O ther than Quentin Tarantino, there is no more influential director working in the world today than Wes Anderson. Remember how a generation of hipsters found their voice in 1998’s Rushmore? What about all the vintage tracksuits and colored beanies that everyone was wearing after seeing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Let us not forget that charming little Japanese record player from Moonrise Kingdom; Wes Anderson even made record players cool again!
Okay, you really don’t need me spelling all this out for you. It’s no secret that Anderson has not only changed filmmaking and fashion, but also architecture, home decor and advertising. He has so much cultural currency, and such a strong authorial style, that even his work in advertisement is met with overwhelming admiration. For better or worse, this is a man whose style makes no concessions; it’s something that he’s never had to do. It is after all, Wes Anderson’s world, and we’re just living in it.
With that in mind, I welcome Anderson’s ninth feature: Isle of Dogs. This one is an entirely imagined reality: a fictitious version of Japan, set roughly twenty years into a dystopian future. A dog flu virus has broken out in the streets of Megasaki City. Rumors begin to spread about the virus. Could it be transferable to humans? The city’s despot ruler, Mayor Kobayashi, hosts a rally of sorts to announce his plan of action: a mass deportation Megasaki’s canine population to an offshore garbage dump, starting with his own dog, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). A member of the scientist party, Watanabe (voiced by Akira Ito) and his assistant Yoko (voiced by Yoko Ono) take the stand to announce that they’ve nearly completed a cure for the dog flu; a deportation is not necessary. However, the pro-Kobayashi public can’t hear them over their own jeering. They begin to throw garbage at Watanabe until he exits the stage.
Spots isn’t exactly Mayor Kobayashi’s dog, though; he is the companion to 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi, the mayor’s ward. They share earpieces that double as tracking devices, which Atari plans to use to find his beloved pet. After crash landing his plane on the garbage dump, or Trash Island as it is called, Atari meets five canines who are ready to find his missing pal: Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray, King (voiced by Bob Balaban), Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) and Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum). You’ll note that there seems to be a strange gender politics in Trash Island. Female dogs don’t seem to fight. Further, there are only two prominent female dogs in the film, Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Peppermint (voiced by Kara Hayward), both of which are defined by their potential as breeders. Yikes.
Sure, the gender politics on Trash Island are a problem, but there is one prominent female character in Megasaki that slightly better drawn: Greta Gerwig’s Tracy, an exchange student from California. She’s a smart and dynamic personality, but unfortunately she’s also really problematic. She’s the only person in all of Megasaki who is able to speak out against Kobayashi’s scheming, which seems to suggest that the Japanese population is too stupid or spineless to change their realities.
If having a literal white savior isn’t enough for you, just wait until you hear about how white people literally speak for the Japanese! Yes, there is plenty of Japanese being spoken in Isle of Dogs. However, it remains untranslated. Often, the film relies on an on screen character (voiced by Frances McDormand) to translate all the Japanese dialogue into English. Do I really need to explain why this is a problem? In not letting the Japanese characters speak to the audience directly, they end up being other in a movie that is supposed to be set in their own country.
Wait a minute! Don’t all the Trash Island dogs, who were raised in Japan, speak English? How does that make any sense? Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson have been called out for whitewashing before. Do they just not care? And how exactly does Anderson plan to translate a movie like this for Japanese audiences, anyway? Does he not care? Why did he set the movie in Japan anyway? There might be plenty of Kurosawa references, but it clearly wasn’t meant for Japanese audiences.
It’s Anderson’s distinctive worldview that has made the man a legend. But as I watched his newest feature, Isle of Dogs, I began to wonder if his star was fading. Has the world finally caught up to Wes Anderson? Of course not. He is, after all, a genuis in all realms of visual art, but Isle of Dogs suggests him to be dangerously out of touch with the real world that he so inspired. There’s no denying that Isle of Dogs is visually dazzling, but it is also irresponsible and impudent. Not only does it make baffling blunders in cultural appropriation, but it does so with aplomb! I, for one, cannot stand for it. | Cait Lore