Isle of Dogs is an impressive technical achievement and a freshly original work of genre fiction. It’s a shame, though, that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its imaginative premise.
The premise is something that could come out of a weirdly fixated fever-dream. The dog-hating mayor of a futuristic (yet Edo-era more-wise) Japanese city exiles the city’s canine population to an island of trash due to a spreading animal epidemic. But the mayor’s ward intrepidly mounts an expedition to the island on a sputtering plane to save his beloved pet, the first to be consigned. On the island, he meets a pack of dogs led by their surly and resentful leader, a stray named Chief, who reluctantly agrees to help him look for his lost dog.
The classic boy-meets-dog plot-line is at the centre of this film – but there are also a medley of other narrative strands vying for our attention – from the parallel story of the exchange student who leads a revolution against the corrupt establishment, to the adventures of the various dogs around the island as they get separated. The film weaves these strands together in well-coordinated fashion but the pace feels frenetic (especially given the lightning fast quips and dry humor that are Wes Anderson signatures) and important plot elements are easy to miss because they flash by so fast.
To some degree, the frantic pace also comes at the expense of the film having a truly believable emotional core. The aloof Chief warms to Atari much too fast; while he is a dog, he is far too emotionally rich a character in his own right for his rapid transformation into loyal hound to be seen as anything but contrived. Then there are other plot reversals later on that just happen without much buildup and therefore feel out of place, like mayor Kobayashi’s sudden moral about-face near the end. Was he, perhaps, simply dutifully obliging his family’s anti-dog hatred? I don’t know – it all happened much too fast to appreciate.
There’s also the much-discussed question about whether or not Isle of Dogs insensitively propagates negative stereotypes of Japan. To some extent, I think it does – there’s the surface level stuff, like how everyone’s so regimental and subservient, how the denizens are pretty much a mob that sways according to the prevailing political sentiment, the sumo wrestling and the rampant corruption (and weirdly undemocratic means of electing mayors). There’s also how it takes a classic tenkousei – a white, American exchange student – as the vanguard of a revolution – activating obvious White Savior tropes. The bottom line is that in this movie, ostensibly set in Japan, much more could be done not to give the appearance that the denizens of Japan have no agency in their own fate.
But I suspect this is all whingeing about a problem that honestly isn’t particularly major – especially to Japanese people themselves. The film allegedly hired cultural consultants to ensure that the script had a culturally authentic flair. And I suspect also that in general, Japanese have a much more cavalier attitude about cultural appropriation in film – they do it all the time, after all.
I give this: 3.5/5 bags of food trash