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‘Isle of Dogs’: Mutt ado about nothing?

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

If you’ve ever flipped on a TV in a hotel room in a country whose language you don’t understand, you’ll know what it’s like to try to grasp for meaning when all the usual semantic signposts are gone.

In “Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson’s latest foray into finicky stop-motion animation, the language gap is between species. The film is set in a retro-future Japan, where the canine residents of the fictional city of Megasaki have been banished to an offshore rubbish dump as part of a conspiracy perpetrated by the cat-loving mayor of the metropolis.

Most of the citizens have been brainwashed by a propaganda campaign touting the dangers of dog flu and “snout fever,” but the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari (voiced by newcomer Koyu Rankin), isn’t one of them. Commandeering a small plane, he sets off to Trash Island to find his beloved dog, Spots, who was the first to be sent into exile.

Isle of Dogs (Inugashima)
Rating
Run Time 101 mins
Language English, JAPANESE

A message at the beginning of the film explains that the dogs’ barks have been translated into English, voiced by a sterling ensemble cast including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton and Scarlett Johansson. The Japanese-speaking characters, however, aren’t afforded the same luxury. Their dialogue, linguistically accurate but sometimes curiously muffled, gets relayed to viewers via a combination of simultaneous translation, narration, on-screen captions and good old canine intuition.

In a few cases, viewers don’t get any help at all. Anderson has spoken of how he enjoys watching Japanese films without subtitles, and he takes obvious pleasure in the overlapping layers of language generated here. While 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” played with narrative framing devices — it was a story within a story within a story — “Isle of Dogs” seeks to do something broadly similar with communication itself.

The problem with these kinds of lost-in-translation effects is that they require having an “other,” and Anderson follows in a long Hollywood tradition of giving that other an Asian face. “Isle of Dogs” has received some astute criticism since it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, much of it focused on how the movie ends up marginalizing its Japanese characters.

In Japan, though, audiences are likely to enjoy “Isle of Dogs” with fewer caveats. Watching it at a recent press screening, the biggest laugh came when one of Atari’s canine companions wistfully observed, “I wish somebody spoke his language.”

For viewers who do speak his language, the experience of watching Anderson’s film is very different. They may find themselves wondering if the script couldn’t have included a few in-jokes for Japanese speakers, like the adult-oriented gags in Pixar movies. They’ll probably appreciate the film’s fastidiously detailed world — a deliberately ugly retro-futurist landscape with 1950s Japan aesthetics, and frequent nods to the work of Akira Kurosawa and Seijun Suzuki — without worrying about exoticization or appropriation.

That’s not to say that the movie’s overseas critics don’t have a point. Asian-American viewers in particular have every right to feel peeved about the way Hollywood so often diminishes their perspective.

Anderson stumbles when he introduces an exchange student called Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who sets out to expose Megasaki’s anti-dog conspiracy, and whose strident activism makes those around her seem all passive in comparison. But I suspect viewers in Japan won’t see her as the prototypical “white savior.” They’ll realize that she’s just a bit of a blowhard.