Directed by Wes Anderson (2018)
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Way back when, a Baby Jaime sat in an AMC multiplex in Philly. It was 2001, and your girl was straight munching on popcorn, Twizzlers, and Sprite, not a (real) care in the GD world. A junior in film school at this point, I thought my shit was pretty tight and right and I couldn't possiblyyyyyyy learn anything new about movies (omg, shameful). Anyway, Lil' Jaime was catching a screening of the recent blockbuster release Pearl Harbor, because, hey, I enjoy some Bayhem in my life every now and then and I don't gotta explain myself to nobody. (And really, who doesn't enjoy Michael Bay in small doses? Even if Michael Bay is like the Loki of Hollywoodland. Insert upside-down smiley emoji here).
So. Pearl Harbor. Everything was moving along just fine, even though at 183 minutes, it could move a little faster, you know? And right in between all of those pained, longing shots of "passionate" eye fucking between Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett, all their gorgeous hairs a-flowin', (honestly, that's all I really remember about this movie - everyone had like, the best hair) they cut to a scene in Japan. And suddenly all the warmth surrounding our Bizarre Love Triangle was abruptly replaced by cold blues and steely greys. Japanese Naval leaders spoke in clipped, icy tones about who knows what (again, I only remember the hair) but I know it wasn't good. At least, certainly not good for all the pretty American actors falling in loveeeee. OMG, what would happen to all those luscious locks?? I know I know, Pearl Harbor is about Japan attacking the United States, so I get it. The Japanese are the "bad guys" and need to be depicted just so. But...do they? I remember feeling very uncomfortable by the portrayal of Japanese people in the film, squirming in my seat actually. I'm not anti-American, I just know there are two sides to every story. Surely by 2001, we had evolved beyond shoveling mass-market propaganda down people's throats? I publicly decried the film (Editor's note: she told like, seven people), believing Bay did a disservice to not only the story, but to an entire nation (ahem, Japan), while assuming Americans as a whole are a bunch of fist-clenching, flag-waving, nonsensical individuals who get behind any slogan, any battle cry in the name of God and country. Those people do exist in the US, in Amurrikah to be precise, but Bay's particular brand of patriotism turned me way off, even as Kate Beckinsale's perfect victory rolls set my heart aflutter.
So while sitting in a small independent theater in Philly this week, a not-so-Baby Jaime experienced a very similar sense of ickiness catching a screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs. Which really sucks because, and I know he's polarizing, but I really love Wes Anderson. I don't think there's anything else about the director I can say here proclaiming my sincere adoration for him that I haven't already written (you can read what I wrote about The Grand Budapest Hotel for further confirmation) so I will instead say this: I don't get it. I don't get why this movie was set in Japan. I don't get why the Japanese in Isle are reduced to a bunch of sumo wrestling-obsessed, samurai sword-fighting, Kabuki theater-going peoples. I don't get why the Japanese humans speak in clipped, icy tones with little translation and no subtitles. I don't get why the dogs all speak in perfect American English ANDDDDD are serious gossip folks (though the latter is a quirky funny that plays pretty well throughout the film). And I really don't get the character of Tracy Walker. I'll get to her in a minute (insert side-eye emoji here).
Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional and futuristic city of Megasaki...but really, it looks like my World's Fair-obsessed dad did the production design for the whole film, when he was a 10 year old in 1967. That's not a dig at the film necessarily, because in true Anderson-style, the film looks pretty damn cool. But again, leads me to point #2 in my very articulate rant above: why set this film in Japan at all? Ok so. Megasaki. It's run by a very crooked family enterprise known as the Kobayashi's. Mayor Kobayashi is a hulking brute of a man hell-bent on eradicating a suspicious strain of dog flu that's been goin' around, thus banishing all dogs to Trash Island, which sits just far enough away off the coast of Megasaki to keep those gossipin' dogs out of sight, out of mind. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in this multi-layered tale of corruption and deceit, angry orphans and outraged high school students.
Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), our Little Orphan Hero, angered at his "uncle" (The Evilest Mayor) sets out on an intrepid voyage, flying to Trash Island to rescue his beloved guard dog Spots and return him to his side. In his quest, he encounters Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), and Boss (Bill Murray), arguably "led" by the anti-alpha Chief (Anderson-verse newcomer Bryan Cranston). After agreeing to help who they've dubbed "The Little Pilot," the group embarks on an adventure taking them all the way across the island, uncovering a sinister yet very Anderson-like plot filled with ex-show dogs, cover-ups, evil robots, pseudo-suicidal scientists, and wasabi poison. It's all very twee and creative and heartstring-tugging, wrapped in a bow of the c-u-t-e-s-t bunnies you've ever friggin seen dancing on rainbows licking multi-colored lollipops (insert one bunny emoji, one rainbow emoji, and one lollipop emoji here). Which is so upsetting because cultural appropriation. And: Tracy. Walker.
Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is a white girl, see? From Ohio, no less. She's a plucky exchange student who's all limbs and freckles and teen angst. As part of the reporting team at the Daily Manifesto at Megasaki High, she adamantly and vehemently attests that something Real Fucked Up is going down in Megasaki, and WE. MUST. UNCOVER. IT! Cool. Admirable. So....out of alllllllllll the inhabitants in this thriving Japanese metropolis, you're telling me it takes a white girl, from Ohio no less, to spur Megasaki-ians into action to cure the incessant corruption that plagues their city? I call bullshit. Also, her character is just real annoying. I didn't mind that she's a regular Lois Lane, out to get her scoop, prove her theory, and save the day. Nah, I think what annoyed me was that she had a crush on Atari the whole time. As if that's relevant or necessary in any GD way. Throwing in a white savior is bad enough. But throwing in the romance twist as an aside didn't sit well with me. Because can't a woman just be passionate about a cause and making things better without being conflicted about having feelingssss? If Tracy's character was male I don't know if they would have thrown in a little crush at the end as like, a thing our dude's having to deal with. I could be wrong about that, but something about her entire existence in the film just irked the everloving life outta me. (Insert mad face emoji here).
And back to that whole cultural appropriation insensitivity thing. It's important to note that Anderson conceived the story and film with Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura, who also acted as a cultural reference on the film. But my feeling of underlying ickiness has more to do with the directorial choices made, namely to pare down the Japanese spoken by the Megasaki-ians while refusing to add subtitles or sufficient translation to understand what was being said. It almost serves to dehumanize and alienate a whole group of people who I really, really wanted to get to know. Instead, I got Tracy Walker. From Ohio. (Insert one million eye roll emojis here).
I am not saying in any way that Isle of Dogs is a dogpile you should avoid like Puppy Chow. I'm just sayin - know what you're getting into. Question it. Talk about it with the people you see it with. Ask different people what they thought, how some of the cultural depictions made them feel. Don't stay quiet about it. Ultimately, if you love Anderson films, you will most likely appreciate much of Isle as well. His attention to detail is so precise and on point in this film, as with his previous work, that I couldn't help but internally swoon during a few moments. My favorite: when a lone blossom makes its way into the chestnut folds of Nutmeg's (Scarlett Johansson) near perfect mane and fixes itself there lovingly. (Insert heart eyes emoji here).