Nearly nine years after the success of his charming heist flick Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson returns to stop-motion animation and tales of untamed yet lovable animals with Isle of Dogs. With this original story set in a dystopian Japan, the acclaimed filmmaker steps out of his comfort zone, creating an adventure that’s whimsical, bittersweet, and uncomfortably problematic.
Set in a not-so-distant future, Isle of Dogs follows a crisis in Japan. The dangerous Dog Flu has broken out. To contain it, mirthless Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to toxic wasteland called Trash Island. There, a pack of self-proclaimed “alpha dogs” work together to fight for food scraps and survive. But they’re given new purpose when a 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) arrives in search of his beloved pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Despite the grumbling of Chief (Bryan Cranston)–a gruff stray who distrusts humans–this pugnacious pack agrees to help Atari on his quest, which will force them to journey through Trash Island’s most dangerous terrains. Meanwhile, on the mainland, American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) seeks to overturn the mayor’s banishment dictate through pro-dog protests and an investigation into his shady dealings.
When on the eponymous island, Isle of Dogs is enchanting. Anderson brings in familiar members of his repertoire–like Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray–to lend their voices and warm charisma to these colorful canines. Bryan Cranston delivers a growling heartbreak as the suspicious stray who’s quick to fight and bite but doesn’t know why. Scarlett Johansson pops by as a flirtatious show dog, and Tilda Swinton steals scenes as the future-predicting pug named Oracle. The animation’s aesthetic paints these not as flawlessly cute pups, but scruffy and eccentric creatures. Which gives this quirky adventure a more sophisticated feel, as does Anderson’s signature symmetrical framing, and surprisingly dark stakes that include the threat of cannibal canines, starvation, and other gruesome ends.
Where Isle of Dogs falls apart is in the realm of men. The opening title cards explain all the dogs’ dialogue has been “translated” into English, justifying the use of Anderson’s chosen voice cast. Meanwhile, all of the human Japanese characters speak in their native tongue. Rather than providing subtitles, Anderson has Frances McDormand play an interpreter, who translates what the mayor and his opponents say in town hall meetings and talk show appearances. But in the case of Atari on the island, his speech is not translated at all. So, English-speaking audiences–like the alpha dogs–are left to guess at what the boy’s saying from the context of the situation and his enigmatic facial expressions.
Isle of Dogs clip
I suspect Anderson intended this choice as a sign of respect to Japanese culture. But this language barrier distances English-speaking audiences from the Japanese characters, othering them in a story about them. Worse yet, Anderson’s one-note depictions paint the Japanese characters as either noble, sneaky, or obsessed with honor, with each attribute leaning into tired Japanese stereotypes. Meanwhile, the plucky American girl Tracy gets to communicate in terms the English-speaking audience can understand, while she chastises the Japanese politicians and culture she finds flawed. Though Atari is the hero of this quest narrative, it’s Tracy and the dogs who set the terms through which we see Anderson’s fictional Japan. And like Anderson, their perspective is of an outsider looking in.
Anderson clearly regards Japan with awe, presenting elements of its art and culture like Kabuki Theater, sumo wrestling, and sushi making with beautifully details scenes that invite audiences to share in his wonderment. However, Japan as a setting of Isle of Dogs becomes problematic when he twists it to seem strange or sinister so it plays as a suitably exotic backdrop for his fantastical tale. Sumo wrestlers and sushi are weaponized as tools of the malevolent mayor. Dogs and cats are folded into a fictional of Japanese war as well as the paintings of Katsushika Hokusai. And with each appropriation, the charm of Anderson’s talking dogs wears thin.
Often when we talk about misappropriating Japanese culture, we’re talking about whitewashed anime adaptations like Ghost in the Shell or Death Note. Isle of Dogs is unusual in that it’s an original story that isn’t whitewashing roles or treating Japanese culture and its people only as set dressing. The film’s dedicated attention to details, from the movement of the sumo wrestlers, to the crafting of stop-motion raw tuna, to the inclusion of Japanese talent like Akira Takayama, Akira Ito, and Yoko Ono, speaks to Anderson’s earnestness to pay respect to a culture I genuinely believe he admires. But it’s unsettling how this white American director cherry-picked Japanese culture to coat his latest tale of strained family ties and a ragtag quest in an unexpected flavor. Anderson might mean Isle of Dogs as a romantic homage, but the result feels culturally insensitive at best.
As much as I enjoyed the idiosyncratic and tender tale about making friends in a hopeless place, Anderson’s outsider perspective kept Isle of Dogs from being transporting, and left it troubling.
Isle of Dogs made its North American Premiere at the SXSW Conference. It opens in theaters March 23rd
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com