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by Mark Jenkins,
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APRIL 6, 2018

In (Tepid) Defense

of Isle of Dogs

By Mark Jenkins

IT TURNS OUT that filmmaker Wes Anderson — who I've long found guilty of making movies that are fussy, slight, and tiresomely self-amused — has committed a far greater crime. His latest effort, Isle of Dogs, has dared to engage in "cultural appropriation."

This charge has been made widely, if mildly. Even Dogs's highest-profile critic, the Los Angeles Times' Justin Chang, swathed his rebuke in praise, chiding gently that Anderson's "sensitivity falters." Chang ends by calling the trash-heap-set movie "ugly in ways beyond what even its maker could have intended," a conclusion that's harsher than the argument that preceded it.

The offense of "cultural appropriation" elicits great consternation at the moment, but it's often a victimless crime. Of course some depictions of "others" are stupid, shallow, insensitive, and even demeaning. But culture is not a depletable resource. The American vogue for ramen is not causing starvation in Tokyo.

There are essentially two cases against Dogs: 1) that Westerners just aren't qualified to make movies about Japan, which is unique, homogeneous, and (ahem) inscrutable; and 2) that Anderson marginalizes his human characters by having them speak unsubtitled Japanese while the dogs "bark" in English.

The first one is easily refuted. The prosperous, independent Japanese are not an oppressed people, and Japanese culture is not in any sense "pure." Most (though not all) of Japan's "traditional" elements were originally imported from China and Korea. The country's identity since the restoration of the emperor — which happened a mere 150 years ago — borrows heavily from the U.S. and Europe. Even the word "sushi" is not Japanese (although sushi, as we now know it, is).

As for J-pop culture, it's utterly globalized. Japan venerates Walt Disney, the Beatles, McDonald's, and so on — while extravagantly gene-splicing their products with native DNA. It's absurd to suppose that Western filmmakers are "whitewashing" when they cast Euro-American actors to play anime-derived characters who originally had blue hair and eyes the size of dinner plates.

Sure, there have been disastrous Hollywood excursions to Japan, such as The Last Samurai. But that wasn't "racist," just silly and ahistorical. Even Lost in Translation is only about one-third deplorable.

As for the second indictment, it's sort of true. But to claim that Anderson devalues his Japanese humans is like saying that Peanuts TV specials belittle adults by reducing their speech to unintelligible mmwaa mmwaas. They do, but that's the point. Peanuts is about kids. Isle of Dogs is about dogs. (Well, anthropomorphic dogs.)

The most offensive moment in Dogs comes when the stop-action-animation crew stages a miniature A-bomb explosion. That's not especially hilarious in the only country to suffer nuclear-bomb devastation — even it's a tongue-in-cheek cartoon version of that nation and that destruction.

But then the director's last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a farce set in the gathering shadows of the Holocaust, and no one seemed to mind. (The movie is based on the writing of Stefan Zweig, a Jewish Austrian who escaped Hitler, but was sufficiently burdened by the experience to kill himself in his Brazilian sanctuary in 1942.) Anderson has often demonstrated that he's amused by random, senseless violence. It's a key part of the spoiled-brat sensibility that usually earns him raves.

It's true that both Westerners and the Japanese often see Japan as singular. I attribute that mostly to the language, which is difficult and different, despite its many debts to Chinese and its grammatical affinities with Korean. And language is key to the arguments about Isle of Dogs.

Thus the most interesting post-mortem on the movie is the one by New York magazine's Emily Yoshida, who was born in Japan but describes herself as "the opposite of fluent" in the lingo. She discussed the movie with three Japanese speakers (none of them lifelong residents of Japan) who saw it shortly after its release. They weren't offended by it, but all noted that the Japanese text and dialogue — of which there's a lot — is inessential.

As someone who knows some Japanese, I had the same impression. I saw and heard many things I understood, all of which were nothing more than Japanese translations of the English. For example, the big sign that towers over Trash Island reads "Gomi Shima" — trash island.

To me, the most outrageous thing about Isle of Dogs is the lame backstory. The action is set in motion by a long-simmering feud between cats and dogs, a theme the movie handles with no more ingenuity than the 2001 dud, Cats & Dogs. Anderson's film takes the premise for a three-minute 1950s cartoon and pads it to what feels like two-and-a-half hours — it's actually 100 minutes — mostly with embellishment. The Japanese language is a big part of the embellishment.

One of the four screenwriters, Kunichi Nomura, is Japanese, and surely played a part in the unsubtitled dialogue. But it's impossible to guess the sources of all the written and spoken Japanese, or even what department generated it. (Is it story? Or production design?)

Yoshida credits the movie with one trans-lingual wink. One of her correspondents thinks the Japanese title, Inugashima, is a play on Onigashima, the island of demons from a Japanese folktale. But that may be just a coincidence.

Sino-Japanese characters (kanji) are graphic in a way that phonetic alphabets are not. They're rooted in ancient pictographs — although rarely readable as representations of actual things — and sometimes ink-painted with gestures more akin to Jackson Pollock paintings than a Western penmanship class. Yet the only playful use of them I noticed is not in the movie, but just in the poster.

The posters offer the title in kanji, with English words atop the Japanese. But both are presented in their respective languages' customary word order, which in Japanese is opposite the English arrangement. So the word "isle" sits atop the character for dog (inu) and "dog" atop island (shima). It's a lost-in-translation flourish the movie itself doesn't emulate (so far as I and Yoshida's experts can tell).

Nothing essential in Isle of Dogs' scenario, skeptics have suggested, is inherently Japanese. True, but maybe what drew Anderson to Japan was the graphic appeal of such things as the written language. Perhaps the director, an obsessive decorator, saw kanji (and the phonetic kana used for such pointlessly obssesive tasks as transliterating the Western cast and crews' names) as just a visual element, like the dogs' ever-moving fur.

It looks cool, but doesn't really mean anything. Which is a pretty fair description of everything in Wes Anderson's films.