Are you a cat person or a dog person? It’s a question as old as time. For the people of Wes Anderson’s dystopian future Japan, it is clear Mayor Kobayashi is definitely not a pooch person
In a veiled attempt to “protect” his city, the Mayor, with help from his Frankenstein-looking assistant, has sanctioned the exile of all canines to the appropriately named Trash Island. Here is where the Dictator’s orphan nephew, Atari (Koryu Rankin), travels to in search of his deported pup, ‘Spots’ (Liev Schreiber). Atari enlists a ragtag group of dogs who are residual on the island, lead by the hard-up ‘Chief’ (Bryan Cranston) and consisting a pack of Anderson-favourites: including Edward Norton as ‘Rex’ and Bill Murray as ‘Boss’.
Stating the obvious, the film is absolutely stunning. Perhaps one of the most masterfully built worlds of Anderson’s catalogue, it creates a dystopian Blade Runner-esque haze whilst remaining beautifully indebted to Japanese culture. Anderson refuses to subtitle all of the Japanese dialogue, but when he does he marks its translation as an integral part of the story. For example, Frances McDormand’s character has the sole purpose of interpreting the dialogue for our English-speaking benefit. Anderson also uses Haikus at major points in the film. Said Haikus, although quite frivolous, are narrated alongside some of the movie’s most gorgeous shots. Anderson’s admiration for Japanese cinema is also on grand display, with a plentiful soaking of Kurosawa and Miyazaki references throughout.
Anderson makes us unashamedly aware that he is an American directing this film about Japan. He subsequently includes playful references like Atari Kobayashi being the main character’s full name, and has one of the pups comment on the Japanese-speaking child saying: “I wish somebody spoke his language”. Having said this, the film is so intricately devised that you are transported to another world altogether. It’s not confined by language-barriers, as it’s the unspoken bonds between men, women and dogs that often unify the characters.
Anderson does a great job of humanising the scruffy dogs, but not to an extent where they don’t possess their charming doggy tendencies. A lot of the camera placements frame their snouts just out of focus as an ode to their in-your-face friendliness, and they are frequently enamoured with pieces of garbage.
However, the greatest tribute to man’s best friend comes in the form of Atari and Chief’s relationship. Chief, a stray, has initial scepticisms that are gradually usurped by a loving attachment to the young orphan, finding solace in his circumstantial similarities. The pair have been chewed up and spat out by the world and this is pivotal in understanding the film’s primary message: that it’s easier to deal with the pains of the world with friends, whoever they may be. This sense of comradery is shared by a minority in Japan’s mainland where a protest group, led by Greta Gerwig’s Tracy Walker, is entangled in solving the snout-flu crisis and remonstrating the murky government.
The totalitarian state has a brooding presence that lingers over both sides of the narrative. Robot dogs embark on Trash Island as a reminder of the government’s ubiquitous presence. Meanwhile, secrets and lies permeate the inner-workings of a regime that contains a subtle, yet pointed, critique of America’s administration. However, like in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), this political streak mostly remains a background to the many subplots between the characters: whether it’s the blossoming friendship between the grizzled duo of ‘Chief’ and ‘Spots’, or the stories told by the many neglected dogs of the garbage-ridden island.
In many ways, this is one of the most human instalments in the growingly-impressive Wes archive. It is almost unbelievably magnificent in its construction and idiosyncratic, visceral style. Sandwiched by a thudding drumbeat, it is often intense and thrilling, but also draws immense emotion from the slower and more delicate moments. It’s no coincidence that most of the story takes place on a landmass submerged with garbage, it visualises a figurative theme common to all of the director’s work: it’s possible to build something beautiful out of the rubble.
Words By Tom Williams