Isle of Dogs 2018
A Wes Anderson Film
‘Discarding Trash. Any Trash’ 2018 A Few Observations by Philip Powers
Set in a fictitious Japanese city, Megasaki, all the human characters in the film speak Japanese – except for an American exchange student – and unless there is a reason for the scene to contain an English translator, the Japanese language is not subtitled. The film cleverly creates situations where a lot of the time there are reasons for an English translator so the audience does get to know what the Japanese peeople are saying. The dogs of Megasaki have contracted dog-flu and they’re all banned from the city and sent to Trash Island which is also where all of Megasaki’s garbage is dumped. The leader behind the anti-dog movement is the Mayor who makes an example of his own dog, Spots, who comes to be known as Dog Zero. Dog-flu becomes an epidemic and eventually the city is emptied of all canines. One day a plane crashes on Trash Island and the little pilot turns out to be a twelve-year old boy, the Mayor’s ward, looking for the dog that was especially trained to protect him, but who became his friend, Spots. As there is no translator on the island all his words are untranslated but it’s not as if there’s a lot of important monologues which the viewer can’t comprehend. As for the dogs, all barking has been translated into English. Howls and other noises are left to sound the way they sound, expressing anguish.
The film is a clever adventure story, which mixes politics and diabolical plans by the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi. Anderson and his co-writers create three worlds which are very distinct in their importance to the plot and the feelings that the audience are meant to have. The Mayor and his cronies and henchman are the clearcut villains. There’s an investigative reporter from a school newspaper, who is the Exchange Student, which cleverly gets lots of her delving revealed in English, as she tracks down the professor and his assistant who were working on a cure for dog-flu. Then there’s the isle of dogs which begins with just a few dogs who become a pack, joined partway through the film by the twelve-year old boy who becomes the hero of the film. And yet, he doesn’t become a lone hero, Atari. He becomes part of the pack who treat him with respect, because he’s a human, and with more respect because he’s there to find his own dog. Together, they become a search party intent on finding if the original victim Zero, Spots, is dead or survived.
The themes of the film are important in how the film shapes important relationships in life, how politicians can manipulate events to achieve their own end, how mechanisation is depersonalising life with robots dogs replacing creatures who have blood running through their veins, are warm to the touch, and are capable of creating loving relationships. Anyone who has had a dog, and it would mostly be positive experiences, knows that the bond that forms between a dog and humans is one of love. The heart of a dog is, even under brutal conditions, still most often one of love. Sure, there are dogs that have been mistreated by mankind and they mistreat humans right back. The character of Chief (Bryan Cranston) represents the bad dogs of the world and the mistreated dogs of the world. He also is the character who learns to change in the film. He’s not completely healed at the end – he still takes the occasional bit of flesh out of people and he doesn’t really understand why he does that – it just happens. But unconditional love, through the power of the innocence that comes from being twelve-years old, changes his mindset. He gets to understand what the other dogs who were formerly pets liked about having a human being who loved them and treated them well.
Through down-to-earth characterisations, Wes Andersons brings these three cliched elements together, which are at the heart of any adventure film, or any superhero movie, and dresses them in new clothes and shows them in a new light. With his insightful, clever dialogue, the dogs are able to express things about how they feel which if those words came from the mouths of humans, would be potentially laughable, cliched and old ideas recycled in a new wrapper. When the new wrapper is an animated film with dogs talking to each other and commiserating with their plight and talking about their love of their owns and their bewilderment at their treatment, it becomes sad, poignant, miserable and unbearable.
If you take away the image of a dog who has been sent to Trash Island and replace it with a person, then the treatment of the dogs by some humans becomes the oppression of people by other people. If everything that happens to the dogs was actually happening to human beings the film would be a terrible indictment on what is happening in a hundred countries around the world right now where there is civil war in so many countries and so many countries where certain people are identified as undesirable or their beliefs are unacceptable, where the people in charge are manipulating circumstances so they can build their own powerbase and get rid of anyone – if they have enough power – they don’t want around.
It is as clear as daylight that shipping the dogs to Trash Island is an allegory for putting Jews on trains in the Second World War, separating white people from black people throughout America’s history and countries like South Africa, expelling Mexicans, expelling Muslims, several countries where the killing of Christians is common, and all the instances in history where one group has come to power and had the strength to exterminate anyone they don’t like or disagrees with them. It could be like the McCarthy era where communists and ‘supposed’ communists were blacklisted, and were required to turn on their friends and countrymen. It could be like racial profiling – you’re a dog, and if you don’t have dog-flu now, you will get it, so we better get rid of you while we can – and like putting more and more people in prison and spending more on getting them out of our community than in trying to rehabilitate them.
SPOILER: The kicker in Isle of Dogs is that the Mayor and his fellow villains actually, surreptitiously invented the dog-flu, infected the dogs, withheld a cure and killed the person who invented the cure. All so that they could get rid of parts of the population in their cities they wanted be rid of.
Isle of Dogs is a tremendous film which hides its message behind the magic of making the villain the Mayor of a fictitious Japanese city, and the victims, canines. The use of another language for a film that isn’t a Japanese film and has the words hidden until they are eventually translated into English, is the smoke and mirrors that cause the audience to not see immediately the indictment Wes Anderson and his fellow filmmakers make on what is happening everywhere you look, anywhere you look, in the world at this very moment in time.
Wes Anderson is one of the most unusual directors working in film over the last two decades. I saw his first major feature film, Rushmore (1998) and enjoyed it enormously. It showed a man in his late-thirties with an unusual way of telling stories. I though a lot of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) was amazing, but as a whole I found it didn’t quite work for me. The same with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and more recently The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – which I probably liked the most of everything of his I’ve seen. I tend to love the first half of his films and then find I tire in the second half. It’s probably just me.
I think of him as an off-the-wall director, and I don’t always get to see his films in the cinema, although I think the only major one I’ve missed, looking down his list of films, is Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Actually, the only other one I missed was The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which I own on blu-ray but haven’t yet seen. And I didn’t get to see his first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996), either.
One of the most unusual films I have ever seen. I am very curious to know where Wes Anderson’s idea came from because it’s a bizarre mix of styles. Whatever the inspiration it is brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed.