The ninth feature and second stop-motion animated film from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs draws inspiration from Japanese cinema greats Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. And like all things Anderson, the final vision is uniquely his own.
“The one thing we did learn early on was that, when you’re making a movie on a garbage dump, don’t throw everything into the first shot. We quickly decided we needed to organise the rubbish,” says Wes Anderson of the setting for Isle of Dogs.
The director is famously meticulous, if only to create the conditions for spontaneous collaboration. But first, his creative whim acts as the overarching guide.
“I had this idea for some years that I wanted to do a second stop-motion animated film. I’d done one before, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). I wanted to do one that was dogs and I had this thought of a group of alpha dogs named Chief, Duke, Boss and King, [and] that they were living on a garbage dump. I don’t really know why I thought that was good, but that was my feeling,” explains the six-time Oscar-nominated director.
The dogs are voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum. They, along with all other canines, have been exiled to a trash island far from the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, where a cat-loving mayor has taken over. A 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) – the nephew of the mayor – flies to the island in search of his beloved dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Atari is central to the story, according to Anderson. “He has self-esteem and a belief in what he thinks is right. He has a good moral compass in a place that has lost its moral compass,” he says, adding that the casting of eight-year-old Koyu Rankin was crucial. “The puppet we ended up designing is, I think, inspired by his performance, really. It’s inspired by the way he played the character. His voice affected every step of what we did, from the moment we recorded him.”
The stop motion animators were also required to undertake a similar emotional journey, in their own unique way.
“Every aspect of every puppet has so many different options and choices, and really, you’re trying to figure out what is going to make the whole world of the movie right, what is right for the story and what is working with the voices, at the point when you’ve already got the voices. Also, what fun can you have with it,” says Anderson.
Working with frequent collaborators gave the director a level of comfort and freedom within the painstaking stop-motion process.
“We had Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray and Edward Norton together recording their parts. You’re always going to have fun. The thing I enjoyed in particular about working with the actors for a movie like this, is you use the rehearsal. I mean, once they say it, in any context, you have it; there’s no set, nothing has to be technically ready except that somebody had pressed record. You can use half a sentence of this, you can use anything anybody says, and we edit it and work with it and we animate to it and we use it.”
Think retro futuristic chic with Japanese aesthetics, and you begin to scratch the surface of the sights and sounds in Isle of Dogs. Anderson claims Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) as an inspiration, as well as the distinctive prints and paintings of Ukiyo-e, an art form which flourished from the 17th through to the 19th century.
However, the biggest creative influence came from Akira Kurosawa. The famed Japanese filmmaker is best known in the West for Seven Samurai (1954) – a movie that has influenced generations of directors from John Ford to Quentin Tarantino. Anderson, though, has found a new wellspring of ideas within the works of Kurosawa.
“It’s especially the city movies, rather than the medieval setting or Samurai setting movies,” he says. “It’s the ones that are in big cities, that are in Tokyo mostly, which often feature Toshiro Mifune as well. Or Takashi Shimura.
“One thing that’s great is there are all these actors in the Kurosawa movies who I’ve always loved, and in this case we actually have the chance to cast them because we’ve made our own versions of their faces.
Isle of Dogs is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray July 18.