For a lot of people, Wes Anderson's newest stop motion film Isle of Dogs has been out in theaters for several weeks. Anticipating the release of this movie, The Squad had planned on podcasting about the film for our last Othersode (rather than doing Ready Player One, which fellow podcaster Kelli was vehemently trying to avoid... OH WELL, KELLI); however, those of us living in podunk Southern towns just got Isle of Dogs in our theaters this past weekend. So rather than getting a full on podcast about this movie, you're just going to get a review from me, the cat lover. Sorry not sorry.
Here I go. Minor spoilers to follow.
Isle of Dogs is a film largely set in Megasaki City, Japan and a nearby "trash island," which has been converted into an island for exiled dogs. In this semi-futuristic Japan, all dogs have been excommunicated from the country due to an outbreak of dog flu, which authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi says could spread to the human population. There's a team of scientists who are adamant that a cure for the disease is in the foreseeable future, but Kobayashi is basically like, "Whatever. Bye, dogs," as he strokes his cat.
So lets talk about the malignment of cats in movies, please. Just for a moment. As a lover of cats, I know I'm extra sensitive to this, and maybe you might argue that I'm reading into this more than I should. But when's the last time the villains had a pet dog? When's the last time cats were harassed by villainous dogs in a movie? I'll have you know that in real life, dogs are much more likely to kill a cat than the other way around. I tried to Google the specific statistics, but came up blank. So you'll just have to trust me on this one.
And yet! And yet cats in movies are almost always painted as the bad guys, especially when dogs are at the center of the movie. Look, I love dogs. They're cute and fun to pet and I'll coo at your cute dog all day if you want me to. But why do dog lovers feel the need to slander kitties? Can't you just let me love cats and you love your dogs without making it a big deal? Why does one have to be good and one have to be bad? Guys, we're talking about cute cuddly animals here. They're all good.
Okay. Rant over. But my first strike against this movie was the fact that the bad guys who wanted to get rid of dogs apparently wanted to do so because they were all EVIL cat owners. Rude. So that was a big con for me.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Isle of Dogs quite a bit. I know the movie isn't perfect (especially in its depiction of cats), but for me the pros outweighed the cons. So here, for your reading pleasure, is a list of some of the pros and cons from my perspective.
PRO: The Japanese language. When it comes to Japanese, I am extremely biased. I took Japanese in college and I get really excited when I get to hear it, especially when I am able to follow it without subtitles. It makes me feel all, "Yay! I'm smart." But beyond me and what I like, I really enjoyed the way foreign language was treated in this movie overall. At the beginning of the movie, there is a note to the viewers that all people will be speaking in their native language without subtitles. The only translations into English will be given through translators and such as they fit into the narrative of the movie. The dog's barks, however, will be translated into English. I felt like this was a very clever and respectful way to deal with language in the movie. Rather than focusing on the subtitles, you're forced to find meaning through the sound of the language itself and the way the actors are intoning their lines. Going into this movie, I was really worried about how the Japanese language was going to be depicted, and I was actually satisfied with this choice.
CON: The overall depiction of Japan... maybe. I cannot deny or ignore the criticism this movie is getting for cultural appropriation. Wes Anderson, it must be said, is a white dude, and so we have to understand and acknowledge the fact that this is a story about Japanese culture coming from a white dude's perspective. In a lot of ways, this felt like a movie that was solely for American audiences. I'm not sure how this movie is going to translate for non-native speakers of English.
For more on this issue, I recommend reading Emily Yoshida's article "What's It Like to Watch Isle of Dogs As A Japanese Speaker" over on Vulture. Notably, Yoshida points out that "Isle of Dogs depicts a heightened essence of the Japanese culture as filtered through a Western understanding." For instance, you've got your sushi! Your sumo wrestling! Your Taiko drums! That's what Japan is, right? Maybe? So is this an oversimplified representation of a country? Or is Anderson just trying to be respectful/reverential to Japanese tradition? I don't know. As a white girl who is really into Japanese culture, I don't know that I'm the best person to answer that question. Indeed, I might be part of the problem.
