In a near-future and dystopian Japan, the island’s dogs have been infected with the deadly Canine Flu which scientists fear will spread to humanity. In response, the stalinesque politician known as Kobayashi has banished all dogs to an archipelago wasteland known as “Trash Island”. This group of islands is composed of landfills, derelict amusement parks, and government research facilities which have been destroyed by tsunamis. The first dog exiled is Spots, the guard dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew, Atari. Aided by a pack of self proclaimed “alpha dogs”, Atari scours Trash Island to rescue his beloved companion.
To say that Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is too cute is wrong, as from the films beginning to its end it audaciously explores complex themes of abandonment, corruption, conspiracy, scapegoating, resistance and violence.
The precedent that this is a film with dark themes is set in one of the very first scenes. Almost immediately dogs are shown fighting over scraps of food with one of them having his ear chewed off by his opponent. Atari crashlands on Trash Island and nearly dies when his helmet is pierced by a propellor bolt. At one point Atari even encounters a group of canine test subjects who have escaped torture and biological experimentation. Perhaps the most upsetting scene in the film was when a political opponent of Kobayashi named Dr. Watanabe is assassinated before he can release an antidote for Canine Flu.
One of the film’s lead actors, Bryan Cranston said in an interview that the Isle of Dogs is an allegory. His argument is that because nearly all the human characters in the film speak Japanese, and this is only translated rarely by translators, the only characters that an English-speaking audience can interpret are the dogs. While an anglophone audience cannot understand the exact meaning of the humans in this film, it is easy to understand what is being said through tone and inflection. As a result, you can view the dogs and surrounding characters in this film as disenfranchised people, a people who are forced out of their homes and into a ghetto. Cranston also argues that you can conversely view the film as being against animal abuse and favouritism, as in the film, even though dogs have been banished, the city remains heavily populated with cats.
Anderson, like in all of his films, manages to explore darker themes like these in a playful and tender way. The primary way he achieved this duality is through a contrast in what’s seen and what’s heard. For example, choosing to use stop motion and filming every other frame instead of every single frame in a shot forces our brains to imagine everything in between, thus giving the Isle of Dogs a sort of scratchy, dreamlike quality. This is particularly evident in the various scraps between dogs. These scenes, while they will be visually cartoonish, are accompanied by the beats of ominous Japanese war drums. It is hard to deny that Anderson and his team are masters of modern animation because they’re able to combine both the simplistic and tactile nature of stop motion with the detail and mise-en-scene found in live action film. When viewing the film I found myself very aware that I was only absorbing a small amount of what was appearing front of me.