In these times of computer wizardry the idea of stop-motion animation may seem a strange choice for many but not in the mind of director Wes Anderson whose second attempt (the other was ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox‘ in 2009) pays painstaking visual homage to Japan’s cultural heritage. This Japan-themed treasure has great attention to detail which is particularly interesting for anyone who has some kind of affinity to Japan.
In the making of the film, 130,000 still photographs were used from pretty much the same team who worked with Anderson on his previous stop-motion effort. However, that number is presumably only half of what it could’ve been if he hadn’t decided to do every other frame in order to give a it a more scratchy feeling. Surely, that’s the reason rather than just saving time and effort!
When I first heard about this film earlier this year I was very keen. Not just because it was to be set in Japan or because of my love for dogs but due to the strong cast of actors and actresses including one of my favourites Bryan Cranston as well as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ken Watanabe and Scarlett Johansson to name just a few. I do feel sorry for actual voice-actors though who are often replaced in this day and age in place of more famous and bigger named visual actors.
The title is nothing to do with the area in London of the same name but is wordplay as “Isle Of Dogs‘ sounds like “I love dogs”. This is of course completely lost on the Japanese title ‘Inugashima‘ though. It’s set in Japan but is a fictional future city called Megasaki. I thought the combination of Japan and dogs might make it a bit twee but this was thankfully far removed from a cute Japanese story.
Warning: Contains spoilers!
In terms of the story, Mayor Kobayashi has decided to exile all dogs to trash island (my wife thought it was based on the ruins of Gunkanjima but I’m not so sure) due to an outbreak of canine flu which is threatening to cross the species barrier. The first dog to be sent over is Spots who belongs to the young Atari Kobayashi, the Mayor’s son.
Spots is a trained police dog given to Atari three years prior to the events in the movie which in itself is set 20 years in the future. ‘Isle Of Dogs‘ is about many things but if you strip it down to the most basic of things then it really is a film about a boy who goes looking for his beloved dog.
This 101 minute movie is basically broken down into four parts; the lost pilot, the search for Spots, the rendez-vous and Atari’s lantern. On his arrival on trash island, Atari (not a common Japanese name by the way!) meets a pack of dogs (whose names – King, Rex, Duke, Boss – all relate to being a leader of sorts) as well as stray dog Chief (Cranston) who take a vote on everything do they which is funnier than it sounds.
This fairly unique film doesn’t actually use subtitles for the Japanese dialogue but instead is transmitted to the viewer via translators as happens at many international conferences or whatever. Other parts are left for the non-Japanese speaking viewers to guess and work out from context and body language and such people have said that they may not have understood the words but the meaning was still conveyed through emotion and one can get the gist. The end credits are actually in both English and Japanese which is quire rare as international films, though translated throughout, are never changed for the locals here. That still doesn’t stop the majority from waiting for the credits to end before they exit.
The attention to detail in every frame is incredible, and there is always so much on the screen to absorb and process that multiple viewings really are needed. There are twists and surprises aplenty and, despite what I said earlier about it being about a boy and his dog, there is an underlying message to the film about authoritarianism and immigration. Japanese things like sumo, ramen, haiku, onsen, taiko, kabuki, Japanese homes, sushi all feature throughout and I have no problem with that but as always there are people banging on about it being cultural appropriation! I can understand that ‘Isle Of Dogs‘ not for everyone, and some just won’t get it, but I thought the dog behaviour and observations were done well and I’m sure I’ll notice more stuff when I re-watch it.
Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10