Isle of Dogs checks many boxes on director Wes Anderson’s list of trademark quirks. As usual, his characters speak in an overly mannered, forthright way. The film revels in deadpan acting beats and sight gags. The visuals are incredibly detailed and arranged into perfect compositions. As in Fantastic Mr. Fox, stop-motion animation allows Anderson to indulge his enthusiasm for controlling every single element of an image. These are the things audiences have come to expect of the director, and such habits have earned him devoted fans and detractors alike. Every new Anderson film seems to fuel the fiery disagreement between these camps. Isle of Dogs, though, comes with an added wrinkle: Anderson’s depiction of Japan, both in its setting and aesthetics.
Anderson worked with multiple Japanese and Japanese-American collaborators in the film, most notably his friend Kunichi Nomura, who helped him develop the story and cast the voice actors, and who also voices the villain, Mayor Kobayashi. An affection for Japanese culture shows through in references to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the artworks of Hokusai, and even Mechagodzilla. Granted, those examples are somewhat obvious touchstones, but the movie also includes myriad smaller ones, not just in terms of pop culture but also in the attention paid to the specifics of milieus like homes and classrooms. One standout sequence shows the (literally) raw materials of sushi being chopped, rolled, brushed, and arranged into a meal. The film’s creators clearly tried hard to transcend mere cultural appropriation, in favor of a sincere homage to its influences. Good intentions don’t automatically generate good results, though. How well Isle of Dogs pulls off its “tribute” has been, and will continue to be, the subject of some debate.
Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs deals with fascism and oppression. In place of a cutesy vision of Eastern Europe, Anderson depicts a semi-futuristic Japan, specifically the city of “Megasaki,” where dogs are the city’s oppressed minority. There is anti-dog propaganda, a dog concentration camp, and even a gas-based dog final solution. (It’s questionable whether these details are in good taste.) Using the excuses of overpopulation and an outbreak of “canine flu,” the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi exiles the city’s entire population of good boys and good girls to Trash Island, where they scrounge for survival among urban detritus.
Isle of Dogs sets specific, curious conventions for its use of language. A speech barrier separates the dogs from the humans of Megasaki. With a few exceptions, the human characters all speak in untranslated Japanese, while the dogs’ barks are “translated” into English. (Most of the film is seen from the point of view of the dogs, so the majority of its spoken word is in English.) The Japanese dialogue is never translated with subtitles. Even though these are Japanese dogs, this gives the movie a decidedly outsider perspective. Establishing cross-species communication — and generating empathy for their scapegoated species — is the main challenge facing the dogs as they try to help a human boy find his lost companion.
In the press notes for the movie, Anderson states that his reason for eschewing subtitles was that “subtitles didn’t seem that fun … When you’re reading subtitles, you’re really focused on the subtitles all through the movie and you don’t listen to the language as much.” He added that in Isle of Dogs, “You don’t understand the words, but you understand the emotion.” Many fans of foreign film would vociferously disagree with this. But even setting that aside, Anderson frequently cheats his own creative constraint.
While speech goes untranslated, titles are often employed to explain written text on signs or documents — even though, in nearly every case, the context makes it reasonably evident what they say. And then there are the scenes set in Megasaki’s “Municipal Dome,” which have an English translator (voiced by Frances McDormand) on hand to interpret the lengthier speeches and exchanges. It’s an unmistakable admission that the audience does, in fact, need to know what’s being said to engage with this story. I’m not sure how a foreign figure literally talking over the Japanese characters is less distracting than subtitles, or how it is supposed to help the viewer “understand the emotion.”
A certain amount of detachment is part of Anderson’s style — his frequent ultra-wide shots, the purposefully stiff acting and deadpan line deliveries, the ironic humor. He usually grounds this in genuine empathy for his characters, but the inconsistent use of language here adds an extra wall. Using animals in race-related allegories is always a dicey proposition, since animals fundamentally differ by species vastly more than humans differ by ethnicity or culture, and real-world racist propaganda often depicts minorities as animals. Having the dogs speak English lets a presumed Western audience relate to them, but ironically, the movie in many ways turns the Japanese characters into an Other, even though it’s about reconciliation between different groups and pays lip service to Japanese culture. We are kept at arm’s length from them, and the sporadic use of an interpreter doesn’t bridge that distance so much as accentuate it. In this sense, the film’s form undermines its intent.