While many are quick to accuse Wes Anderson of cultural appropriation and continuing the trope of the White Saviour, a closer look reveals a film that is sensitive to these issues yet not afriad of them.
Wes Anderson is one of the most iconic visual stylists working in film today. Known for his exactingly specific shot composition and hyper-detailed sets and costuming, when it was announced that his next film, this year’s Isle Of Dogs, would be a stop-motion animation film set in a dystopian future Japan — the spiritual home of hyper detailed aesthetics — it seemed like a match made in heaven.
The film follows the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphan boy who travels to the titular isle to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) after his distant uncle and guardian, the dog hating Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), deports him as part of a plot to destroy all the dogs of the fictional city of Megasaki. Crash landing on the island, Atari is then discovered by a pack of dogs who decide to help him in his quest, the pack made up of motley crew of canine deportees including; Chief (Bryan Cranston) a stray dog who doesn’t believe in masters, Rex (Edward Norton) a master loving good boy, former dog snack model King (Bob Balaban), gossip loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray) who provides comic relief — and rounds out Anderson’s Bill Murray quota for the film. Serial Anderson cast member Angelica Huston also pops up in a credited yet silent role as Mute Poodle.
Like all Anderson’s work, Isle Of Dogs is a visual delight, and perhaps the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson films to date. Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod’s charming production and design is beautifully captured by cinematographer Tristan Oliver, the stunning set and character models framed in gorgeous wide screen compositions. This gives the film a cinematic quality larger than any of Anderson’s previous work. Ironic, considering it’s all shot using miniatures.
Putting the visuals aside, the lack of subtitles did affect my first watching. As a non-Japanese speaker, I found it difficult to engage emotionally with the Japanese characters, and felt that as such Anderson was merely using them as background set dressing for the dogs’ story. Yet after reading Moeko Fujii’s comment on the film for The New Yorker, I reconsidered my take.
As Fujii — a Japanese-speaker — explains in the article, to assume that these characters are dehumanised by Anderson’s withholding of subtitles “assumes the primacy of an English-speaking audience”. Viewed through the eyes — or should I say ears — of a Japanese speaker she argues, the film takes on new layers of meaning, and new depths of cultural sensitivity.
The film is full of nuanced and accurate representation of Japanese culture and language. From how a news anchor segues between stories — “This is the next news” — to the labelling of elementary school milk cartons with “extra thick” Anderson’s hyper detail oriented eye offers a degree of cultural specificity lacking in most other Western representations of Japan.
More than just allowing for such moments of cultural homage, Anderson’s choice not to use subtitles and instead rely on on-screen translation draws attention to the act of translation itself. As the film’s numerous translators — human, electronic or otherwise — often miss the finer details and cultural nuance of the characters’ speech, Anderson is in a way emphasising his own act of translation, in essence admitting that huge parts of Japanese culture will be lost as he translates it into film via his own idiosyncratic style.
This doesn’t mean the film is without its problems, but as Chang himself was quick to point out following the explosion of outrage on social media, his review was “a mixed, measured appraisal” and not a condemnation. He posed questions, rather than make accusations. Specifically he asked if this “white American filmmaker’s highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute[s] a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?”
Now as a white Australian film critic I don’t think I am at all qualified to answer this question, but what seems clear to me is that Anderson wasn’t ignoring the issue while making the film. Instead seems to be directly engaging with it in a way not many filmmakers do.
Having added such layers of meaning to a film that on the surface is a rather simple story about a boy looking for his lost dog, Anderson is perhaps posing his own question about how we define the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Whatever side of the line his film falls on, one has to admire the imagination with which he frames the question, as well as the surprising, charming and enjoyable movie he has made while doing so.
This article was originally published on Music Feeds.