Permanent disposables – waste in Isle of Dogs

Please note this blog post may contain spoilers

Wes Anderson’s latest feature, Isle of Dogs, was released in cinemas in March 2018. The stop-motion animation is made using puppets, and is set in Japan in the near future. In the film’s fictional city of Megasaki, a dog-hating mayor has banned all dogs to a nearby ‘trash island’. The film’s hero, 12-year-old Japanese boy Atari, goes to the island to find his dog Spot. He is helped in his quest by a pack of file male ‘alpha-dogs’, whilst on the mainland an American exchange student leads the protests against the mayor’s anti-dog decrees.

Since the film has come out, much attention has rightly been given to the problematic depiction and appropriation of Japanese culture (and critics’ subsequent calling out of that appropriation) – for example in articles here, here and here. For the purposes of this blog, concerned as it is with ephemerality in urban environments, I instead want to explore the landscape of Trash Island.

Trash, garbage, rubbish – it is an inevitable part of modern human existence. The challenge of getting rid of ever-increasing mounds of refuse, in particular in cities, is a common challenge for city planners. As citizens, we expect that rubbish is collected regularly and then ‘disposed of’, preferably in a way that is invisible and unobtrusive. When this does not happen, as during the infamous ‘Naples waste crisis’ in 2008, it leads to health and environmental risks as well as unsightly streets.

But after trash is collected from individual households, it still needs to go somewhere – in particular given that only a small percentage of all waste can currently be truly recycled. In most cases, it gets heaped into enormous landfill sites, which are either left out in the open or buried. For now, this seems to be the best solution that we have to manage our waste, and this is also how it is managed in Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki.

In Isle of Dogs, Trash Island is located a short distance from Megasaki. The ‘island’ is in fact a series of connected islets, which original sole purpose appears to be the collection of the city’s refuse. Trash is delivered to the island via a rope and pulley system:

IoD1

However, other scenes imply that there is some sort of order to how the garbage is stored on the island, as rubber tyres and glassware appear to be grouped together:

IoD2

IoD3

And when Spot, Atari’s dog, gets dropped at the island his cage is surrounded by trash that is neatly compressed in blocks:

IoD4

Wes Anderson is known for the aesthetic coherency he brings to his films, a visual style that is instantly recognisable by its symmetry and use of colour. It has spawned a subreddit and Instagram account on which people share real-life images that look like they are from an Anderson film. It appears that in Isle of Dogs, Anderson tried to find a compromise between using a landfill site as a primary location, and his natural inclination for order and harmony. Rubbish by its definition is messy, but Anderson manages to turn it into something that is (almost) beautiful. In this he was reportedly inspired by environmental photographers who have turned images of real trash collection sites into art. The difference is that whilst these photographers use their art to make people think about the impact of consumer culture on the environment, Isle of Dogs does not explicitly ask such questions of its audience.

Anderson can partly represent garbage as beautiful because of the permanence of Trash Island. Isle of Dogs does not give much information about how Trash Island came into existence, but it does become clear that the island has been used as a landfill site for some time. In the second half of the film, Atari and his five dog companions find a group of dogs at the other end of the island, who have been there for several years. This group of dogs has managed to build a real home out of the waste that surrounds them. Objects that have been thrown away by humans are given a new lease of life by the dogs, who build permanent structures and communities out of them.

Inevitably, Anderson’s aesthetics romanticise the landfill site. The location serves as an easy way to communicate how the mayor thinks dogs are trash, and then provides visual pleasures in the heaping together and repeating of textures and colours. But there is no discussion as to why Trash Island exists, or whether the citizens of Megasaki should consider better ways of disposing of their waste. When all dogs return to Megasaki at the end of the film, Trash Island presumably continues to exist as it did before. And there a parallel can be drawn between Anderson’s treatment of Japanese culture and his use of a landfill site setting: both give him great visuals to work with, but Isle of Dogs fails to engage meaningfully with either cultural appropriation or environmental issues.

All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight