Isle of Dogs

By Hannah Goodfriend

Wes Anderson’s newest movie, Isle of Dogs, has earned mixed receptions from the public, as it’s topical American themes, beautiful scenery and loveable characters do not seem to be enough to outweigh Anderson’s cultural appropriation and white-washing. Critics have scrutinized the setting of the movie, the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, labeling Anderson’s depiction of modern day Japan as inaccurate and outdated. For Anderson, who has historically placed high importance on aesthetics in his film-making, this critique is especially harmful to public perception of his movie. Consequently, Anderson’s inaccuracy and insensitivity towards his international audience reveal that he might be targeting a purely American audience. Considering the current status of the United States, it cannot be coincidental that Anderson’s English-speaking movie also has recurring themes of government conspiracy and inhumane deportation. In this way, Anderson’s breathtaking animated film shows both ignorance about other cultures, as well as a deep understanding of the current politics in the United States, overall appealing to a mostly white audience.
Anderson’s movie, despite being set entirely in Japan, is very clearly directed at English speaking Americans. Although having made use of subtitles in his various other movies, most notably in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson completely omits these captions from the partially Japanese Isle of Dogs. Instead, Anderson favors the use of an occasional English-speaking voiceover in the form of a newscaster, and the translation from “dog language” into English. It seems unusual to allow Japanese characters to speak their own language, despite it being completely incomprehensible to the majority audience. To have so many characters speak, but in a way that allows no furthering of the plot of the movie, completely deprives Japanese characters of any agency or voice within the film. Instead, Anderson only gives the dogs and the two english-speaking characters of the movie the power to directly communicate with the audience. This might be an understandable decision, had the film not centered around Japanese humans. But considering that almost all of the human characters in Isle of Dogs are Japanese, Anderson decision to solely on second-hand narrating to describe Japanese sentiment raises some concerns.
Although having consulted Kunichi Nomura, a Japanese native actor and writer, to ensure accuracy in depicting Japanese culture, it seemed obvious to most audiences that Anderson’s portrayal of modern day Japan held an erroneous resemblance to the Japan of the past. Most notably, the architecture of the fictional city “Megasaki” seemed mostly outdated and highly unlikely. Furthermore, these traditional Japanese buildings were decorated with red rice-paper lanterns and japanese-style rice-paper windows. Not only are these features outdated, but they reinforce past stereotypes that Americans have placed on Japan. By not adhering to the aesthetics of the current state of Japan, Anderson has inadvertently implied that Americans need not be preoccupied with the progress of a country across the world, and that Japan’s progress has been stagnated, and a culture that has not adapted to the modern world.
Although Anderson’s archaic portrayal of Japan is inaccurate, the film still manages to maintain beauty and value due to Anderson’s incredible talent for the methodical usage of color, central perspective and symmetry. Because Isle of Dogs is an animated movie, Anderson is not constricted by the color palettes of reality, and is consequently able to strictly adhere by a color scheme dominated by tans, reds, blacks and oranges. These pigments blend wonderfully with the plot of the movie; the depressing brown resembling the injustices committed against the dogs of Japan, and its fiery reds conveying the strength and solidarity that these dogs display in trying to get back home. The persistence of warm colors throughout the film made it a joy to watch, and doubtlessly aided in creating a compelling plot and empathy from the audience. Moreover, Anderson’s dedication to symmetrical cinematography and central perspective in his scenes make Isle of Dogs, like Anderson’s other works, a visually pleasing movie, plot entirely aside.
As a movie directed at purely American audience and disregarding its lack of authenticity and problems of political correctness, Isle of Dogs was not only visually entrancing, but wholly relevant to America’s current struggle against “fake news”. The film revolves around the struggle between “pro-dog” and “anti-dog” political groups that advocate (respectively) against and for the exile of the nations’ dogs to what is called “trash island.” The audience, as well as the city of Megasaki, is told that this deportation of all dogs is necessary, as they have an incurable illness named “the dog flu”. However, it is soon revealed that the flu is able to be cured, but that the head of the Japanese government, a descendent of a family known for despising dogs and favoring cats, has kept the cure a secret in order to further his cat-loving agenda.
Although exile to an island seems cruel enough already, sympathy for the dogs is increased when it is revealed that trash island has limited opportunities for feeding, which has in turn created a population of sick, malnourished, aggressive and disheveled dogs. Because these dogs are given more human characteristics than the actually humans of the movie — they speak frequently and are understood by the audience — it is possible that Anderson had hoped to make the plight of the canines in Isle of Dogs reminiscent of the problems of immigration and inaccurate news that currently affects the entire world, but specifically America. When viewing Isle of Dogs with national issues in mind, it becomes obvious that the ostracization of loving dogs, healthy and sick, to an island of trash mimics the debate over the immigration of refugees and those in need to America.
The tendency of the audience to side with the “pro-dog” movement contrasts greatly with the anti-immigration sentiment currently held in America, particularly in regards to the believability of fake news. Just as the dogs are exiled in a preventative measure against the spread of “dog-flu,” immigrants, especially those from middle-eastern countries, are ostracized, and in some cases are barred from living in America. Many Americans hold the belief that by preventing all possible threats from inhabiting their land, they ensure their own safety. However, in Isle of Dogs, it is revealed that the fear against all dogs is merely a product of a lying government with a hidden agenda. Given this, it can be assumed that in his depiction of the government vs. inhabitants vs. dogs, Anderson is actually making a commentary on the American government’s ability to alter and elect the information that is disseminated into the public sphere.
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, when dissected into parts, has undoubtedly good intentions in disguising itsit’s political commentary with beautiful scenery, adorable characters, and easy plot. However, as a whole, Isle of Dogs is highly problematic in its portrayal of a foreign culture, which could have been entirely avoided had Anderson either changed the setting or language of the movie. Unfortunately, while Anderson’s newest movie is a ‘can’t-miss’ for English-speaking fans dedicated to his cinematography, it ostracizes audience members of other cultures by implying that their practices can be appropriated and imitated incorrectly merely for the sake of creating an aesthetically pleasing movie.