Sure, the dogs are cute and the story is heartwarming. But the real star of Isle of Dogs is a 45-second sushi scene towards the end of the movie, and it's time we talked about it.
Wes Anderson's latest film is set in a futuristic city in Japan that outlaws dogs after a "dog flu" epidemic. A 12-year-old boy named Atari goes to Trash Island, where the dogs have been banished, in order to rescue his guard dog, Spots. Along the way he meets a band of former pets and their leader, Chief. The film is not without flaws, and has been criticized for a one-dimensional fetishization of Japanese culture that borders on cultural appropriation. It is also praised for it's stunning visuals, especially around food and the sushi scene in question.
Anderson has always had a "thing" for using food as both design and plot device. And since Japanese food preparation is an art form within itself, Isle of Dogs goes above and beyond with gorgeously crafted food scenes.
Note: The below clip includes some subtle spoilers for the rest of the movie, so please watch at your own risk!
The sushi scene in the film is clearly an intermission from the Lord of the Rings-style journey undertaken by the lead characters. We watch the hands of a solitary Japanese chef preparing the contents of a bento box. He delicately slices, rolls, and wraps a meal. It's shot from the top-down, a style used in many other Wes Anderson films, but also very reminiscent of the way people take Instagram photos of their food, or even something you would see from BuzzFeed's Tasty.
Each ingredient slides into view as though it were part of a factory line. A fish (similar to, if not exactly mackerel) flaps its fins and blinks as its head is severed and its bones are removed. From a bowl of discarded materials on the side, it continues to blink, watching its own deconstruction. The knife slices through the meat with such tenderness and ease you almost forget that the tools and ingredients are artificial.
Next up is a sizeable crab, reminiscent of the giant mechanical crustacean hanging outside of Osaka's famous Kani Doraku restaurant. The creature flinches as it's hacked in half, its shell cracked open, and its meat pulled out (which is then placed into a perfect cone of a hand roll).
Lastly, the octopus. Viewers don't even get to see what happened to the full animal, as a wriggling tentacle is placed in front of the chef. Although severed, it is the most "alive" ingredient, wiggling while the chef slices its thick meat into delicate rectangles. These are placed upon perfect beds of rice.
The scene lasts about 45 seconds, and in that time viewers are transfixed. Emotions shift from the optimism of the juvenile journey to something more inward, something more mystical. It was one of the most difficult scenes to shoot, taking nearly six months to perfect, and including some serious ground research.
"Wes wanted it to look like real sushi that had never been done before," described animation director Mark Waring, in an article for Indie Wire. "How do you kill, gut, and skin a fish? How do you go into the next stage with an octopus? How do you chop it up? How do you divide it? How do you use the knife?"
Even the chef was carefully planned out. In an interview for Dazed, Waring states that inspiration for the nameless character was "specifically based on one of Wes's favourite sushi chefs from Paris. He had his hands photographed, and we sculpted his hands to look exactly the same."
Wes Anderson himself went on to describe just how crucial putting together a scene like this was, in commentary he provided for Texas Monthly: "We had this idea that we wanted to do this wonderful sushi shot ... when it didn't have the right level of authenticity, it wasn't as funny, and it didn't seem proper. It wasn't as respectful to sushi culture."
And yet, the awe of the scene is balanced by the slight disturbance it leaves you with. The ingredients the chef uses are not mass-produced pieces of fish from a cold storage case — they are live creatures. It's a stark comparison between the young, nurturing characters in the film fighting for animal (and human) justice, and the hardline adults who will stop at nothing to ensure their demise.
"Wes wanted to make it so you could give it to one of the top sushi chefs in the world and he would totally understand what you were doing, but still do something that no sushi chef had ever done before," said Waring, in an article for Cartoon Brew.
Think of that next time you ask for extra wasabi with your spicy tuna roll.