Love and Other Unanswered Questions in Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018), a Discussion of Cultural Appropriation

One would probably not cite Wes Anderson as an all-too subtle filmmaker. His style is loud, freakishly consistent, and oddly mesmerizing. Nonetheless, it is too easy to confuse Anderson’s frankness for a lack of emotional truth or nuance. Thinking about how Anderson expresses emotion is realizing a very unique, but strange juxtaposition, between specificity and broad strokes, nuance and bluntness. Examine, briefly, Richie Tenenbaum’s bathroom scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). In this scene Richie goes into the bathroom and cuts himself before being rushed to the hospital. On the one hand, the scene is overwhelmingly blue. An Elliot Smith song plays in the background. He whispers to himself that he’s going to kill himself. The blood flows out over his palms and the sink. It’s clear. It’s honest. And it’s not subtle. Richie Tenenbaum is sad and nearly kills himself. But at the same time there’s enough there to argue for its subtlety. He doesn’t just march in and slit his wrists. His mannerisms are firm. He looks in the mirror at us and we look back at him. There’s a confidence there. A certainty. He shaves himself, almost as a symbol of self-purification (the cutting of one’s hair in media often symbolizes a major character change). We look at all his messy hair spread about as his hands rest firmly over the sink so it’ll catch the blood. When he falls to the side he doesn’t just collapse. He sets himself down on the floor, quiet and maintaining the same degree of stark solidity in his face as he maintains for the entirety of the scene. This scene is a microcosm for part of what makes Anderson great. He takes the broadest strokes of what makes certain emotional elements plain and specific ones that only he could’ve really come up with and places them side-by-side. You can see this all across his work like say from when Zero tells Gustave the tribulations he had gone through as the result of being an immigrant, in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Or, when Mrs. Fox loses her temper and slashes Mr. Fox after he endangers their family in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The latter is a great example for subverting expectations making it as funny as it is sad. It’s two parents getting in a fight, but instead of yelling Mrs. Fox just admits she’s going to lose her temper and bluntly slashes Mr. Fox. There’s no back-and-forth aggression or over-the-top arguing. It’s a scene some might know all too well but told with the blunt specificity only Anderson could deliver.

            And so that brings us to 2018’s Isle of Dogs. I’d be hard-pressed to say Anderson never considers where he sets his films. In Rushmore (1998), for instance, we get a healthy dose of all the clubs Max is involved in at his school and over the course of the film become thoroughly familiar with the place as much as its inhabitants. In Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) there’s discussion of real-estate, local grouches, the local economy, etc. His locales are his own and they are explored thoroughly. Not to mention the care Anderson always has for making his settings unique. No Anderson setting, even if it has clear, real-world ties, looks like any real-world setting. And that’s where the complications begin with Anderson’s latest feature. As critic Justin Chang of the LA Times points out “the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore.” Most damning of Chang’s points comes at the use of language. While there are a handful of English speakers in the film the setting is a Japanese one, the retro-future city of Megasaki. Furthermore, the Japanese characters speak in their native language as do the English ones (the dogs also speak English). Chang points out “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.” So, it becomes clear very quickly that where the film struggles is in depicting a people white viewers can understand with more complexity and nuance to their behavior as well as a place with more visual nuance as well. Many common cultural icons appear in Megasaki including sushi, sumo, robots, pagodas and of course, Mt. Fuji. And so, the bluntness I discussed in Anderson’s stylistic dichotomy of loud and soft, is very much present and the latter is sorely lost, especially for those who desire a more complex and well-researched depiction of their home and culture.

