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An Upside Down Story: Isle of Dogs

by Lauren Cho

Although it may be set in dystopian Japan, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, featuring drones, student activists, corrupt politicians and racial stereotyping, is one of the most relevant movies of today.

When I walked out of the movie theater after watching Isle of Dogs, the first thing I did was ask my friends to rate the film from 1 to 10, 1 being “drop dead terrible” and 10 being “mind-blowingly, God-esquely beautiful.”

“A seven,” the first said with a shrug. “It was good, but it wasn’t great.” When my other friend came out of the bathroom, we posed the same question to her. As a Wes Anderson veteran myself, I had high hopes for her, a ‘newbie’ to his world. Anderson’s unique directing style (namely his detailed color palettes, 1960s soundtracks, and quirky characters), captured my nine-year-old heart the first time I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I had enthused over his films so much that a few friends had finally caved and agreed to see Isle of Dogs, witnessing Anderson’s grandeur for themselves.

However, all of my dreams were thoroughly smashed the moment she opened her mouth.

“I think it was a seven. It wasn’t anything higher than that. I just… can’t see why you love him so much. The movie was irrelevant.”My nose wrinkled as I took a sip from my water bottle.

“What?! The storyline was amazing. The stop-motion animation was like nothing else. The characters were great. I cried! When’s the last time you’ve cried over a movie?” I protested, incredulous.

I saw nothing but good about Anderson’s return to cinema. On the surface, everything was beautiful. His dioramic sets entranced me as equally as Bryan Cranston’s gruff voice as Rex, a character starkly different to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Puppets moved about the movie with ease, each handcrafted by a team of talented artists.

Then, the relevance of the movie. Although set in a Japanese dystopia 30 years in the future, Anderson seemed to draw inspiration from today’s political climate. In Isle of Dogs, corrupt politicians attempt to wipe out the dog population by manufacturing a disease. Concealing the sickness’ origin to the public, the humans of Megasaki City banish all the dogs to a dirty wasteland called Trash Island.

With so many important political discussions happening behind closed doors today, we are often forced to wonder what exactly is going on in Washington, DC. The movie’s plot to infect all dogs seems like a small issue, compared to the issues we sweep under the rug: the ongoing Russia investigation, four political appointees losing their roles at the Department of Commerce after failing background checks, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, flying first class on taxpayers’ money.

In the end, it’s students who save the day. Anderson may not be a seer, but the students’ picketing and marching closely resembles the March for Our Lives and Never Again movements. For me, watching this movie right after the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School Massacre, this hit close to home. In addition, Anderson invites a discussion over the ways we use modern technology, including the use of drones (which are prominently featured) in society. 

However, look under the surface, my friend argued, and that’s where things are wrong in near-disastrous proportions. While the film is still relevant, it’s relevant to things that should be completely irrelevant in today’s society.

One flaw my friend quickly pointed out was that Anderson utilized the white savior trope. Because Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig) was female, she had leaped over the disappointingly low bar I had set for Isle of Dogs’ characterization of women (after all, it’s no secret that Anderson is notorious for writing bland and domestic female characters). But Tracy was a student activist, exposing the government’s scheme and saving the dogs on Trash Island.

However, upon further consideration, Tracy’s pale skin stands out against the crowds of Japanese students marching behind her. As an exchange student from Ohio, it’s not Tracy’s presence that doesn’t make sense to me- it’s the fact that she’s the leader of the movement. Why is it that Tracy is rescuing the citizens of Megasaki from their oppressive government, when they could have done it themselves? As an Asian American, I can tell you most of my heroes do not look like Tracy or Greta Gerwig. They do not look like Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, or Edward Norton. They look more like Yoko Ono, who voiced Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (a character in Isle of Dogs).

Her character’s name should tell you a lot about her importance to the plot. She only speaks once or twice throughout the 110 minute film. Most of the time, you’ll find her standing behind the scientist she assists. And, seeing that this is a Wes Anderson film, it’s no surprise the person she’s assisting is a man. In fact, nearly every female character in this film was created to serve and support male characters. Tracy spends much of her screen-time pining over Atari, the other main character, and praising his willingness to stand up to the government even though she is leading the movement. Tilda Swinton’s character, Oracle, spends her scene forecasting the weather while her male counterpart helps the main characters navigate Trash Island. Honestly, despite her role as the narrator, I can’t even remember the name of Frances McDormand’s character. However, I can remember that almost all of her lines were English translations of Mayor Kobayashi’s speeches.

It’s bad enough that the female characters in Isle of Dogs follow stereotypical gender roles and utilize the white savior trope, but the film is racism incarnated in its purest form. If you thought society was past making assumptions based on skin tone, Anderson seems more than willing to prove you wrong. While some may argue Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s homage to Japanese culture, others may say that his movie is rampant with nothing more than cultural appropriation. I side with the “others.”

Japan, and its culture, becomes just another backdrop for Anderson’s characters to romp around. A buffet of clichés is presented: taiko drummers, sushi, sumo wrestlers, and cherry blossoms, all on full display. This list doesn’t even include the giant mushroom shaped cloud that makes a cameo during the movie, a controversial move that somehow got the green light from the American director. Isle of Dogs’ cultural appropriation removes the audience from viewing Japan as a real nation with real people, and instead portays it as a dream world populated by ultra-pigmented yellow figurines and their canines. The fact that Anderson puts white actors in lead roles only widens the distance between dreamland and reality. Then, when the Japanese humans have their turn to talk, there are no subtitles, only the occasional translation. By not being able to understand most of what they’re saying, Anderson further villianifies and isolates them from the English speaking protagonists.

In the end, I don’t know how to feel about Isle of Dogs anymore. I am both delighted and angered by Wes Anderson’s return. I was almost ready to bow to Bryan Cranston and Greta Gerwig’s speaking, and Anderson and Jason Schwartzman’s politically active script, until I really realized how upside down the story really was.

I’m incapable of putting this movie on a scale of one to ten. While Isle of Dogs wasn’t God-esquely beautiful, it wasn’t dropdead terrible either.

1 Comment

  1. There is a wealth of work to be done, in portraying women as complex human beings. Japanese culture is patriarchal, but a dystopian film ought to be able to transcend such considerations.

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