By now, you know what to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. Even the talking animals and intricate multi-modal animation in Isle of Dogs aren't novel after Fantastic Mr. Fox. So the controversy surrounding it might seem a bit surprising. Sure, Anderson's just-so fantasy Japan might be cultural appropriation, but is it really any worse than The Darjeeling Limited's use of India as a colorful backdrop for a quirky fable about family and friendship?
Yes, actually: behind the kid-friendly story of a few scrappy canines' quest for social acceptance lurks Anderson's most dystopian film, and the choice of Japan as its setting is by no means arbitrary.
As a filmmaker, Anderson never directly refers to the real world; he reconstructs it according to his aesthetic taste. His Japan is no exception. Over an opening animation styled after eighteenth-century Japanese woodcut illustrations, a narrator (Courtney B. Vance) relates the legendary history of the "cat-loving Kobayashi clan" and its violent subjugation of dogs.
Flash forward twenty years from the present and the long human-dog truce (the "Age of Obedience") has broken down due to lingering human prejudice and the spread of "snout fever," a rabies-like disease that gives Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) an excuse to deport all dogs to an uninhabited island trash heap. The action begins when the mayor's mistreated orphan ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), makes an ill-fated attempt to rescue the first doggy deportee, his former guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
The characters and locations that make up Anderson's near-future Japan are richly imagined and executed with his characteristic obsessive attention to detail. Even more than in Mr. Fox, the mix of stop-motion, CGI, and traditional animation produces jaw-dropping effects that bear an artisan's touch. Though it's ostensibly set in the future, the fictional city of Megasaki is modeled on the postwar cinematic Japan of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa; Megasaki's dense interiors lovingly recall the former while Trash Island's wastes evoke the latter's samurai westerns. These and many other Japanese cultural references never feel incidental or disrespectful.
The story, however, is where the film runs into problems. In addition to Atari's A-plot, there's a B-plot about American student journalist Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) and her efforts to blow open the mayor's anti-dog conspiracy. Additional subplots stack up to make the narrative both more complicated and less propulsive than that of Fox, especially in the final act. World-building is the point of all these narrative threads, and the world they reveal is a very, very dark one.
At root, Isle of Dogs is a universal fable about the dangers of totalitarianism. (Critics have already compared Kobayashi to Trump.) But as with all things Anderson, the surface matters more than the depths. While the Japanese dialogue isn't subtitled, the dogs speak English. Atari is sidelined by the movie's real stars, a hilarious pack of terriers, all voiced by American actors such as Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum. Key features of the dystopia—Megasaki as a play on Nagasaki, mushroom-cloud animations, and, most uncomfortably, the establishment of dog internment camps—refer to historical violence inflicted on the Japanese by the U.S.
This symbolic role reversal recalls the anti-Japanese paranoia of the '70s and '80s, the period of Anderson's childhood, when American industrial workers feared being replaced by superior Japanese technology and organization. Killer robot dogs are even introduced as replacement pets. Despite the inevitable reconciliation between man and dog, the film's affection for the rugged, boyish charm of the exiled dogs and its preference for Tracy's free-thinking spirit over the sophisticated yet passive Japanese is all too familiar.
In the age of Trump and #MeToo, Anderson's affection for these tired clichés isn't as cute as he thinks. His talents have never been more apparent, but it might be time for him to learn some new tricks.