In the not-too-distant future Japan, an epidemic of dog flu causes a quarantine of all and any canine throughout Megasaki City, exiling them to Trash Island. One boy, Atari Kobayashi, will stop at nothing to return his best friend Spots back home.
Of course I enjoyed this. It’s Wes Anderson and stop motion animation. About dogs. That’s three of my favorite things right there. And the title’s a pun, that’s awesome. Not to mention, all of the little subtleties within the narrative that speaks volumes about the various themes of the
But first, the bad stuff.
Upon a simple googling, the topic of cultural appropriation and stereotyping popped up quite a bit, so I’m going to explain my views on this, the best that a white-cis-straight-middle-class-American can.
It is true that even though it’s set in Japan and many characters speak Japanese, the main cast is predominantly white, thusly advancing the plot the most.
This effectively “others” the Japanese cast, resulting in villainous Japanese and white heroes, that is, if you count the dogs as white.
My immediate response is that dogs don’t have a race other than dogs, so on the voice-acting part, I don’t think that main cast makes a difference: they speak common. The whole movie deals with themes of miscommunication and finding understanding. The language barrier isn’t treated as a joke or anything of that nature. (If anything, it’s hilarious to have puppies sound like babies.) The real trouble is the only American character, Tracy Walker.
Tracy acts as a leader for the rebels against the pro-cat regime. Unfortunately because she is white, she stumbles into the “white savior” role. It could be argued that she is a characterization of the idea that folks of different cultures can learn from/help one another through understanding, but that is a very rough sell.
I honestly believe that those parts of the plot could have been re-written so it were less dialogue-based. Even though I don’t speak Japanese, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening on the villains’ end, so there’s no reason why our little scientific revolutionary couldn’t have been Japanese.
Another argument is that Japan serves as just a backdrop for this film: not having any weight to the plot, but at least feature old-timey Japanese staples (samurai, sumo and taiko drums). Albeit, these staples still hold influence today – and it’s not like there aren’t historical fables in western films (and it can be argued that Isle of Dogs is like a reverse Hachikō).
Additionally, I have seem some folks mention that the use of mushroom clouds is in bad taste, but I don’t believe this was intentional – I think it was just a large boom for the sake of comedy, and there many ways it could have been much worse. Personally, I think this film is only offensive if you’re looking to be offended.
Now that I’m done with that heaviness, this movie really is delightful. Amazingly, no animal gets killed – that’s a Wes Anderson first. It’s a story of a boy and his dog as well as understanding and change, and it is wonderful.