If you love dogs, Japan, animation or the cinema, go and see the latest film from maverick American auteur Wes Anderson. Isle of Dogs is a superbly inventive, visually astounding, funny and fresh stop-motion delight.
Last seen in Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, his animation is a highly-original blend of old and new, a kind of retro-futurism with echoes of vintage Oliver Postgate (Ivor the Engine), the Heath-Robinson cyberpunk of Wallace and Gromit, Tintin and the Japanese magic of Studio Ghibli. But Anderson crafts a world of his own that is rich in detail, characters, storytelling and quickfire wit.
Isle of Dogs is set in Japan, twenty years in the future, when an outbreak of dog flu and snout fever results in the deportation of all canines to Trash Island, a rubbish dump for the city of Megasaki. Here, they roam in packs, growing weaker and sadder, scared of cannibal dogs and alarmed by conspiracy theories about what Mayor Kobayashi has in store for them.
When 12 year old boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands his plane on the Isle of Dogs, in search of his beloved pet Spots, he galvanises the efforts of Chief (the basso-profundo voice of Bryan Cranston) and his ‘alpha-male’ buddies to escape. Meanwhile, students led by Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) campaign to ‘bring them back’, rightly sensing that ‘somebody is up to something.’
Japanese culture is more associated with cats than dogs – one thinks of maneki-neko, those waving (or beckoning) cat figurines, and the prevalence of cats in the films of Studio Ghibli (The Cat Returns). Mayor Kobayashi has a cat tattoo on his back, a clue to his prejudice. But Anderson puts his dogs centre-stage and gives them individuality, humour and soul. Each character’s fur and eyes are different, testament to the filmmaker and his model-making team’s staggering attention to detail.
While the dogs speak in English, the humans speak Japanese. The faces of Atari and the younger characters have a rubber-duck sheen or waxwork pallor to them. The Mayor’s henchman looks like he is carved in jade, like a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ Lurch from the Addams Family. Elsewhere, there are multiple references to Japanese culture, from a bird’s-eye-view food preparation scene to the sprinkling of haiku poems and the deadpan appearance of poetic commentaries in square brackets, such as ‘[frost on window pane’].
Isle of Dogs can be viewed as a political allegory as well as a hugely enjoyable animation adventure. Mayor Kobayashi is portrayed as a Big Brother dictator, hell-bent of scapegoating a minority group and putting them in a concentration camp, with a view to enacting ‘ethnic cleansing’ and replacement by robots.
Anderson is obviously on the side of his canines and student activists. His wish for a more inclusive and harmonious future is expressed in Japanese style through Atari’s speech at the end of the film: ‘the cycle of life always hangs in a delicate balance – who are we and who do we want to be.’ As stray dog Chief pointed out earlier, we are all strays ‘in the last analysis’.
If you are a dog owner and lucky enough to live near a Picture house cinema, why not take your pet to one of their dog-friendly screenings of Isle of Dogs? It will make a wonderful film experience unforgettable.