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Entertainment Weekly

Movies

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs sparks cultural appropriation controversy

Wes Anderson’s new film Isle of Dogs is generating controversy for its depiction of Japanese culture, ahead of its theatrical release on Friday.

Written and directed by Anderson, the stop-motion film is set in a dystopian future Japan where dogs have been sequestered to a remote island due to an outbreak of “canine flu,” and the plot centers on one boy’s mission to find his own lost pup. Murmurs of cultural appropriation and insensitivity have followed the film since its award-winning premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last month, and now as its official release nears, criticisms are becoming more widespread.

Among the elements of the film sparking controversy are Anderson’s decision to have the dogs speak English while the residents of Megasaki City speak native Japanese; the fact that the vast majority of the voice cast is not East Asian; and, as Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang puts it in his review of the film, the fact of a “white American filmmaker’s highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society.”

Isle of Dogs remains a well-received film, with its Rotten Tomatoes score above 90%; EW’s own Leah Greenblatt praised the movie’s “endearing, complicated humanity.” Neither a representative for Anderson nor the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, provided immediate comment on the controversy.

Speaking to EW recently about the inspiration for the film, though not about the controversy specifically, Anderson said, “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.”

Stephen Gong, the executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, said in a statement to EW about the controversy, “This film is part of a larger oeuvre that includes films like The Darjeeling Unlimited that uses ‘exotic’ people and locations as window dressings. Anderson’s aesthetic hasn’t evolved despite the larger conversations sweeping the industry. This is just one example of why there still needs to be more films directed by women, people of color, and people from other marginalized communities.”

Below, we’ve rounded up a sampling of critical reactions to Isle of Dogs, some of which are in response to Chang’s review.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

… it’s in the director’s handling of the story’s human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore. Anderson, a stickler for verisimilitude even in the weirdest situations, has the human residents of Megasaki City speak their native Japanese, a choice that would seem respectful enough except for the conspicuous absence of English subtitles. Much of the Japanese dialogue, especially Atari’s, has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions … The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing. … all these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.

Steve MacFarlane, Slant

Worse still is an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), with a crush on Atari, and who leads a singlehanded campaign to turn the tide of public opinion against Mayor Kobayashi, thus reifying old stereotypes about Japanese passivity. Ostensibly for laughs, one scene sees Tracy angrily throttling a crestfallen Japanese scientist (voiced by — and also inexplicably named after — Yoko Ono) by the neck. Given the painstaking frame-by-frame choreography of a film like this, it seems Anderson failed to entirely consider how this might come off to an even remotely skeptical viewership.

Austin Trunick, Under the Radar

This may not bother everyone, but it needs to be mentioned that Anderson’s blanket appropriation of Japanese style and culture has the potential to leave a mildly gross, Orientalist aftertaste in some viewers’ mouths. The fact that (outside of young Atari) our main heroes are Western-voiced dogs and a white, American foreign exchange student draws additional attention to the too-often-“wacky” otherness of the film’s setting. (Poisoned sushi, sumo wrestler thugs, et al.) While the effect was surely unintentional, it’s still problematic; you get the feeling that if this weren’t an animated movie people would have been up in arms about it.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

… the specter of cultural appropriation haunts a production that clearly revels in the design elements and mood-board inspirations of Japanese technology and art, but also commits a few patronizing missteps. One subplot features Greta Gerwig as Tracy, a spirited American exchange student who rallies her meekly obedient Japanese cohorts to save the dogs, at one point literally throttling a scientist named Yoko Ono who is voiced by Yoko Ono. Ha … ha?

Leonardo Faierman, Black Girl Nerds

If this is meant to be Japan, why are the canine voice actors mostly American? If this is meant to be Japan, why is there this incredibly twee bulls–t disclaimer in the intro explaining that all dog dialogue will be translated into English, but that of the humans will not (and therefore be delivered in Japanese, with no subtitles)? It’s such a strangely self-satisfied half-joke — see, it’s a movie from the perspective of dogs, not humans! English is default, enjoy — but it has no sensible logic in the fictional world. If everyone speaks Japanese, what is the purpose of the English translator working for television/radio broadcasts? Why would this world need her? Why are there two romantic subplots, one including a foreign exchange student who, conveniently, speaks English and runs white-savior-rampant through the third act? Is the implication that the dogs are the empathetic guides for the audience, and the Japanese characters are the “other” in this scenario? Is it not bad enough that a white American filmmaker is utilizing the language and visual qualities of another culture, but simultaneously distancing them from the viewer through some arbitrary mechanism we’re meant to applaud?

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