret using it.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 11:13 AM on May 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I finally got around to watching this, I was surprisingly disappointed with it, I think it's on the same tier as the only other of his films I've disliked, The Darjeeling Limited. It felt pretty incoherent and flat. Ugh, plus yeah it really came across poorly to me that the foreign exchange student is the only one who could do anything.
posted by Carillon at 9:54 PM on December 31, 2021

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