Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is about the familiar problem of nature intersecting with culture. The front matter of the title is already an awww-shucks affirmation of sentiment atop a declarative axiom—the film’s eponymous setting transmogrifying, when spoken, into the pun “I Love Dogs”—and so a reminder of our ability to re-process what is natural into dialogue, ritual and art. Meticulously recreating the world in stop motion, Isle of Dogs not only expresses the soulfulness of “man’s best friend” within Anderson’s stylized simulacrum, but returns to one of the director’s favorite themes: the ability of the arts to transform—in this case often to “resurrect”—our most treasured sentiments and memories, both public and private.
The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai and the Headless Ancestor,” establishes the antagonistic and “cat-loving” Kobayashi clan’s animus against dogs, leading a child to heroically take up the sword and inaugurating a new era of dogs loyally deferring to their masters. Cutting from the ancient folktale to twenty years in the future, the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) explains how an outbreak of dog flu on the Japanese archipelago has led to a nationwide dog quarantine ordered by an authoritarian Mayor (Kunichi Nomura) who happens to be the latest Kobayashi descendant. Encaged in the rally spotlight is “Dog Zero,” Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog for the Mayor’s own distant nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Spots is the first dog sent to a trash-rife island of abandoned industry. Dissenters from the “Science Party” explain that they are on the cusp of finding a dog-flu cure, though it’s obvious the allowance of time the Mayor gives them is a mere formality. In a corner, a young boy’s silhouette looks on.
This is Atari, who pursues Spots by flying to the isle on a stolen aircraft. He crash-lands but is helped out by a gang of “alphas”: four “good boys”—Rex (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Ed Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum)—and the refractory stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). Establishing a line of communication, Atari and the dogs embark on an extraordinary journey across the island, attempting to elude the dreaded pack of “cannibal dogs” led by Gondo (Harvey Keitel). With the mainland help of student activists like “foreign-exchange student” Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), they uncover Kobayashi’s conspiracy to euthanize all dogs and replace them with mass-manufactured automadogs.
The opening minutes engulf us in a problem of interpretation: every title, given in Japanese, is accompanied by an English-language parenthetical, with the language of the Mayor and his rival, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), laid out on an electronic scroll or spoken by Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand). The vagaries of language confront us from all directions: spoken, written, translated, pictorial. The metaphor of “a tidal wave of resentment against dogs” is accompanied by the image of a tidal wave submerged with dogs. The opening story’s narration of the Boy Samurai standing up for “the underdog dogs” and “cutting off the head of the head of the Kobayashis” establishes the dismantling circumscriptions between words and images, signs and signification, form and content, and of course, human beings and dogs.
Threatened by a dystopia of ambiguity and misinterpretation, the audience reads between the lines of the “official” interpretations handed to us by Nelson and the private meanings we can decipher on faces. Assuredly, we need little explanation to see, beneath the noise of Kobayashi’s political rally, that the corner silhouette belongs to a boy who is having his best friend—Spots—taken away, a subtext of mute grief dwarfing the political grandstanding. Consonant with the silhouette is the earnest question from Watanabe’s Science Party: “Who are we? And who do we want to be?” And then, “What ever happened to man’s best friend?”
Watanabe’s rhetoric doesn’t dissuade a crowd coerced by placards of anti-dog propaganda, but it does work on the audience beyond the audience—us—because of that silhouette. When Atari later expresses his plan to his accompanying alpha dogs, they act as our surrogates (Anderson makes no qualms about this being an American film), Duke turning to the camera and saying, “Gee, I wish someone spoke his language.”
Really, they can understand him, as we (or an audience that doesn’t speak Japanese) can. Anderson’s dogs address the camera with their uncannily lifelike eyes, recognizing us through the dividing movie-screen window. A view looking down at Atari’s oval aircraft surrounded by paper detritus creates an “eye” image, Atari himself emerging as the iris. The dogs lead him to a cage holding supine bones. A close-up on Atari’s tears cuts to a flashback.
Mayor Kobayashi adopted his nephew after surviving a catastrophic train derailment that killed Atari’s parents. Having lost a kidney and recovering in a hospital, the Mayor’s slenderman-shaped henchman Domo (Akira Takayama) introduces Spots, who establishes a bond via sniffs and licks. Atari and Spots have a communicative apparatus attached to their ears: Atari mumbles and Spots’s eyes wetly sparkle. “Master Atari, I can hear you,” he says. “I can hear you.” The cut from Spots’s sympathetic comprehension to the cage of bones is extraordinarily poignant. Like Spots to Atari, we discern in this transition a little poem of life and death, attachment and loss, striking deeper than words.
