My expectations were high months before Wes Anderson’s recent film, “Isle of Dogs,” was due to release this Spring, and they were more than satisfied.
Anderson, who is known for his wry dialogue, doll-house like styled shots, and a wide palette of vibrant colors, fills the entire aesthetic of the film with playful stills and witty humor of his imagination of a futuristic Japan.
A purple mountain hovering over the city, fluorescent yellow letters contrasting with the dark hues of black and red, that all balance gracefully against the transparent but bright weather that is consistent throughout the entire film.
Isle of Dogs tells a narrative of a Japanese society in the future of 2028, where over the past decades, a epidemic of increased dog population has infested the fictional city of Megasaki and have been infected with a “dog flu,” resulting in the entire species, domestic or stray, to be relocated across the channel to a remote Trash Island.
The film felt like a love-letter from Anderson appreciating the rich culture of Japan, being what critic Hoai-Tran Bui stated as, “an homage to Japanese cinematic greats, like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki.”
There has also been quick criticism towards the films representation of the Japanese culture and characters for what some critics feel to be the benign approach of cultural appropriation.
The conversation hasn’t solely relied on calling it completely offensive, rather it has created space for an opportunity to discuss how Westernized society can and has used the elements of other countries’ cultures and when doing it, can it hopefully, be done respectably.
In the complete stop-motion picture, the point-of-view is largely seen through the dog-like puppets, who speak English without actually speaking the language, but rather transforming the dogs’ barks into classic Anderson dialogue.
The film begins with a disclosure stating that for the entirety of the film, each of these point-of-view characters, Japanese and dogs, will be speaking in their suited language, playing on the actual reality of animal to human, obviously, unable to understand one another in speech.
While throughout the film, most of the spoken Japanese is not translated through subtitles, but it is occasionally translated through a white, female news reporter voiced by Frances McDormad.
Every name, place or phrase that appears on screen, either through credits or additional narrative, is accompanied by the Kanji translation.
With the lack of subtitles, there is the question of whether the language and the culture that is being represented is accurate, while also keeping in mind the extent of accuracy may be skewed since the film is set far into the future.
In Emily Yoshida’s recent article in The Vulture, days after the release of the film, she had taken to Twitter, asking a handful of native and/or fluent Japanese speakers their critical opinion and their impressions of the films use of the language.
“For what it’s worth, the spoken Japanese made complete sense,” Anthony, a Japanese-American translator stated. “There was no accent or awkwardness.”
Which makes sense since “Isle of Dogs” employed Japanese actors to voice majority of the Japanese characters seen in the film and off-screen. However, just because there was no accent doesn’t mean that the voice acting was perfect.
Anthony went to say that while the words spoken were accurate, at times, there felt to be a muffled-like pronunciation, which led to another critic, Lisa, to not care about what they were saying, stating, “I knew it didn’t have much meaning.”
It’s known that Anderson has successfully become a genre unto his own, with an adherence to reality using eclectic characters, themes and filming, and has for the most part paved a way to fully express his quirky ideas and be accepted, there is always a sticky boundary to cross.
After decades of Japanese and other Asian cultures becoming a homage of Westernized visions of belittling or mocking in a culturally stereotypical way, the immediate, strong responses of Asian viewers to seeing their identity and country being represented through a white, male director makes sense.
Sumo wrestlers, yakuza tattoos, sushi chefs and Yoko Ono all appear in the film in the film, which critic Bui stated as a beautiful “pastiche of every cultural curiosity that has crossed over to the West from Japan.”
Conversations have also circled around the fact that Anderson had largely used an all-white cast for voicing much of the characters in the film, such as Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, to name a few. Anderson has consistently been known for using recurring actors in his films who, in reality, embody the essence of what the director brings to life.
It would be one thing if actors such as Murray or Goldblum were speaking and mimicking a Japanese accent throughout the film, but they don’t. With Nomura and additional voice actors like Japanese singer Yojiro Noda, those who represented a Japanese identity spoke Japanese, and those who didn’t spoke English.
Anderson also worked alongside Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Japanese writer and actor Kunichi Nomura for the screen-writing and bringing his visions to life.
Nomura, who is also the voice actor for the character of Mayor Kobayashi, held a large position in the production of the set and most of the spoken dialogue with ensuring the accuracy of any element in the film that related to Japanese culture.
“Wes has a clear idea of what he wanted to do. I helped make it authentic while keeping his vision,” Nomura stated in a recent interview, which The Adam Buxton podcast quoted in his most recent interview with the director himself.
Anderson went to describe his film as one that is supposed to be a fantasy; reimagining a Japan through the experience of Japan and Japanese cinema, saying, “I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan.”
I do not, in any way, disregard the criticisms on Anderson’s film about his approach and use of Japanese culture. I have no space in the discussion simply because I do not and have not underwent a history my own country and culture was used in a mocking, stereotypical way.
Even though Bui states that he does not feel the director did it out of with malignant intentions, but rather simply to show his love for the culture, in which I agree, it’s still an exercise for us, from all ethnicities, cultures and countries, to understand the cultural tourism that has been widely used in the past and how to appropriately achieve going past it in the future.
Of course when watching the film I will not pick up on particular facts, objects or the atmosphere of comparing the films representation of such culture to that of those who are actually immersed, but from my own appreciation to the director and Japan, on its own, I felt Anderson created a beautiful, other world that shows his own intune-ness to the country.
So, while it’s not a full depiction of culture appropriation, it is still opening the conversation to having accountability when approaching other cultures that not of your own and respecting them to the fullest.
It is also interesting to keep in mind that majority of the criticism already made about “Isle of Dogs” has come from Asian-Americans or Japanese people who are currently living in the United States. Lisa, a Japanese woman living in the entertainment industry and who grew up in both the U.K. and Japan, believes that it will actually go over very well with Japanese viewers when it is released in May.
“It’s not an accurate reflection of Japan, but it’s based on Japanese fables and Japanese point of view, and Japanese problems. And we love dogs.”