            But Anderson’s nuance is not entirely lost. And, what Megasaki represents is maybe more than just Anderson’s all-too-recognizable vision of Japan. The story reflects a lot of the political discourse in the US. A too-angry dictatorial mayor with shady business ties deports the lowly canine population to a trash island out of historical anxiety towards said house pets (the mayor and his family prefer cats). So, with that in mind what Megasaki becomes is not only a fictional Japanese city but a microcosm for the contemporary US. And, the characters we understand verbally in the film are the foreigners to the film’s setting, a white exchange student and the dogs (who are not technically a native animal but nonetheless have their own place in Megasaki). And, not only that, but the main character is a young Japanese boy seeking to save his guard dog Spots by journeying to trash island. The dog characters in the film seek to aid the boy along with a grouchy stray named Chief. All but Chief serve as the boy’s translators so we the audience can understand him verbally, but halfway through the film they all get separated from the boy while Chief remains. Chief prefers the mentality of keeping to oneself. But, as he’s forced to spend time with the boy in the other dogs’ absences, he learns how to communicate with him, and since he doesn’t speak his language not with words, but with actions. The boy, for instance gives Chief a bath and a doggie snack (which he was saving for his dog Spots) and throws him a bone (figuratively and literally even though literally it’s actually a piece of rubber tubing). So, the precedent for meaningful communication comes through action and not just words. And thus, it is with the actions of the boy Atari and the exchange student Tracy that they save the dogs of Megasaki. It becomes more than just a story of saving a dog, Spots, but saving all the dogs.

            But all this doting upon American politics has hardly anything to do with the literal, real-world Japan. And in that sense, it is not the real-world Japan. It is the Japan Anderson has cited from the movies he has come to love from the likes of Miyazaki Hayao and Kurosawa Akira (he also apparently visited Japan for the film). So, what it amounts to is not the Japan, but a Japan; one which only exists in the mind of Anderson. And, to be fair it is not without its intricacies. Take for instance the scene where the chef prepares the scientist Watanabe’s dinner, or the scenes of the mayoral council with the lavish paintings behind each member, or the beautiful cityscape. It’s difficult, because there was clearly a lot of pain-staking effort that went in to designing and bringing to life the fictional city of Megasaki. So, where do you draw that line of good representation and bad representation? When is cultural appropriation no longer done with dignity or understanding but with ignorance or outright disrespect? The truth is that clear delineation between good and bad does not exist. Some people were very fairly made to feel uncomfortable by Anderson’s idea of Japan. Others, weren’t. What I think one must keep in mind though is that while Anderson’s vision of the place is not representative of Japan it is extremely accurate (at least by my estimation) to what Anderson loves about Japan. And, Anderson, at least, did not get his ideas about Japan solely from a white-centric source but straight from Japanese filmmakers, one who’s works audiences from both Japan and America love and respect. To be fair though, respecting a culture through depiction and through love of its products are not the same thing. So, while Anderson might love what components of Japan he loves and have a deep and nuanced understanding of that love, one cannot dismiss entirely how that collides with the sophistication of the real-world Japan, and the difficulty one has in depicting said place even if it’s just an idea of that place and not the place itself. And one could so easily say he simply did not mean to make a real-world Japan, but just his own vision and that should be good enough, it neglects the context the movie exists in. It is a white man depicting a historically oppressed culture from his own culture’s vantage point. And for some people, that is not ok, and how he depicted it did not help. So, while I admittedly love the man and the film, it is neither fair nor correct of me to dismiss the people who did not like it for very valid reasons nor the shortcomings of the film to juggle crafting a unique setting and depicting a real-world one. I myself grew up with a half-Japanese mom who emigrated from Japan as a young girl and grew up in a distinctly Japanese household by virtue of having a 100% Japanese mom and a father who wasn’t there. I watched the film with her, and she enjoyed it, as did I. What I and my mom love about Japanese culture is not too different from what Anderson loves about it. The film is appropriately enough about unconditional love. Love a boy has for his dog and dog-kind and love dogs have for mankind, all out of good will and not for any contrived reason. It’s about extending your hand to another people you might not understand verbally, but emotionally, there’s much less of a distinction. And sure, that’s not a new theme, but it’s one which I hope outlives the films failures. The question is, is love enough? When is it love and when is it ignorance? I wish for the life of me that question had a simple answer, but I believe just as Anderson has proven again and again, it is a matter of loud and soft, bluntness and nuance, emotional truth and questions left forever unanswered.