Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April 18th, 2018

Isle of Dogs ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2018

Isle of DogsWes Anderson’s quirky imagination and deep love of film guarantee that anything he directs will give cinephiles much food for thought as well as entertainment, and in his latest stop-motion animation offering, Isle of Dogs, there is so much content that at times it is hard to digest. The basic plot is simple, however, like any good fantasy or fairy tale: a cat-loving despotic mayor in a dystopian future Japanese city banishes all dogs to an island used as a giant garbage dump. But his 12-year-old ward is distraught at the loss of his guard-dog, Spots, and sets off to find him. Meanwhile the dogs have started to organise themselves and a plan is put into place to turn the tables on wicked Mayor Kobayashi, with the aid of a feisty American girl exchange student in a blond fright wig. However, this simple tale is framed in settings of immense complexity, stuffed full of cultural and cinematic references. There is a distinct irony in this, as so much classical Japanese theatre uses almost no scenery, leaving the audience to imagine the location from the context of the words and action, whereas in Anderson’s film there is so much visual detail that at times one’s mind is totally consumed by taking it all in, to the extent that one’s concentration drifts away from the story. All the classic Japanese stereotype scenes are there, from sushi preparation to sumo wrestling and falling cherry blossoms, much to a soundtrack of dramatic taiko drums. But other references are more nuanced, including not only homage to Japanese art and architecture but also Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to anime. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, only some of which is translated, which may sound a bit strange yet works effectively in intensifying a sense of mystery; the dogs have difficulty understanding much of what the humans are saying. The dogs all talk American English, voiced by well-known actors such as Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, For me that was the only really jarring thing about the film, playing into a subconscious Hollywood narrative of a plucky American kid helping dogs overcome a monstrous adult. Otherwise, the film could not do more to celebrate Japan and things Japanese, though some people might feel at times it veers towards cultural appropriation. I don’t think that is the case. Having studied in Japan as a young man, I revelled in a lot of the references as well as in the jokes. There is a clever balance between humour and seriousness throughout. But I do think Anderson tried to cram too much in — which probably means one needs to see the film more than once to get anything like a full appreciation.

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