Wes Anderson style of film, the witty and idiocentric deadpan humor Plus the symmetry and camera pans, is an excellent sidestep from the usual and commercial comedy that we get with most studio films. And while I’d like to believe that Anderson has the best intentions for his movies and his audience, I can’t help but wonder if he knew anything about cultural appropriation and whitewashing going into the production of Isle Of Dogs.
You see, Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s latest directorial effort and second stop-motion animation feature. It’s a medium that would usually be celebrated in any circumstance considering its one that is rarely seen on the big screen. The effort it takes to bring motion to each character is taxing. Each and only movement is filmed in a single frame at a time. And with Anderson’s reputation for precision in both the visual and the narrative, you can bet there are some very high expectations for this film.
With each layer, there is a celebration of the Japanese culture. Even the film has influences from Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, who are considered some of the most significant filmmakers of our time. The set and costume designs stay true to the spirit of what makes the Japanese culture so beautiful. But much of that is lost because Anderson’s habitual storytelling overshadows one of the essential things in the film: the language.
Isle of Dogs is paradoxical at best and cultural appropriation at worst. In a time where we have created an entire movement to make a real positive change in representation happen. And yet, somehow, where films like Black Panther and Love, Simon can co-exist and have their story told appropriately, Asians are once again, marginalized and forced to take a back seat and watch a white director tell their story with a mostly white cast.
Watching Isle Of Dogs, I can’t help but wonder why didn’t anyone within the white cast bring up any of concerns of whitewashing. I mean, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson already had their experiences with whitewashing controversies when they play characters who are depicted as Asian, in their respective properties, and we will get to the casting decisions a bit later as it ties into one of the film’s problems of the presentation of language.
Isle of Dogs is set in a distant future in a fictional Japanese city whose mayor believes that for their city to be clean it must purify the dog flu epidemic. So he executes an executive order that banishes all dogs to Trash Isle. But one boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin) has to courage to make the perilous journey crossing over the sea to the garbage heap to find his beloved dog named Spots (Liev Schriber). However, Trash Isle is massive; it would be impossible to locate his missing dog on his own. So he has to communicate and rely on the help of the dogs he befriends, Rex (Edward Norton), the leader of the pack; Boss (Bill Murray), the mascot for a baseball team, Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a gossip; King (Bob Balaban), the spokesdog for a doggy treat company; and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a disillusioned stray who has nothing but hatred towards humans.
These dogs speak English, despite the fact that they have been raised in a Japanese city all their lives. See, at the beginning of the film, there is an opening that explains translations will be offered through an interpreter, electronic subtitles, and a student who speaks and responds in English. All of the dogs’ barks are immediately translated into English.
Now that’s a smart deception on Anderson’s part. Rather than give a Japanese cast the roles of a dog, he finds a way to use actors he frequently collaborates with to voice the dogs. This way, he wouldn’t have to cast them as the Japanese humans, and thus the whitewashing controversy would be avoided. However, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean you solved the problem.
One of three things is happening whenever you hear Japanese in the film. One is that a Japanese interpreter, who is speaking English, is talking over it. She translates for Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), who is often speaking to a crowd while also pushing his anti-dog agenda. The second is through straightforward phrases, although I believe that is because Atari is talking to dogs, who understand language through commands. The third is that Tracey (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student, speaks in English despite everyone else around her speaking in Japanese. More on her a little bit later.
So the beauty of the language is lost in this film. If this film is set entirely in Japan, why is the language lost or diluted? If the dogs were raised in mainland Japan before they were exiled to Trash Island, how are they speaking English? If all they heard before their move was Japanese, why is it so hard for them to understand Atari?
I mean, it would be easy to say, “but Michael, they are just dogs. This isn’t Kubo and the Two Strings where white actors are voicing Japanese characters, or a monkey and a beetle.” Sure, that argument has some validity, but when you look at that cast, that mostly white cast, all you see and hear are actors who don’t have as strong of a connection to the Asian culture as their Japanese co-stars.
We may have to deal with the fact that Asians can’t even voice dogs. It’s hard enough to get roles like Doctor Strange’s Ancient One or Ghost In The Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi – who are ironically played by Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom are in Isle of Dog – now we can’t even voice a monkey or a beetle in Kubo or dogs in Isle of Dog.
Not only that, but they clearly outnumber their Japanese co-stars, who hardly get any screen time. Of course, that’s because this is a movie called Isle of Dogs, so it only makes sense that the canines get more screen time. However, the bulk of their dialogue is far meatier than any of the Japanese characters.
Honestly, Isle of Dogs could have taken place anywhere else on Earth, and white actors would still voice the dogs. But it is set in Japan. So, one would think that even though Anderson is using a large number of actors who frequent his films, there a Japanese presence in the film. But there are only six Japanese actors and actresses to the 15 white actors and actresses that are in the film. So, that means, 28% of the cast is Japanese, while the remaining 72% are American. The Japanese are virtually being marginalized in their own film.
Which brings me to my next point. There is a white savior in this film. So once again, we are subjected to the idea that homeland characters are incapable of doing something as upstanding as being the opposition, investigation, uncovering a conspiracy, and leading an uprising. That job falls into the hands of an American exchange student Tracy. On the one hand, it’s great that we get to see a female character be the inspiration behind the uprising against an authoritative figure, but at the same time, we have to recognize that the Japanese could not have done this without her help.
She even dares to get physical with Yoko Ono so that she would be inspired to do the right thing. Ono’s character is a fellow scientist and part of a political party who wants to bring the dogs home using medicine that would cure the dog flu epidemic. However, when her husband is silenced, she loses the courage to follow through to bring them back. Thus, the unnecessary violence is added.
Anderson is more than welcomed to show his love of a culture through his lens. His love of it is cleared inspired by some of the most significant Japanese filmmakers of our time. Filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. And you see all of that in the set designs and the costumes. All of which are beautiful to look at. But in his attempts to show his deep affinity for Japanese cinema, he fails at the chance to honor the Japanese language. It’s one that is diluted because it’s spoken over or reduced to very simple phrases. As a result, it marginalizes a language and its people. Which is sad, because there is so much to like about Isle of Dog, at least on the surface. But the film’s mishandling of the Japanese language tells us that there is still a lot that needs to be discussed.