You’ve heard the rumour, right?
Critics consider Wes Anderson’s latest movie, Isle of Dogs, to be offensive. “Cultural appropriation,” they’re calling it. Bit of a shame, really; Isle of Dogs is a fun movie. It has excellent animation, clever cinematography and an expressive soundtrack by the always-wonderful Alexandre Desplat. But do these critics have a point? How does the movie explore Japanese culture? How does the movie portray race?
More importantly, what does Wes Anderson want to say through this story?
Isle of Dogs is set in the fictional Megasaki City, where a widespread case of dog flu has prompted Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to banish all the dogs to a quarantine on Trash Island. Months later, the mayor’s orphaned nephew, a twelve-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), hijacks a plane and flies to Trash Island in search for his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon crash landing, Atari is helped by five dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Meanwhile, a foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) leads a student revolt against Mayor Kobayashi’s political corruption.
On the surface, there’s a lot to like about Isle of Dogs. Wes Anderson has brought back the stop-motion animation from Fantastic Mr. Fox, with painstaking detail etched into every frame. The way each strand of dog fur blows in the wind is strangely absorbing; the visuals are as uncanny as they are imaginative. Like most of Anderson’s movies, Isle of Dogs has the look and feel of a child’s toy box.
The cast is littered with personality as well. Many of Anderson’s usual suspects are here, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton. Newcomers like Greta Gerwig and Bryan Cranston fit perfectly into the story, and it’s hard to imagine a Wes Anderson picture without them.
The movie also features Tilda Swinton as the cutest, most adorable pug ever. Tilda Swinton as a pug! What’s not to like?
Of course, this much should be obvious. The whimsical dialogue, rigid framing and lovable characters should all feel familiar to anyone who has watched a Wes Anderson movie. As mentioned earlier, the heart of the discussion behind Isle of Dogs has been the controversy surrounding its representation of Japanese culture.
While its representation of Japanese characters is not necessarily offensive, Isle of Dogs is just another example in a long list of American movies that uses an Asian setting and expresses no interest in the people existing within it. Mashable’s Angie Han writes, “The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their ‘exotic’ cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings.”
A major part of the criticism is focused on the character of Tracy. As the only white character in the film and one of the few non-canine characters capable of speaking English, she steals the spotlight from the Japanese characters in a story set in Japan. As Karen Han of The Daily Beast writes, “The way that the story essentially shelves Atari for the back half of the film only makes things worse. Rather than sticking with Atari, the film’s focus shifts to Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student who browbeats first her meek Japanese classmate and then the meek Japanese public into taking action for the sake of the dogs. It’s the classic white savior trope, and it feels no less egregious in Isle of Dogs than anywhere else. In the end, Japanese characters hardly factor into this story about Japan, other than as props.”
Some have made the counterpoint that Anderson is using language as an artistic limitation, i.e. is it possible to make a movie where the characters speak a foreign language without adding subtitles? This kind of experiment sounds exactly like Anderson, a filmmaker who often finds quirky solutions to self-imposed challenges.
However, Justin Chang of the L.A. Times describes how even Anderson’s characteristic approach to language completely drains our interest in any of the Japanese characters: “You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn’t want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation. But all these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.”
Would it have been more effective to simply leave the English to the dogs? Even if it were possible to tell a story where half the characters speak untranslated Japanese, the things that the movie borrows from Japanese culture lack any subtlety or verisimilitude. Megasaki City does not feel like an authentic Japanese city, but a cheap stereotype that can’t take place anywhere but Japan. As Karen Han continues to write in her review, “Anderson’s portrayal of Japanese culture falls into that same surface-level appreciation. Public speeches end with haikus, and kabuki performances and sumo wrestling are used as set pieces throughout the film.”
Vulture’s Emily Yoshida also writes about Isle of Dogs’ blatant Orientalism in her article where she interviews Japanese speakers who have watched the movie: “Anderson self-consciously uses Japanese-ness — a very curated, Showa-era version of Japan — as a kind of costume, and Isle of Dogs depicts a heightened essence of the Japanese culture as filtered through a Western understanding, the sort of thing your grandpa or Neal Stephenson would call ‘Nipponese.'”
It would be unfair to say that Anderson has chosen Japan as his setting without listing his artistic influences. Isle of Dogs pays homage to a number of Japanese filmmakers, including Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and, most evidently of all, Akira Kurosawa. “But there’s a difference between Japanophilia and cinephilia,” David Fear of Rolling Stone writes, “just as there are differences between paying tribute to a foreign culture and using what you’ve gleaned about a country from watching its movies as some sort of exotic backdrop.”
