Isle of Dogs is not about Dogs.
And it’s not about an Island. And it’s not about Japan
A whimsical tale of a boy and his dog. A celebratory pastiche of Japanese culture. A techneeky binge of cinematic brand.
No, Isle of Dogs is none of those things. Not really.
Wes Anderson’s latest film imagines an authoritarian society governed by a fear-mongering dictator who constructs his power by defining a species of his subject population as a threat to public well-being. By executive decree, he deports them to a wasteland beyond the safety and comfort of civilized society. His administration then invents an army of robots to replace the emotional and custodial labor of that population.
Does anyone really think we’re talking about dogs here?
When first we encounter the deportees, two groups of them engage in a desperate brawl over a box of moldering scraps, the kind of scarce resource occasionally made available to them by the continually-dumped refuse of affluence. Is their Hobbesian struggle proof of their essential badness? The brawl ends not in death but in dominance and a stern warning, “Don’t come around here anymore.” And despite the despotic innuendo inscribed on their tags (Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief), they enact a remarkably genteel dialectic of inspired leadership and deliberative democracy. Compared to the mass spectacle of totalitarian power they’ve been exiled from, it’s a refreshing experiment in grassroots good-governance.
The deportees are not the only ones living beyond the borders of civlization. Midway into the film, we are introduced to a different population of this species living in the wasteland, a supposedly aboriginal group of wild savages rumored to be cannibals. Turns out, they’re not a group of premodern savages but rather the products of modernity. They’re a group of torture refugees, victims of violent exploitation, the vile alter-ego of modern mass capitalism. And they are cannibals, yes, but reluctant, merciful, and tragic cannibals who cannot stop howling their soulful remorse. They don’t want to hurt one another but occasionally they have to in order to survive.
So, turns out, the wild hinterlands of modernity where there’s not enough food and no good drinking water, where people are malformed and deformed by the conditions in which they are forced to struggle, these are not places where civilization has failed to reach but places actively produced and maintained by modernity itself.
What force is there to counter the dual oppressions of the totalitarian state and capitalist exploitation? Opposition takes the form of Science, whose leading character invents a cure to the public health crisis—-only to be silenced and eventually murdered by the dictator. Because, of course, that crisis was no accident but actually the product of collusion between Big State and Big Capital to further the interests of both.
A bleak picture, one that traces the shadows of our current predicament. But this is a children’s movie, in more ways than one, and it’s shot through with hopeful idealism and the promise of redemption.
As in life, it’s the young people who dare to speak truth to power, wearing their badges of resistance, raising their defiant fists. Among them, student journalist Tracy Walker, embarks on a crusade to reveal the corrupt misdeeds of the dictator, thus unleasing a chain of events that results in his eventual overthrow.
Question: if this is a film about a boy and his dog, then why is the film structured so as to obscure his speech? Throughout the film, we can only make out his meaning in the guesswork of other characters. The one human in the film whose speech we understand directly without translation is this journalist, an American exchange student working on the high school newspaper. With her blond bouffant and her pale freckled face (or are those little spots supposed to be acne?), she’s a different kind of outsider, free from patron-client bondage, beyond the reaches of scapegoating. She brings to the struggle her own cultural inheritance of rugged individualism and investigative pluckiness, the kind that brought down a crooked president in her home society a generation ago.
If there is a dog in this film, it’s not Spots. It’s Tracy, the idealized watchdog of Western journalism.
It all ends well, of course. After his tyrannical uncle is removed from power, the boy inherits the throne and governs as a benevolent sovereign. He and the journalist fall in love and dedicate themselves to nurturing the puppy offspring of his retired guard dog. It’s a misceginated future, where differences combine in the multicultural (yet nuclear, straight) family. And it’s a a progressive future, with a good guy in power enacting good-guy (albeit top-down) policies. Curious how the film offers this undemocratic and nepotistic version of succession as a solution to good governance rather than the much more participatory (albeit bickering) form of pure democracy practiced by the subalterns in the wastelands (and shitholes) of the world beyond.
No mistake, this film is a glorious puzzle of cultural and political meanings, a joy to watch and a pleasure to contemplate. It’s the perfect parent-child film for our times. My eight-year-old daughter was delighted by the banter-laden adventures of the dog pack and the innocent sentimentality of its canine and human relationships. If it really were about dogs and/or children, then its depiction would be spot-on. Oftentimes kids do love dogs and oftentimes dogs do their best to understand, entertain, and protect them in return.
But the small narrative of boy and dog is embedded in a much larger vision of authoritarianism, resistance, and redemption. This is what makes the film such a surprisingly rich experience for the intellectual class of adults who are likely to accompany their children to this movie. And here is where the film unfortunately misleads us.
Like the citizens of Megasaki, we are living in a dark time of specular repression, governed by a corrupt demogogue bent on destroying the truth-producing institutions of science and journalism, replacing them with bilious propaganda. Like Kobayashi, he rules by decree, using tribal disavowal and populist fear to justify his most repressive measures. In the liberal wing of our news media, there is much talk lately of the looming threat of totalitarianism, parallels with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.
But Trump is no Kobayashi. Or rather, sometime he is and sometime he isn’t. His scowling tantrums seem more like adolescent mood swings than totalizing ideology. Which is to say, he’s not much of a totalitarian. He may try to banish immigrants and build a wall but when he meets resistance in congress and the courts, he “forgets” what he said before and redefines what he meant all along.
And as for the watchdogs, what are they really barking at? What if Tracy Walker, our girl-journalist, were also partly responsible for the rise of the dictator Kobayashi? Think Katy Tur or Maggie Haberman, both antagonistic watchdogs at the forefront of liberal resistance. Yet both were catapulted to fame in their fascinated coverage of the Trump campaign. What if the institutions we look to for redemption are actually in deep collusion with the actors we seek to depose? What we have now is not so much nascent totalitarianism as late capitalism, the vanquishing of the public sphere by sensationalist consumerism.
In an interview about why he made the movie, Wes Anderson explained that he wanted to make a movie about dogs and he wanted to make a movie about Japan. Watching the movie, one can see how he wanted to do both of those things.
But what he did do is another matter. Isle of Dogs is not about dogs and it’s not about Japan; it’s about getting rid of a (totalitarian) bad guy and replacing him with a (benevolent) good guy. But the system that produced the bad guy remains intact. And the real post-despotic democracy of the dog pack is left behind in the wastelands (and shitholes) of the hinterlands.