Just days after its theatrical debut, Isle of Dogs — Wes Anderson's latest stop-motion animated film, which takes place in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki — has come under some serious scrutiny. And it might be for good reason. Film critics and social media users alike are calling out Isle of Dogs for its alleged cultural appropriation of East Asian culture. Bustle reached out to Anderson’s rep and Fox Searchlight Pictures for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
Anderson's Isle of Dogs has received mixed reviews since it first careened into theaters last week. On one hand, critics have praised the film for its aesthetic allure (in parsing through those visual elements deemed particularly successful by Isle of Dogs' positive reviews, Anderson's approach to stop-motion animation, for only a second time, seems to top the list), as well as its distinctly Anderson-esque dialogue, whose dark humor The Atlantic's Christopher Orr called "magnificently deadpan" in his review of the film. On the other, a growing number of critics (including a handful of those whose reviews acknowledge facets of Isle of Dogs that Anderson does get right) have noted that, while the film looks nice, much of its aesthetic prowess could come at the expense of the real-life Japanese culture from which it's been derived.
Much of the film's critical response acknowledges the bizarre trade-off. The Washington Post's chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, acknowledges this in her review of the film, noting,
"The specter of cultural appropriation haunts a production that clearly revels in the design elements and mood-board inspirations of Japanese technology and art."
If last week's comments by Isle of Dogs' co-production designers, Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, are any indication, Hornaday's read on the film certainly posits a compelling point. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stockhausen and Harrod described the film's aesthetic as "the 1963 vision of a futuristic Japan, drawing from the urban architecture, advertising, and graphic design of 1960s Japan as well as old Japanese woodblock prints and tapestries."
And while the film does nod to those Japanese-helmed artistic elements, Mashable's Angie Han argued that the film's handling of Japanese culture is not only appropriative, but dehumanizing, and follows a long-held problematic pattern of cultural appropriation (of Asian cultures, especially) in Hollywood films. Han manages to sum up the crux of the problem here fairly succinctly:
"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."
Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang delved into Isle of Dogs' cultural catch-22 in his recent review of the film, which has since catalyzed a flood of commentary on Twitter by fellow Asian-American critics and social media users with whom Chang's analysis resonated. After reading Chang's critique (even as a white person), it's easy to understand why. The review essentially boils down to a sharp, thoughtful examination of the ways in which Japanese "culture" is incorporated into the film's narrative. And, while Chang dubs certain aspects of the film "captivating," (echoing much of Isle of Dogs' critical response, he calls Anderson's take on the stop-motion technique "a triumph of invention and micro-detail") he also scrutinizes its inherently appropriative tenor.
While Chang's review (as well as a handful of others) notes an obvious interest, on Anderson's part, in choice elements of Japanese art and culture — like Kabuki theater, sumo wrestling, and haiku poetry — he questions whether those elements serve to pay homage to East Asian culture or simply amount to a "clueless failure of sensitivity." Chang's review doesn't reach any distinctive conclusions about whether the film is entirely good or bad, but it does point out that Isle of Dogs' intermittent nods to Japanese art are mostly couched in an ultimately one-note portrayal of its Japanese characters.
In his review, he notes that the vast majority of the film's Japanese dialogue (spoken only by Megasaki's human residents, sans subtitles) is "pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context," while the rest is translated aloud by an on-screen English interpreter. The dogs, oddly enough, exclusively converse with native American English fluency — a choice Chang calls "ridiculous, charming, and a little revealing." Plus, he argues, it's an American character (Tracy Walker, voiced by Greta Gerwig) who serves as the film's frontrunner, essentially reducing "the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city."
Black Girl Nerds critic Leonardo Faierman also noted the marginalizing impact of the film's Japanese dialogue in her review, writing,
"Is it not bad enough that a white American filmmaker is utilizing the language and visual qualities of another culture, but simultaneously distancing them from the viewer through some arbitrary mechanism we're meant to applaud?"
During a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Anderson revealed his rationale behind Isle of Dogs' untranslated Japanese dialogue. "I don't like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English," he explained. "I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It's interesting to me, and it's a very beautiful, complex language."
Japanese actor and writer Kunichi Nomura served as Anderson's primary consultant on the film. And while he told CBC Radio that he did weigh in on some elements of the movie's depiction of Japanese culture, he also said that didn't want to "stifle" Anderson's creativity. "When Wes would ask me, is this really authentic, then I would answer yes or no," Nomura told CBC Radio. "But at the same time I didn’t want to interfere with his imagination. You know, like you don't really have to make everything accurate."
And while Nomura might have a point about the inherently fictional nature of Isle of Dogs, Han speaks to the dangers of Anderson's linguistic decision in her review, writing,
"In treating Japanese culture like superficial embellishments, Japanese people like unknowable others, and Japan itself like an endearingly quirky playground for yet another white American narrative, Isle of Dogs' messaging about protecting the vulnerable falls flat."
As much of the film's critical response acknowledges, Isle of Dogs' appropriative mishandling of Japanese culture is certainly not the first of its kind. Here's to hoping Anderson's contribution to that trend stops here.