Is 'Isle Of Dogs' Cultural Appropriation Or Homage?

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: a writer grapples with her love of Wes Anderson and the question of Isle of Dogs' cultural appropriation.)

"I wish somebody spoke his language."

Those droll words uttered by one of Isle of Dogs' many English-speaking dogs, Duke (Jeff Goldblum), in response to Atari Kobayashi's (Koyu Rankin) impassioned Japanese ramblings, get to the heart of what makes Wes Anderson's stop-motion film so charming — and so troubling.

To be clear, the dogs aren't actually speaking English. It's part of the film's overall idiosyncratic language: the dogs' barks are transformed into Anderson's signature wry American dialogue while the humans all speak an unintelligible language to hammer in how deeply we are in the perspective of said dogs. But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that this perspective is a flimsy excuse for Anderson to indulge in his quixotic vision of Japanese culture.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson's latest feature film, and his second stop-motion effort. And like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is a visually dazzling, relentlessly twee film. But it has one big problem, as many critics of color have pointed out: it traffics in Japanese stereotypes.

From the very first shot, Anderson gleefully plays into a broad depiction of Japanese culture: sumo wrestlers, yakuza tattoos, sushi chefs, and Yoko Ono cameos abound. It's a beautiful pastiche of every cultural curiosity that has crossed over to the west from Japan.

But wait, you might say, isn't that what the line is poking fun at? In a way, it's Wes Anderson's classic tongue-in-cheek commentary about his own limited cultural perspective. Yes, and no.

The Wes Anderson of It All

I'm wading into the Isle of Dogs debate a few days after the initial uproar, as a conflicted Wes Anderson fan. Anderson is not known for his adherence to reality. His deadpan, eclectic dollhouse-style has become so recognizable that Anderson has become a genre unto his own. And Isle of Dogs is the epitome of that style – with a significant twist. Isle of Dogs is ostensibly Anderson's love letter to Japanese culture, an homage to Japanese cinematic greats like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki.

"The movie is a fantasy, and I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan," Anderson recently said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "This is definitely a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema."

But it's telling that Anderson's supposed love letter to Japan is purely aesthetic. Isle of Dogs picks and chooses cultural artifacts and tropes from Japan, throwing them together in a mish-mash of feudal imagery, traditional woodblock prints, and inexplicable '60s period costumes. For all of the production's talk about reaching for authenticity by bringing on co-writer Kunichi Nomura, it doesn't feel authentic to anything except for a Western invention of Japanese culture.

And therein lies the problem. It's not the fact that Anderson deigned to pay homage to Japanese culture, or that his fairy tale version of Japan intentionally mocks or belittles the culture. It's that his vision of Japan descends from a long history of cultural inventions that have historically insulted and mocked Asian characters.

Lost in Translation

I couldn't write about Isle of Dogs without going back to one of the most beloved, most problematic recent cinematic classics: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

Isle of Dogs and Lost in Translation have more in common than just a few shared Japanese references. Lost in Translation follows Bill Murray's aging movie star and Scarlett Johansson's aimless college graduate as they bond over shared alienation in Tokyo. It's a lovely film about missed connections and miscommunication, with a few irksome drawbacks. Lost in Translation is replete with broad stereotypes of Japanese people that verge on racism: the frequent jokes about mixing the "l" and "r" sounds, jabs at the kookier elements of modern Japanese culture, the "otherness" of it all.

Unlike Isle of DogsLost in Translation doesn't have the advantage of being based in a future fantasy world, but the sentiment is the same. Both films are heavily embedded in the POVs of its American protagonists. Yes, American — the dogs in Isle of Dogs may be Japanese, but when they speak with the Northeast American lilt of Edward Norton, they're definitely coded to be American.

But perspective isn't a strong enough reason to excuse the cartoonish depictions of Japanese culture and people. The "artistic vision" of Wes Anderson doesn't elevate or separate Isle of Dogs from a long cinematic history of dehumanizing portrayals of Asian cultures that stretch back to Mickey Rooney's yellowface performance as Mr. Yunioshi.

Besides, why should American perspectives be the default?

From the Other Side

Growing up, I never saw myself as "other." I was one of the few Asian kids in my elementary school, and thought of myself as no different from my mostly white friends. Like them, I easily sympathized with the white superhero or protagonist du jour.

That changed over the years, as I became exposed to the hopelessly banal depictions of Asian characters and cultures in film. We weren't the main character, we were the punch line. It was a stereotype that you couldn't escape in either low-brow and "high-art" movies — from Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to Linda Hunt's Oscar-winning turn as a Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously. I realized that me and my fellow Asian-Americans would always be seen as the default "other" in film.

So it feels particularly odd that Isle of Dogs — which is set in Japan, features characters speaking in Japanese, and centers around a Japanese protagonist — would still be so otherizing. Atari Kobayashi (yes, named after the video game console) barely gets to be a real character before he's sidelined by one of the few English-speaking humans of the movie. The majority of the spoken Japanese remains untranslated as part of the movie's doggy POV — but that POV is quickly shed once Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) takes on the literal white savior role in the film.

I know Anderson doesn't do it out of malice — if anything, he does it out of love for Japan. But every time he treats Japanese culture like a quixotic curiosity, it only gives more license for that one guy in my theater to guffaw whenever anything remotely Japanese was on screen. He laughed during the scene when a chef was cutting up sushi.

I don't know if I would go so far as to call Isle of the Dogs appropriation. Nor is it a mockery. Instead, it's more like a tone-deaf exercise in cultural tourism from a director that I still love. But I plan to hold him accountable.