As promised, I wrote this follow-up piece on Isle of Dogs. To see my original (conventional) review, click here.
Before even going to see Isle of Dogs, I knew it was the subject of controversy. Shortly after its release (almost a month ago now) Justin Chang of the LA Times wrote a review in which he suggests its cultural “sensitivity is lost in translation.” The sirens went off in my head: was Isle of Dogs “Cultural Appropriation!!!?”
I scoured the internet for references to what Chang meant, but only now read his original article. Reading his piece helped reveal that we are in a culture obsessed with buzz-words and categories. Chang’s review in fact balances praise for the film with criticism of how its Japanese subjects are portrayed. Most notably, Chang never explicitly uses the word “appropriation” to frame his disappointment (though I should note that this language does come up more in his discussion with fellow film writer Jen Yamato, also included in the link above).
But in our society of categorization and buzzwords, discussions like the one above are often reduced to the question of “appropriation” versus “appreciation.” Appropriation means using concepts from a marginalized culture in a way that is disrespectful to the source. For example, promoting offensive “cowboy and Indian” tropes by dressing up as a generic indigenous person for Halloween. Appreciation, needless to say, is the opposite of this: it implies reverence and thorough-engagement with the culture that one borrows from.
Chang’s main criticism of Isle of Dogs is its use of language: the dogs speak “dog,” but it is dubbed into English. The film’s humans, meanwhile, primarily speak Japanese. In his original conception of the film, Anderson had decided that this Japanese would not be dubbed, giving it a level of authenticity. This is where Chang sees a problem. Anderson has made numerous films about white people, (a few stand-alone characters are exceptions), and gives those people a chance to express themselves. In Isle of Dogs he has finally made a film about not-white people: and yet, because of his decision about language, the Japanese humans are not given a chance to express themselves.
What Chang has identified is no doubt, on its surface, a problem. There are two potential responses to this. One is that Anderson is not silencing his Japanese characters but simply maintaining a subversive relationship to language politics by making a film that is not exclusively catered to English audiences. This defence is not particularly strong given that, according to some of the film’s critics (this is a matter I cannot comment on) the Japanese dialogue is not very interesting: it is written to be simple enough that English speakers who do not understand it are not missing out on much. Furthermore, as I will discuss later, Anderson waters down this prima facie subversive use of language by regularly employing (non-subtitle) translator-technologies.
That said, I do find the second defence for Anderson’s use of language to be more convincing: it is that Isle of Dogs is, well, a movie about dogs. Humans cannot understand the nuances of dog barking, but can often figure out more or less what dogs are getting at. In Isle of Dogs this logic is flipped to apply to humans.
Isle of Dog’s other big “cultural appropriation” problem is the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student, who critics of the film point out is yet another example of the white-savior trope (ie a white character who singularly solves the problems of a non-white society). While Walker is not the film’s action hero (that role is split between Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and the dogs), her ideas and spunk are the determining factors in the lead-up to the film’s climax. In short, the “white savior” problem pretty indisputable.
It should be noted, however, that the experience of watching Isle of Dogs is not conducive to seeing Walker as a white saviour. Her initial appearance in the film is somewhat of a joke. Despite Anderson’s initial vision of making his human characters speak un-subtitled Japanese throughout his film, his desire not to hide all of his dialogue behind the language barrier led him to concoct various ways around his no-subtitle rule. In one case, a retro-translation device narrates a phone call between Mayor Kobayashi and his associates. In government presentation sessions, simultaneous translation is provided by an interpreter in a booth (Frances McDormand). The interpreter’s existence is effectively a break-the-fourth-wall joke, as while she exists in the movie’s universe, she only serves to benefit English-speaking audiences rather than any of the film’s characters.
