‘Isle of Dogs’: Cultural fetishization and the Asian American experience

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 5:01pm

The English-speaking dogs of 'Isle of Dogs'

The English-speaking dogs of 'Isle of Dogs' Buy this photo
Fox Searchlight Pictures

For lovers of Japanese anime, the most common debate is subbed versus dubbed, referring to using subtitles or English-speaking voice actors to voice over the original Japanese dialogue. Proponents of “subbed” argue this preserves the intended language and delivery of the actors, as well as prevents the distracting nature of most “dubbed” versions. Wes Anderson, writer-director of the new stop-motion film “Isle of Dogs,” falls into the category of pro-subbed, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English. I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It’s interesting to me, and it’s a very beautiful, complex language.” Ironically, no part of Anderson’s statement applies to his approach to “Isle of Dogs,” which follows a young boy in futuristic Japan trying to find his exiled dog.

Let’s break down Anderson’s explanation for how he sets up the dialogue in “Isle of Dogs.” The film begins with a disclaimer: The Japanese-speaking actors speak only in Japanese and the dogs on Trash Island only in barks, translated into English. It’s a funny joke that devolves into something more sinister. A handful of scenes use subtitles, but for the most part Anderson places the Japanese-speaking characters in the background and a white interpreter — either Interpreter Nelson or foreign-exchange student Tracy Walker, portrayed respectively by Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) — in the foreground speaking in English. Anderson claims he dislikes dubbed Japanese movies, yet that is essentially what he has done with “Isle of Dogs,” albeit in a more cinematic, purposeful fashion. Most dubbed Japanese animes feel unpleasant, since adding voices to a scene constructed to time with the Japanese language comes across as an afterthought. However, Anderson goes to great lengths in a number of scenes to hand-draw footage of the Japanese characters and animate the English-speaking interpreters to accomplish his ‘brilliant’ setup. His silencing of non-white characters is pre-planned, intentional and problematic.

For such a political movie, with obvious side-jabs at immigration policies, “Isle of Dogs” should not silence the non-white characters, particularly Asians who have the most underwhelming voice as a collective ethnic group in American politics and on-screen. According to a report from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, Asian directors lead just 3.4 percent of major studio films. The same study found Asians land only 5.1 percent of speaking or named parts in film, TV or on digital platforms, with no Asians in 50 percent of all projects and around one percent featuring an Asian lead. Furthermore, Asians are often painted as the model minority who keep their heads down and do as they are told.

Anderson perpetuates the model minority myth, along with other stereotypes about Japanese culture like sumo wrestling and sushi, in his new film. The native Japanese characters are completely silenced and fit the passive, submissive role America wants Asians to occupy. In fact, despite Atari Kobayashi, a 12-year-old Japanese boy and adopted son of the Mayor of the fictitious city Megasaki, marketed as the main character, Anderson surrounds him with non-Japanese-speaking dogs, essentially making Atari mute. Instead, a white foreign-exchange student leads the revolution and pro-dog rebellion, motivating the passive Japanese students to help her cause against the passive Japanese adults. Anderson wants “Isle of Dogs” to serve as a sign of appreciation towards Japanese culture, but he champions their passivity as a reason to sideline and silence the Japanese characters.

In addition to silencing Asian roles, Anderson also treats the culture as a backdrop. His comment to Entertainment Weekly about the beauty of the Japanese language illuminates the problem with his portrayal of Japan in “Isle of Dogs” — it’s fetishy. Western cinema and crowds have always had an unflattering over-fascination with all things (stereotypically) Asian — be it the movie “Karate Kid,” Asian women or anime in general. This approach to Asian culture is magnified prominently in “Isle of Dogs” through Anderson’s aesthetic. All of Anderson’s films have a distinct and stunning mise-en-scene. However, in “Isle of Dogs,” his greatest gift turns into an exploitation of an entire culture simply to satisfy his artistic eye. Evidently, Anderson chose to set his film in Japan out of a love for how it looks, not its essence. The people, their cultural traditions and historic tragedies merge with the landscape, becoming props and puppets in Anderson’s quest for aesthetic pleasure. Although he touches on different parts of Japanese culture, Anderson’s exploration is so shallow that the film could easily have taken place instead in some rural town in Canada and barely skipped a beat. So, why set it in Japan? Anderson goes on to say with Entertainment Weekly, “The movie is a fantasy … a reimagining of Japan through my experience.” There we go, it’s a “fantasy,” a fetishized version of Japan for aesthetic purposes.

All writers appropriate stories. A white man making a film about Japan is less than ideal, but that’s why “Isle of Dogs” should more aptly be called cultural fetishization. This is my term for artists who want to appreciate another culture, but end up tone-deaf and treating their subject matter as exotic or secondary to the story for aesthetic as well as educational reasons. This mindset shows in an interview that Bryan Cranston, who voices the dog Chief in “Isle of Dogs,” had with The Independent. Cranston argued, in support of Anderson and against the idea that the film is cultural appropriation, “Art should in some cases be very relatable … ‘I know this guy, I like him, I know where he lives, I’m very familiar,’ and then there are other art forms that should introduce you to something you are not familiar with … and ‘Isle of Dogs’ has that sense of the culture, the language, the drumming. It is an introduction to something you’re not familiar with and it adds to the fabric of the storytelling.” 

In other words, “Isle of Dogs” is a white man’s attempt to explain Japanese people to a white audience. This film waves the flag of diversity as a coverup for the fact that it is meant to educate the dominant (white) culture, not pay homage to Japan. If the purpose of a film is to ogle at the ‘other,’ the unfamiliar, then at least put us, the supposed ‘other,’ in the spotlight — giving jobs and a voice to the people being put on display. The insult is only greater when we are simultaneously treated like animals at the zoo and ignored. In the case of “Isle of Dogs,” the appropriation is not the biggest problem, but rather the fetishization of a whole culture for the purpose of aesthetics, while this culture is not even the center of attention.