For me, all Wes Anderson movies are tinted by a sentimental shade of nostalgia. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was one of the only movies my family owned
on DVD, and watched on repeat. Two childhood friends appeared briefly in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) (performing for Rhode Island’s Children Choir), which made it feel all the more close to home. I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) with my family, almost immediately upon its release at The Avon Cinema’s small, one-screen theater in Providence. The highly stylized, brightly colored, and symmetrical worlds of his films appealed to me immensely, so much so that my high school senior project was a short French cooking film, styled as an homage to this aesthetic. When Anderson released Isle of Dogs in 2018, I was ecstatic. Not only was it a reprise of the wonderful claymation of Fantastic Mr. Fox (which to this day, remains the only film adaption I prefer over its source material), but it was set in Japan (albeit, a fictional version)––a place that is home for my mother, and is personally tangled in a web of memory, comfort, and alienation. But when I left the theater, a feeling gnawed at me, one that I haven’t quite been able to put to words till now.
Isle of Dogs is visually stunning. There is no denying that Anderson’s rendition of Japan––and somehow even the fictional “Trash Island” for that matter––is gorgeous: Hokusai print imitations in widescreen glory, bold reds and yellows filling familiar references to the island country’s culture (think sumo, sushi, and yakuza), and the amalgamation of modern and traditional Japanese architecture that is “Megasaki Island” (an unfortunate riff off of Nagasaki, or perhaps Kawasaki). The film takes place in a fantastical dystopia, which means, of course, that in the midst of an outbreak of “canine flu”, the city’s authoritarian mayor banishes all dogs to an island of trash. Atari (Koyu Rankin), a twelve-year-old Japanese boy, ventures to this wasteland to find his dog Spots. A group of English-speaking dogs become his companions, and they all, in true Anderson-fashion, embark on a chaotic but enlightening adventure where the children (and dogs) champion against the backwards adults. It is, in the words of Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times, “Wes Anderson Land; [and] it’s always a fun place to visit.” Indeed, it is a fun place to visit. But if you stay for too long, the ugly jaws of orientalism begin to bite.
The Japanese characters speak Japanese, but their words are either translated by interpreters or not translated at all––the latter of which occurs at a higher frequency. And so, for the non-Japanese audiences, their words are incomprehensible––akin to the gibberish of teachers in Charlie Brown features. Japanese that is translated is only translated to convey key narrative points. And the Japanese parsable to English-speakers, specifically the phoneticized katakana words, are made comical––a comedy whose undertones are othering. Take for instance, Mayor Kobayashi’s opening speech, where he roars “KORE WA KIKA DA KURAISHISUUUU” (which in Japanese, makes no sense in formality nor in meaning); the guttural emphasis of his masculine speech drawing out the katakana “crisis”. Or perhaps worse, after being cut off by Courtney B. Vance’s deep, “sophisticated” English narration, and then spoken for by an English LED display, he declares (in English, though really, in Japanese) “riisupekuto–”.
The consequence of this decision regarding translation is that we empathize more with the dogs than we do the Japanese people. Despite being a “main” character, Atari is less human and more caricature, filling an aesthetic space and not an emotional one. Japanese people become alien in a place that is supposedly their own.
Moeke Fuji of the New Yorker argued that the film’s use of fragmented translation is introspective in that it “rejects the notion of universal legibility, placing the onus of interpretation solely upon the American audience.” There certainly is validity to this argument, and I am not blind to the eurocentric connotations of demanding English comprehension. Even so, I believe this argument fails to consider the line between representation and appropriation. Cultural appreciation without emotional nuances does not amount to proper representation. Sure, there are Japanese voices, and references that are reserved only for its Japanese audience (Fuji lists plenty in her piece). And yes, Japanese people were involved in the film’s making: most notably Kunichi Nomura, who voice-acted as Mayor Kusanagi and is credited as being one of four co-writers for the story (yet Anderson is the only screenwriter). But Fuji describes what exists in the margins, and not what is in the foreground.
Even the movie doesn’t seem to understand where it stands on translation. Fuji’s insistence that the film is empowering, that the Japanese have some sort of agency in choosing to speak their native tongue, trips over the film’s inconsistencies. Why then, does Mayor Kobayashi introduce Professor Watanabe in English? Why does Atari, when speaking to the citizens of Megasaki, pose the question “Who are we?” in English? Who are Kobayashi and Atashi speaking to? The answer is the film’s American audience. Isle of Dogs might attempt to decenter its American consumers but ultimately it’s a
Hollywood movie and it knows it is. Anderson’s rendering of the Japanese archipelago is a Western fantasy Japan, and even when it tries to escape to authenticity, it only manages to land in a plastic, commercial version of Japan with which the country sells itself to others (and wonderfully, at that).
The French Dispatch, Anderson’s next project, is set to premiere in the U.S. this upcoming October. I wait anxiously for its release. I am trying to remain hopeful, but the outlook is uncertain: an almost all-white cast, save a few, including Korean-American Steve Park, who I was dismayed to see is playing a chef (a tired, wrung-out trope). Isle of Dogs, though beautiful, couldn’t quite hide its stink of orientalism. The pernicious white savior trope that appears in Isle of Dogs through the form of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), made itself clear in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) in which (a fantasy) India becomes the backdrop for broken white men to find themselves––at the expense of a young Indian’s boy life at that. The boy’s death prompts them to work through their mishaps, and unite to complete their spiritual journey. In the harsh, but telling words of Jonah Weiner: “Turns out a dead Indian boy was all the brothers were missing.” Perhaps, Wes Anderson Land always has been, and will continue to be, limited by the whiteness embedded in its very essence.