For a director who lives, or at least dreams, in dollhouses and dioramas, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs fittingly, and not unproblematically, begs, and then totally decries, comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu for its cinematic fantasyland version of mid-century Japan. That plaintive master of the cinema – arguably the master of the cinema – exposed post-War tensions in Japanese life with potent undertows of generational compromise and interpersonal balance all illuminated by and exposed through his famously diorama-like aesthetic. But although Anderson’s film is also set in a facsimile of mid-century Japan and retains Anderson’s typically diorama-laden milieu as well, it is in many ways Ozu’s diametrical opposition. While Ozu cast a plaintive and empathetic eye on external society, Isle of Dogs is resolutely a vision of the internal. Or, at least, it is a resolutely internal gaze on a mindscape known as Andersonville. For better or worse, it is as personal as Ozu’s film, but it is far more hermetically the work of, and a work for, one artist.
Compared to Ozu’s deeply pensive, almost observational eye that belies a casual mastery of construction, Anderson’s film trumpets its packaging, flaunting its constructed image ostentatiously. It’s Japan is undeniably idiomatic, suggesting a nation filtered through the narrow corridor of the Western imagination. It also evokes a cartoon, a mordant caricature of Japanese society – or, more worryingly, a mental canvas upon which a white author spray-paints his own mental stereotype of Japanese culture – that mostly severs ties to the external world. This is Anderson’s Japan, in other words, a beguiling and resolutely weird concoction of personal effervescence and conformity to Orientalist stereotypes. Strange and whimsical and curious, perhaps, but this image of the East is also not that abnormal in a West historically and presently enmired in normative visions of the East that hew close to Andersonian collages of eccentricity and oddity in the first place. The East, in other words, has often been a toybox for Western minds to play in, and all of Anderson’s films have always benefited from and been devoured by their own toybox aesthetics.
A curiously harmonious stylistic mixture, then, the film is. But it is also a deeply disturbing marriage of Andersonian form to racialized content. Anderson’s own The Darjeeling Limited similarly, and more cannily, explored Western Orientalist cinematic tropes aimed at India by self-reflexively accentuating its own stilted, sardonically constructed self-composure, imagining itself not as a realist portrait of India but as a mental projection of its alienated white protagonists who imaginatively trespass through rather than reside in India. Although time will tell, this new film, comparatively, seems not to self-reflexively shade itself with an understanding of its own reliance on caricature, ironically considering its obviously artificial nature. Somewhat problematically, the hyper-reality of the animation – its sheer technical elegance – evokes the countenance of reality rather than a misguided etching of a culture the film can only tenuously image in the first place. It suggests Anderson trying to breathe life into Japan rather than to expose the mental limits of his confectionary construction, much like the mental limits of those filmmakers which inspired films like The Darjeeling Limited decades before, limits Anderson so surreptitiously took to task in that decade-old film.
Of course, little about Isle of Dogs is confectionary, and consciously so. Despite the broad caricaturization and tentative understanding of Japanese society, little in Isle of Dogs is nozzled so profusely or with such scattershot alacrity to justify my use of the phrase “spray-paint” several paragraphs ago. It’s politics make be iffy and vague, but its craft is diamond-cut, lasered-in, and truly immaculate. In other words, it’s good old Anderson the autocract, and this is, without a doubt, Anderson’s most unapologetically autocratic film yet, severely mounted and ruthlessly controlled via Tristan Oliver’s cinematography and Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod’s production design, all likely under Anderson’s vise-grip.
And all to tell the tale of the titular island, a mangy mongrel of a cinematic location where, owing to a centuries-long feud between a dynastic Japanese family and their canine companions, all of the nation’s dogs have been sequestered to the feudal, Mad Maxian netherworld of the title. Much to the chagrin of Atari (Rankin Koyu), a young boy who ventures out of the retro-futurist city of Megasaki to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) and is himself rescued by one of the prime player dog gangs on the island, composed of four Woody Allen-esque underlings Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and their de facto leader, a gruff and reticent charcoal black dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston) who speaks with a paternalistic compassion that belies a possibly dictatorial grasp. There are other wrinkles, but the core of the table is a boy’s search for his dog, and the existential confusion of dogs who choose, possibly against their better judgment, to help.
