Wes Anderson’s animated feature “Isle of Dogs” isn’t really about Japan any more than is W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” but not everyone will know that.
Don’t misunderstand; the movie gets many things right while mixing old American ideas about Japan with contemporary aspects of the country’s culture.
Driven by the urgent taiko beat of Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, this is the tale of a boy, his dog and their friends — both two- and four-legged — finding one another along the journey to ultimately defeating a nefarious authority figure.
In “Isle of Dogs,” we are whisked away to the fictional city of Megasaki, a land where all dogs have common English names. Here, with the aid of his chief steward Major Domo (Akira Takayama), the autocratic, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has made an executive decree to banish all dogs to Trash Island in order to control the dog flu (“snout fever”) and protect human citizens from fleas, lice and illness.
As a display of his own sacrifice, the mayor sends Spot (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s orphaned nephew and ward. Upon learning of the mayor’s unilateral action, Atari steals a small plane and flies to Trash Island to rescue Spot and finds friendship with a group of “alpha” dogs. Four of the five dogs — Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray) — warm up to Atari for being the only master loyal enough to venture to Trash Island. Chief (Bryan Cranston), however, who has lived mostly as a stray, is not impressed, but is outvoted by the others.
Back in Megasaki, Professor Watanabe and his research team find a “cure” for “snout fever” but Watanabe is killed with poison by the mayor. His team loses heart until white American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) slaps some sense into Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono (voiced by artist Yoko Ono).
Tracy and a group of Japanese students, including a hacker, aid Atari and his canine pals, but the mayor has troops, drones and robot dogs (not cats) out to get them.
Other reviewers have commented that the dogs speak English but the Japanese people speak in Japanese, which is sometimes left untranslated. When the comments are translated from Japanese to English, it is usually done by the American Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand). That might make the Japanese people seem more mysterious or incomprehensible. Since I speak both English and Japanese, I felt that crucial communication divide between dogs and people.
One wonders why Anderson chose to set “Isle of Dogs” in a real country. In fairness, Japan does have cat islands (Aoshima and Tashirojima). Miyajima and the city of Nara restrict dogs so that sacred deer can wander in peace. Japan also has created islands from its trash, like the island in Tokyo Bay (Yumenoshima). Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) was pejoratively called the dog shogun when he instituted “Edicts on Compassion for Living Things,” which prescribed capital punishment for killing a dog. That was extreme, but he didn’t banish cats.
Interestingly, dogs were actually banished in another nation. In 1911 a Turkish official sent stray dogs to die on an island (Sivriada).
Yet, Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is set in the fictional land of Zubrowka. When Gilbert and Sullivan set their 1885 operetta in Japan, there was little expectation that audience members would have lived in the real Japan or spoken the language. That’s no longer necessarily true for modern American audiences, The world has grown smaller since the first “Godzilla.”
The Tracy character reminded me of the American version of the original “Godzilla,” in which scenes featuring Raymond Burr were spliced into the footage for the 1956 American release. Burr’s journalist character was reporting the story documentary style, but why was a white voice necessary at all? In Anderson’s tale, the white female teen is the catalyst for the action, as if Japanese students never led a protest, or a Japanese woman had never led Japan, or that Yoko Ono needed a good slap to get her priorities straight.
Unfortunately, Anderson is not alone. “Godzilla” (2014) also had two white American men (Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the lead. In a twist to the white savior genre, Japan’s Mt. Fuji is saved by a black man and a white woman in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” and in “Black Panther” the South Korean port city of Busan is saved by a black African trio.
I imagine now including black and women hero characters among the saviors of Asia could be seen as progress. But it’s really not. As much as I love dogs, and Desplat’s soundtrack, I don’t buy into the white savior trope that’s at the heart of “Isle of Dogs.”
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