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Another dog day for cultural appropriation

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Isle of Dogs (PG). Director: Wes Anderson. Starring: Bryan Cranson, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Baliban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton. 101 minutes

Scene from Isle of DogsDuring a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival in February, ahead of the opening night screening of his ingenious but deeply problematic film Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson cited a (possibly apocryphal) remark from Tom Stoppard about the creative process. 'He said that when he starts a play, he starts it not when he has an idea ... but when he has two different ideas that ... crash into each other.'

Something similar had happened to Isle of Dogs co-creatives Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. The initial idea was to make a stop-motion animated film about a band of dogs living on a trash heap. The idea grew extra legs when it merged with a second idea: to set the story in a fantastical future Japan. That, it seems, was the beginning of the brilliance. But also of the problems.

The film takes place in the fictional city of Megasaki, whose grim-faced Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Nomura) is the latest in an ages-long dynasty of dog-hating dictators. Lately, the city's canines have been struck by the twin epidemics of 'dog flu' and 'snout fever', and Kobayashi has pounced on this as a pretext to exile the beasts to the nearby refuse-laden wasteland of Trash Island.

This was a premise that, according to Anderson, gained currency during the years of the film's creation. In maintaining power, Kobayashi maligns political opponents and manipulates truth for the purpose of weaponising popular fears. In the process he furthers the oppression and marginalisation of society's (literal) underdogs. Clearly this is a fable with powerful contemporary resonances.

The only human to rebel against Kobayashi's doggy deportations is the mayor's own 12-year-old nephew and legal ward Atari (Rankin). Atari, whose parents were killed in a train wreck some years previous, flies to the island to try to retrieve his beloved pet Spots (Schreiber). Once there, he falls in with a loveable band of pooches led by morally upright Rex (Norton) and weary, cynical stray Chief (Cranston).

What follows is both a captivating quest story and an exquisitely mounted examination of loyalty, friendship and honour. Working with puppets and models, Anderson and co. have created an animated world that is highly detailed and tactile. His inimitable knack for droll humour and near-elegiac sentimentality has rarely been used to such great effect as with this motley band of misfits.


"Clearly the intention is to embed English-speaking audiences firmly in the dogs' perspective. It works, but it is a two-edged sword, as it also has the effect of 'othering' the explicitly Japanese human characters."


But to say there is shaky ground here would be an understatement. At a glance, the decision to set the film in Japan might seem like a stylistic boon. Masters of Japanese cinema Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki are explicit touchstones, with Anderson paying homage while at the same time seamlessly assimilating various techniques and tropes into his own idiosyncratic and intricate style.

However the Japanese setting also runs him into plenty of problems. The commentary around the film's appropriation of Japanese culture has been sustained and substantial, laden as the film is with references to haiku, sushi and sumo wrestling. At least these allusions are for the most part detailed and respectful; that the hero is named after a defunct American video game company is less palatable.

Trickier still are the (again, much-commented upon) creative decisions related to language. It's a running joke in the film that 'barks' are translated into English, while the human characters speak Japanese, without subtitles (albeit with the occasional assistance of an on-screen interpreter voiced by McDormand). This in itself might seem like a gutsy, respectful choice in a mainstream American film.

Clearly the intention is to embed English-speaking audiences firmly in the dogs' perspective. It works, but it is a two-edged sword, as it also has the effect of 'othering' the explicitly Japanese human characters. While Cranston, Murray and Goldblum get to make magic of Anderson's singularly hilarious, soulful dialogue, the incomprehensibility (to non Japanese speakers) of the humans is played for laughs.

Most ill-advised is Anderson's employment of the white saviour trope, in the form of Tracy (Gerwig), an American exchange student who, inspired by Atari and enraged by the Mayor's policies, rallies her compliant classmates to revolution. That Tracy also happens to be the only substantial woman character in the film (Johansson and Swinton appear in memorable bit-parts) only exacerbates the problem.

None of this is intended to cast aspersions on Anderson's intentions (though it must be said he is no stranger to these kinds of charges). But nor are these concerns petty. As good a film as Isle of Dogs is in many respects, as Slash Film's Hoai-Tran Bui wrote back in March, loving a filmmaker's work doesn't mean they shouldn't be held to account for cultural insensitivity. In fact it makes it imperative.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson, Bryan Cranson, Edward Norton, Bob Baliban, Bill Murray



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Existing comments

A nicely balanced article. I just watched Kuroneko, which seems the other Japanese side to the wholesome Isle of Dogs - the sinister ghostly world of cats.

Kevin Murray | 22 April 2018  

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