The flashback sequence inaugurates a motif of misinformation, the bones in the cage turning out not to belong to Spots, but to another guard dog, “Sport.” Elsewhere we see Kobayashi’s tortuous suppression of Watanabe’s cure, and news reports of Atari’s “kidnapping” by dogs, followed by news of his “death” after leaping into a fast-moving moat. Gossip, mostly propagated by Duke, leads to either gross untruths or perverse spins, such as a sexual relationship between show-dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and the unseen Felix, or the dreaded “cannibal dogs.” Spots’s name implies plurality, and Isle of Dogs’ polysemy (beginning with its title) reflects a pursuit of truth into the wilds of language and love.
The ambiguities are not always comfortable. Isle of Dogs contains a few references to the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to Japan, if not the world. The small-scale explosions in the film—Atari’s crash landing, an automadog’s destruction, etc.—blatantly mimic atomic mushroom clouds. However, in one instance the rising smoke transitions from atomic evocation into a sperm cell, the ingenuity and God-like terror of our science intersecting with art’s mimesis of nature. We are reminded how this whole world is recreated and renamed, the product of obvious human drawing that is differentiated from the film’s stop-motion “reality.” Nature is the stuff of human industry: the “tumbleweed” drifting across the landscape is garbage, and the stick with which Atari plays fetch with Chief is a hunk of radiator tubing. Tracy Walker decorates her bedroom with origami, scratch paper delicately folded to mimic the natural world. Sushi-making involves living organisms (fish, crabs, octopus) being killed and then punctiliously rearranged. Yet the chef’s final clandestine gesture—Kobayashi having a drop of poison placed in the last piece—shows how death accompanies the sushi’s nourishment. Art and science offer dimension and delight, but from totalitarian propaganda to the atomic bomb, they can be corrupted by our worst impulses. Who are we, and what do we want to be?
Next to Spots’s cage on the island lies a half-eaten apple. We could assess this as a simple throwaway prop on a forsaken trash pile, but however neglected the fruit is, we shouldn’t discard its significance so frivolously. As in his previous films, the Japanese setting for Isle of Dogs serves as a stage for Anderson to explore his interest in the ante-and-post-diluvium, the world before and after the Great Flood—a world where the Creator uses nature to expunge his own fallen creation, which humankind is left to redesign, rebuild and reinterpret.
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson begins with Fox (George Clooney) eating an apple underneath a tree, a callback to the Fall that will inaugurate the felix culpa (“Happy Fall”) without which Resurrection’s exhilaration (or the pleasures of a laugh-out-loud comic adventure) cannot occur. Moonrise Kingdom’s New Penzance (a name indicating the world has already been recreated and flowing through endless cycles) is a whirlwind of here we are again grievances and gaieties, the axiomatic Mile 3.25 tidal inlet renamed by young lovers Suzy and Sam (Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman) as “Moonrise Kingdom.” Most memorable is The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Edenic MacGuffin, the Renaissance painting “Boy With Apple.” In that film’s “fallen world” of burgeoning autocratic regimes, preserving the painting is the duty of civilization’s courtier par excellence Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who artfully strives to maintain the spirit of a world that probably never existed. A fascist’s outburst of “What’s the meaning of this shit!?” underneath a painting by the modernist Egon Schiele—placed by Gustave to replace “Boy With Apple”—hilariously distills the notion that his vocation is to guard against the degradation of creative personality under totalitarianism. In all of these films, the creative instinct is jeopardized (or deluged) and must be preserved.
In Isle of Dogs, the wistfulness of a fallen world pining for paradise (the Garden, where human and beast are in harmony and “man was with his best friend”) is followed by a kind of resurrection. It turns out that “the wrong dog died.” Spots is alive. Separated from Atari and Chief, a conveyer belt carries the other dogs into a mechanical pit, the signage telling us they will be crushed, compacted and incinerated. Anderson’s sculpting of incident around this moment indicates they’re dead (and audiences exhale mournfully on cue)—but soon we see they’re all fine, barely missing death through this mechanical underworld’s sundry infernal compartments. Atari is later eulogized by the media and then at a highly theatrical funeral (in which the old myth of “The Boy Samurai and the Headless Ancestor” is re-represented), before “resurrecting” at the Mayor’s rally. There, Spots combats several automadogs and Kobayashi’s goons, victorious but moribund. At the film’s conclusion, we see a monument to him which would seem to definitively declare his mortal sacrifice, if not for the camera that descends into the earth where Spots, a cyborg salvaged by science, joins his mate (Juman Malouf) and a fresh brood of pups.
