It surprised everyone, even die-hard fans, when Wes Anderson announced that he would not just adapt Roald Dahl's children's book Fantastic Mr. Fox for the screen, but do it with stop-motion animation. But after we'd all given it a bit of thought, it made sense: Anderson's films and Dahl's stories do share a certain sense of inventive humor, and stepping away from live action would finally allow the director of such detail-oriented pictures as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou fuller control over the visuals. Eight years later, we find Anderson overseeing another team of animators to tell another, even more fantastical-looking story, this one set not in an England of the past but a Japan of the future.
There, according to the project's newly released trailer, "canine saturation has reached epic proportions. An outbreak of dog flu rips through the city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi issues emergency orders calling for a hasty quarantine. Trash Island becomes an exile colony: the Isle of Dogs." Equals in furriness, if not attire, to Fantastic Mr. Fox's woodland friends and voiced by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Scarlet Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and of course Bill Murray (in a cast also including Japanese performers like Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, and Yoko Ono — yes, that Yoko Ono), the canines of various colors and sizes forcibly relocated to the bleak titular setting must band together into a kind of ragtag family.
Anderson must find himself very much at home in this thematic territory by now. It would also have suited the towering figure in Japanese film to whom Isle of Dogs pays tribute. Although Anderson has cited the 1960s and 70s stop-animation holiday specials of Rankin/Bass like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy — all produced, incidentally, in Japan — as one inspiration, he also said on an ArteTV Q&A earlier this year that “the new film is really less influenced by stop-motion movies than it is by Akira Kurosawa.” Perhaps he envisioned Atari Kobayashi, the boy who journeys to Trash Island to retrieve his lost companion, as a twelve-year-old version of one of Kurosawa's lone heroes.
And perhaps it owes to Kurosawa that the setting — at least from what the trailer reveals — combines elements of an imagined future with the look and feel of Japan's rapidly developing mid-20th century, a period that has long fascinated Anderson in its European incarnations but one captured crisply in Kurosawa's homeland in crime movies like High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well. Anderson has made little to no reference to the Land of the Rising Sun before, but his interest makes sense: no land better understands what Anderson has expressed more vividly with every project, the richness of the aesthetic mixture of the past and future that always surrounds us. And from what I could tell on my last visit there, its dog situation remains blessedly under control — for now.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.