Wes Anderson movies are the cinematic equivalent of licorice—a flavor so divisive that its fans are regarded with incredulity, even suspicion by its detractors. If you are in the latter camp, nothing in “Isle of Dogs” will change your mind: Anderson remains as devoted as ever to the twee stylistic idiosyncrasies that define his movies: limited color palettes, fussily symmetrical shot compositions, and deadpan delivery from absolutely every actor, at every moment, always. No other director could make “Isle of Dogs”, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else to try—it is Anderson’s second film using stop-motion animation, a painfully slow and physically finicky process that takes a certain degree of insanity even to attempt. Think “changing a 737’s oil with an eyedropper” and you’ve about got it. If I were asked to make a stop-motion film, the result would be thirty seconds long, involve two characters in a single room, and take thirteen years to achieve. With Wes Anderson in charge, the result is… different. A dizzying array of backdrops and sets compose Trash Island, a futuristic garbage dump to which the mayor of Megasaki, Japan, has banished all the city’s dogs. It seems Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) is a cat lover. His ward, the twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), feels differently. To find his banished dog Spots, he has stolen a plane, crashed it on Trash Island, and teamed up with refugee dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). In any other director’s hands, this plot could threaten to become cloyingly sweet: wisely, Anderson keeps Trash Island bleak and hopeless, a place where the sky veers from dull silver to pollution orange, never pausing on anything resembling blue.
Strangely, the results are beautiful: every frame could be framed, from the compacted cubes of trash stacked in neat geometric arrays to the patterned paper collages indicating cuts to the movie’s many plays-within-plays. Noting the heavy-handed use of lanterns, geishas, outlines of Mt. Fuji, and other classic Japanese imagery, several critics have gently noted that we are, if not in the absolutely clear outfield of cultural stereotype and appropriation, at least skirting its edges. I think that’s very close to accurate, but given that this is a Wes Anderson picture, made with analog technology and an old-fashioned aesthetic, I am going to call his slightly overenthusiastic homage by an old-fashioned word: Japonisme. That’s what happened when the Impressionists got their first look at the art objects flooding out of a newly opened Japan, and went completely apeshit. Van Gogh and Renoir and Manet and Monet and Cassatt and Whistler all went in on the trend, giving their best interpretations of the Japanese aesthetic. Because they were geniuses, the results were some beautiful paintings. However, because they were not Japanese, and therefore lacked the cultural framework with which to fully understand what they were looking at, the results were not Japanese art. They were beautiful, colorful examples of what white Westerners saw when they looked at Japan—blind spots and all. I was reminded of that trend during the scene where Atari, greeting the dogs of Trash Island, enthusiastically explains his predicament in Japanese. The dogs look at each other in puzzlement. “I wish we understood his language,” one says. Anderson’s choice to partially translate the movie—the dogs speak in English, but only about half of the Japanese speech gets translated, by interpreter or on-screen captioning—means that we still get a sense of Japan as somehow unknowable, stubbornly resistant to foreign understanding. That’s an odd thing to emphasize in a movie meant to be an homage. I liked the movie, and found myself carried along on its current rather effortlessly throughout, but looking at it in retrospect, I have to admit that those in the anti-Anderson camp (where I assume they feast nightly on strong licorice) might have a point. I am curious to know what we’ll all think in thirty years.