Home > Reviews > ISLE OF DOGS – Alexandre Desplat

ISLE OF DOGS – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Isle of Dogs is the latest film from the quirky hipster director Wes Anderson, and sees him returning to the world of animation for the second time, after Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Of all the ‘mainstream’ directors working today, Anderson is one of the only ones who regularly switches between mediums like this – Robert Zemeckis dabbled in animation with things like The Polar Express and Beowulf, and Steven Spielberg had a go with The Adventures of Tintin, but those were exercises in motion capture which still used real actors as reference. Anderson’s animated films are more traditional, featuring stop-motion puppets and models and actors doing voices. It’s a typically idiosyncratic effort from the undisputed king of these things; plot-wise, the film is set in the near-future in Japan, and follows the adventures of a young boy named Atari who embarks on a daring mission to rescue his dog, Spots, from a trash-filled island, after the entire canine population of the city are banished there by a corrupt mayor in the aftermath of an outbreak of ‘dog flu’.

As always, the film features an astonishing voice cast drawn from Anderson’s ever-expanding regular players troupe – Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton – and conceptually it touches on many ideas, ranging from political corruption to the relationship between human and canine (isle of dogs = I love dogs), to Anderson’s personal love of Japanese culture and the films of Akira Kurosawa. There are stylistic homages and references to Kurosawa all through the film, including the film’s score by Anderson’s regular composer Alexandre Desplat. This is the fourth Anderson film that Desplat has scored, following on from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latter of which earned him his first Academy Award.

If anyone thinks they know what an Alexandre Desplat score is going to sound like before they listen to it, Isle of Dogs will certainly come as a surprise. His scores for Anderson’s films are often the ones which take him most outside his comfort zone and into world music – The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, was an intentional cultural mishmash of influences from all over central and eastern Europe – and Isle of Dogs is very much the same. Broadly, the score could be described as a minimalist’s take on traditional Japanese folk music; it has an intentionally limited instrumental palette, and is more interested in rhythm and texture than it is on thematic interplay, but the sound that Desplat creates is fascinating in its final execution.

Instrumentally, the score is very unusual. It is perhaps one of the only scores I have ever heard that does not appear to feature any traditional bowed string instruments – no violins, no violas – and the only strings that do appear are cellos and double basses, which are plucked. The brass section is also almost entirely absent – there are little hints and textures here and there, but nothing significant – leaving the most prominent sound to come from percussion, woodwinds, and voices. Desplat uses flutes, bassoons, recorders and saxophones throughout the score, in combination with piano, xylophone, and a vast array of traditional Japanese taiko drums, clappers, and metallic chimes and finger cymbals. I spent time trying to identify what instruments they might have been – is that a hyōshigi bamboo clapper, a shakubyoshi wooden clapper, or a set of kokiriko sticks? – but I ultimately gave up, stymied by the depth of Desplat’s idiosyncratic instrumental choices. Upon first glance, this would appear to be deeply weird, but such is Desplat’s talent that the palette is actually quite fascinating. The subtle differences in timbre that each instrument provides keeps the music from becoming repetitive, and the different combinations he uses across different cues allows the music to remain vibrant throughout the score.

The score is also very light on thematic content. There is one recurring main theme – an 8-note idea which appears frequently throughout the score, and is the first thing you hear in the opening cue “Shinto Shrine” – accompanied by a secondary theme which appears to be a 2-note motif deconstructed from the original 8-note theme. However, for the most part, Desplat’s music is about rhythm. Desplat uses his instruments to maintain a constant pulse throughout the score, in such a way that the overall effect is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. As the score progressed I was constantly reminded of composers like Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, in the way the former builds up layers of sound by adding more instruments in sequence, and in the way the latter often focuses on saxophones as a way to add a unique sonic edge to his music. All this is then filtered through Desplat’s unique sensibility – even in this departure, you can clearly hear fleeting echoes of scores like Birth, The Painted Veil, and the ‘gyptian’ music from The Golden Compass, as well as previous Anderson works like Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Considering that much of the score adopts the same sound, it’s difficult to pick out highlight cues, but there are nevertheless some moments that stand out more than others. The opening cue, “Shinto Shrine,” is notable for its use of deep chanting male voices, which create an imposing atmosphere. I had to smile later on in the score when the same idea returns in “Jupiter and Oracle + Aboriginal Dogs,” which accompanies a scene where young Atari visits two wise old mutts for sage advice on how to complete his quest, and which could be seen as a wry commentary drawing parallels between human deities of the Shinto religion and these canine philosophers – dogs=gods?

