A gorgeous tribute to dogs, Akira Kurosawa, and the tricky power dynamics behind translation. The film follows some of the many dogs banished to a refuse island following an increasingly authoritarian dystopian retro-futuristic Japan ban dogs from the mainland. The dogs assist a young boy searching for his own canine companion while political tension mounts back in Japan proper.
Anderson’s decision not to subtitle the Japanese speakers is fascinating. The film’s title card confers that dog’s barks have been translated into English but apart from that, language is left as is. This leaves audience members unable to understand Japanese in much the same position as the dogs the film follows; able to pick up on body language and tone of voice from the principal Japanese characters, but lacking the ability to linguistically unpack exactly what they’re saying. It’s a canny move that really situates the viewer into the canine experience. Periodically the film experiments with translation, whether by people or electronic devices, but it’s always with an interest in the malleability and power dynamics behind it. Deeper bonds, like the unspoken ones between people and dogs, are positioned as a more meaningful (and interesting) foundation of communication.
Some bonds are much shallower. The film’s surprisingly not-lean narrative gets unwieldy in the back half of the runtime, and the young human protaganist falling instantly in love with a saviour from America is a disappointing move, as is that American’s bizarre spearheading of a Japanese political movement. For a film with a lot to say about subtle relationship development between humans and dogs, it’s a shame any real attention was placed on human’s development with each other when it ended up so half-baked and not really meshing with the themes the film had been executing well.
What the film does uniformly execute well are its visuals. The stop-motion animation is gorgeous, and peppered with traditional 2D animation at times as well. Anderson embraces the particulars of the format (cotton swabs as smoke in the film’s cartoonesque fighting scenes, crinkled plastic as representative of water, etc.) as he employs his trademark symmetry and hyperdetailed sense of focus in the film’s shots. The near-monochromatic colour scheme, pulling from Kurosawa like so much else of the film, looks lovely. One particularly detailed and extensive sequence of sushi being prepared apparently took more than half a year to prepare, and it shows.
Not as strong as Anderson’s last film, but still a lovely, very well-made tribute to dogs and so much more. Three and a half Puppy Snaps, and a black box.