I love dogs
Wes Anderson's newest film is a stylistic masterpiece and a sophisticated homage to Japanese aesthetics
What a film to look at. Isle Of Dogs, like other Wes Anderson films, is good or great or exhausting depending on how much you're willing to hitch a ride with the filmmaker's obsessive visual construction -- his rich, gorgeous, twee, peculiar, fetishising tableau; in this particular case, a handsome indulgence in Japanese aesthetics.
All canine-lovers will want to see Isle Of Dogs (not so much cat-lovers, but still), and though this stop-motion picture won't send you out skipping all the way to your miniature doll house like, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is a feast of deadpan jokes and pictorial innovation that certainly entertains the eyes (and also the ears).
Set in Japan, or a fantasy Japan, Isle Of Dogs is about a pack of dogs fighting canine annihilation masterminded by the Toshiro Mifune-lookalike mayor of Megasaki. Dog-hating and cat-adoring, the fascist mayor decides that, in order to cure the "canine saturation problem" as well as dog flu and snout fever that threaten to infect humans, all mutts and pooches must be banished to Trash Island and rot amid industrial waste. The mayor's orphaned relative Atari (Koyu Rankin), however, ventures to the island in his one-seat propeller plane to rescue his pet/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). After a crash landing, the boy's quest to save Spots is joined by other dogs of various breeds and accents: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) have their own little roles to play.
And there's more -- Frances McDormand as Interpreter Nelson, Ken Watanabe as Head Surgeon, Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker and even Yoko Ono as assistant scientist Yoko Ono. A Wes Anderson movie is always teeming with stars, people, animals, voices, characters, flashbacks, subplots, sight gags, digressions, puns, references, in-jokes and cultural antics; in this film the screen is also crowded by text, in English and Japanese (plus Thai subtitles). Anderson's genius lies in his ability to sort out this rich catalogue of visual information, trivial or essential, to create a cinematic storybook that serves his geeky vision. Isle Of Dogs doesn't have the ironic edge or underlying melancholy that drives some of his best films (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), but in terms of style it's perhaps one of his most accomplished.
Here, most human characters speak Japanese -- sometimes with no subtitles -- while the dogs (or their barks) are in English. Isle Of Dogs is, of course, an American film directed by an American with key crew members American and, yet, with a large team of Japanese in backroom roles, including the Japanese dialogue writers. Since its premiere in February, the film has weathered an accusation of "whitewashing" and "white saviour complex" -- one of the eventual key characters is an American exchange student, freckled and idealistic, who rallies her Japanese classmates to rise up for the "under-dogs" and against the Mayor's extermination plans. Not to mention the near-fetishisation of Japanese aesthetics and culture.
You could see it that way, as some of the liberal American press tends to do, though at the same time, doing so would also constitute an illiberal gripe on cross-cultural curiosity. No doubt cases of cultural appropriation and exploitation abound -- especially when artists from "richer" countries poke their heads into poorer ones; just look at some of the foreign films shot in Thailand -- but in Isle Of Dogs, it's obvious that Anderson reveres Japanese aesthetics and respects the country's cultural riches (which are definitely more plentiful than where he is from). He didn't just pluck out conspicuous symbols of Japonism and serve them up for the privileged American viewer; instead, he reached back to Japan's art and film history, studied its contemporary life, sought help from local experts, and then processed it all through his own obsessions and technical skills. It is a gesture of respect -- playful respect, but respect all the same. And if that qualifies as the crime of appropriation, I wouldn't hesitate a second to see Anderson doing the same with Thailand.