Isle of Dogs: The Power of Language
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Since the release of the newest addition to the collection of ever-eclectic Wes Anderson films, some critics of the film struggled to understand Anderson’s artistic choices that paint a specific picture of Japan. Without revealing too much, Isle of Dogs set in the fictional futuristic city of Megasaki, centers around the character Atari, a young Japanese ward of the state who journeys to Trash Island in search of his exiled dog.
The film tends to shrug off the ambiguous plot holes by inappropriately chalking them up to quirks of Japanese culture. Some critics have dealt with this uneasiness by pointing to the fact that this film is set in a parallel universe twenty years in the future. Thus, freeing the plot of its obligation to accurately represent Japan. Still, specific directorial choices have left audience members wondering how accurate Anderson’s portrayal of Japan was.
A structural choice made by Anderson was that the humans spoke nearly exclusively Japanese, sometimes translated into English, and the dogs spoke solely English. This choice created a language barrier between the two that morphs the Japanese humans into a mere backdrop for this whimsical tale. Anderson also invented fake colloquialisms that were designed to mimic actual Japanese. A few examples of this were the words “sitto” used to command a dog, and “risupekto” used to command a human. Both utilize Japanese pronunciation of English words purely for the amusement of those willing to laugh at an accent.
This point is crucial as it exposes how the plot itself is tone deaf. Anderson is an American artist who seems to have forgotten how Japanese people were placed in internment camps and demonized during World War II in the U.S. To be blunt, the film utilizes the Japanese characters as props to procure cheap laughs elicited by offensive Japanese stereotypes.
The presence of a white American character named Tracy Walker, a foreign exchange student who wears an American flag covered robe and leads her high school to uprise against the Japanese government aggravates this problem. Some critics have said that because she is not the one who actually saves the day, she’s not technically a “white savior.” However, the term white savior refers to “a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving.” It is essential to understand that despite the victorious moment of the story not entirely being on her shoulders, Tracy Walker still fits the archetypal mold. Her hedonism stems from a crush on Atari. While a simple crush and her desire for activism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, her motives are questionable.
Furthermore, a few questions remain unanswered. Why did this movie need to be set in Japan if no aspects of the plot were crucial enough to adhere to Japanese culture properly and were not inclusive enough to use the Japanese characters as anything other than plot devices? Who was this movie made for? The answer to the first question remains entirely puzzling other than maybe Wes Anderson wanted to create such an obscure society, and the furthest he could think from himself was Japan. If this is true, it lends itself to exotifying and orientalizing a people group who has had a rough history in our nation. If the answer to the latter question is “anyone” then Anderson should have made sure that everyone could grasp his purpose for the film as it walks on the tightrope between cultural appreciation and appropriation.