Sunday, 1 April 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: ISLE OF DOGS


65. “Centuries ago, before the Age of Obedience…”



01/04/2018




The one guarantee in watching a Wes Anderson film is it will be unlike any other you will find in a cinema multiplex, for his influences come from further afield. I had not expected the directing style in Anderson’s films, and particularly “Isle of Dogs,” to evoke the Japanese director Yaujiro Ozu, best known for “Tokyo Story” (1954), and “Good Morning” (1958) – mostly through the camera facing actors directly, rather than at an angle - but I am glad that Peter Bradshaw also picked this up in his review of this film for “The Guardian.” If more arthouse and foreign films were found in multiplexes, I wouldn’t be so surprised, but while Wes Anderson is the point where these worlds meet, I will take it.

I have already reviewed Spike Milligan’s “The Bed-Sitting Room,” and Ben Wheatley’s “High Rise,” both films about survivors living amongst piles of rubbish, but unlike them, the dogs of “Isle of Dogs” did not exile or resign themselves to their self-made fate – they know their exile to “Trash Island,” following the outbreak of “Snout Fever,” is the endgame of an eternal conflict between dog-lovers and cat-lovers – the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi, of Megasaki City, is historically on the cat side. The docile pet dogs, now forced to fight for scraps of food, have only the ingrained relationships, destiny, honour and authority inherent of being a pet, apart from Chief, a stray, voiced by Bryan Cranston (and not George Clooney, as I reminded myself a couple of times), who could not be tamed – “I don’t bark, I bite!”


With the human population of Megasaki City convinced to turn in their dogs, only one human files to Trash Island to find their dog – Atari, orphaned nephew and ward to Mayor Kobayashi, whose guard dog Spots was symbolically the first to be exiled. Chief has to be convinced to help Atari, and the journey they embark upon to get back home tests the definition of “man’s best friend,” for both of them are tearaways that adoption didn’t really help.

I don’t want to ruin the story, as while it is a “Hero’s Journey,” it is told very well – the name “Atari,” a term from the board game Go, refers to hitting a target, or receiving something fortuitously, and is used correctly here. Chief’s pack, voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban, balance the comedy and horror of the setting – dogs do die on Trash Island. Scarlett Johansson voices Nutmeg, a love interest for Chief, while on the human side of things, Greta Gerwig plays an American foreign exchange student to uncovers the truth behind the disease, while Frances McDormand operates as an interpreter that appears through the film.


At the screening I saw for “Isle of Dogs,” there was a trailer for “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” a Japanese anime that is set in Britain, and is based on “The Little Broomstick,” a novel by British author Mary Stewart. Only one preview will be shown at the cinema with subtitles, with the rest dubbed into English, with very English accents by Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent. Hayao Miyazaki’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” was inspired by Welsh mining villages, and Katushiro Otomu’s “Steamboy” was an original story set in Manchester. My reason for mentioning this is because the cultural appropriation seen by some in “Isle of Dogs,” with Japanese people only heard through interpretation, and even the use of a Japanese setting by an American film (as opposed to just the iconography – see “Blade Runner” for further details), is rather disingenuous given the cultural exchange of ideas there has always been between East and West. In “Isle of Dogs,” the world we are given is seen through the eyes of the dogs, and an explanatory note at the beginning confirms that is why the dogs speak English. The Japanese people speak for themselves, even if only some of their words are translated – they are never dubbed, but their action and intent is never lost. Otherwise, out of fear of offence in any shape of form, you could have characters speaking in different languages, untranslated, without context, in a British prime-time soap opera, one reason why the BBC’s “Eldorado,” set in a British ex-pat community in Spain, lasted only one year.

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