By Katherine J. Zumpano
Animation, Adventure / PG-13 / 101 minutes
Isle of Dogs is beautiful. It’s director Wes Anderson’s ninth feature film, and his second stop-motion animated comedy; a film meant to be a tribute to Japanese culture.
The film is set in Japan in the near future, when all dogs have been left on Trash Island after a canine-flu outbreak. A group of dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) set out on an adventure with young Atari (Koyu Rankin) to find his missing dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Isle of Dogs is like any other Wes Anderson movie: deadpan humor and meticulous attention to detail. Every scene is perfectly crafted, which can distract viewers from the main problem with the film: instead of celebrating Japanese culture, Isle of Dogs is insensitive in its approach.
The Japanese characters lack a voice. No subtitles are used when the characters speak in Japanese. Sometimes the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) speaks, while an interpreter (Frances McDormand) translates for the audience in other scenes. Simple words and expressions are the only way the audience knows what the Japanese characters are saying.
Not even Atari is given subtitles, and his words aren’t translated at all until the very end. The dogs, all of whom speak English, don’t understand him, and like us, are left to interpret his facial expressions, tone, and gestures for ourselves.
The film’s heroine is a white foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig). While Atari is on Trash Island searching for Spots, Tracy acts as a leader for the Japanese people who oppose the decree that sent the dogs away. By using a young white woman as the voice of change, Anderson further removes the voice of his Japanese characters.
Isle of Dogs uses only common, stereotypical imagery: there are samurais, sumo wrestlers, and haikus featured throughout the movie, which feel like tokens of Japanese culture. A mushroom cloud after an explosion seems particularly insensitive coming from an American director less than a century after America devastated Japan with the atomic bomb.
Isle of Dogs is problematic, but can it still be enjoyed? Perhaps one must separate the art from the narrative; appreciate the stunning visuals on the screen, but remember that Anderson’s work isn’t a true representation of Japanese culture.