The director of 'The Royal Tenenbaums' and 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' says that Japanese film and art set him off to a whole new underdog world
Welcome to the Isle of Dogs, another adventure from the detail-oriented mind of Wes Anderson, where scrappy, diseased canines are exiled to a faraway island by order of a menacing politician, Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City, who commits election fraud, eliminates his opponents, and schemes to exterminate all dogs to meet his controlling ends.
If the plot sounds like an allegory of real-life politics on immigration, it’s because, as Anderson explains, real-life issues infiltrated the conception of his film. “The world changed quickly and harshly,” says the filmmaker, who spoke to EW on the phone from his adoptive hometown of Paris. “We kept seeing our movie on the front pages of newspapers — not just in America but all over the place.”
In the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future, Kobayashi has banned the snout-fever-ridden dog population to the aptly named Trash Island. The mayor’s lonely 12-year-old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crashes a small plane onto Trash Island and searches for his beloved mutt Spots, aided by a ragtag pack of dogs. Crafting stop-motion animation comes down to the minute details, Anderson says.
More than 2,200 puppets and 250 sets were built in different scales for Isle of Dogs. Production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod said the film’s aesthetic is the 1963 vision of a futuristic Japan, drawing from the urban architecture, advertising, and graphic design of 1960s Japan as well as old Japanese woodblock prints and tapestries. Trash Island alone, Stockhausen explained, was delineated into different zones that each had different landscapes and attributes, from a black sand beach to dunes of crushed aluminum and a desolate, overgrown former golf club.
Mayor Kobayashi’s Brick Mansion was modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo; real 1950s sake bottle labels were re-created from scratch for Trash Island’s bottle cave; a sushi-preparation scene took months of trial and error to get just right.
“It was not really entertaining when it didn’t have enough authenticity,” Anderson says of the latter set piece. “When it didn’t reflect enough of the proper way to handle a knife and the proper way to handle the fish, it just became silly.”
The inspiration for the film came not from Japan but from London, where Anderson was filming 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox: He saw signs for the Isle of Dogs, a small urban borough that juts into the River Thames, and it stuck with him. Developing the story with Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura, and Roman Coppola, Anderson transported Isle of Dogs to Japan in a tale influenced by the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa.
“The movie is a fantasy, and I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan,” Anderson says. “This is definitely a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema.”
Anderson tends to center his films — from 1998’s Rushmore to 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel — on endearing outsiders. In Isle of Dogs, he translates his affinity for underdogs into, literally, underdogs. Alongside the orphaned Atari, there’s the gruff stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston), who chews off another dog’s ear and is the sometimes leader of a pack of former house pets: Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), and King (Bob Balaban).
There’s a note at the start of Isle of Dogs explaining that all human characters speak in their native languages, which are sometimes translated by subtitles or organically through the script, and that dog barks are translated into English. But much of the Japanese dialogue, especially Atari’s, is left untranslated. “I don’t like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English. I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It’s interesting to me, and it’s a very beautiful, complex language,” Anderson says.
While Anderson has never explored a story set in Japan before, once again he delivers certain trademarks of his filmmaking, weaving tales within a tale of his oddball heroes. He lightly protests having signature traits, saying that each time he starts a new film, he erases any connections to his previous work. But he also admits that he ends up falling to his “preferred way” of telling the story.
“I think I’ve definitely reached the point where I accept that this is sort of who I am,” Anderson says, laughing.
Isle of Dogs is out Friday.