Isle of Dogs: Humanity in the Inhuman
In his most recent film, Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson manages to portray a thoughtful investigation of humanity within a story dominated by canine characters. The 2018 stop-motion movie explores ideas of oppression and political corruption in a world where “man’s best friend” has become ostracised. A dark reflection of our society is presented under a guise of childlike absurdity, the film’s cast composed of about 900 puppets. While it focuses on the unfortunate experiences of its doggy protagonists (voiced by Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban and Bryan Cranston), at its core, Isle of Dogs is about humanity. Exploiting the emotions of its dog-loving audience, the film’s storyline evokes empathy, encouraging us to remember that we all desire safety, comfort and companionship. In doing so, Anderson’s film responds to the philosophical problem of “othering” the animal, particularly reflecting the work of the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Further addressing the question “who are we?”, the film manifests humanity in its medium, neglecting celebrity culture in favour of hand stitched costumes and painted freckles. In both its dystopian storyline and intricate visual elements, Isle of Dogs reflects the importance of positive, unified communities in our society.
A Reflection of Human Politics
Isle of Dogs provides parallels of our current political climate. In the film, the mayor of the fictional Japanese city, Megasaki, spreads anti-dog propaganda, inciting fear and hatred among his citizens. Mayor Kobayashi and his colleagues claim that the once popular pets are now a public health issue, afflicted with dog flu and snout fever which will inevitably infect the human population. Although Kobayashi’s rival, Watanabe of the Science Party, is developing a cure for the illnesses, this fear leads to the banishment of dogs from their metropolitan home city to the desolate Trash Island. This dystopian tale parallels instances of real groups being alienated from society. The exile of these dogs mirrors a trend of isolating groups of people on islands in order to remove them from the rest of society, such as in the case of refugees being imprisoned in offshore detention camps on Nauru and Manus islands by the Australian government. Trump’s obsession with deportation also comes to mind.
While references to specific instances of real oppression are not overt, it is clear that Isle of Dogs intends to cultivate empathy for a group of outcasts, whose well-being is threatened by a prejudiced political agenda. The film focuses on humanising these victims and therefore reminding audiences of the impacts of discriminatory polices. Of course, these victims are dog puppets – yet with their barks supposedly translated into English, they are anthropomorphised (allotted human qualities) so that audiences learn about each of their individual interests, families and favourite foods. Anderson has said: “Our dogs are people. They are voiced by people, they think like people, but they go through the experiences of dogs.” By combining canine appearances with human attributes, Anderson predisposes viewers to be empathetic. While giving these creatures the power of language, Anderson capitalises on a common love for dogs and a tendency to want to take care of them.
A Philosophical Discussion
In its exploration of the human condition, Isle of Dogs appears to address the philosophical problem of “othering” the animal. This concept has been thoroughly investigated by French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. The Animal That Therefore I Am, an English transcript of Derrida’s 1997 lecture on his book The Autobiographical Animal, questions why we distinguish animals from humans. In doing so, he demands a logical justification for the violent treatment of animals: experimentation, consumption, etc. He states that “No one can deny seriously any more, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty [towards animals]”, contending that humans’ treatment of animals must improve. Derrida extends the idea of genocide, usually reserved for human suffering, to inhuman animals, claiming that they face “genocidal torture” for the sake of “alleged human needs”. By applying the term “genocidal” to the slaughter of animals and thus suggesting they are victims, Derrida evokes empathy for animals. Derrida also suggests that referring to animals as “animals” is reductive of a broad variety of species, and each of these species’ individual characteristics. Wes Anderson seems to take this a step further by individualising all of his dogs, implying that they can vary in the same way that humans can: they can have preferences, interests, sensitivities. Perhaps they can also spread rumours or understand the TV.
Like Derrida, Anderson identifies alienation as the cause of violence towards animals: the Kobayashi government exiled the dogs because they saw them as fundamentally different (and inferior) to humans. Clearly, Isle of Dogs is fantastical. Regardless, through anthropomorphism, it makes the radical suggestion that humans should see dogs as equal beings. It rejects the idea that logical reasoning could ever override the important role of empathy in human society. The film seems to suggest that this empathy itself is integral to the human condition.
A Sense of Creative Community
The use of stop-motion animation in Isle of Dogs also works to explore humanity, emphasising the importance of community and human touch. In each still of the film, objects are meticulously crafted – such as the expressive creases of the characters’ plastic faces and the minuscule sixties inspired interiors. In the above “making of” video, the head of the puppet painting department, Angela Kiely, describes the process of painting 297 freckles on each face of the character Tracy Walker (an ambitious exchange student and adamant pro-dog advocate). As the camera pans stadiums of nameless characters, each of their outfits are individualised and hand-sewn. No matter where the audience looks, they cannot avoid the fact that all visual elements of the film have been carefully stitched together by a team of creatives. Anderson makes the comparison: “when you get a group together of people who have really honed these skills for making miniatures, for making tiny props and creating these puppets, it’s like you were given the 500-piece absolute A-level orchestra.”
Underlying the engaging visuals and plot of Isle of Dogs is a definite sense of community, something not always visible in the seamlessness of live action films. In addition to the importance of the puppets and miniature props themselves is the way in which they have been animated: by the movements of a person’s hand. The figures are guided organically by a person rather than by technology, unlike with other forms of modern animation. This increases the sense of humanity behind each character, regardless of their material composition.
A Focus on the Fundamental
Ironically, the absence of real actors also furthers these human elements, distancing the film from celebrity culture and instead establishing a focus on the characters’ fundamental qualities. While we can hear famous voices (such as those of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson) we don’t physically see these actors at all, we only observe their characters. Western society’s obsession with Hollywood actors means that the inclusion of their faces and bodies in films is a typical selling point. Anderson subverts this. The visual absence of real actors in Isle of Dogs means that the characters are less constrained, as their appearances, expressions and movements can be engineered entirely in accordance with their personalities. This gives the creators an opportunity to further explore fundamental human concepts, rather than external human appearances.
Another effect of the film’s lack of human actors is an implication of equality between the subjects and the viewer. Isle of Dogs subverts the usual divide between the unrelatable movie star on screen and the everyday audience member. This extends the exploration of shared humanity throughout the story, the common qualities between dogs and humans, students and politicians, children and adults, etc. In the same way, equality and humanity are addressed with careful composition and cinematography. This is demonstrated in the way the dogs are portrayed at eye level, in the same manner as the human characters. Rarely does the camera look down at the dogs, and when they meet “the little pilot”, Atari, he appears to have a similar stature to them. This signifies that he is a part of their pack, transcending the usual owner/pet hierarchy.
While some might assume it to be immature due to the presence of talking dogs, Anderson’s film thoughtfully considers what it means to be human. It acknowledges the harm and destruction caused by society, while raising spirits with signature playfulness. Ultimately, the product of the film itself is a joyous reminder of what humans can accomplish when they work together for a positive cause.
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