Isle of Dogs Is Culturally Tone Deaf

Veronica Liow
"Isle of Dogs" director Wes Anderson with his miniature cast of dogs, heroes and villains.

In a stop-motion feature film about the relationship between canine and man, Wes Anderson tells one of his most wholesome stories yet. Though Anderson often stands out for his eccentric style of filmmaking, he unfortunately falls into the list of white filmmakers who stereotypically portray and use other cultures — Japan in this case — as a tool for entertainment.

In “Isle of Dogs,” a 12-year-old boy, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), leaves the fictitious city of Megasaki in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). His journey starts when he lands on Trash Island — where all dogs have been banished onto after having contracted a flu virus — and meets some helpful companions, a pack of dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).

Atari’s adventure to find Spots is very endearing. It is almost impossible to not fall in love with the storyline, especially with the exquisite utilization of miniatures and the cohesive color palette that make the film so visually appealing. However, Anderson’s skilled cinematography in the film only makes “Isle of Dogs’” overall execution more disappointing.

In the film, there is a lack of English subtitles for the Japanese spoken. The audience understands Atari not through his words but through his gestures and the subtle translations of the pack of dogs, who though are from Japan, apparently don’t speak Japanese. This is because Anderson prefers to work with the same people — at least enough to have an entire section on his Wikipedia page dedicated to it. However, it is problematic that in a film that takes place in Japan, all the voice-actors cast as dogs are white, English-speaking and predominantly male.

Back in Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi’s (Kunichi Nomura) announcements fade into the background as an English-speaking translator talks over him. And making matters worse, the translator, Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand) is played by a white woman. The lack of Japanese subtitles and representation sends a message to Japanese people that their voices do not matter — that parts of their culture can be swept under the rug if they do not satisfy the execution of the storyline. The film perpetuates the problematic stereotype of the “passive Asian.” Stereotypes such as this contribute to issues such as the fetishization of the complacent Asian housewife and the hindrance of Asians moving past the glass ceiling despite having the highest college completion rate, low unemployment rate and median household income — to name a few.

When Mayor Kobayashi announces a death sentence for all dogs, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a white foreign exchange student, takes the initiative to find the cure for the dog-flu virus and to lead the protest against anti-canine sentiments. It can be empowering to see a young female as a hero, especially since there aren’t many female voices in the film in general. However, the outdated and overused white savior complex is distasteful. In “Isle of Dogs,” the hero in Megasaki is a white woman who appropriates black culture through her afro, another problematic decision of Anderson’s.

Speaking of a lack of female voices, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former performance dog on Trash Island, has the most screen time after Tracy. Unfortunately, her character has no purpose beyond being Chief’s love interest and setting up a childish joke: Chief asks an owl to send a message to a “bitch,” or female dog, Nutmeg. This usage of the term “bitch” to induce humor into the film is low-brow at best.

“Isle of Dogs” disappoints, primarily because it succeeds in almost everything — especially cinematography — but falls short in respecting women and Japanese people and culture. Some are able to overlook that aspect. However, I am unable to because the film had the potential to have been executed in a much more considerate manner without losing its quality.

“Isle of Dogs” had its limited release in the United States on March 23. The wide release is set for April 13.

Email Veronica Liow at [email protected]

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I am so full of rage and disgust at your utter disregard for your education. Do you even know who Wes Anderson is? Did you know Kunichi Nomura is one of the writers, voice actors and is the casting director?
    I get the feeling your fellow staff made you go watch the film because they believed it might do you some good. Please go and watch it again. This article feels like a deliberate sabotage because of the very real themes in this masterpiece.

    You say white saviour?????? This whole film is about COMING TOGETHER FOR THE GREAT GOOD

    Did you get a feel for the punnery in the film? Perhaps the puns were a clue to see the dogs as a reflection of our personal and collective humanity?

    There was so much incredible detail and design that went into this film and you’re a bored, over privelaged lout with an editors title.

    Get bent. <<< Guess that's hate speech right -__-

  2. Why does everything have to be translated to your own language in order for it to hold any substantial weight or meaning? Yes, the English interpretation of Mayor Kobayashi comes in NPR-form with one language over top of the other, but a lot of the messages get themselves across through very accurate, thoughtful (and yes, culturally Japanese) non-verbal behavior. This film depicts Japan in a whimsical, enticing, true form. I have no doubts that it will turn those who have little knowledge of Japanese culture on to a broader perspective and further investigation of the country and it’s charms. That, I feel, is something of an accomplishment in itself, considering the entire movie was molded by hand. I truly think the wider-range of audience this film appeals to (those other than minutia-obsessing critics) will take away a deeper appreciation for the rich, incredible culture of Japan.

  3. You really have bent over backward to trash this stunning film with PC babble to ‘justify’ your negative review.

    It is a movie – and provided entertainment with a dash of an interesting take on the man- dog relationship.

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