There is no distinction between Spots’s sculpted monument and the character, which has been replicated through nature and sustained through storytelling. In the same way the Boy Samurai persists, however many centuries have passed, first through background placards and graffiti (“The Boy Samurai Lives,” reads an underground protest of the Kobayashi government) and then significantly through a haiku offered by Atari to his uncle. This represents the most powerful transformation in Isle of Dogs: “Whatever happened to man’s best friend? Falling spring blossom.” The poem revisits the question of “Who are we and who do we want to be?” and so the intersection of reality and representation. Then the film’s representative “reality” crumbles. Behind Atari we see the death factories of the Japanese archipelago, and then the skeletons of all the dogs who have died dissolving into beautiful pink trees which abruptly shed their blossoms, the symbol of death and rebirth, and then the traumatic memory of the mushroom cloud. History’s expunged and anonymous dead are back to haunt us: the “wrong dog” Sport, Chief and Spots’s drowned sisters, and of course those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Titled “Atari’s Lantern,” the poem compels its listener to see things in a new light. Kobayashi himself is absorbed into the humbling cosmology that, like the purple volcano always haunting the background, or the tidal waves in myth, dwarfs his political machinations. Kobayashi’s change, followed by Atari assuming the mayoral position after an activist hacker foils the euthanizing plot, leads to Interpreter Nelson’s exclamation of “Holy Moses!”: the Exodus from bondage and a fallen state foreshadowing a new Deliverer and a new Law. In the epilogue to his poem Atari remembers that he was also a stray dog, saved by his uncle. Distinctions collapse through the miracle of metaphor, including the age-old distinction between the nebulous divine and the exactness of science. Anderson’s camera laterally follows the heroes across an industrial wasteland, the advancements of human technology having been ravaged by the gods—tidal waves, earthquakes and a volcano. (Jupiter relates how it was an “act of God,” i.e. a tsunami, that forced a factory used for cruel experiments on dogs to close.)
The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You” plays as a gentle chorus cradling our heroes. “I’ve been to Paradise and out the other side,” the lyric tells us, “with no one to guide me, torn apart by a fiery wheel inside me.” The repeated chorus of “I won’t hurt you” as the volcano looks on is a gentler iteration of Providence, benevolent to the film’s characters much as we (hopefully) are with our domestic animals. It calls to mind what Milan Kundera said of a couple caring for their dying dog in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.
After trust develops between Chief and Atari, their bond is ritually sealed on the boat Atari has built with the dogs (and so as a reiteration of the world-redeeming ark myth). As Atari’s funeral plays out back home, theatrically accompanied by a reiteration of the Boy Samurai story, the “marriage” between Spots, Chief and Atari is consecrated in an exchange of recognition, passing through the cinematic components of sight and sound, the image alternating between the three in close-up, their eyes in vibrant focus and drawing us into their bond. Something similar occurs in the film’s climax, when a Babel of tongues, breeds and histories collide. In Anderson’s films, sight and sound hold the leash to art and invention, salvaging the world from the axiomatic delimitations imposed by “Social Services” in Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest’s Zig-Zag fascists, and Kobayashi’s automadogs in Isle of Dogs.
Who are we, and who do we want to be? The anthropomorphic recreation of a world in our image extends from the dogs to Anderson’s ersatz geography, as a perilous pass through the isle is wryly called “The Middle Fingers.” The ocular imagery of Atari’s crash landing equates the eye with a firmament, which itself is discarded cultural trash—and indeed the whole world of nature we see in Isle of Dogs is a filmmaker’s artificial simulacra, giving form to fantasy and realizing the secret universes that Anderson has always held sacred. Spots notes how his love for his master Atari “is a very private matter,” hidden and yet central to his identity, unspoken but true. Later, in the flirtation between Chief and Nutmeg, the show dog’s description of her mind-boggling stunts (balancing a bowling ball on her nose; juggling several flaming pins) has the smitten stray’s choleric heart opening up to the boundlessness of a secret, creative universe. “I can picture it,” he says, his mind bubble showing the sumptuously adorned Nutmeg doing the impossible with ease. This impossible image is an echo of the dialogue between boy and dog in “I can hear you,” where the vast lacunae between unlike creatures is, if only in the fantasy of art, bridged.
The lantern illuminating Isle of Dogs’s recreated world transmutes the possibility of paradise regained, a reconciliation with nature which perhaps we can best understand when we are at home, mysteriously in love with our furry companions.