‘Isle of Dogs’: When Japan Isn’t Really Japan, Still ✮✮

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” isn’t really about Japan any more than Arthur Sullivan and  W. S. Gilbert’s “The Mikado,” but not everyone will know that which would be one of the main problems of this animated feature. The movie gets many things right while mixing old American ideas about Japan with contemporary aspects of culture. Driven by the urgent taiko beat of Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, this is a tale about a boy, his dog and their friends–both two and four-legged–found along the journey to ultimately defeating a nefarious authority figure.

The action takes place in a land where Hello, Kitty doesn’t rule, where dogs all have common English names (not a single dog major dog character has a Japanese name) and there is very little sight of native Japanese or other East Asian dog breeds (or acknowledgement that the majority of dogs in Japan are small).

In “Isle of Dogs” we are whisked away to the fictional city of Megasaki. One supposed this stands in for something like Kawasaki, Nagasaki, Amagasaki, Okazaki, Miyazaki, Takasaki, Chigasaki, Isesaki, Hirosaki,  Ōsaki, Ryūgasaki, Nirasaki, Kunisaki or Susaki but bigger. Here, with the aid of his chief steward Major Domo (Akira Takayama),  the autocratic, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has made an executive decree to banish all dogs to Trash Island in order to control the dog flu (“snout fever”) and protect the human citizens from the illness as well as fleas and lice. As a token of his own sacrifice, he sends Spot (voiced by Liev Schreiber),  the guard dog of his orphaned nephew and ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin). Atari steals a small plane and flies to Trash Island to rescue his beloved dog and finds friendship with a group of “alpha” dogs. Four of the five dogs–Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray)–are impressed that this is the only master loyal enough to venture there for his dog. Chief (Bryan Cranston), however, who has lived life mostly as a stray is not but is outvoted by the others.

In Megasaki, Professor Watanabe and his research team find a “cure” for “snout fever” (There are no cures for influenza, just vaccinations.) but Watanabe is poisoned by the mayor. His team loses heart until white American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) slaps some sense into Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono (voiced by artist Yoko Ono) because what do Japanese people need to get them going but a white American?

Tracy and a group of Japanese students, including a hacker, aid Atari and his doggie friends, but the mayor has troops, drones and robot dogs (not cats). Romance is in the air, and the resolution involves long-lost kin and election laws.

Other reviewers have commented on the usage of English and Japanese. The dogs speak English. The Japanese people speak in Japanese which is sometimes left untranslated.When the comments are translated from Japanese to English it is usually by the American Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand).  That might make the Japanese people seems more mysterious or incomprehensible. Since I speak both English and Japanese, I was impressed by the Japanese dialogue (for an American movie) and felt the crucial communication division between the dogs and people (and I “speak” dog pretty well, too, and am fully aware that the greatest barrier to dog training is the owner and not the dog.).

One wonders why Anderson chose to set “Isle of Dogs” in a real country.

Japan does have islands taken over by a single species–notably cats (Aoshima and Tashirojima for example) and one with rabbits (Ōkunoshima). There are traditional areas such as Miyajima and the city of Nara, where dogs are restricted so that the sacred deers can wander in peace although those deer aren’t always peaceful when hungry. Japan also has created islands and land from its trash like the one in Tokyo Bay (Yumenoshima), although Japan has been conscientiously dividing its garbage long before it became popular in the US.

Once upon a time, there was a lord who was known as the dog shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709). As the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, he instituted animal protection laws (“Edicts on Compassion for Living Things”) which gave a person a death sentence for killing a dog.  That was extreme and he didn’t banish cats. There was an official who did banish dogs, but that was in 1911 and not in Japan but in Turkey as a solution to the stray dog problem (island of Sivriada).

In Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the action was set in a fictional land of Zubrowka.  When Gilbert and Sullivan set their operetta in Japan, there was little expectation that audience members would have lived in the real Japan or even speak the language. That’s not necessarily true even with the American audience for  “Isle of Dogs,” and social media and improved transportation has made the world smaller. I’m not sure how the movie will play in Japan where few 12-year-olds wear wooden geta and hackers have been portrayed as heroic rather than unattractively geeky (e.g. “Summer Wars”).

The stop-motion animation is a bit jerky and that’s probably more of a stylistic decision as opposed to a technical fault. Dog fights are clouds with limbs, tails and faces appearing and disappearing. The usage of famous Japanese woodblock prints for background and abbreviated storytelling is intriguing as the musical interpretations of tradition.

Watching Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” reminded me of the American version of the original “Godzilla.”  A white American character was added to the 1954 Japanese movie for its 1956 American release as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” New footage of Raymond Burr and the back of several actors’ heads was interspliced with the original Japanese footage. Burr’s character was a journalist reporting the story documentary style. In Anderson’s tale, the white female teen is a catalyst for action. You’d think that Japanese students had never led a protest or a Japanese woman had never led Japan.

Yet Anderson is not alone. “Godzilla” 2014 also had two white American men (played by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a distinct contrast from the Japanese 2016 “Shin Godzilla” where American solutions were criticized.  This year, in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” Japan’s Mt. Fuji is saved by a black man and a white girl. In “Black Panther,” Koreans almost do not exist in Busan and are saved by a black African crew of one superhero man and two women warriors. How indeed have the South Koreans kept the North Koreans at bay?

I’d buy Desplat’s soundtrack, but I don’t buy into the tale of “Isle of Dogs” and denials that this is cultural appropriation and a newer but still unacceptable version of the white savior genre.

Written for the Pasadena Weekly

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