Chief is much like Anderson, in that regard, and much like Anderson, when you cut through the sometimes-alienating affectation of his persona, one can genuinely glean currents of melancholy and sketch moments of checkered doubt, locating a soul and not simply a style. Which is where Isle of Dogs mediates, if not transcending, the moral concerns lapping at its banks. Despite its woolly and off-kilter eccentricities, Isle of Dogs is also a self-consciously deadened proposition, a drained work, a film of arch, arid humor and wide expanses of minimalistic empty space. It traces the thread between Anderson’s typically maximalist, hyper-presentational style and a supremely ascetic texture that somehow approximates a parallel universe where Bresson was a hipster rather than an existentialist. In other words, beneath its extraordinarily fussy craft – or through this very craft – Anderson’s film animates, much like Svankmajer’s Alice, a truly embalmed world. It makes Isle of Dogs not so much a feat of necromancy but taxidermy, skillfully and self-consciously evoking the non-life of its own motile, mutable figurines, as though their fates are fodder for an unnamed God, actually Anderson, who controls them. In other words, while morally problematic, the film is also, very successfully I might add, existentially frightening.
Of course, the film rouses to a heroic conclusion, implying a slow birthing, a metaphysical bringing to life to match Anderson’s own vivifying of clay and fur into a panorama of possibility. But before that, the film actually seems to prove my earlier contention wrong: its very tactility, the physicality of its figurines, evokes not the almost-haptic presence of story being brought to such life we can almost touch it, but, rather, it evokes the sheer fact that these are toys, that this is Anderson’s Japan, a prefabricated construction and not a lively image of a living, breathing Japan. Fittingly then, although the film radiates the cautiousness of its own skillful curation, Anderson also usefully splinters his story with rougher patches, oblong ends that seem to point to untold worlds that, pointedly, remain outside of his cone of vision. Whether he is intentionally commenting on, or merely accidentally and unthinkingly revealing, how his hermetic worldview precludes any outside awareness of a life not his own, I cannot tell. (For all her skill, the often luminous films of Sofia Coppola, often critiqued in the same register as Anderson, have never managed this self-reflective formal intimation of their own myopia, so I at least appreciate the possibility that Anderson is being reflective). The film’s fascinating central quandary, then, is how to confront this mixture of reality and fantasy, and how much leniency to grant any claim that the film is actually self-aware of its artificial nature.
I must confess that I do not know the answer, but even in the finale act heroism, the film maintains a certain ghoulish monotone, a lack of affect, observing, or creating, an all-business world that, depending on your point of view on Anderson, suggests a lack of emotion or an expression of a world in search of emotion. Sympathetic to the latter, I found the film’s style bracing, not necessarily because it is aware that its Japan is a lifeless construct and a stereotype but because the film uses its fabrication to animate a deadened island world, a world, problematic or not, which affectively and successfully evokes a tragic existence and wounded, dog-tired characters, dog or otherwise. It may not actually comment on or critique its own stereotypes, but it uses them to exceedingly melancholic and effective ends. Problems aside, one cannot deny the fascination of the film’s relentlessly cold disposition, its severely alienating take on Kabuki theater as if shaded with the grisly, ghoulishly-empty stop-motion of Jiri Trnka. It’s a sad film, in other words, not simply because of any sad plot developments but because it radiates a depleted formal, visual, and aural energy that cuts through and thus deepens the sense that this is all an exercise in heroic technical animation, suggesting that Anderson is not simply showing off his hand but his mind.
