A columnist for The Hollywood Reporter has questioned whether Wes Anderson’s new film Isle of Dogs engages in cultural appropriation. Not the appropriation of the culture of dogs, but of Japan.
Isle of Dogs, an animated feature set twenty years in the future in Japan, tells the tale of a group of dogs who are infected with dog flu and snout virus. In response, Mayor Kobayashi banishes the infected hounds to a garbage-dump island called Megasaki.
How does this plot constitute an appropriation of Japanese culture? According to Hollywood Reporter columnist Marc Bernardin, it’s because the film doesn’t use enough Japanese voices.
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is wading into a world that didn’t exist when he started making his stop-motion fable about a Japanese boy lost on a completely canine island. Even two years ago, when Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings hit theaters, the conversation there was about whitewashing, about populating an inherently Japanese story with an overwhelmingly white voice cast. But few of the people who came for Kubodidn’t take issue with the fact that the story was being told by an almost entirely non-Japanese creative team. (You have to scroll a bit on Kubo’s IMDb page before you get to John Aoshima, the head of story.)
But as traditionally marginalized audiences begin to find their collective voice, things that used to fly … don’t. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson sets his boy-and-his-pooch story in the fictional island of Megasaki, where a nation’s dogs have been exiled, left to fend for themselves. The conceit of this film is that all of the dogs speak English, and are voiced by actors like Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson. The overwhelming majority of the human characters are Japanese and they all speak in Japanese, which is conveyed to an English-speaking audience through subtitles or a translator or, sometimes, not translated at all.
Bernardin views the issue in terms of empathy with subject matter and who gets to tell the story.
“We empathize with those we can understand. Literally,” he writes. “By placing the Japanese characters behind a wall of language, Isle of Dogs is placing its empathetic weight on the canine characters. Which are all voiced by white actors.”
Yet the movie, says Bernardin, poses a larger question about who gets to do storytelling in film.
The question of who gets to make what art is a thorny one. Are we allowed, as artists, to tell stories that move us, or are we supposed to pass some kind of test to be allowed to tell those stories? And who is grading that test? If I’m, say, a Mexican filmmaker who loves giant robots and giant monsters, do I have to present myself to an anime gatekeeper for permission? If I’m a Scottish filmmaker who desperately wants to devote years of his life to tell a romance set in Mumbai during a run on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, can I just do it … and later win an Oscar for it?
Isn’t the beauty of art that it affects us profoundly and deeply, becoming a part of who we are in the world? And if that’s so, how can anyone be barred from making the art that moves them?
Bernardin refrains from saying that culture should be a barrier to cinematic creativity. Just because someone isn’t of the culture they depict in their subject matter, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to tell the stories they want to tell.
“That said, the free pass that storytellers used to get when they decided to employ cultural signifiers as fetishized exoticism is a thing of the past. So what’s the way forward? Hell if I know. This area of study is fuzzy at best and offensive at worst. But I’m going to make two suggestions.”
While Bernardin gives several pieces of advice in how to accurately represent other cultures in film, his guidance distills down to one salient point.
“Don’t be a strip-miner. Don’t treat culture like some kind of Vegas buffet, filling your plate with exotic flavors and setting it in front of a Caucasian protagonist to be tickled and amused by. Remember the importance of empathetic weight: Who is the story about? And if it’s about a person from the culture you are drawing from, you’ve already gone a long way towards achieving a fidelity of intention as well as execution.”
Bernardin isn’t the only critic to voice concern over cultural appropriation when it comes to Isle of Dogs. Writing in the Guardian, Steve Rose raised a similar issue.
All the dogs are voiced by well-known white, American actors, speaking English. These are Japanese dogs – why are they speaking English? Is English “dog language” here? The Japanese human characters do speak Japanese, and are voiced by Japanese actors, but there are no subtitles. Some of it is translated by interpreters but much of it we don’t understand at all. What’s more, there’s an American exchange student in the story, with freckles and a huge bob of white hair, voiced by Greta Gerwig (in English). She turns out to be something of a “white saviour” who mobilises the passive Japanese populace to rebel and put things right.
Mashable’s Angie Han saw the movie as part of a pattern of “dehumanizing” Asians.
“Anderson wants us to see this situation from the perspective of the dogs, and not the humans, and language is a powerful way to steer us toward a side. The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their ‘exotic’ cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings.”
Isle of Dogs, directed by Wes Anderson, and starring Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, opens in theaters April 6.
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