Isle of Dogs is a charming film and feat of stop motion animation. It’s set in a futuristic Japan, where dogs have been outlawed by the government due to complex cat-favouring conspiracy, and the film follows a young boy, Atari, who’s mission is to save his canine friends.
The film has been met with a lot of praise for its visual beauty alone, and I personally admired the old-school animation techniques that we saw only hints of in Fantastic Mr.Fox. Things like cotton wool clouds during fights, cling-film rivers, and tissue paper fires made me smile. However, I was surprised that I was asked what i thought about the cultural appropriation before I even knew it was out. So, I went to see it without reading anything about it in effort to tame my righteous ego, and also in hope of a surprise like when I thought Black Panther was a political documentary.
Isle of Dogs is a love letter to the Japanese culture as much as it is to the art of stop-motion itself. His attention to detail in ukiyo-e styles and kabuki references make that love obvious, and I definitely appreciate that. In fact I revel in it. A lot of people didn’t like the stereotypical elements, like the inclusion of sumo wrestling, geishas, and sushi making. Sure, it’s not the most naturalistic portrayal of Japan, but the world of Wes Anderson is one of women smoking in bath tubs and perfect symmetry. Besides, that sushi scene was easily the best in the whole film. Though exaggerated, these details were executed with a certain magic that made it very clear Anderson respects the craft of the culture. The caricatures of Japanese people were charming, and in many ways embrace the tradition of exaggeration and theatricality. Also, angry old Japanese people screaming are really funny, just ask my grandmother about my dress sense and you’ll see exactly what I mean. I understand the readings that he painted Japan as an exoticisied playground, but in these moments I thought the laughter in the audience was worth that cost. So in summary, the criticism about the extra special Japanes-y Japan parts I think can be brushed off with a “psh don’t police the line too much”.
However, there are other issues brought to light that are worth listening to.
Before i even get started, the Japanese characters are actually more yellow in colour. I don’t really think i need to elaborate on that one, that was just a bit odd Wes wyd.
Moving on, there’s the problem with having a lot of the film in Japanese without subtitles. The intention here was to immerse the audience in the dog’s perspective, which shows an effort to use the complexities of language and ostracisation for story telling – impressive for a children’s film. Credit where its due for using Japanese actors for these roles too. The issue is that many felt through doing this, Anderson de-valued what the Japanese characters had to say. This is most encapsulated in the line “i wish somebody spoke his language” spoken by Ed Norton’s Rex. Here, Anderson shows an awareness that his audience is western, and identifies the western viewer with the dog’s perspective (all voiced by white actors). It seems he’s purposefully pushing Japanese not only to the periphery, but to a periphery of lower value. The Japanese language holds the importance of elevator music to Anderson’s dialogue. The line asks the question : at what point does a clever POV device become a dismissive insult?
The other uncomfortable moment for me was the fact the entire Japanese government was dismantled by the only American exchange student in an impressive showcase of white saviourism. Given that there are no subtitles and little translation, and half the plot is dominated by the Japanese Atari, it does makes sense that the mainland story be lead by an American voice so the audience can understand the plot. However, if you were to assume the intention was more sinister, it’s a little too easy to interpret Greta Gerwig’s Tracy Walker as having some sort of Western immunity to the Japanese corrupt brainwashing, and using her superior moral compass to save the poor bastards. I’m not saying this is what’s happening, but it doesn’t take long to get there if you’re looking for it.
It was the references to the holocaust that made me actively squirm. The disenfranchised, dehumanised, vermin-like, minority being shipped away, placed in an extermination camp about to be mass murdered with wasabi-poison gas. Jesus christ. This was a pretty awful depiction of Japan, especially as a Nazi ally, and just seemed way too serious too quickly for the overall more allegorical, vaguely neutral stance of the film.
It’s important to highlight issues on cultural appropriation in film, especially films with such a platforms as Wes Anderson’s do, and especially when they’re marketed at young people. These interpretations, to me, are all a bit of a stretch, but it’s really important to acknowledge them in order to learn and progress. We’ve seen this happen in ‘ in Dr.Strange with Tilda Swinton’s race-lifted The Ancient One; we’ve seen this happen with Coppola making fun of how the Japanese pronounce ‘rs’ and ‘ls’ in Lost in translation. In these examples, it’s definitely not the answer to boycott the film. Go see it, enjoy it, read about that one scene and move on. In some cases, the issues highlighted are big enough to cut it out, like the white-washing of Ghost in the Shell, which was pretty disgraceful and i hope you don’t see it (also because its a bore of a film). In those cases, it’s obvious and angry and important to call out. Isle of Dogs, on the other hand, is not an offensive film. However, when you have reach to millions across the world, we owe it to minority cultures to listen. To be a little cautious. Consider the wider impact. Don’t see these criticisms as the battlecry of the snowflakes, let it sit bitterly on your tongue for a moment, let it add to the taste, but then swallow. The film is sweet otherwise.