Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs Is a Brilliant Study of Propaganda

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018) [Image sourced from IMDb]

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018) is a stop-motion-animated film set in the futuristic, fictional city of Megasaki based in Japan. It follows the story of an exiled set of dogs that are accompanied by a young boy named Atari into a journey towards their release from Trash Island back home. They must undo the propagandist notions disseminated by the power-abusing political party regarding a suspicious dog influenza outbreak, and ensure that dogs can be soundly reintegrated into the population of Megasaki. In several ways as explored below, elements within the film’s plot mirror the means of propaganda that are often exploited in real life, and also the counterpropaganda efforts that go into undoing the harm.

The ideology within the propaganda in the film is quite divisive in its nature and as understood in the words of American photojournalist Martha Cooper, the perspective presented in the film “provides the basis for determining what is good, bad, right, wrong, and so forth”. It is very clearly established that canines represent the bad, or wrong, and felines symbolize the good, or right, a distinction that makes it simple for the citizens of Megasaki to discriminate between the two. The purpose of the campaign is carried out in the agitation style, for it seeks to “arouse people from apathy by giving them feasible actions to carry out” as explained by Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s “How to Analyze Propaganda” on page 269. In this case, humans are incited to condone the act of banishing dogs to a toxic island.

While several key characters are animals, primarily dogs, their conditions represent the human nature in the themes and messages of the film. It dwells on situations of political corruption, exile, marginalization, social isolation of communities as well as discrimination, especially of a kind that is not far from the nature of real-life racial discrimination in times current and past. The overarching message is more systemic, for it displays the dangers of living in an authoritarian, almost totalitarian society. Another idea in the film is that gullibility to black propaganda messages and a lack of greater awareness may lead to severe outcomes including death, which is made evident by the fatal conditions of the island the dogs are banished to (for ex. lack of food, unhygienic environments, chemical toxicity etc.).

The target audience is primarily the citizens of Megasaki, but specifically those who either have dogs as pets at home or those in the vicinity of them. According to “How to Analyze Propaganda”, modern marketing research “enhanced by new technologies enables an audience to be targeted easily”, which is made evident in the film through the use of broadcasting and language translation technologies utilized to reach a mass population.

In terms of persuasion, it is clear that the corrupt government uses the technique of name-calling, for they portray dogs in a negative light by associating them with the widespread influenza. However, it may be said that there was also use of blatant lies, for it was Mayor Kobayashi’s political party that created the flu outbreak in the first place to ensure that it would cause canine extinction and would cause the resurgence of cat worship that was conducted by their ancestors about a thousand years ago. By pinning this influenza outbreak on all dogs, the government blatantly lies about firstly, their own misdeeds and secondly, about the untrue dangerousness of the dogs. Their propaganda also displays card stacking, for it aims to induce fear in the minds of the citizens as well as dogs, but also plain folks, for the Mayor displays his “relatability” by deporting first and foremost his own dog, Spots Kobayashi.

On the other hand, counterpropaganda is presented through the use of testimonial to provide credibility. Tracy, the American foreign exchange student, confirms her pro-dog theories when she obtains the last vial of the curing serum from Yoko Ono, the deceased scientist Watanabe’s associate. When this cure is presented to the crowds by the serum’s successful effect on Chief, Tracy and every other pro-dog character makes an attempt to restore sympathy for the dogs by way of scientific, empirical evidence. They also use the factor of liking when Atari presents an emotional haiku in dedication to Kobayashi, and this immediately creates a sense of pathos in both the crowd and Kobayashi alike. The Trash Island decree is soon repealed following this sympathizing display of human-canine affection.

“How to Analyze Propaganda” states, the main focus “should be on how the media are used”. The media utilization in this propaganda within the film includes the means of broadcast television and radio as well as posters, a haiku, and a play. It is a diverse range of media that are rich sonically as well as visually, which makes them more appealing to both the audiences within the film as well as of the film.

In terms of special techniques to maximize effect, it is important to note that creating resonance with the predispositions of the audience is crucial in the context of this film, especially because according to “How to Analyze Propaganda”, messages “have greater impact when they are in line with existing opinions, beliefs, and dispositions”. The reason why this was plausible in the propaganda campaign in the film is that the preeminence of cats was established more than a thousand years back by the ancestors of the Megasaki citizens, so it was only a question of reviving that antiquated belief alongside inducing contempt of dogs due to a fear of a supposed epidemic spreading. Reward and punishment are also key factors, for when Tracy emerges in her strong activism in support of the dogs, she is threatened with the possibility of deportation back to Cincinnati, Ohio, which is where she is originally from.

It can be argued that both the anti-dog as well as pro-dog propaganda campaigns were successful because at their respective peak stages, they succeeded in inducing the public to respond positively to their demands, ideologies, and purposes. However, they each had their own weaknesses, the ones for anti-dog trumping those of pro-dog due to its eventual downfall. The key weakness of the pro-dog campaign lasted only through the former parts of the film because the disparity between the children, dogs, and scientists against the powerful political party displayed a significant power and influence imbalance. However, the anti-dog campaign eventually fell apart by the hands of a conspiracy uncovered by a group of students.

Eventually, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a satisfying caricature of how propaganda manifests in the very real, unanimated world. One could perhaps entertain the idea that there is propaganda in the title of the movie itself, for the name “Isle of Dogs”, when said aloud, sounds much like “I love dogs”, indicating a hidden message for the film’s inherently affectionate attitude towards dogs.

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