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My 12 for ’18: Empathy in Any Language & “Isle of Dogs”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number twelve.

2018 has been a long year, but one that moves at a whirlwind pace.

It’s a bit of a paradox. Time moves so quickly that it seems impossible to keep up with everything that is unfolding. Stories that would have dominated the news cycle for months are now played out in the space of an afternoon, buried beneath the next big story and the next shocking revelation. However, despite how fast everything is moving, this has a numbing effect. The constant barrage of news and information makes things feel so much slower and longer than they would otherwise. 2018 moved so fast that it was impossible to keep up, but it also seemed to last an eternity.

As a result, seemingly ordinary periods of time can be stretched and distorted. The window between theatrical release and home media roll out has been getting shorter and shorter for most films, occasionally to the consternation of cinema chains. There are only a few scant months between the premiere of a film and its release as digital download or hard copy. Normally, that is not a long or extended period of time. In 2018 terms, it is an eternity. So much can change in that window.

I first saw Isle of Dogs in a crowded cinema during the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. The snow was falling outside. Although I did not realise it from the safety of the cinema, buses were being cancelled. Getting home afterwards would be an oddity, and I would spend the next four days locked in my house, staring at idyllic and unspoiled white snow. At the time, I really loved Isle of Dogs. It stayed with me, haunting and beautiful. The imagery was arresting, the compositions impressive, the simple story at the heart of the film an engaging appeal to empathy in a world increasingly bereft of it.

I would watch the film for a second time months later, at home. I wasn’t quite ready for how much more effectively the film hit my on rewatch. It was not that the film itself had changed in those three months. Instead the world around it had. In the cinema, my heart went out to those dogs trapped in cages. I was moved in the way that anybody with any compassion would be moved on seeing these innocent and loving creatures locked in steel boxes and casually dumped somewhere out of sight. At home, I almost cried.

In the space between the theatrical and home media release, the world had watched in horror as the United States stole children from their parents and locked them in cages. These cages were largely kept out of sight in vast warehouses. The families affected were shuffled out of focus. Families who had made incredible journeys to come to the United States were torn apart at the border. There was no consideration given to what they had endured to get there. All that mattered was that this would play well to the political base, and that it would affirm the nationalist creed of the Trump Administration.

Obviously, director Wes Anderson could never have anticipated this particular timely resonance, but it makes sense. Anderson is a constantly growing and evolving film maker, both in terms of the style in which he operates and the themes with which he works. Anderson has extrapolated outward from the more intimate and personal stories of early films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore towards broader social commentary in films like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Virulent nationalism and its consequences are a major preoccupation in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film arguably belongs to the rich tradition of films about the Holocaust that do not directly confront the Holocaust, that allow the horror of that atrocity to lurk at the edge of the frame. Anderson has been (fairly) criticised for this, for trying to construct a film about the Holocaust without actually having to deal with the oppression of the Jewish people. However, there is something to be said for approaching these ideas obliquely, for wanting to use storybook logic to explore the great horrors of the twentieth century.

This theme carries over to Isle of Dogs. If The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a decaying Europe succumbing to the lure of fascism, Isle of Dogs turns its gaze to a hyper-nationalist Japan with obvious echoes of the mid-twentieth century. Of course, the idea of using animals as a vehicle for exploring racism and xenophobia is tricky at the best of times, as demonstrated by well-intentioned films like Zootopia. However, Isle of Dogs manages that delicate balancing act, most obviously through the translation convention of having the canine characters speak English.

Much digital ink has been spilled on Anderson’s use of his Japanese setting. A lot of these discussions are tempered, with individuals like Justin Chang raising legitimate questions about Anderson’s portrayal of the country. These are valid questions, and can lead to a productive debate. At the same time, I must acknowledge my own limitations here. I am a white writer. It is not my place to question writer Kunichi Nomura on the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of Japan, or his authority as a Japanese man to play with and explore stereotypes and iconography associated with his home country.

Given Anderson’s fascination with the rise of nationalism and totalitarianism, it is no surprise that Isle of Dogs should find these strange resonances with the modern world. Much has been made of the parallels between the family separation policy enacted by the Trump Administration and the horrors of the Holocaust. Isle of Dogs evokes the Holocaust and other similar atrocities; the horrors that a society inflicts on those that it deems to be “less than” or “other.” it is a story about the importance of empathy in pushing through that and transcending that.

Isle of Dogs is, at its core, a story about a boy and his dog. It is a tale about the lengths to which a young child will go so that he might be reunited with his family. It is a beautiful, imaginative, playful fairy tale. It is enlivened by a set of great performances. The title itself is a delightful play on words. However, what I keep coming back to is that heartbreaking image of family members locked in cages and dumped where the world cannot see them.

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