Writer, director and producer Wes Anderson’s 2018 stop motion animation film Isle of Dogs was first screened at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.
Anderson won that festival’s Silver Bear award for best director. The film and its musical score, with original music by Alexandre Desplat, also received nominations for Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and Academy Awards, among others.
Isle of Dogs tells the story of a Japanese boy, Atari, who sets out to find his dog and becomes something of a hero in the process. Atari is the nephew and ward of Mayor Kenji Kobayashi, who issues an emergency statement that there has been an outbreak of “snout fever” among the dogs in his Japanese prefecture and that the sick dogs are creating a public health problem.
He decrees that all dogs – starting with his family’s own dog Spots– be deported to Trash Island and left to die. In the quest to find Spots, Atari flies a tiny airplane to Trash island, where a band of discarded dogs befriends him and joins his search.
Reviews of Isle of Dogs have run the gamut from extremely enthusiastic – praising its striking visual beauty and the quirky charm of its storyline – to critical of perceived cultural insensitivities. That debate may well continue to rage. In the meantime, we’ll explore fascinating interactions of sound and visuals in the most recent film by one of the world’s most original film directors.
Anderson’s visuals In Isle of Dogs have been noted for their stunning detail. In a review for Vanity Fair Ben Croll writes of Isle of Dogs’ “fastidiously curated details and meticulous stop-motion compositions,” and in Rolling Stone, David Fear mentions what he describes as the “signature Andersonian clutter” in the film’s visuals.
Isle of Dogs does have extraordinary visual detail, and there’s a similar richness of detail, and a similar variety, in composer Alexandre Desplat’s sound track. There’s a wide range of musical style and instrumentation in the soundtrack which, like the visuals in Isle of Dogs, tip the hat to Japan.
The film opens with a historical prologue with visuals set inside a Shinto shrine. Voiced by F. Murray Abraham, a canine-sage named Jupiter narrates the film’s pre-history – that the Kobayashis were defeated in the so-called “Dog Wars” centuries earlier. This story explains the motivation for the rest of the film’s plot – Mayor Kenji Kobayashi’s plan to eradicate all dogs from his prefecture.
Composed by Desplat, the music of the shrine scene showcases a choir of low male voices, which, in an interview published at deadline.com, Desplat said was meant to conjure the sound of “monk-like chant.”
The voices sing the words “Yoko Ono” – the name of John Lennon’s world-famous widow, who voices the character of Assistant-scientist Yoko Ono in the film. Desplat calls the chorus text an “homage to Japanese culture.” The low men’s chorus sound is also a nod to the low men’s chorus on the soundtrack of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai.
The men’s chorus is just one of a number of sonic references to Seven Samurai. Another is the predominance of taiko drums throughout the soundtrack for Isle of Dogs.
After the historical prologue, the visuals cut to a scene showing three taiko drummers, each in his own spotlight amid a dark field, as the opening credits appear onscreen in Japanese kanji and parenthetical English subtitles.
The drums are sonic reminders of the low drums in Seven Samurai, as well as to the rich tradition of taiko drumming, which historically has appeared in Japan in a wide range of contexts, including from the mid-20th century to today, in public concert performances of taiko drum ensembles.
The scene depicting the taiko drum ensemble leads to visuals of a city that blends modernistic skyscrapers with structures that look more traditionally Japanese.
Actor Courtney B. Vance’s voiceover narration locates the film’s story on the Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future and tells of the outbreak of “snout fever” and Major Kobayashi’s decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island …taiko drums continue through the opening sequences and recur here and throughout Isle of Dogs to heighten tension.
The drums continue through Kobayashi’s speech before the backdrop of an enormous poster bearing Kobayashi’s likeness and reminiscent of the propaganda posters of Cold War-era Communist leaders, and they stop with the presentation of Mayor Kobayashi’s dog Spots as the first dog to be deported to Trash Island.
The drums pick up with more intensity in the next scene, which shows a caged Spots being lifted on a freight elevator full of trash. Drums of different pitches join the texture and the beat speeds up as Spots is conveyed in a “trash tram – a sort of overhead cable car – and dumped onto Trash Island.
On and off the drums sound throughout the film. But there is much more to the soundtrack for Isle of Dogs than taiko drums.
Two more clever musical references to Kurosawa also work their way in. One is Kikuchiyo’s Mambo, the main theme of The Seven Samurai. In Isle of Dogs, this music appears as the young Atari and the pack of Trash Island dogs who become his allies are burying the body of the dog they believe to be the deceased Spots, and Atari gets back on his tiny airplane, presumably to return to Megasaki.
Kikuchiyo’s Mambo here compares Atari and his four canine companions with the samurai who, in Kurosawa’s film, band together to protect farmers form the bandits who would steal their crops.
The guitar song “Kosame No Oka” sounds In Isle of Dogs as an intimate solo guitar backdrop to a flirtatious evening encounter between the Trash Island street dog named Chief and the show dog beauty Nutmeg. This song appears throughout the opening scene of Kurosawa’s 1948 film Drunken Angel. That scene takes place on a hot summer night beside a sump of filthy water surrounded by tenements – that film’s version of Trash Island.
And in this delightful musical mishmash, a bit of Prokofiev makes a cameo appearance in the score. The famous troika, or sleigh ride, music from Prokofiev’s score for the Soviet-era film Lieutenant Kije underscores the Trash Island dogs’ trip in a trash tram as they continue their trek across Trash Island.
Prokofiev’s sleigh ride music helps us understand the trash tram as the Trash Island version of a sleigh – And – no spoilers here – You’ll have to watch Isle of Dogs to see – and hear – how that quest to find Spots turns out.
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