Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” has received near universal acclaim from film critics (the movie currently has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), but even some who have enjoyed the stop-motion film have taken issue with the director’s representation of Japanese culture. The film is receiving criticism for racial stereotypes just ahead of its March 23 release.
“Isle of Dogs” takes place in a dystopian Japanese city called Megasaki. A note at the beginning of the film states that all of the dog’s barks have been translated into English, which is the reason actors like Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, and Edward Norton are voicing canines. The Japanese characters are heard speaking their native language and Anderson does not rely on subtitles. Sometimes an interpreter character voiced by Frances McDormand translates the Japanese into English.
The Los Angeles Times review, written by Justin Chang, has received lots of attention for calling out Anderson for cultural stereotypes. “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,” Chang writes.
“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,” he continues. “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.”
Jen Yamato of the Los Angeles Times supported Chang’s review by tweeting out her own criticism: “Thank you, Justin Chang, for devoting far more attention than most critics will to many of the willfully tone-deaf ways Wes Anderson appropriates and marginalizes Japanese culture and people in his so-called homage. It is ugly, indeed.”
Yamato and Chang are hardly the only ones being critical of “Isle of Dogs'” depiction of Japan. Steve MacFarlane of Slant points out the fact that despite being set in a Japanese city, the heroes are mostly voiced by white characters. The only other main human hero besides the Japanese boy Atari Kobayashi is a white girl named Tracy, voiced by Greta Gerwig.
“Worse still is an American exchange student, Tracy, 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,” MacFarlane writes. “Ostensibly for laughs, one scene sees Tracy angrily throttling a crestfallen Japanese scientist 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.”
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes “the specter of cultural appropriation haunts” the movie, while “Black Girl Nerds” critic Leonardo Faierman asks, “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?”
Anderson admitted back at the Berlin Film Festival that “Isle of Dogs” could have really been set anywhere. The filmmaker and his co-writers ended up settling on Japan because they always wanted to make movie set in one of their favorite cities. The stop-motion film opens in select theaters this Friday.