When I learned that “The Isle of Dogs” by Wes Anderson had finally been released, I could not hide my excitement. As a big fan of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” I was so excited to re-enter the magical Andersonian world of bleak beauty and deadpan humor. This time, Anderson was taking me to a landfill on the deserted Trash Island that is inhabited by a pack of English-barking abandoned dogs.
The movie takes place 20 years in the future in the fictional Megasaki City, Japan, which is governed by the dog-hating Major Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura). After the breakout of a dog flu, Kobayashi decides to send all the dogs off to the garbage dump, dubbed Trash Island. To make matters worse, the Major’s first victim is his own dog, Spots, who is the guardian and best friend of his adopted nephew, Atari (Koyu Ranking). In an attempt to rescue his faithful companion, heart-broken Atari flies to the Trash Island, where he runs into the pack of alpha dogs. The dogs take a vote to decide whether they should attack the boy. In the end, they resolve to help him, and the heroic mission of saving Megasaki pups from mass extermination begins.
The most interesting thing about the movie is that dogs, not people, are the central characters. By providing them with human-like emotions and feelings, Anderson creates a story that touches upon problems that we ourselves encounter in the modern world. Dogs go on dates, have children and care about their siblings, but most importantly, they can also become subjected to abuse and maltreatment by those in power. In this case, those in power are the humans that abandon and torture them. In our case, the powerful are usually other humans who happen to be on a higher level of the social ladder.
In his film, Anderson also demonstrates the overwhelming influence that propaganda has on the masses, similar to our own world. He exhibits the inconvenient truths that authoritarian regimes hide behind fancy words and fervid political speeches. Honestly, the first association I had regarding the “Isle of Dogs” was its similarity to the Holocaust. Anderson presents not only Nazi-like anti-dog propaganda, but also dog concentration camps and the “final solution” of killing the dogs using gas Anderson has produced a movie that stands side by side with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
Another aspect that makes “Isle of Dogs” such a masterpiece is its amazing soundtrack. The score was created by Alexandre Desplat, who just won his second Academy Award for the Best Original Score in “The Shape of Water.” In addition to Desplat’s fantastic compositions, Anderson also pays homage to the Japanese film scene by including songs formerly used by the famous Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa. Most of the music has a heavy traditional Japanese feeling, but Anderson could not resist adding the small American ’60s music note to his movie as well. The song “I Won’t Hurt You” by the psych-rock band The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band stayed with me after leaving the cinema. This mixture of eclectic musical styles is truly unique.
However, as it usually happens with movies made by Americans about other cultures, many critics have asked whether “Isle of Dogs” is cultural appropriation or an homage to Japanese culture. In my opinion, it is an homage. Anderson was undoubtedly inspired by Japanese culture, but the world he created is still his unique Anderson-land. It does not fully adhere to Japanese culture, and it does not have to. As reported by Entertainment Weekly, Anderson himself admits that the movie is a fantasy, and that he would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular part of Japan. The movie portrays a universal problem that could happen everywhere, and the fact that Anderson chose Japanese culture as the basis for the story only confirms his fascination with the country. The only aspect of the film that threw me off was the thread about the white American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) who is the only one to see through the government propaganda and save the obedient flock of Megasaki inhabitants. Does Anderson really expect us to believe that the protest led by the American girl in Japan would occur in real life?
“The Isle of Dogs” is definitely the best movie I have seen in the last few months. It depicts the problems of ethnic cleansing and discrimination in a new environment but highlights their basis in empty, made-up arguments. It also sheds light on the importance of activism and immunity towards propaganda. Anderson garnishes this profound message with a magical soundtrack and humor that does not allow one to lose interest in the film. If you are still pondering whether it is worth getting off campus to watch the movie, I assure you that it is.