Wes Anderson once said, “I wouldn’t say I’m particularly bothered or obsessed with detail.” This is, to date, the most extravagant lie he has ever told on record. Pick any wide angle, color coordinated still from one of his movies: you’ll see exquisitely staged, whimsical mise en scène and obsessive symmetry directing the focus smack to the middle of the frame. The adjectives used to (accurately) describe Anderson’s work might not sound entirely complimentary: fussy, meticulous, painstaking, fastidious, etc. His highly mannered and neurotically precise approach, however, reflects a dedication to craft that few of his peers can match. You may not love his style, but you can’t argue against how elegantly all the pieces fit together. No working director is as effective at drawing emotion from their setting. Anderson’s influences range from French New Wave pioneers like François Truffaut to the inimitably innovative Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, but the most direct parallel is da Vinci’s The Last Supper as a shoebox diorama.
Despite his particular aesthetic obsession, Anderson’s work is not without heart. His characters have rich inner lives—they’re inspired, they’re depressed, they’re ambitious, they’re vengeful, they’re gentle, and they’re fiercely loyal. He loves to tell stories of young people with big dreams and firm convictions proving the foolishness of adults. His stories, even the ones that aren’t centered on family, are all communal. The films frequently ache with loss, and the love at the heart of that loss, bringing his characters together despite their flaws and quirks.
This same love is at the center of Anderson’s newest film, the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs. In fact, it’s even in the title, if you say it out loud. The movie opens in an imagined Japan sometime in the not-too-distant future, where the megalomaniacal Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has issued a decree that bans dogs from the city of Megasaki due to claims that they are infected with the “dog flu” and “snout fever.” The dogs are shipped off to Trash Island where, dirty and flea-ridden, they scavenge for food among the garbage. A gaggle of stars, many of them familiar to the Anderson universe—Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, and Bryan Cranston—provide voices for a group of canines that have banded together for survival. All are former house dogs trying to make their way in this apocalyptic landscape. The only exception is Cranston’s, Chief, a tough stray who repeatedly warns, “I bite.”
Trash Island’s first resident is Spots, the personal guard dog of the Mayor’s ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Spots is carted across the water on a cable car cage to the island, where he’s unceremoniously dumped into symmetrical piles of perfectly compacted garbage cubes—an oddly beautiful tableau that bespeaks loneliness and desolation. Into this trash-strewn landscape later tumbles Atari, where he and his pack of canine compatriots journey through the immaculately crafted wasteland to find his best friend.
Back on the mainland, discontent brews over the mayor’s unchecked exercise of power. Tracy (Greta Gerwig), is an energetic and determined foreign exchange student from Cleveland and staunch defender of the free press. Outraged by the mayor’s dog ban and his apparent suppression of a dog flu vaccine by way of assassinating his political rival who developed it, Tracy leads the staff of the school newspaper in a revolt against corruption. She is fiery, idealistic, and speaks for the group. Her storyline smacks of the well-worn white savior plot device, and it would have been very easy to avoid.
Anderson’s choices in building his version of a Japanese world have drawn heavy criticism. Accusations of cultural appropriation arose as soon as trailers for the film were released, and many people questioned why a white director felt the need to set his story in Japan at all. Do we need more white directors using other cultures as fashionable clothing for their films?
One of the film’s most notable structural decisions is to “translate” the dogs’ barks into English while leaving the Japanese characters’ words largely untranslated (with the exception of Frances McDormand’s interpreter character). Although the Japanese dialogue is reportedly accurate, it functions largely as background noise. Anything that can’t be implied through gestures and context is left to the non-Japanese characters and dogs to translate or narrate.
In a review for the LA Times, Justin Chang argues that Anderson’s choice to disregard subtitles in favor of periodic translation amounts to a “form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.” And although there’s numerous reasons that Anderson could have made this decision—focusing on the dogs rather than the humans in the story, respecting Japanese characters by including authentic Japanese speakers and not automatically rendering everything in English—given the context of Anderson’s ouveure, the decision was likely aesthetic. The translator character and the use of visual cues to propel the plot instead of the quippy dialogue he’s known for are interesting framing tools that show off the director’s cleverness, but don’t seem to have much of a benefit beyond that.
Emily Yoshida wrote a piece about what it’s like to watch Isle of Dogs as a Japanese speaker, saying that, “As it turns out, Isle of Dogs is a kind of perfect artifact for our current-day conversation around cultural appropriation, if it can even still be called that. It’s hard to call it offensive, exactly, and yet, it’s not devoid of a kind of opportunism. It’s not a crime, but it’s certainly something to unpack.” The most virulent voices on both sides are dominating conversation, but there’s a lot in the middle that needs dissecting. First: Wes Anderson certainly means well. The script was developed in collaboration with Japanese actor and writer Kunichi Nomura, who also provides the voice for Kobayashi. There are loving tributes to Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to Miyazaki, and Anderson make an effort to pay homage to Japanese animation without using Japan as simply another quirky backdrop.When we ignore guidance from the past, we end up in a flawed world of our own creation, even if it appears immaculate on the surface.