I love the interplay between the woodwinds in “The Municipal Dome,” especially the way in which Desplat pairs the flutes with the bassoons, performing the same rhythmic idea at opposite ends of the tonal scale. The use of a recorder as the lead instrument in “Six Months Later” gives it a childlike, innocent feel, before it all becomes slightly shrill and off-kilter in the subsequent “Dog Fight”. The 8-note main theme returns in “The Hero Pack,” led by more hooting saxophones, while the first notable use of the brass section – trumpet pulses – comes during “Second Crash-Landing + Bath House + Beach Attack,” which has a more intense and dramatic sound thanks to the increased prominence of taiko drums and commanding Japanese voices.

The “Sushi Scene” revisits the 8-note theme with special emphasis on recorders and flutes, saxophone, plucked bass, and voices, and “Pagoda Slide” has the audacity to come across as a little more cheerful, even comedic, through the use of what sounds like an oompah-style French horn and a calliope. In the conclusive “Re-Election Night, Parts 1-3” Desplat brings together all the ideas heard throughout the score, and contrives to underpin them with some influences from western jazz; although the instrumental choices are much the same (plucked bass, piano), the actual performance techniques are subtly different, enough to give them a flavor of their own. The use of brass in this cue is especially interesting too, as Desplat passes the 2-note deconstructed motif around from trombones to saxophones to horns, keeping the cue tonally interesting.

The “End Titles” continue the ideas from the previous cue, taking the plucked basses and the pizzicato ideas, and gradually adding in multiple layers of sound – taiko drum rolls, trumpets, saxophones, flutes, recorders, pianos – all playing overlapping rhythmic ideas, with hints of the 8-note theme and the 2-note deconstruction. It’s totally compelling, and again can only be described as Desplat’s take on Philip Glass combined with Japanese folk music and western jazz.

The album, released by ABKCO Records, is rounded out by several songs and pieces of source music. There are two pieces of solo taiko drumming written and performed by the New York-based Japanese composer Kaoru Watanabe; selections of original score from two classic Akira Kurosawa films – Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel – written by Fumio Hayasaka; a peculiar re-interpretation of Prokofiev’s classic “Midnight Sleighride” piece from his score for Lieutenant Kije, performed by The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra; a piece of 1960s psychedelia called “I Won’t Hurt You” by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band; and a kitchy old Japanese pop song called “Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy,” performed by Teruko Akatsuki.

Isle of Dogs might very well be the most offbeat mainstream score Alexandre Desplat has written since he first came to international prominence in the early 2000s. It’s so far removed from the sound and tone of his most popular works that many of his admirers may find themselves taken aback by the sheer oddness of it all. The lack of thematic ideas, the strange combination of instrumental sounds, and the adherence to constantly shifting rhythms, just adds to the sense of fragmented quirkiness. But, despite this, there is still something fascinating about it – once the initial shock at the sound palette has worn off, it somehow draws you into its eccentric little world, where east meets west, classic jazz sits alongside music for ancient Japanese spiritual rites, and talking dogs offer comfort and friendship to lonely little boys.

Buy the Isle of Dogs soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Shinto Shrine (1:56)
  • Taiko Drumming (written and performed by Kaoru Watanabe) (0:51)
  • The Municipal Dome (2:29)
  • Six Months Later + Dog Fight (2:05)
  • The Hero Pack (1:08)
  • First Crash-Landing (0:56)
  • Kanbei & Katsushiro – Kikuchiyo’s Mambo (from Seven Samurai, written by Fumui Hayasaka) (0:53)
  • Second Crash-Landing + Bath House + Beach Attack (4:07)
  • Nutmeg (0:48)
  • Kosame No Oka (from Drunken Angel, written by Fumio Hayasaka and Ryōichi Hattori) (1:07)
  • I Won’t Hurt You (written by Michael Lloyd, Shaun Harris and Bob Markley, performed by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band) (2:24)
  • Toshiro (1:08)
  • Jupiter and Oracle + Aboriginal Dogs (2:05)
  • Sushi Scene (1:42)
  • Midnight Sleighride (from Lieutenant Kije, written by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra) (3:01)
  • Pagoda Slide (1:09)
  • First Bath of a Stray Dog (0:27)
  • TV Drumming (written and performed by Kaoru Watanabe) (0:32)
  • Kobayashi Canine-Testing Laboratory (1:58)
  • Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy (performed by Teruko Akatsuki) (3:00)
  • Re-Election Night, Parts 1-3 (5:00)
  • End Titles (4:52)

Running Time: 43 minutes 37 seconds

ABKCO (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and Clifford Tasner. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Yann McCullough. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

  1. Debbie
    March 27, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Just listened last night and was very impressed

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