Film Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a film that deliberately, designedly invites questions about meaning and intent. It feels like it’s set out to leave its audience puzzled; to make you go, “what the hell was that?” as you leave the cinema.

(I mean: I am a very occasional cinema-goer, so it doesn’t take much to make me go “what the hell was that?” as I leave the cinema. I am, perhaps, not quite the intended audience for Isle of Dogs. But then I’m not sure who is.)

A stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs‘ premise is this: after dog flu sweeps Megasaki City, Japan, the disturbingly Trumpian Mayor Kobayashi orders that every dog in the city be exiled to Trash Island, a vast rubbish dump a short plane-hop from the mainland. Kobayashi’s twelve-year-old ward Atari, bereft of his beloved bodyguard Spots, steals a plane and flies to the island to rescue his companion – during the course of which heartwarming mission he meets a quartet of lovable canines, including the actually-not-very-lovable stray Chief, and hatches a plan to bring the dogs back to the city.

The film’s main gimmick – almost the only thing I knew about it before I saw it – is that the Japanese human characters speak mainly unsubtitled Japanese, while the dogs and a couple of white characters, including an American transfer student dedicated to uncovering corruption in Kobayashi’s government, speak English. This makes the film sound more difficult – in the sense of “inaccessible to Anglophone audiences” – than it actually is: much of the Japanese is “translated” (or so we can only assume) by those white characters, or, much less commonly, by an AI translator.

Obviously, there’s a wealth of identity politics to unpack in all that, but before I dive into those murky, weighty waters, a couple of other ways Isle of Dogs resists audience expectation:

Mainly, this is an animated animal film that’s not aimed even indirectly at children. I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes it Not a Children’s Film: there’s no sex, no gore (well, a bit, but I am a wimp compared to most six-year-olds), no swearing. There is a scene where we’re told that a dog has starved to death in a cage, which is pretty upsetting, I guess. But, mostly, there’s a kind of hard-bitten bleakness to the film that makes it feel distinctively adult. These dogs are not cute dogs – not in the way that children’s animal films like Madagascar and Ice Age (both franchises filled with animals – woolly mammoths, penguins – who have no business being cute but which nevertheless manage to be) have primed us to expect. They are wiry and cynical, like gunslingers (the film makes the comparison explicit). Their muzzles are scarred. They sneeze unpleasantly. They bite. And Trash Island? Trash Island is a place not even the most dedicated salvagepunk could love. Think the polluted Earth of Wall-E, without Pixar’s sentimental, softening touch. Think mountain ranges of rubbish and rusting, polluted factories where nothing grows that isn’t poisoned. Think the real Trash Island, the great floating rubbish patch in the Pacific.

In other words: this is a film that capitalises on all the jerky uglinesses of stop-motion animation to look a the uglinesses of what human cities do to their environments and to the animals who coexist with and depend on humanity.

But it’s also a film problematised by its ending – in which Mayor Kobayashi admits that he’s suppressed evidence of a cure for dog flu in a sentimental re-election speech to his supporters, and passes the mayoralty to Atari on the basis of an obscure and frankly incredible piece of legislation. It’s a fairytale ending that undermines the cynicism of the film. It gives us an easy way out of environmental damage and irresponsibility.

That’s particularly disappointing given that Isle of Dogs is, I think, particularly good on the irrational politics of hate. Demagogues like Kobayashi (*cough* Trump *cough*) build on, or magnify, a specific threat – in this example, dog flu – and, instead of addressing the root causes of the problem (by, for instance, devising a cure), make a solution of exclusion. In other words, they make the problem the fault of an other, a social scapegoat, because it’s easier to blame the scapegoat, to exclude the other, than it is actually to solve the problem. Which means it’s also eventually easier to ignore scientific evidence (the existence of a cure) than it is to deviate from the position of hate – because such deviation would involve admitting that the problem lies within society, not outside it in some circularly-defined other.

And so, it’s a problem that the solution to the politics of hate, the solution delivered by the film’s ending, is un-nuanced and undemocratic – and a fairytale. We have to imagine better ways out.

Speaking of others: the film’s failure of imagination extends, I think, to its Japanese setting. Monstrous demagogues exist in the West already. Isn’t it too easy a get-out for Western audiences to make a film about a Japanese demagogue – a demagogue, that is, in a part of the world much of the West already views with distrust? Isn’t it, precisely, othering?

Doesn’t it exorcise the ghost of Western racism by putting it into the mouth of a cultural other, where we can safely ignore it because it’s half a world away? Where we can exclude it, in fact, from the everyday circles of our own lives?

Relatedly: why do none of the Japanese characters speak English? Why do we need white characters to interpret for us? Why can’t the transfer student be (for example) Japanese-American?

(Because that would make the Japanese characters no longer other, and we’d no longer be able to project our own racism safely onto that other.)

I’m not, of course, saying any of this is deliberate. It is brilliantly ironic that a film can be so spot-on thematically about how the politics of othering and hate work while being apparently oblivious to its own potential othering effects. And: hey, I know nothing about Japan and Japanese culture, I don’t speak Japanese; I might be spectacularly wrong about all this. I’d like to read a review of Isle of Dogs by someone who does speak Japanese. I haven’t made much of an effort – enough of an effort – to find one.

I just feel sure there’s something excessive about Isle of Dogs: something more complex is going on than its feelgood plot about a boy rescuing his dog would suggest. It’s puzzling. I am puzzled. I’m trying to work out what the hell this film was.