However, despite Anderson’s best intentions, it’s impossible to escape the sense that Anderson is using Japan as a quirky backdrop. The story, like Anderson’s 2007 The Darjeeling Limited, was reportedly developed before a setting was ever chosen. “The story could’ve taken place anywhere,” Anderson said. This is not, in and of itself, flagrantly racist. He has stressed that he is not depicting Japan as it is, but as he imagines it. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Anderson explains, “The movie is a fantasy, and I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan. This is definitely a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema.” However, Anderson’s imagined Japan cannot be divorced from the real Japan. The references to Japanese culture—making sushi, sumo wrestling, taiko drums, and so on—are references to a real culture, a tangible place with its own history. Anderson may not be intentionally maligning Japanese culture, but by treating it as something that he can lift from its history and repurpose for his fantasy, he treats it as somehow less important than it really is.
Scripture doesn’t mince words when it comes to the perils of forgetting the lessons that history teaches us—a topic most important when discussing Isle of Dogs. “For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out. For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?” (Job 8:8-10). When we ignore guidance from the past, we end up in a flawed world of our own creation, even if it appears immaculate on the surface.
Similarly, Alison Willmore argues that, while Anderson is clearly well-intentioned, Isle of Dogs “has more to do with the (no doubt intricately designed and decorated) insides of Anderson’s brain than it does any actual place. It’s Japan purely as an aesthetic—and another piece of art that treats the East not as a living, breathing half of the planet but as a mirror for the Western imagination.” We can debate to what extent Anderson’s appreciation of the cultures found in Isle of Dogs and The Darjeeling Limited is appropriation, but there’s nothing debatable about whether or not he chose them, above all, because he thought they were attractive scenery. But in using these places as a setting rather than an essential element of the narrative, he glosses over the actual history to which they are inextricably linked.
It’s in this chamber, that Isle of Dogs is, in many ways, Anderson’s most openly political work. Themes of demagogic politicians, xenophobia, deportation, and internment run throughout the film. This commentary has clear parallels with modern-day America, simply transplanted into a futuristic Japanese setting, which keeps the tone from becoming didactic. But in making a film about Western politics in the guise of a story about Japan, Anderson washes out a great deal of Japanese history that has a way of resurfacing anyways, in ways he likely did not intend.
The most glaring and uncomfortable example of this is the explosions throughout Isle of Dogs that are all rendered as cute mushroom clouds. In Anderson’s imagined Japan, these mushroom clouds have no more significance than another fun visual effect. Later, the dogs of Trash Island are herded into internment camps surrounded with fences of barbed wire. In the moments before the film’s climax, robotic drones controlled by the government are preparing to spray poisonous “wasabi” gas at the huddled mass. It’s hard to imagine many viewers watching these scenes and not making the connection to World War II and Japanese internment camps in the U.S., and it’s harder still to imagine what Anderson could have intended with this connection.
One thing is true, rather than engage with the sticky politics of white people joyriding through India or an internment camp and quasi-holocaust for dogs in Japan, Anderson simply invents his own charming world with its own politics, blissfully free of the dark and painful history of the real places.
Actress Molly Ringwald, star of such classic John Hughes films as Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, recently penned an essay for the New Yorker that struggled with recontextualizing problematic elements of those films with our current moment. “How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose?” she says, “Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.”
Ringwald is specifically looking back her role in Hughes’s films and processing the elements of these films she now finds uncomfortable or offensive, but her insistence that we cannot forget the past holds true when reflecting on any movie. We can love a film and still take issues with places where it falters. By choosing to ignore Japan’s history and politics in his movie, Anderson creates a world full of uncomfortable echoes of real world violence and war without granting them the gravitas they deserve. This movie could have been made in a way that referenced Japan’s history as well as our own. Instead, it’s insular and inward-looking, a shame considering the beautiful, hilarious, and heart-wrenching moments that Anderson has been capable of creating on screen.
A 2014 piece by the Guardian entitled “Wes Anderson: In a World of His Own” ends with Anderson in his immaculately decorated home ruminating on his career: “I’ve done a bunch of movies. And it’s a luxury to me that they’re all whatever I’ve wanted them to be.” They have indeed all been whatever he wanted them to be, but living in a world of your own creation can make you blind to the real world that surrounds you. And whether his films are intended as appropriation or appreciation, the last thing we need in our movies is a lack of vision.