'Isle of Dogs' Is a White Man's Fantasy of Japan
Wes Anderson's latest film is funny, charming, and just straight up cultural appropriation.
As Wes Anderson’s latest stop motion offering Isle of Dogs reaches its climax, there’s a scene where one of its leads—foreign exchange student Tracy Walker, voiced by Greta Gerwig—exclaims in a moment of revelation. All her Japanese peers proceed to nod in whispering, mumbling agreement.
At first glance, it’s a wholesome sequence. Tracy’s just incited the rumblings of a plan to rescue the dogs of the fictional city of Megasaki after they’ve been banished to an island off the coast of Japan by the city’s mayor. It has all of Anderson’s aggressively aestheticised trademarks, too—his unrelenting twee-ness, precious pastels, and stickling for symmetry.
But something about the scene, and the passivity of the non-white figures in it, sits uncomfortably.
It’s a discomfort that runs through the entire film. Just like the scene, Isle of Dogs is innocent enough on the surface. It’s a cute and cuddly tale of 12-year-old Atari’s journey to save his lost pet Spots. It’s heartwarming! It’s beautifully animated! Its title is literally a homophone for I Love Dogs!
Look beneath the film’s intricate sets and furry friends though, and there’s something more insidious. Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang touched on it when he wrote of Anderson’s “weakness for racial stereotyping,” pointing out the dubious politics of having the dogs speak perfect English, while the Japanese human characters—speaking in their native tongue—aren't subtitled, translated just a handful of times by Interpreter Nelson (voice by Frances McDormand).
Actual Japanese viewers have also found issue with Tracy as a white saviour who single handedly leads an uprising against Megasaki’s corrupt politicians, whilst emotionless Japanese citizens watch from the sidelines like perfect portraits of Asian subordination. That’s not to mention the film's approach to its Japanese setting, which plays more like a shopping list of clichéd iconography than any sense of real cultural engagement. Isle of Dogs opens and closes with a circle of taiko drummers, and in between Anderson gives us everything from poisoned wasabi to sumo wrestlers to wryly written haikus to, hell, even a mushroom cloud.
More telling, however, isn’t the stereotypes embedded in the film itself, but rather the public refusal to acknowledge them for what they are. Many words have been spilt over the tension between homage and appropriation in Isle of Dogs, and almost all have been met with the same derisive attitude from commenters: that critiquing Anderson’s heavy-handed caricature means taking the film too seriously. Or that Anderson, of all filmmakers, deserves leeway because his entire cinematic oeuvre rests on pushing stereotypes to their exaggerated aesthetic limit.
I get the second argument. I truly do! When Anderson excels in that exaggeration, it’s a cinematic feat. I marvelled at Bottle Rocket’s exhilaration and the surprising sadness of its ending. Moonrise Kingdom’s boy scout nostalgia made me yearn for a childhood filled with French pop and bushwalks. But the director’s best traits shouldn’t excuse his worst: namely, his reduction of non-white characters and cultures to little more than decoration for white storylines.
And what we’re seeing in Isle of Dogs isn’t new for Wes Anderson. In The Darjeeling Limited, he dropped three white brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, who co-wrote Dogs) into an Indian landscape in the wake of their father’s death. Where Anderson demands too little of his non-white characters in Isle of Dogs, in Darjeeling he asks too much—instead of being white saviours, the brothers are the ones looking for salvation. Of course, in typical Andersonian fashion, they find it—from an Indian funeral, no less.
In neither film does Wes Anderson treat people of colour as living, breathing humans. At best, they’re comic relief; at worst, they’re foils used to propel other, almost without fail English-speaking white characters. Just like in Isle of Dogs, the foreign context is warped and exoticised so much that it becomes nothing but a Western fantasy. Darjeeling was released to an adoring public, which pretty much refused to call out the racism—let’s call it what it is—that was at play.
The public response to both movies seems almost odd when we consider the racial discourse Hollywood has seen of late. The story is a familiar one by now: a white director tries to make a film about people of colour; said director makes a whole slew of poor racial decisions; director and ensuing film are slammed accordingly by audiences and critics.
We’ve watched this play out in a dozen different iterations over and over again: Ghost in the Shell (and Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese cyborg) springs to mind most readily, but before that there was Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character in Aloha. And before that there was the three-hour orgy of yellow-faced race-bending that was the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas.
So what makes Wes Anderson different? Why is it that Isle of Dogs and Darjeeling haven't elicited any sort of career-ending outrage? In some ways it's true that the racism in these films is subtler than their predecessors’ blatant whitewashing. It’s not quite as scandalous for, say, a dog to speak English compared to seeing a famous white actress in a role clearly meant for a person of colour. To Anderson’s credit, Isle of Dogs does feature an impressive amount of Japanese talent—it’s just a shame they’re underutilised.
And yes, it’s harder to critique the work of an auteur who readily admits his cultural references. These films are charming; they’re quirky; but they’re also ultimately overshadowed by Anderson’s own vision of a pop culture Japan that’s used as set dressing for the story he wants to tell. And that’s what renders his style appropriation, rather than homage.
Perhaps Anderson himself best sums this up. There’s a line about midway through Isle of Dogs uttered by Edward Norton’s character Rex when he first meets the Japanese-speaking protagonist Atari. “I wish there was some way we could understand him,” Norton says. Well, there is. If only Anderson would allow it.
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