Isle of Dogs
“Isle of Dogs emphasizes the inscrutability and Otherness of its Japanese characters. I was deeply uncomfortable listening to the majority white audience laugh when they would speak.”
Title: Isle of Dogs (2018)
Director: Wes Anderson 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Story and screenplay by Wes Anderson 👨🏼🇺🇸, story by Roman Coppola 👨🏼🇺🇸, Jason Schwartzman 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Kunichi Nomura 👨🏻🇯🇵
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
With Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson looks to recapture the magic of Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), his previous and successful foray into stop-motion animation. The technique, as deftly deployed by the film’s team of artists, allows the audience to appreciate every windswept hair and tuft of fur on the bodies of the main characters, who in this case are dogs. Following an outbreak of “canine flu” in futuristic Japan, pets and strays alike have been cast away on what’s known as Trash Island, where they roam mountains of garbage in packs and fight over scraps of rotting leftovers. After a boy named Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) commandeers a small plane onto the island in search of his beloved guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), the other abandoned animals join in to assist. Similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), a whimsical adventure story cuts through the otherwise dark, political overtones.
Although Anderson’s aesthetics remains undeniably polished, it’s in the writing where the seams show. Described as an homage to Akira Kurosawa, Isle of Dogs unfortunately appears muddled. Mirroring the kishōtenketsu structure favored in East Asian storytelling, the narrative is divided into four acts, but unfortunately drags in the third while the fourth rushes to tie up loose ends. Rather than feeling earned, many sentimental moments have to be conveyed overtly with tears appearing in the eyes of the stop-motion figures. The film’s struggle to find its emotional core also extends to the underwhelming flatness of some of its characters. Would you be surprised to learn that the flat characters tend to be non-white and non-male?
All the dogs who accompany Atari on his mission are portrayed as male: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The first time we meet a female dog on Trash Island, she is immediately regarded as a sex object by the pack, who entertain gossip about Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson of Ghost in the Shell notoriety) and with whom she recently “mated.” One could argue they are dogs, after all, but they’re clearly meant to personify male humans. The only reason we’re given Nutmeg’s backstory as a trained show dog is because Chief takes a romantic interest in her. A second female dog similarly ends up as nothing more than a mate and puppy-bearer, while another plays an oracle to facilitate the male dogs’ journey.
The female humans fare only slightly better. In opposition to Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura), whose fearmongering has swayed constituents in the made-up city of Megasaki to support his dog deportation law, a professor of the Science Party seeks an antidote to the canine flu. After the professor is assassinated, his assistant Yoko-ono (not-so-coincidentally named after the real-life Yoko Ono, who does the voice) has a breakdown. It then falls to a coalition of local students, led by an American exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), to fight the mayor’s anti-dog policies. Later in the film, Tracy tracks down Yoko-ono to ask the truth about what happened to the professor. The short scene constitutes the only conversation between two female characters, not counting Tracy accepting a glass of milk from her host grandmother.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 36% of creative decision-makers were POC.
Although Tracy is presented as a three-dimensional character, her role as a white savior speaks to the film’s problematic relationship with race. Criticisms of cultural insensitivity and the marginalization of Japanese people in their own country have been noted by critic Justin Chang and writer Karen Han. Both Chang and Han circle around a crucial question that entertainment editor Angie Han poses outright: Why is Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' set in Japan? No one seems to have a good answer besides the obvious one—that Anderson simply wanted an opportunity to borrow the aesthetic of Japan to suit an otherwise fantastical tale that could have easily worked in any other remote location, say Nova Scotia or New Zealand.
Isle of Dogs’ central conceit concerns the use of language. A card at the beginning of the movie explains that the dogs’ barks have been translated into English, offering clever justification for why we can understand them. Meanwhile, all the human characters speak in Japanese, but none of the dialogue is subtitled. Occasionally, an interpreter (Frances McDormand) will translate speeches or news reports will be dubbed. The result serves only to emphasize the inscrutability and Otherness of the Japanese characters.
For example, I was deeply uncomfortable listening to the majority white audience laugh when Japanese characters like Mayor Kobayashi would speak. I’m assuming they didn’t understand what he was saying but found the caricature of a foreign autocrat amusing. There was even more laughter whenever a Japanese speaker used wasei-eigo (spoken “loan words” from English) because I guess it’s funny-sounding. I couldn’t tell if it was a case of laughing with or at a non-English-speaker, and I found Anderson’s lack of consideration for that blurred line to be troubling.
What’s more, the rationale for the language barrier—that this is a story from the dogs’ point of view—falls apart once the film introduces Tracy, who demonstrates some knowledge of Japanese but speaks most of her dialogue in English, even to the people of her host country. It also tells us all we need to know about whose voices Anderson values the most, whose emotions and thoughts he feels are important for his audience to comprehend: the white actors/characters. (It’s also unclear why Tracy, an exchange student staying with a host family was allowed to bring a pet dog. It might have made more sense for Tracy’s character to be a Japanese American, whose parents relocated the family to Japan.)
Without wading into the debate over whether or not his film is more appreciation or appropriation, we can observe what little regard Isle of Dogs has for non-white people. Where Anderson’s screenplay bestows Tracy and the male dogs with distinct personalities and nuanced emotions, it relegates the Japanese characters to background noise. In this way, Atari, who could have been a hero figure, exists instead as a kind of cipher. I can’t really describe his personality other than to acknowledge that he’s skilled at taking care of dogs. The “hacker” character doesn’t even get lines. His bowl cut, glasses, and squinty eyes all perfectly convey the stereotype of an Asian nerd who is good at computers.
While Anderson frequently relies on archetypes or clichés in his storytelling—often to ironic effect, such as underlining deeper commentary about Western, masculine identity [see: the distant father figures of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)]—there’s nothing profound about his shallow treatment of Japan and its people.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.17/5
Even though Anderson collaborated with a Japanese writer in the making of the film, Isle of Dogs reveals what happens when the diversity behind the camera is limited to “tokens” who are not necessarily empowered to have a final say on creative decisions. On being tasked with ensuring the “authenticity” of the director’s vision, Nomura said, “I thought it was challenging to be the only Japanese person in the core team.” I have no doubt that Anderson’s fans will continue to enjoy his work in spite of what anybody has to say, least of all, Asian American viewers. I do wonder, though, if his visual flair hasn’t become an unfortunate crutch—a matter of style over substance.