Today we’ll be finishing up our exploration of Wes Anderson’s filmography with his latest film, the stop-motion animated picture, “Isle of Dogs”.
Last time, we took a look at the soundtrack and score to “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, which was composed by Alexandre Desplat. Desplat, who has worked on several of Anderson’s films, is also responsible for the “Isle of Dogs” soundtrack.
And, as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” took its inspiration from European culture, and “The Darjeeling Limited” from Indian, so “Isle of Dogs” now takes its own from Japan. While Anderson was criticized by some for possible cultural appropriation, our only job today is to examine Alexandre Desplat’s score.
“Isle of Dogs” is set in Japan, 20 years in the future. When an outbreak of canine influenza starts to spread, the mayor of Megasaki City, Kenji Kobayashi exiles the overwhelming dog population to Trash Island, a giant garbage dump. This includes his nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) bodyguard dog Spot. The story follows Atari, who flies alone over the river to Trash Island in search of Spots.
After crash-landing on the island, Atari is rescued by a pack of stray dogs. The pack includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Together, they go in search of the lost Spots on an epic journey.
Isle of Dogs
“Isle of Dogs” opens with a narrative explaining the history of dogs in Japanese culture, with a dog narrating. During this, Desplat’s “Shinto Shrine” plays in the background, with rhythmic drumming and use of traditional Japanese instrumentation. Following this, the opening credits play out to Kaoru Watanabe’s “Taiko Drumming”. Taiko drums, and other Japanese percussion instruments are used heavily throughout the film.
In “Six Months Later Dog + Dog – Fight”, Desplat uses a wide range of flutes and percussion to build up tension between two rival packs of dogs. The scene plays out like a spaghetti western as the two packs square off.
While most of the score was composed by Alexandre Desplat, there are a number of selected songs from a variety of musicians, mostly from Japan. Some had origins in classic Japanese cinema, and highlight Anderson’s influence from Akira Kurosawa’s films such as “Drunken Angel” and “Seven Samurai”. Among these are “Kanbei & Katsushiro Kikuchiyo’s Mambo” by the Toho Symphony Orchestra (“Seven Samurai”), as well as “Kosame No Oka”, performed by David Mansfield (“Drunken Angel”).
There’s only one song on the soundtrack that doesn’t have any roots in Japanese culture. It comes in during a short traveling montage across Trash Island, while the pack escorts young Atari in the continuing search for Spots. That song is “I Won’t Hurt You” by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and plays twice in the film. As far as its placement in the film, it’s one of the few that seems to have been included to keep the consistent tone of Anderson’s films. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fit in. But in a film with no subtitles for Japanese speakers, and a soundtrack heavily inspired by traditional Japanese music, it does stand out.
While I can’t say that “Isle of Dogs” was my favorite of Wes Anderson’s films, it does have his characteristic charm to it. And I have to hand it to Alexandre Desplat for all of his work on Anderson’s films. The diversity of styles he displays on the soundtracks to “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, and “Isle of Dogs” is wide, but still manages to convey a singular consistency that lets you know you’re watching a Wes Anderson film.
That wraps up our journey through the soundtracks of Wes Anderson’s filmography. Next week, we’ll start looking through the filmography of another director, and a whole new set of soundtracks.