Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Kurosawa and Katsuhiro Otomo are just a few of the auteurs who have had an impact on Anderson’s latest movie
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs scratches a specific itch: it’s a deadpan sci-fi that caters for cinephiles, pet owners, and anyone wishing to hear Greta Gerwig speak Japanese. Noting that “all barks have been rendered into English”, the stop-motion adventure imagines a futuristic Japan where Mayor Kobayashi, a cat-loving politician of Megasaki City, secretly infects the local canines with Snout Fever and Dog Flu. Once sentenced to Trash Island, a gang of pooches (Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban) agree to help a 12-year-old boy find his dog, Spots.
If you’ve seen B-roll footage of Anderson, a control freak, instructing his actors, then you’ll understand what attracts him to animation. With Isle of Dogs, the painstaking detail of each frame is staggering, and the sheer scale outweighs Fantastic Mr Fox. Anderson also dispels the myth that he’s anti-dog. A car runs over a beagle in The Royal Tenenbaums; an arrow kills Snoopy in Moonrise Kingdom; multiple canines chew poisoned berries in Fantastic Mr Fox; and Goldblum smacks a three-legged hound in The Life Aquatic. But Isle of Dogs, when unleashed, revolves around the pure bond between a pet and its owner, and the heartbreak when it collapses – assuming there isn’t a contradictory message in the half of the film that’s in un-subtitled Japanese.
As with the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre, Isle of Dogs is littered with cinematic references, in-jokes, and traces of a wide filmic knowledge. Movies like 101 Dalmatians, the director admits, were studied in preparation, and I also spotted a word-for-word quotation of some dialogue from Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. A viewing of Fantastic Mr Fox’s DVD commentary even reveals direct references to My Own Private Idaho, Miami Vice and Signs. So here are 10 films to hunt down in preparation for Isle of Dogs – or, alternatively, give these a watch afterwards, and see if you can detect the influences.
DODES’KA-DEN (Akira Kurosawa, 1970)
Anderson cites Kurosawa, particularly his films from the 60s, as the main inspiration for Isle of Dogs. Above all, it’s Dodes’ka-den, an ensemble drama set in an expansive garbage dump, which stands out as a blueprint for Trash Island – including how Anderson shoots the night scenes. Kurosawa’s eclectic colour choices, too, enhance the landscape’s offbeat, almost sci-fi quality, all serving as an ironic backdrop to stories of homelessness, starvation and assault. Likewise, Isle of Dogs, an often gruesome tale of survival, is miles away from the middle-class problems of The Royal Tenenbaums. Albeit with talking animals.
PORCO ROSSO (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)
As Anderson put it at the Berlinale press conference: “With Miyazaki, you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm not in the American animation tradition.” Thus there are poignant pauses throughout Isle of Dogs whenever Alexandre Desplat’s taiko score takes a breather. Thematically, Anderson’s film also overlaps with Porco Rosso: mankind mixing with its environment, pets messing with planes, a teen girl saving the day, and so on. For a bonus Ghibli connection, Isle of Dogs boasts a role for Mari Natsuki, a voice actress from Spirited Away.
THE PLAGUE DOGS (Martin Rosen, 1982)
The one specific canine movie name-checked at Berlinale was The Plague Dogs, a traumatic children’s film from the team behind Watership Down. “I’m reluctant to mention it because it’s a very bleak movie,” Anderson admitted. “Ours is a more cheerful story.” An animated caper about creatures fleeing a research facility, The Plague Dogs was recommended to Anderson during prep by his Fantastic Mr Fox co-writer, Noah Baumbach. The action sequences are so grisly – they’re echoed by Isle of Dogs’ incinerator set-piece – it’s tough to track down an uncut version. Anderson added, “Noah remembered it from childhood.” Well, no wonder.
AKIRA (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
Along with Studio Ghibli’s output, Otomo’s groundbreaking Akira was made compulsory viewing by Anderson for his crew. Sure enough, Akira’s influence lingers throughout Isle of Dogs, to the extent that there might be a homage somewhere on a bridge – with five dogs instead of five bikers. Interestingly, Otomo’s anime, set in Neo-Tokyo after World War III, includes its own canine sight gag: a gang of vicious police dogs gnashing their teeth in front of a fluffy TV commercial for pet food.
NESTOR, THE LONG-EARED CHRISTMAS DONKEY (Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr, 1977)
At a 2016 event, Anderson teased that Isle of Dogs would be inspired by Rankin-Bass animated festive shorts. “I always liked the creatures in the Harryhausen-type films,” the director explained, “but really these American Christmas specials were probably the thing that made me want to do (stop-motion).” The Rankin-Bass films, funnily enough, were mostly animated in Japan, and they, too, disguise their bleakness with cute visuals. Not only is Nestor a bullied donkey whose ears require socks, but he’s abandoned by humans during winter; he awakens to find his mother, who lay upon him to provide warmth, dead from the overnight blizzard.
WELCOME BACK, MR MCDONALD (Koki Mitani, 1997)
Mitani’s criminally underseen directorial debut was considered at the time to be Japan’s first screwball comedy. Set mostly in a radio studio, the zany plot involves jealous actors, stressed producers and a timid writer all bickering during a live broadcast. What connects it with Isle of Dogs is the meticulous blocking, the precise dialogue, the shared casting of Ken Watanabe, and a fusion of Japanese and American styles of humour. Both films could only be set in Japan, and yet the western influences – for Mitani, a love of Hollywood and Billy Wilder – are undeniable.
THE END OF EVANGELION (Hideaki Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)
When Goop isn’t flogging health fads, it’s exploiting Gwyneth Paltrow’s ability to email famous people. Anderson, asked for his top five DVDs, named all 24 episodes of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. “We watched them all in less than a week because you start to want to believe it’s real,” he explained. “This could spawn something like Scientology.” The show’s dystopian vision of “Tokyo-3” – combatting robots, airborne warfare, 14-year-old pilots – noticeably seeps into the rougher textures of Isle of Dogs. In a separate poll, Anderson named the spinoff, The End of Evangelion, his third-favourite animated movie behind The Iron Giant and Akira.
SNOOPY, COME HOME (Bill Melendez, 1972)
Anderson has previously named François Truffaut, Orson Welles and Melendez as the three most influential directors on his career. But whereas The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom directly reference Snoopy, Isle of Dogs is the first to riff on Charlie Brown’s catchphrase: “Why can’t I have a normal dog like everyone else?” Not just the Red Baron fantasies and how Anderson animates the cartoony fights, but in Chief’s reluctance to fetch a stick for his 12-year-old master. More specifically, it’s Snoopy, Come Home, in which the beagle abandons Charlie Brown to find his original, terminally ill owner.
GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
Fairly early on, a flock of robotic attack dogs materialise on Trash City, as if to emphasise that we’re 20 years in the future. A closer examination reveals a resemblance to Toho’s MechaGodzilla, the stop-motion machine monster sent from an alien planet to destroy mankind. The robo-dogs serve as a natural continuation from the android dolphins and artificial creatures from The Life Aquatic. But what’s the Godzilla-like metaphor here? If it’s not political (the machines are wired by Megasaki’s dictatorial leader), then it’s simply Anderson’s love for old Japanese esoterica.
DRUNKEN ANGEL (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)
Again, the Kurosawa factor can’t be underestimated, especially as Isle of Dogs lifts music cues from Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel. What’s more, Toshiro Mifune, the star of Drunken Angel, is the direct inspiration for Mayor Kobayashi. “The Master’s masterpieces… were on our minds and in our DVD players every day on the creating of this movie,” Anderson confirmed. In fact, Kurosawa is how Anderson and Bill Murray bonded during the casting of Rushmore. Murray spent an hour espousing on parallels between the Rushmore script and Kurosawa’s Red Road, and he’s appeared in every Anderson film since. Truth is, Anderson has always been a Japanophile – it’s just taken a while to appear in Wes-world.