Essential Viewing Feature Article Review

Iconography and Orientalism in Isle of Dogs

I liked Isle of Dogs. Which is just as well, because years of time and patience have gone into its making and it’s clear from the start that this isn’t going to be your usual canine caper. Wes Anderson has stamped his seal on the film, sure enough, but it is a marked digression from his earlier works — while it invites comparison to Fantastic Mr Fox, his latest endeavour drifts away from the safety of source material and allows its filmmaker to pursue his imagination as far as it will go. It has generated a lot of debate about the use of Japanese culture and iconography in a distinctly American production, making it singularly peculiar and noteworthy.

Set 20 years in the future, Isle of Dogs centres on Japanese Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a feline-loving villain who has exiled all dogs from Japan in an effort to save humans from a series of deadly, animal-transmitted diseases. Accordingly, these dogs have been sent to live on Trash Island (a site of a former theme park, among other things) in order to quarantine the threat. Human revolutions have been suppressed, but when the mayor’s ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), goes looking for his missing dog Spots, the counter-Kobayashi movement starts to gain momentum and the public outcry against their missing dogs grows. The plot seems somewhat convoluted, but it is well signposted, with Anderson’s obsessively scrupulous chapter headings guiding us through the story, like a textbook — or a tourists’ guide.

The dogs in the frontline are Bryan Cranston’s Chief, an emotionally unavailable outcast; Edward Norton’s Rex, a polite, pragmatic and democratically-minded thinker; as well as King (Bobby Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). A host of other characters make their appearances, including Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg and Yoko Ono herself, as an eminent scientist. It may have been rewarding to have seen the cat vs dogs dynamic in some more of the marketing and promotional material, but the focus on dogs and their adventures was perhaps enough without delving into the age-old debate of which pet is superior. Also worth noting is the use of Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and his narration: after the prologue to the ‘Age of Obedience’ it doesn’t seem to be used to a great extent throughout the film, but it does echo the opening of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, an early Anderson satire which uses similar deadpan dialogue and signalled flashbacks.

British and American culture has a long and complicated history with Japanese art: novels, films, the list goes on. We have imported the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro; we have the paintings of Hokusai; we have the films of Studio Ghibli, and the late Isao Takahata has been mourned globally, showing his international reach. On the surface, it looks as if the West has had no problem adopting Japanese art and tradition. It is not that Japan is so dissimilar in terms of the way it’s gone about carving popular culture: it’s just that the West has had a long tradition of projecting its views about the ‘Orient’ into cultural discourse. 20th-century critic Edward Said illuminated this pervasive ideology in his 1978 text ‘Orientalism’. In it he states that the West has misused the idea of the ‘Orient’, the East – it is in fact just a collection of Western views of what the non-western world is.

There has been some debate surrounding Anderson’s appropriation or fetishisation of Japanese culture in his latest film. It’s not the first time he has been accused of such: The Darjeeling Limited received open scrutiny for its use of Indian culture as a backdrop and catharsis for the inescapably privileged white middle-class male protagonists. It wasn’t fully expected in his more mature work: unfortunately, though Anderson handles the cultural material well at the start, leading us into an exciting journey through (fictional) Japanese history and into the present, there are unavoidable cultural overtones of fascist dictators and the repressed public voice. There is even an uncomfortable white Messiah complex lurking in the undertones of Greta Gerwig’s character Tracy Walker, an American exchange student who manages to decode a conspiracy theory and lead her classmates & peers to an uprising against Kobayashi.

However, Anderson is self-conscious about the way that language is treated, and this itself shows that he is aware of the cultural debate he has landed in. Japanese language is used throughout, and while the majority of it is unsubtitled, this is flagged up at the start in order to give us a more ‘authentic’ experience. Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand), who is expected to be completely neutral and objective, breaks her veneer when reacting emotionally to political proceedings with the Kobayashi clan. This is not only comical, but touches on the philosophy of linguistics and language translation: we only get her interpretation, so who is to say whether we really understand what’s going on? It’s a fascinating topic, treated with appropriate attention here.

Anderson has always been intrigued by the failure of communication even within people of the same language: consider the family miscommunications in The Royal Tenenbaums, or the lack of clarity between generations in Moonrise Kingdom. Here, it takes on an even more poignant role, bridging national identities and even species. The dogs speak English, and it’s an artistic decision that we get this film from their perspective: rather than engage in cultural debate, they only want to get back to their masters, and the universal ideology boils down to a comment made about halfway through the film: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?’


There are some ingenious parts to Isle of Dogs: history and speeches are given in haiku form, and Hokusai’s The Wave is brought up as part of the national historical iconography, in a subtle yet brilliant homage to Japanese popular art. (If you haven’t seen the real painting, you’ll certainly have seen it as an emoji.) The setting, characters and props are exquisitely fashioned, and the tiniest details – like a single cherry blossom flower that lands on a dog’s nose – shows evidence of careful thought into every part of this work. The stop-frame animation means that we see and hear everything that Anderson has put into the frame, and the cotton-wool skies and visible fight clouds round off his aim for an imaginary world made visible. One can’t help but appreciate how much planning, storyboarding and pre-visualisation has had to go into this film in order to make it a reality, and for that reason alone it is worth spending time watching.

While the music is singularly simple, it’s just what is needed to underscore the film without detracting from the visuals. Alexandre Desplat’s score has drums rhythmically coursing us through scenes and building tension when needed; the eerie tune whistled by dogs and humans brings a chilling solidarity. And characters are not always what they seem. In a delightful turn, we discover the reasons behind some of the pack’s unreadable members, and the various rumours we hear (always greeted with a chorus of ‘Who? What Rumour? Remind me again?’) are once in a while proven untrue.

Culturally, Isle of Dogs might be seen to be problematic. However, Anderson is above all an artist and, just like the Japanese artists that came before him, he has sought to show his love for Japan with wide brushstrokes. Here, he is able to reconcile a sense of the bigger picture while paying particular attention to detail. This film is a unique take on Japanese life, unexpected but unlike anything else in cinema, and must be celebrated first and foremost as a work of imagination and creativity.