Both the radio and the translation booth fit well into the Anderson universe of beautiful, vintage artifacts. Every time Anderson introduces a new translation technology audiences are left to marvel at the absurdity of it all, thinking: why is he doing this, wouldn’t subtitling or dubbing have been easier (redundancy/arbitrariness is, of course, yet another charm of the Anderson universe as seen in the opening to The Grand Budapest Hotel)? When, finally, Anderson imports an American human in his world, he is simply taking this redundant-technology joke to the extreme.
The defence of Tracy as an Andersonian-technology-joke, however, can only go so far. Were her appearances brief, or were she a more bumbling hero she would come across as the technology gag she was conceived as. Tracy, however, crystallizes into the film’s resident Hermione Granger.
That all said, does Anderson “appropriate” Japanese culture? Or, despite the Tracy Walker mess-up, does he appreciate it? Again, I find this an unhelpful binary Some critics might say he is appropriative rather than appreciative, as in depicting Japanese architecture and culture without developing deep Japanese characters he is objectifying Japanese society. This point can certainly be raised to suggest that Isle of Dogs does not “appreciate” Japanese culture as deeply as it could have, but I don’t think it adds up to suggesting that the film is “appropriative either.” Anderson is a filmmaker known for his aesthetic. That he draws more upon Japanese imagery than on Japanese personalities does not make him appropriative, it simply means he made yet another Wes Anderson film, this one set in Japan.
Anderson’s Japanese-human characters also do not fit neatly into an appropriation-appreciation binary. While these characters are not necessarily deep, they are not cultural stereotypes either. While some may draw parallels between Mayor Kobayashi and Japan’s fascist past, the character strikes me as far more directly analogical to Donald Trump given his fear-mongering speeches, and given that his political opposition comes from a Science Party (“dang Democrats and their climate change.”). Furthermore, Mayor Kobayashi is showed to have a soft spot as the film reaches its conclusion.
Another character worth noting is the student who Tracy Walker confronts in her first scene. He responds to her with cocky skepticism in mildly-accented-fluent-English. While this minor character’s brief existence does not in itself cleanse Tracy Walker of her white-savior-status, he does address the worst elements of this trope. In engaging with Walker he challenges one of the characteristics of white-saviors: that are voices for a “voiceless,” “helpless” population. While it is still problematic that she alone knows what it takes to save Megasaki, her school mates existence makes clear that Walker doesn’t have to be the only one who could save their city.
When discussing films, the concept of cultural appropriation often goes unseperated from the #OscarsSoWhite movement. While both are concepts that deal with race, however, they are not synonymous. A film cam not “appropriate” any elements from non-white cultures, but still have a whitewashed cast. I’m of the view that cultural-appropriation-based critiques of Isle of Dogs are misguided, but simply because they are using a not-quite-right word. Does Isle of Dogs appropriate from, ie, disrespect Japanese people or culture? I wouldn’t say so. Does it adequately represent Japanese people? I wouldn’t say it does that either.
I can understand where the concept of Tracy Walker comes from. She was born out of the Andersonian script’s need for translator-technology, and, as the story-team grew attached to her, was further imagined in the western cinematic tradition of spunky girls: she’s orphan Annie-meets Lady Bird. It’s this kind of implicit bias that movements like #OscarsSoWhite expose. The idea of a translator was a good one, but why couldn’t she have been an American exchange student of color? Why not a Japanese American? Why not (here’s an Andersonian idea) a Japanese student with a distinct, intricately designed, steam punk outfit who has methodically read every Victorian classic, and, as such, speaks idiosyncratically-fluent English?
Isle of Dogs exists in the context of a world that has grown conscious of Asian under-representation in cinema. As such films about Asian societies that to do break this trend are subject to particular scrutiny, even if as individual works they are not problematic. Isle of Dogs is not a particularly nor singularly problematic film, and should be enjoyed for the innovative piece of animation that it is. That said, we cannot let our affection for this film get in the way of having important conversations about cinema. We can enjoy Wes Anderson films while also hoping that actors like Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura and (why not) Yoko Ono continue to get cast and challenged in them.