Pooch Rising

Nick Pinkerton on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018)

Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs, 2018, D-cinema, color, sound, 101 minutes.

LOYALTY IS A PARTICULARLY PRIZED QUALITY throughout Wes Anderson’s filmography—a man’s puppyish longing for his half-sister, who he has loved since she was a girl, in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or the bonds of fealty that tie together boys’ adventure clubs such as the Khaki Scouts of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) or Steve Zissou’s Belafonte crew in The Life Aquatic (2004). Looking over the nine features that the director has made since 1996’s Bottle Rocket, a movie anchored by one man’s indefatigable devotion to a slightly cracked friend, it is difficult to recall a single instance of a contented outsider with no need of fellowship. Crisis in Anderson’s films is a sundering of family or a scattering of the pack; resolution is when bonds of mutual dependence and trust are restored. All of which is to say that it’s not particularly surprising that he’s a dog person.

Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s second film made primarily using stop-motion animation techniques like those employed in his Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is a pure piece of high-concept pro-canine propaganda. It is set in a version of Japan twenty years in the future, yet this world’s technology seems fifty years out of date—room-filling supercomputers run on punch cards and cathode ray tube television sets that play images, in a nice detail, in black-and-white hand-drawn animation. It is a foreigner’s simulacra of the country as understood from its exports, whether food—there is one transfixing scene that depicts the preparation of a poisoned bento box—or movies, particularly the more endemic corruption-obsessed films of Akira Kurosawa, though Anderson is more comfortable in the register of tart understatement than with Kurosawa’s guttural outrage. Here is a caricaturized Japan, a fact that has been hotly discussed in some quarters, but the cartoonish flattening is inclusive—the film’s lone American, a blonde, freckle-faced idealist exchange student activist (voiced by Greta Gerwig), is seen wearing a shirt adorned with stars and stripes. Anderson is surely an outlander working a degree removed from the real thing, but then this is practically always the case in his work: Tenenbaums was a Texas boy’s New York fantasy; The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) took place in a Europe filtered through Stefan Zweig and Ernst Lubitsch; and his worst movie, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), was a sincere paean to Satyajit Ray.

Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs, 2018, D-cinema, color, sound, 101 minutes.

In this fantasy of Japan made from a cultural magpie’s collection of fetish objects, in the fictional city of Megasaki, the mayor (Kunichi Nomura)—the latest representative of the corrupt, long-ruling Kobayashi clan—has exiled all of the city’s dogs to an offshore garbage dump appropriately called Trash Island, ostensibly in order to stem the outbreak of an epidemic of “snout flu.” The implementation of Kobayashi’s anti-hound agenda, which begins with the symbolic exile of his family’s household guard dog, Spots, and the telling of an ancient fable involving a boy samurai acting against humankind as a champion of dogs are covered in the most exposition-dense prologue that Anderson has done since Tenenbaums’s “Hey Jude” overture. (The main point of reference here is Orson Welles, with flashes of The Trial’s “Before the Law” opening and Citizen Kane’s campaigning scenes—Anderson’s taste remains, as ever, pretty meat-and-potatoes canon, trapped in the Criterion closet.)

The movie settles into its narrative proper on Trash Island six months after the exile, with a pack of dogs voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston. As explained in the film’s opening, the humans speak in their native language, usually Japanese, while the canines’ barks have been translated into the King’s English. After a scuffle with a rival pack over a bag of moldering garbage—the movie’s multiple dogfights are obscured in a flossy cloud of kicked up dust, à la the brawls in Mort Walker’s comic strip Beetle Bailey—our mutt protagonists are startled by the sight of a sputtering single-engine plane crash-landing on the horizon. The young pilot fetched from the wreckage is Atari Kobayashi, the ward of the mayor, and he has come to Trash Island to find Spots.

From this point, the movie strikes off into odyssey mode, a journey across the various distinct regions of this water-locked locale in search of the boy’s missing best friend. Of the glut of prominent Andersons in twenty-first-century cinema, Wes has significantly more in common with Paul W. S., director of zero-pretense action-adventure movies, than he does with P. T.—he has the same cartographic fetish, and with each movie, both strive to create, cultivate, and lovingly landscape a new closed world. The “reveal” has always been essential to Wes Anderson’s work, in both the unwrapping of his meticulously packaged, almost confectionary mise-en-scènes and his deadpan comic delivery: Think of the signature whip-pan traveling from setup to punch line. His movies have never been quite so piquantly quotable since he lost Owen Wilson as co-writer and collaborator—here he is working with three other screenwriters, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura—but Isle of Dogs contains some of the most finely calibrated sight gags that he’s ever put in motion, very often set off by some push-in or pull-out readjustment of the widescreen frame. The movie never seems to tire of the sight of dogs turning their head in perfect unison, and in its detailed portrayal of the peculiarities of canine behavior, Anderson’s movie, made at the East London–based 3 Mills studio, is nearly the match for Thomas Mann’s 1916 work Bashan and I, documenting the author’s peregrinations with a German short-haired pointer.

Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs, 2018, D-cinema, color, sound, 101 minutes.

Foreigners creating images of Japan, whether through documentary or fiction, must negotiate a mind-bogglingly rich and complex indigenous visual culture. Sam Fuller, while shooting House of Bamboo (1955), claimed to have been influenced by Japanese scroll art in his CinemaScope framing, though the results feel as much like lurid EC Comics as Hokusai; while making Silence (2016), Martin Scorsese tried to avoid aping Japanese directors’ style, feeling incapable of properly approximating them. With his boxy, straightened, planimetric perspectives, Anderson is naturally pre- inclined to connect with the artful constructions and exuberant, presentational artificiality that is often associated with the culture’s cinema and other moving-image mediums. (If true enough as a generality, this fails to account for the diversity of Japanese film—nobody ever accused Shohei Imamura or Shinya Tsukamoto, for example, of being over-tidy.)

The meeting of sensibilities in Isle of Dogs is often breathtaking, even as it borders on cross-cultural kitsch. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a pejorative; Anderson’s purple volcanoes and rows of shedding cherry blossoms have something like the pleasurable piquancy of gaudy restaurant décor or the Orientalist guitar noodling on Buck Owens’s deeply camp and unbelievably moving 1972 single “Made in Japan.” It must be said that Isle of Dogs is perhaps the most earnest and sentimental work in an oeuvre rife with sentimentality—the image of bright doll eyes suddenly brimming with tears recurs throughout, and the film’s cozy concluding note comes quite near to the adage “Happiness is a warm puppy,” coined by Anderson’s role model, Charles M. Schulz. At this point, Anderson owns his approach as much as cartoonists own their inimitable lines, and his fluidity risks being taken for granted—it isn’t easy to make a movie this easy to enjoy. By means of ingenious design, Anderson has achieved an unusually straightforward emotional appeal, in the process reconfirming himself as America’s foremost vanilla formalist. And though we have need of our lone wolves, this shouldn’t discount the joys of a companionable cinema.

Isle of Dogs is now playing in select theaters.