‘Isle of Dogs’ Toes the Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation

‘Isle of Dogs’ Toes the Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation

Wes Anderson’s newest stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs, opened at cinemas last month amid both praise and controversy, as it has been criticised by many for its presentation of Japanese society. Cultural insensitivity is an issue that continues to plague Hollywood, but is Isle of Dogs really a case of cultural appropriation, or is it a misguided attempt to honour Japan?

Image: New Yorker

It is easy to label Isle of Dogs as cultural appropriation; after all, it is a film constructed of Japanese stereotypes (sushi, Kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, Taiko drumming), made by a white man. However, whilst a criticism of these stereotypes is completely justified, the relationship between the film and the Japanese culture it presents is more confusing than this. Isle of Dogs is not a clear-cut case of white-washing like we saw last year with Ghost in the Shell, and whilst stereotypes are prevalent, they are never used to mock; it is evident that Anderson does respect Japanese culture. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, he was clear to point out that the fictional city of Megasaki is not “an accurate depiction of any particular Japan,”, rather, it is “a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema,” and hence an attempt to honour Japanese cinematic giants such as Akira Kurosawa.

However, the problem that arises with Isle of Dogs is that Anderson does not seem to really care about his Japanese characters. Whilst he makes the wise choice of having all the Japanese characters in the film voiced by Japanese actors, speaking Japanese in the film because, as he himself describes: I don’t like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English. I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It’s interesting to me, and it’s a very beautiful, complex language”.

I don’t like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English. I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It’s interesting to me, and it’s a very beautiful, complex language”

Image: Crack Magazine

These attempts seem pointless and the statement used to justify them seems somewhat hypocritical due to the fact that, in the political scenes, most of the Japanese dialogue is translated by a convenient English interpreter, to such an extent that it could be mistaken for complete dubbing. When dialogue is left untranslated, such as with the character of Atari, it is simplified, something which Justin Chang has pointed out in his article in the L.A Times: “Much of the Japanese dialogue, especially Atari’s, has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions”. Overall, the “beautiful, complex language” of Japanese, as Anderson puts it, is not allowed to flow naturally but is instead manipulated in order to make it as easy as possible for Western audiences to understand.

Even despite these efforts at the cost of the Japanese language, an English-speaking audience is more likely to empathise with English-speaking characters such as the dogs, because, as journalist Marc Bernadin puts it, “We empathize with those we can understand. Literally. By placing the Japanese characters behind a wall of language, Isle of Dogs is placing its empathetic weight on the canine characters. Which are all voiced by white actors.” While of course characters such as Chief and Spots should be central to the plot, the film is called Isle of Dogs, after all, the fact that all of our interest falls on these characters because they sound like us, rather than attempting to empathise with the Japanese-speaking characters.

By placing the Japanese characters behind a wall of language, Isle of Dogs is placing its empathetic weight on the canine characters. Which are all voiced by white actors.”

Another problem lies purely in the character of Tracey, a foreign exchange student who speaks almost entirely in English. Whilst the lengths Atari goes to rescue his lost dog is admirable, his heroism within the story is subsidised slightly by Tracey, who establishes herself as the head of Megasaki’s pro-dog resistance, embodying the ‘white saviour’ trope as she leads the rest of the (Japanese) group to save the dogs. Whilst Japanese characters such as Professor Watanabe’s assistant (voiced by Yoko Ono), who knew where the cure for ‘dog-flu’ was all along, could have easily assumed a heroic role, instead this is given to Tracey, with Yoko Ono’s character being reduced to a grieving alcoholic, crippled by the loss of her partner and unable to act. There is no reason why the character of Tracey had to be white, but the fact that she is simply reiterating Anderson’s overall lack of concern with the Japanese characters he presents.

It is due to these reasons that Isle of Dogs could be set anywhere and still work. Anderson is known for being a director who is meticulous about the look of his film, and here he seems more interested in the aesthetics of Japanese culture than the culture itself. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say Isle of Dogs is cultural appropriation, it is hardly cultural appreciation as it uses a reimagined version of Japan, largely built up of stereotypes, as a backdrop for a plot centred around white and English-speaking characters with little attempt to tell an authentically Japanese story.

Hannah Stokes

Image credit: InQuire Live