As for the criticism that the movie's representation of Japanese language itself seems oversimplified or stilted, I get where people are coming from with this critique. However, y'all, have you never seen a Wes Anderson movie before? Are we sure this isn't an issue with Wes Anderson dialogue in general?
PRO: The dogs were funny and cute. I feel like this is pretty self-explanatory. Just look at them. How can you not want to cuddle them? Bryan Cranston as Chief (pictured above lying down) was especially fun.
CON: More girl dogs, please. My main complaint is that all of the main dog characters in this movie where played by men. More specifically, they were all played by old white dudes. Like, yeah, they were funny and all, but there was no reason that there couldn't be a lady dog with them on this adventure. At the very least, throw some Asian American actors into the mix (I specify Asian American because it seems like these dog barks are, for the most part, translated into American English, but who knows? I don't make the rules of dog-land). This was just a very dude-heavy movie on the whole, and the lady characters didn't get to do much of anything. More on Tracy (ugh) later, but as far as the lady dog characters go, Scarlett Johansson's Nutmeg plays the largest role and she's pretty much your stereotypical love interest who's into bad boys. At the end of the movie she says something about not liking dogs who are trained, which is just... gross. Stop it.
PRO: It was kind of dark, and I liked it! I didn't know until I went to see this movie, but Isle of Dogs got a PG-13 rating, which I found surprising. I don't know what officially pushed it over the edge to a PG-13 rather than PG, but I will say overall the tone was a little dark. And I was into it. It sort of gave me Watership Down vibes... is that crazy? These dogs are scrappy. They're violent. They don't mind biting off each other's ears to get to the latest scraps of trash. Heck, not all doggies make it off of trash island alive. Stakes are high. This isn't necessarily a kid movie just because it's stop motion.
CON: The foreign exchange student. Sorry to Greta Gerwig who played Tracy the foreign exchange student (pictured left), but this character was superfluous and also problematic. Check out NYLON's "Isle of Dogs and the Problem of the White Savior" (written by Sandra Song) for more on why Tracy as a character is so problematic. Here, I just want to talk about why we don't even need her.
Tracy was my biggest issue with this movie in general because most of the time she was on screen, I had more questions than I had answers. If she's an American foreign exchange student living in Japan, why does she have a show dog named Nutmeg living on trash island? Wouldn't her dog be back in America? If her show dog did travel with her to Japan... why? Does she have time to train her dog to do tricks while also attending classes and leading a revolution? I don't think so.
I also thought it was weird that Tracy announces that she has a crush on Atari Kobayashi, the young pilot who journeys to the island to save his dog Spots. First of all, I'm all for relationships where one person is much older than the other, but when one of characters is twelve and the other one is voiced by an adult woman, it's just weird. Also, nothing ever comes of this plot line. There's no need for it.
The biggest thing Tracy as a character does is expose the corrupt cat-loving government, but one of the Japanese characters could have done that just as easily. And really, one of the Japanese characters SHOULD HAVE been the one to expose this. I'm looking at you, Yoko Ono.
Basically, we need to get rid of Tracy altogether or make her Japanese and not a foreign exchange student.
PRO: The Oracle. The Oracle (pictured above), voiced by Tilda Swinton, was BY FAR the highlight of this movie to me. The Oracle single-handedly made me go from thinking this movie was "pretty good" to really liking it. The Oracle needs her own spin-off show. The Oracle needs to have a phone line where you can call her and get updates about the news and weather. Someone please make this happen.
CON: Please just give me more of The Oracle. There as not nearly enough of The Oracle in this movie. This character was hilarious. This character was cute. This character was voiced by Tilda Swinton. Give the people what they want. Give them more of The Oracle.
PRO: It looked really, really good. I can forgive a lot when a movie is gorgeous, which is probably why I like so many Wes Anderson movies in the first place. This is Anderson's second stop motion film, his first being The Fantastic Mr. Fox. If we're judging the two films on visuals alone, the quality of Isle of Dogs is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. The sets are gorgeous. The animation is detailed and fun to watch. And did I mention how cute the dogs are? Like, this can't be stated enough. The dogs are cute.
Isle of Dogs should be out everywhere by now, even in your small town. Go check it out, even if you're a cat-lover. It gets two semi-problematic paws up from me.