Clearly, most of these critics aren’t ones to sit or roll over. No, these critics bite. But personally, I’m not completely convinced that Isle of Dogs is as culturally insensitive as they say it is. At least, not for the reasons they purport. I am of the belief that offense is taken, not given. And so far, Japan’s reception of Isle of Dogs has been generally favourable. In addition to Anderson’s quaint cinematic style, foreign viewers love the movie for its brazen appreciation of all things Japan.
For all its superficiality, it is obvious that Wes Anderson has nothing but love for Japanese culture.
However, this doesn’t invalidate what the critics have said. After all, their Asian-American experience is just as valid as the experience of Japanese cinephiles overseas. If they are truly uncomfortable with the representation of Japan in Isle of Dogs, they have every reason to believe their instincts.
As a Chinese-Canadian, I try to think back to my personal experiences with Chinese culture in cinema. Was I offended by Kung Fu Panda’s portrayal of China? Not really. Its fascination with dumplings, pandas and martial arts had a certain charm to it, even if Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu had maybe five lines of dialogue in the entire movie.
Likewise, Isle of Dogs captures Japan in a way that points to an impassable cultural barrier. Authenticity was never the point. Just as dogs will never be able to communicate with humans using language, Anderson borrows from Japanese culture to signal how he will never be able to assimilate the culture itself. And yet, as the theme of the movie suggests, there is still an implicit feeling of love that transcends any cultural disconnect.
K. Austin Collins describes it best in her review for The Ringer: “That, to me, is the white hipster’s condition: rather than dominate any authentic culture or style, they are excluded from them all. It’s a condition of having to borrow. Hipsters can only ever approximate the cultures they mimic, and what I see in Anderson’s movies, with all their fussy production value and ornate style, is the same celebration of that hipsterish ability to curate an identity that everyone criticizing him sees. But I also see characters struggling to escape the inherent dissatisfaction of having to curate an identity, and that stands out. I love Anderson’s movies, but I’ve never really envied the people in them.”
But there is one lingering question that troubles me: is Wes Anderson trying to make a political statement with Isle of Dogs? Most people confidently claim that the movie takes place in the wonderfully whimsical Wes-World (not to be confused with the equally wonderful Westworld), a fictional place completely detached from the social concerns of our reality. And while I am tempted to feel the same way, Anderson’s stories are always leashed to a thematic purpose that connects back to the viewer in some way.
In Isle of Dogs, this purpose is delivered through scenes of companionship and bonding. Of the five dogs, Cranston’s Chief is the only one who was born a stray. And while he was often homeless and alone, the brief instances of tenderness and affection are what stick out in his memories as truly joyful moments. Thematically, the movie is really about the necessity of love. One cannot build a meaningful life by subsisting on garbage; as numerous characters in the movie have said, “There is no future on Trash Island.”
But are the dogs supposed to be a metaphor for people?
Anthropomorphic animals aren’t always an abstract analogy. Some movies, like Zootopia, portray animals in a civilized society not unlike our own. Others, like Madagascar, portray animals as a mere component to human civilization. There is every possibility that Isle of Dogs is nothing more than a harmless fable about man’s best friend. But if the film really is an allegory for people, then it seems to be suggesting that subservience is a small price to pay for love.
I haven’t felt this conflicted over a movie’s greater political meaning since Django Unchained. Much like Django, Isle of Dogs is also an auteur-driven movie that uses a controversial setting to tell a fairy tale. And where Django implies that Uncle Toms are the true cause of black slavery, Isle of Dogs implies that obedience precedes happiness. Whether you see these two movies as myth or as analogy will depend entirely on your faith in their respective filmmakers.
Let’s take a vote. Personally, I am optimistic enough to believe that Anderson’s intentions are good. As clumsy as he was at handling racial minorities in previous movies, he always had sympathy for their troubled circumstances. I am reminded of the way Gustave apologizes to Zero for his insensitivity upon discovering Zero’s refugee background in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Sure, it was awkward and somewhat out-of-place, but the scene came from a place of empathy.
Isle of Dogs bares all the traits of Anderson’s typical work: youth activism, traumatic childhoods, paternal responsibility, etc. You could say it’s the most “Wes Anderson film” to date. But for all of his meticulous craft and idiosyncratic dialogue, I finally see something I haven’t seen from Wes Anderson before: lethargy. Where he once agonized over the tiniest of details, he has now failed to see the complications of the bigger picture.
In every film he has ever made, Anderson battles the cynicism of adulthood with the enthusiasm of youth. But unlike the myth of the boy samurai and the headless ancestor, Anderson’s vision possesses heart but lacks the mental clarity he is known for.
Wait, is that supposed to be an allegory too?