Still, I could leave the subplot with Japan-rescuing American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) behind unless someone somehow convinces me it is an extension of Darjeeling’s meta-critique of Orientalist narratives rather than simply an example of them. And, while I appreciate this new film’s dour aesthetics and admirable melancholia, I suspect Isle of Dogs’ world is still more cloistered, and less self-reflectively willing to interrupt that cloister, than the Pabstian milieu of Anderson’s previous Grand Budapest Hotel. In that film, the increasingly centrifugal world of interwar Europe seemed to traumatically batten down its own hatches for fear of admitting its own chaos to itself. Isle of Dogs suggests fewer such self-conscious counterpoints, at least upon my first viewing.
That earlier 2014 film, a second coming for Anderson, was itself the subject of much critique, namely, that it imagined Eastern Europe as a cotton-candy idyll for the wealthy rather than a war-torn geography of desperation and social uncertainty, and that it retextured the truly mordant melancholy of Eastern European cinema as a semi-flippant, more whimsical concoction devoid of consequence. I’m sympathetic to those claims, although not entirely convinced that the film doesn’t ultimately subvert those expectations, finally turning our fantasias of Eastern Europe (and Anderson’s) on their heads, calling on the spirit of continental wartime cinema which masked anxiety about a rapidly unraveling world with tragicomic slapstick to auto-critically expose Anderson’s own pretensions toward a fully, autocratically managed world.
That said, if you took issue with Grand Budapest or Darjeeling as Orientalist fantasias rather than self-critical analyses of the same, seek no refuge in Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s most overtly Orientalist film thus far, and his most autocratic. One might hope that Anderson, a scholar of cinema who nonetheless apparently did not indulge in the more tragic Eastern European films while researching for Grand Budapest, had at least seen the startlingly depressing, truly mordant diorama stop-motion likes of Jiri Trnka. He could have applied that sense of cinema as a collapsed negative space in Isle of Dogs, itself descended unknowingly from that spirit of stop-motion.
But while Grand Budapest Hotel singularly plumbed the deepest (and possibly darkest) reservoirs of Anderson’s consciousness, Isle of Dogs, especially when it enters uplifting hero-mode, sometimes feels like an echo chamber, a film designed not to explore Anderson’s own mind but to congratulate it, or to appease it. When the boy saves the day, returning the dogs to their owners, there’s a tang of Anderson to the child, clarifying the self-centeredness of the film. Sure, it’s less obvious than those Tim Burton stop-motion films where a young boy, always obviously Burton, brings to life a Franken-dog, thereby allowing Burton to celebrate his own cinematic revivifying of inanimate clay. But the tang of showmanship, of expanding one’s craft and not one’s mind, remains in Isle of Dogs. However, there is one crucial salvaging difference: Burton’s films sometimes feel like the giddy companions of a director who created them so as to feel happy, whereas Isle of Dogs suggests a film, for all its visual clarity and sublime craftsmanship, which cannot truly appease Anderson, which is a wholly more satisfying and thornier proposition for a film than anything Burton has directed in at least two decades.
So, to sum it up (as though it can be in the first place), Isle of Dogs is something of an ur-Anderson film: exactingly particular, often intoxicating, sometimes suffocating in its artisanal pedigree. So your mileage may vary. Every film of his is a theater of the mind, his mind, sometimes accruing the aura of a holy writ designed for only himself and the devoted followers of his personal fashion. It’s undeniably narcissistic, obviously pleased with itself beneath the startling purgatorial cloak of doleful mood that heroically undercuts and complicates any whisper of the “whimsiness” that people always turn to Anderson for. It’s the perennial problem of a film that is both extremely personal and somewhat less than willing to truly plunge into the personal crises and/or most unstable regions of its creator’s mind. But, despite its limits, in the (many) moments where the film truly does seem to be exposing the knottiest reservoirs of personal consciousness, the film asks, teasingly: could it ever be anything other than Anderson’s mind?