ISLE OF DOGS. Wes Anderson ‘s visually enchanting spectacle
Wes Anderson ‘s imagination resources are far from exhausted. Leaving behind the pastel worlds of films like Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel, we arrive in a Japan that is 20 years older than us, maintained in a grim, austere, post-apocalyptic convention. The very idea of the titular enclave, the Isle of Dogs, brings to mind the Japanese island of Tashirojima, more widely known as Cat Island. A small island off the coast of the Oshika Peninsula is inhabited by about 100 people, while the majority of residents are stray cats. The four-legged creatures live there in abundance due to the local belief that feeding the cats will bring prosperity and happiness to the people. However, Wes Anderson turns things around by making dogs, and not just any dogs but puppet dogs, the heroes of his latest film.
Already in Fantastic Mr. Fox from 2009, Wes Anderson proved that the quite unexpected leap from live-action film to stop-motion animation serves him remarkably well and vividly revitalizes his eccentric world. In Isle of Dogs amid the fur of the puppet dogs, tiny fleas occasionally run, the characters’ eyes well up with tears, and each individual hair on them sways in the wind. Under the watchful eye of the meticulous director, every character was set in motion with great care and diligence, seamlessly integrating them into well-thought-out frames, thereby bringing the seemingly outdated stop-motion animation method to perfection. The characters were also endowed with the velvety voices of A-list actors. The viewer is captivated from the very start, just by the weight of the opening credits. The cast of Isle of Dogs includes Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Yoko Ono, to name just a few. However, what truly sets the film apart is the Japanese setting.
Wes Anderson ‘s Isle of Dogs story is set in the near future in the Japanese city of Megasaki. Its corrupt mayor signs a special decree that banishes all dogs affected by a mysterious epidemic to a massive garbage dump. Only one boy remains, who, disagreeing with the political manipulations, embarks on a turbo-prop plane to the garbage island to find his dog. With Anderson’s distinctive camera work, we balance between two worlds. We observe the lives of dogs on the island and their desperate struggles for survival, as well as the investigation of a young American exchange student who seeks to expose the ruthless conspiracy of the mayor, who sinisterly strokes his cat. It’s a simple and absurd story, but not for everyone. On the one hand, the adventurous tale of a heroic boy may not interest adult viewers, and the stylized and less child-friendly grayscale animation may deter the youngest. Moreover, it is well-known that despite its charming facade, Anderson’s cinema hides many cruelties. So, there are casualties in Isle of Dogs, dogs go wild, growl, and lose their ears. Nevertheless, Anderson’s latest production is an extremely successful film, created with imagination, ingenuity, charm, and humor. It features funny dialogues, slapstick, and clever gags based on the colorful and diverse backdrop of Japan. The director draws heavily from Japanese cultural patterns, exploring their quirks and eccentricities, assembling them into a vibrant mosaic. He paints an exaggerated picture of the Land of the Rising Sun with sumo wrestlers in the ring, taiko drummers, wriggling octopus tentacles in sushi, and pungent wasabi. However, this is far from derogatory and shallow stereotypes. Instead, it presents itself amusingly and atmospherically.
The fascination of the American director with Japan is deepening, to the point where we can notice clear connotations with the works of masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. Anderson’s true romance with Japanese art is evident in the prevalent style of Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” are still vibrant and colorful symbols of the Land of the Rising Sun. Anderson dresses many scenes in his film in their attire, comparing his frames to paintings like Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa or Kawanabe Kyōsai’s The Great Battle of Frogs. The spirit of Japan is palpable in every scene of the work. Moreover, the film was created with active involvement from local creators, and all Japanese characters speak in their native language. The director cleverly plays with this aspect, toying with translational absurdities. He translates the speech of dogs into English, while the film’s main character, Atari, who speaks Japanese, remains unintelligible throughout the film. This allows the audience to empathize with the character of a dog, for whom human speech is as unintelligible as the Japanese language is to us – incomprehensible babble.
While the rich visual layer of Isle of Dogs often steals the spotlight, Wes Anderson, once again, creates a reflective and instructive story. Perhaps it’s childlike, but it’s full of simple, sentimental, and soothing innocence. Not coincidentally, the main character is a black sheep of the dog pack – Chief, an ownerless and aggressive mutt, whose story becomes one of the essential plot threads in the film. Furthermore, the director paints a picture of emerging divisions, tells a story of prejudice leading to rejection, blinding hatred, and manipulation that blindly leads to the pitfalls of totalitarianism.
The American director has once again succeeded in creating a visually enchanting spectacle. In his film, he presents Japan described in short and concise haiku verses and painted with a Japanese brush. The monumental stop-motion animation, rich color palette, and attention to the smallest detail have given the film a unique, austere, yet spectacular character. Additionally, Alexandre Desplat’s atmospheric soundtrack and the simple yet captivating story of rejected dogs have become valuable accents in the journey into Wes Anderson’s untamed world of imagination. A world that pays tribute to loyal four-legged friends of humans. After all, doesn’t the English title Isle of Dogs sound a bit like “I love dogs”?