Therefore, there doesn’t seem to be another director better suited to stop-motion animation as someone as meticulous as Anderson. As Anderson makes more films, they develop in even more detail. His most recent Russian nesting doll of a tale, The Grand Budapest Hotel, delighted in sugar-coated marzipan detailed crumbs. Isle of Dogs, which is about a near-future Japan that exiles all of its canines to a garbage island due to a flu infestation, perfectly frames every single hair and cotton dust sneeze.
A trash island seems an unlikely setting for the precious Anderson, but there’s a detailed whimsy he brings to even the animated maggot-ridden food. Sake bottles are refashioned into an Ali Baba cave of wonders and tiny ticks and fleas pop up in dog fur unobtrusively, only for the observant eye to catch.
Besides all its magnificent world-building and charm, Isle of Dogs is a fairly straightforward quest story. A young boy, Atari, crash lands on the Isle of Dogs in search for his former companion, Spots. A ragtag pack of Alpha Dogs work with him to track Spot down and uncover the workings of a corrupt government. There’s nothing in here that will gain viewers to either side of the Anderson followers/detractors. The dogs are perhaps unsurprisingly (yet unfortunately) more developed than their human counterparts. While the humans remain rather flat, the dogs have nuance and complexity. A Lady and the Tramp like exchange has more of a noir quality, and it’s the dogs that are faced with moral decisions and character developments. Anderson often presents his melancholia well through his deadpan dialogue, and so we generally see more of that through the canines in Isle of Dogs.
The question of course that has come up with this film is one of cultural appropriation. Anderson weaves in Japanese influences as far ranged as its art to its food and culture. As an ode to his own language obsession, he has chosen not to subtitle all the words, but instead allows the Japanese to stand for itself, while highlighting every different way of translating these words, whether it is through a translator or stenographer or attempting non-verbal communication. There are those who believe that this has in fact pushed the Japanese characters into the background even more by not giving them a coherent voice.
But this “lost in translation” error is not one that Wes Anderson has made, but rather one that the critics have. Anyone that goes into his film with an open eye can indeed see his love of Japanese culture and cinema, and his love of language. Yes, he does use allusions to Seven Samurai in his score, but he also lovingly tributes Satyajit Ray’s music in The Darjeeling Limited. Of course his movie doesn’t encompass all of Japanese culture, but to claim that a movie does or should is not merely ridiculous, but impossible. To say that Anderson should not make a movie in Japan or with Japanese references because he is not Japanese is to say that he should not have made a movie about underwater explorers in The Life Aquatic merely because he did it based on his passion and love for Jacques Cousteau.
His weakest point in cultural sensitivity, and also the weakest point to his whole story, is the white foreign-exchange student Tracy. Although perhaps an attempt to allow more English-speakers to understand what was going on, it’s truly cringeworthy when we see her swoop in and be the driving force behind the significantly more passive Japanese students to save Atari and bring down a corrupt government. It makes no sense that she should be the hero, even to the point where she literally slaps sense into a Japanese scientist (and also one who holds the key to the canine salvation).
It’s due to this character that Anderson’s cultural appreciation argument suffers. Otherwise, he shows a care for his love. Anderson worked with long-time friend Kunichi Nomura to cast, direct, and culturally frame the film appropriately. Japanese actors speak Japanese, rather than having a slew of English-speaking characters speaking pidgin English. Anderson’s admiration of Kurosawa isn’t just in the sound cues, but his understanding of Japanese cinema -- in the sparse beats from time to time and the allowance of space. And if Anderson's film is meant to be a criticism of any country's government, it certainly shines a light more on the American political state rather than the present Japanese one.
Furthermore, Anderson brings in his family of collaborators to voice the quirky cast as well as a host of new artists, from Tilda Swinton as an oracle pug to Yoko Ono as Yoko Ono. There’s not a bad bark to be had, with a lovable gruff Brian Cranston leading the pack. And we may not understand the vocabulary of Atari, but we certainly understand his emotion and the other ways he uses to communicate.
It’s not his best, but it’s undeniably a master craftsman presenting another great work. Anderson consistently creates marvelous worlds of wonder and detailed care that are made with such love you always want to inhabit them for a little longer.