On the surface, Wes Anderson’s latest film, Isle of Dogs, is about the humans of the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki banishing the entire population of dogs to “Trash Island” in the name of public health after a “dog flu” epidemic spreads across the city. But depending on whom you ask, the film has been called everything from a political allegory mirroring “xenophobic, racist, and demagogic strains of contemporary American politics” to cultural appropriation in stop motion.
One thing is sure, though, Isle of Dogs is a shining example of Anderson’s keen artistic direction and unique storytelling approach, as well as a love letter to food.
Whether you want to consider the film culturally appropriative (and even Japanese critics disagree on the matter) depends on your definition of the term, but one thing is sure: Anderson was obsessive about getting every detail accurate, at least when it comes to one subject: food.
The most talked-about scene in the film is also one of the shortest. During a seemingly random interlude, a sushi chef – inspired by Anderson’s favorite sushi chef in Paris – slices, cracks open, and assembles a bento box for a special guest at a nearby ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging that includes kaseki-style meals for guests). The chef shows no mercy when handling the ingredients – all of which are very much alive at the time of their demise – showing the inseparable horror and beauty involved in the intricate art of sushi making.
It’s mesmerizing, but also disturbing – a clear departure from the heartwarming journey underway. The 45-second scene took six months to create, and involved a team of researchers who were dedicated to ensuring the accuracy of each slice, ingredient, and element contributing to the overall atmosphere, down to the sharpness of the sushi blades.
This break from the plot allows the viewer to gawk at the film’s stunning visual triumphs and plays into the Japanese concept of Jo-ha-kyū (a physical and emotional progression that literally translates to “beginning, break, rapid”). Actions begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly; the scene culminates in a pivotal moment that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The use of food is perhaps the one unifying element throughout reviews and articles, and it’s hard to find one that doesn’t mention, if not lavishly praise, that pivotal, enchanting sushi preparation scene.
While this particular scene might have been more about style than substance (an argument some critics have made about the film in general), other food scenes play key roles in the narrative.
In Isle of Dogs, cans of Doggy Chop serve as backdrops that resemble pop art, Chocolate milk helps fuel the key to survival, and a spicy green garnish is used for sinister purposes.
In one particular scene, the dogs find themselves trudging through the farthest reaches of Trash Island during the heart of their odyssey to find one boy’s lost dog, when they begin reminiscing about their favorite foods.
Each dog gives its detailed description of the meal they miss most: “A center-cut Kobe ribeye, seared on the bone, with salt and pepper;” “hot sausage, yakitori-style;” “Green tea ice cream.”
Then we’re taken to a flashback as Chief – the sole street dog of pack of former house pets – describes the one thing he ever ate that wasn’t scavenged: a home-cooked bowl of chili. This moment proves to be the first glimpse the audience gets into the heart and mind of a dog that until this point has been a guarded curmudgeon. And it proves to be a turning point for the character, as it’s the first time he shows empathy for humans. Through just the memory of a home-cooked meal, he’s able to connect with humans (key to the film’s conclusion) and the audience is able to connect with him.
Anderson taps into the way people reminisce about food, and how “breaking bread” – or even talking about it – is one of the fastest way for people to form a bond.
This isn’t the first scene – or the first film – in which Anderson has focused on the natural connection between food and emotion. Watch any of his movies and you’ll quickly understand that food and cooking play major roles in his fantastical narratives and whimsical scenarios.
It’s through offering a bowl of gruel that protagonist Gustave H. opens the heart of a hardened prisoner in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which saves Gustave later in the movie. And it’s through the sharing of his comically small pastry from Mendl’s – expertly sliced in equal-sized minuscule bites – that we see Gustave bond with his cellmates immediately before they decide he’s worthy to be included in their escape plans.
Mendl’s bakery plays a key role in moving the action forward throughout much of Grand Budapest. Similarly, one of the key moments of Anderson’s first stop motion feature, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, comes when all of the animals sit down to a delicious feast in a moment of celebration and bonding. That entire film, in fact, is centered around stealing food – not for survival, but for the pleasure of life’s finer culinary delights.
The importance of food extends to Anderson’s real life. “I always used to have at least two desserts a day,” said Anderson, in an interview with Time Out New York. “Now I have only one.” Restaurants have created dinners inspired by his work, and he even personally designed a cafe in Milan that is a tribute to his typical symmetrical shot setups and pastel scenescapes.
Food also sets poignant backdrops for several scenes in Isle of Dogs. A cave made from discarded colorful, glass sake bottles acts as a safe haven (and rare beautiful structure on Trash Island) while human protagonist Atari and the pack members hatch their rescue plan. Chief is treated to his first ever bath in an empty beer keg and brushed on crates of discarded ramen along the way.
Cans of Doggy Chop dog food – referenced throughout the film – and boxes of Puppy Snaps line the shelves of King’s former home, where his masters watch the television news intently during a family meal. The Megasaki Dragons little league team huddles around a ramen shop where a photo of their dog mascot, Boss, hangs on the counter. Anderson could have chosen to craft these scenes elsewhere, but he understands that in life, food is often inextricably tied with comfort, celebration and connection.
Even the names in the film hold culinary significance. The female dogs are almost entirely named after sweets — Nutmeg, Peppermint, Butterscotch, all intense flavors that linger on the tongue.
Food drives in trying times, it comforts us and enhances our relationships. It can literally kill or empower us. It may not have been what the director intended viewers to walk away with, but the message is clear — food is a powerful force, and fuels our emotions. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a visually rewarding reminder of this.