“Isle of Dogs”, a stop-motion animated film by Wes Anderson, impresses me with its shabby charm while also bothering me with its questionable case of cultural appropriation. Although I admire the painstaking efforts put into every shot of the film and appreciate its distinctive style and mood, I cannot help but feel a bit queasy about its rather superficial handling of Japanese cultural elements, and that makes me hesitate a little on whether I can recommend it just for its commendable technical achievement.
Its story is set in a fictional Japanese city named Megasaki, whose name is probably derived from Nagasaki. Although the narration by Courtney B. Vance explains to us that the period background of the movie is near-future Japan, Megasaki looks more like a broad caricature of the Japanese society in the 20th century, and, to be frank with you, I would not have been surprised if Godzilla and Mothra had appeared on the screen.
During the early part of the film, we are told about how all the dogs in the city happen to be banished to Trash Island, a landfill island located outside the city. When the city is threatened by the sudden outbreak of a dog flu virus which can also be harmful to human beings, Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) orders the massive banishment of dogs, and he promptly makes a public example of Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), a dog who has been loyal to Kobayashi’s young adapted nephew Atrai (voiced by Koyu Rankin) since their first encounter. Although a prominent scientist, who also happens to be the leader of a local opposition party, tries to develop the cure for the dog flu virus, Kobayashi remains adamant with his heartless policy, and he continues to get the full support from most of the city population as getting ready for another mayor election to come.
Meanwhile, life has been pretty shabby and miserable for dogs since their banishment to Trash Island. We meet Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), King (voiced by Bob Balaban), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), and then we see how they try to survive together everyday. Whenever something possibly edible is sent away from the city, they are always ready to grab it by any means necessary, and there is an amusing deadpan moment when our canine gang logically decides to resort to their bestial nature during their confrontation with some other group of dogs.
And then there comes an unexpected change on one day. A small plane crashes into the island, and that is how Chief and his fellow dogs encounter Atari, who flied to the island for searching for Spots. Although he can only speak Japanese while the dogs in the film can only speak English, Atari manages to communicate with Chief and his fellow dogs to some degree, and they soon come to embark on the journey across the island together, which turns out to be a pretty big wasteland full of dirty and shabby things such as an abandoned factory for processing various trash stuffs.
Deliberately looking ugly and shabby during this part, the film frequently entertains our eyes with moods and details to be savored and appreciated. As cinematographer Tristan Oliver’s camera often smoothly makes precise straight movements across the screen, it serves us with bountiful details to notice, and we come to admire more of its effortless stop-motion animation. As he previously did in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), Anderson paid a lot of attention to creating the vivid, realistic texture of his animal characters, and his impressive voice cast members playing the canine characters in the film did a wonderful job of imbuing their respective characters with life and personality while also delivering well many funny moments shining with Anderon’s own dry sense of humor.
However, the other part of the film is less successful in comparison. While Atrai and his canine companions go through their bumpy journey in the island, a movement against Mayor Kobayashi is initiated by an American exchange student named Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig) and her Japanese school colleagues, and we are supposed to care about this as much as what is going on in the island, but, unfortunately. the human characters are not developed enough to engage us. As a matter of fact, most of them are merely presented as blatant stereotypes while their Japanese lines are usually translated directly to us by Interpreter Nelson (voiced by Frances McDormand), and this storytelling approach inevitably makes us feel more distant to the film.
I guess that is why I became more aware of its noticeable aspects of cultural appropriation. I am sure Anderson simply wants to have his own creative fun with foreign cultural materials here just like he did in “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), but the result feels less impactful and more superficial in comparison mainly because of its relatively weak storytelling, so I still feel some dissatisfaction even though I was entertained enough during my viewing.
Overall, “Isle of Dogs”, which received the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, is not wholly without flaws, but it is at least amusing and interesting enough to compensate for its weak aspects, and it is surely another admirable work from Anderson. Although it is not on a par with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “The Grand Hotel Budapest” (2014), I enjoyed its style, mood, and details nonetheless, and, despite my remaining reservation, I think I may watch it again someday just for watching all those shabby dogs in the film.