Isle of Dogs: A Wes Anderson Movie in Japanese Costume

Isle of Dogs follows Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013), Disney’s Big Hero 6 (2014) and Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) as the latest in a line of American movies to draw upon the pop cultural imagery and aesthetics of Japan for its inspiration. Not that it could ever be mistaken as anything other than a Wes Anderson film, however.

Co-scripted by his regular collaborator, Roman Coppola – himself no stranger to the country, having worked on his sister Sofia’s Lost in Translation (2003) – it is a deadpan yet affable tale of a ragtag pack of hounds exiled to 'Trash Island' by the new mayor of Megasaki City in a ruthless attempt to halt the spread of a particularly virulent strain of dog flu raging through its canine population. 

Trash City in  Isle of Dogs  (2018)

Trash City in Isle of Dogs (2018)

In terms of style and substance, Isle of Dogs does not stray far from the director’s recurrent thematic focus on outsider underdogs rising up against a rigid and stony-faced authoritarianism. Like his earlier Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), the use of stop-motion animation allows Anderson a far tighter degree of control over his hallmark brand of flat, fastidious-arranged compositions than his live-action works. 

One thing that Wes Anderson certainly knows about Japan is that few of its cultural products are as capable of transcending national borders so effortlessly as animation and movies about dogs. Of the numerous four legged-themed films produced by the country, a surprising number have made the transition to Western screens, either as remakes or localised versions that erase their local origins. The Adventures of Milo and Otis (directed by Masanori Hata and also known by the alternate English title of The Adventures of Chatran) which, in a similar vein to Disney’s The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markle, 1963), charted the adventures of a young kitten and puppy on an epic voyage across the wilderness, received a prominent release in North America in 1989 with a new voiceover provided by Dudley Moore, three years after its original Japanese run where it had been the top-grossing domestic hit of its year. Disney’s Eight Below (Frank Marshall, 2006) was based on another local smash hit, Antarctica (1983), based on a true event from 1958 in which two huskies survived an entire year after being abandoned at the South Pole by their masters.

The Adventures of Milo and Otis  (1986)

The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986)

Antarctica  (1983)

Antarctica (1983)

Just outside Shibuya station in Tokyo is the statue of Japan’s most famous dog, Hachiko, an iconic landmark and meeting point commemorating the real-life Akita hound who made his daily trek to this very spot to await his master’s return from work, continuing to do so even a decade after his death in 1925. Japan’s cinematic testament to the legend, Hachiko Story (1987) was subsequently remade in Hollywood by Lasse Hallström as Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2008), starring Richard Gere.

Hachiko Story  (1987)

Hachiko Story (1987)

Hachi: A Dog's Tale  (2008)

Hachi: A Dog's Tale (2008)

Other local canine successes like Farewell, Kuro (2003), Walking with the Dog (2004), Quill (2004), All About My Dog (2005) and A Tale of Mari and Three Puppies (2007) have not strayed so far overseas, but it is worth pointing out that Japan also has an even stronger tradition of cat flicks.

When it comes to the world of anime, there can be no greater dog lover than Mamoru Oshii, whose own hangdog basset Gabriel has been venerated throughout the director’s filmography. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) features a memorable digression in which the heavily-mechanised cyborg special agent Batou lovingly feeds his pet as a way of connecting with his own more organic side. 

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence  (2004) 

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) 

Oshii’s eccentric (and sadly unreleased outside Japan) semi-animated mockumentary Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (2006) playfully reconstructs Japan’s postwar history using a unique assemblage of cut-out photographs assembled on 3D virtual stages, presenting a series of portraits of mythical eat-and-runners who survive by scamming tachigui (literally “stand-and-eat”) fast food stalls. The film’s reference to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s systematic rounding up and extermination of the capital’s stray dogs in the run up to the 1964 Olympics provides an obvious historical precedent for Isle of Dogs.

Fast Food Grifters  (2006)

Fast Food Grifters (2006)

Nevertheless, perhaps surprisingly for a director making an animation with an ostensibly Japanese setting, Anderson draws very little on the visual tropes of anime for his own style. Still, his aesthetic is very much at one with Japan’s own representational traditions, as manifested in the field of stop-motion by the hauntingly beautiful works of the country’s most accomplished practitioner, Kihachiro Kawamoto, which have been made available on a North American DVD. 

Kawamoto’s immaculately-crafted puppets, similar to those used in traditional Bunraku theatre, have occupied centre stage in such short films as The Demon (1970), Dojoji Temple (1976), and House of Flame (1979), their worlds and stories drawing from Noh and Kabuki and exuding a sublime Buddhist sensibility. Closer to home, British stop-motion animator Barry Purves paid homage to the Japanese arts with Screen Play (1992), exquisitely rendered in the form of a Kabuki play. 

Screen Play  (1992)

Screen Play (1992)

The Demon  (1970)

The Demon (1970)

One can find many similarities between the instantly-recognisable style honed by Anderson across his career and that of Japanese traditional art and cinema, and not just within Isle of Dogs. Most strikingly, there is the aesthetic of flatness, in which characters are carefully positioned within the frame and depth cues are downplayed, if not eliminated altogether. 

Isle of Dogs  (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018)

In such classic examples from the 1960s as Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964), Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), the respective directors create meticulous widescreen compositions, as in Isle of Dogs, using traditional Japanese architectural features, such as translucent white shoji dividing walls and multiple-panelled decorated fusuma screens, to flatten the image and foreground its geometrical components. The calligraphy on lanterns, shop signs and banners can also be enjoyed as decorative elements in their own right, devoid of their actual meaning, while empty space is also often used as an active pictorial element.

An Actor's Revenge  (1963)

An Actor's Revenge (1963)

Harakiri  (1962)

Harakiri (1962)

Kuroneko  (1968)

Kuroneko (1968)

Kwaidan  (1964)

Kwaidan (1964)

Anderson’s pared-down style of slow pacing, fixed camera positions and his characteristic use of medium close-up frontal shots also bear comparison with the distinctive style of that quintessential Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, a man who similarly created a unique visual grammar of his very own. That said, Ozu’s celebrated rejection of established staging and editing techniques, with the positioning his characters at a slightly off-kilter angle to the camera resulting in his famous mismatched eye-line effect during conversation scenes, is slightly different from Anderson’s more direct face-on approach.

Equinox Flower  (1958)

Equinox Flower (1958)

Isle of Dogs is certainly not a case of the indie auteur attempting to create a movie that could masquerade as a Japanese one. This is very much a Wes Anderson movie in Japanese costume. It is film that celebrates both contemporary and classical Japanese artistic traditions in its constructed world while never feeling anything less than American.

[Jasper Sharp is a writer and curator specialising in Japanese cinema. His books include Behind the Pink Curtain and The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema.]

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs stars Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schrieber, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Yoko Ono. 

See it at your nearest Curzon from Friday 30 March.