Isle of Dogs: appropriation or appreciation?

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional town of Megasaki in a Japanese archipelago of the near future, where the outbreak of dog flu has led the dogs of the city to be quarantined on the abandoned Rubbish Island. But is the director’s latest release a celebratory homage to Japan or just another western-centric indulgence, utilising cultural stereotypes as a backdrop for his own ends?

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While I am a frequent critic of Hollywood’s propensity for cultural appropriation, to label Isle of Dogs in this regard is, I believe, small-minded. The film’s opening scene informs us via flashcards – this is a Wes Anderson film, after all – that the human characters depicted in the film will speak Japanese, and while at certain points there will be translation provided intermittently through the medium of ‘electronic machine, exchange student, and interpreter’, human dialogue will not have subtitles. The dogs’ speech, we are told, shall be rendered in English. Moreover, the league of actors portraying the voices of the dog characters consist primarily of well-known, white American actors, including Bryan Cranston and Greta Gerwig. It is here that alarm bells, understandably, begin to ring.

However, almost by sheer nature of it being Andersonian, Isle of Dogs is an overtly quirky, self-conscious, and – most importantly – authentic tale. In place of the all-too-common whitewashing we encounter in the western remakes or retellings of Japanese stories, such as in the cases of Doctor Strange or The Last Airbender, the film actually engages with Japanese culture. Though it’s true that it incorporates classic tourist stereotypes like sushi and sumo wrestlers, Anderson’s imaginative engagement with these powerful icons of Japanese culture indicates a process of cultural appreciation in action, as opposed to appropriation.

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The film was evidently well-researched, and the presence of acclaimed Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura in the production as consultant, translator, and co-writer is further indicative of the film’s attention to detail. This translates to all aspects of the film, from the use of stop-motion characters and the minute specifics of the landscape surrounding them, to its perfectly tuned score.

The use of stop-motion animation – following Anderson’s first foray in stop-motion in his 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox – is not only stunning, but its jerky scratchiness adds a realistic element to the dogs’ movements. In fact, in some of the most stunning parts of the film which don’t even involve any dialogue, the mere stop-motion movement alone is mesmerising enough, especially alongside the strange beauty of the littered landscapes. In an early scene, the expulsion of Spots – guard-dog of Atari, the mayor’s nephew and recently adopted ward – to the island involves no dialogue, yet the perplexed, darting eyes of the dog are deeply powerful, both in terms of expression and visuals.

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The landscapes of the film are hypnotic, with such fine attention to detail that moving cable cars can be spotted traversing the island in the far distance, along with tumbleweeds and lapping waves. The grim landscape of the littered canyons – one of the bleaker choices of Anderson’s repertoire thus far – makes these small details even more notable. Director of photography, Tristan Oliver, creates a captivating surrounding environment for the dogs, including at one point a makeshift shelter made from multi-coloured bottles and sake cans.

The score of the film is another powerful element. Alexandre Desplat’s unusual mixture of taiko drums with woodwind sounds eases through the film and chugs along with Anderson’s trademark geometric precision. It has resonances of both eastern and western forms in symbiosis – the ominous beats of the taiko drums are met with buoyant flutes. In this sense, the score succinctly sums up the general tone of good versus evil embedded in the film – as any truly good film score should.

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Anderson’s latest work is a mesmerising masterpiece, unique in visual magnificence and execution. It is not an appropriating work of imitation, nor is it a simple, heart-warming tale in appreciation of man’s best friend – in the first five minutes, one dog’s ear is bitten clean off and is then gnawed upon by a scurrying rat, and this is in turn later followed by surprising, graphic scenes both of a kidney transplant and live sushi preparation. Instead, the film is a visual tour-de-force. It walks many fine lines, and not least of all that of the appreciation-appropriation divide. Although, is it not also fair to say that animation itself could be considered appropriation by nature – the imitation and adaptation of reality into a new form?