“Isle of Dogs” provides blissful entertainment but falls victim to cultural appropriation
Wes Anderson remains a visual master but his inattention to cultural representation upsets critics. | Photo Courtesy of cinemedios.com
Wes Anderson’s stylistic flair always proves refreshing in this world of cookie-cutter films. He mesmerizes again with “Isle of Dogs,” as his visual mastery and immaculate stop-motion provide a heartwarming and beautiful film. However, Anderson falls into a tricky situation of cultural appropriation as he selectively uses Japan as a cultural backdrop.
Anderson’s incredible ability to create worlds through meticulous attention to detail have been showcased in films such as “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” His quirky aesthetic pleases once again as “Isle of Dogs” immerses fans into a brilliant world of stop-motion. Anderson’s distinct aesthetic proves the strength of this film as it elevates a shallow story, and further establishes Anderson as a premiere visual director.
Set in 2030, in the fictional Megasaki City, Japan dog flu runs rampant. Rather than focus on a cure for dog flu, Mayor Kobayashi, voiced by Kunichi Nomura, bans all dogs to Trash Island off the coast of Japan. Kobayashi’s nephew Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, voyages to Trash Island in search of his dog Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber. He finds help from five dogs: Bryan Cranston as Chief, Edward Norton as Rex, Jeff Goldblum as Duke, Bob Balaban as King and Bill Murray as Boss and they venture across Trash Island facing robot dogs and evil drones along the way.
Anderson’s flawless attention to detail brings the stop-motion to life as it captivates the viewer and brings them deeper into the story. The stop-motion is handled with such detailed brilliance and emotes a profound feeling of bliss and realism. The beautiful visuals coupled with emotive voice acting brings the story far beyond its little substance. The voice cast proves wonderful as the dynamic between dogs remains absolutely hilarious and charming. Cranston and Norton stand out as the quarreling leaders of the gang as they guide Atari through the dangers of Trash Island. The film ends with beautiful and heartwarming poignancy as Atari brings Japan together as a dog-loving country. Through “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson builds upon his already impressive resume as a visual director, as he continually shows that detail begets beauty.
Although “Isle of Dogs” proves a heartwarming and blissful film, one questions why Anderson set this film in Japan. Japan remains nothing but a cultural backdrop for this film. Rather than telling a story that celebrates Japanese culture, he uses the exotic nature of Japan as merely an aesthetic. Through kabuki theatre, taiko drums, sumo wrestling and haikus, Anderson relegates Japan as part of his visual style rather than embracing Japanese culture as a whole.
“The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians, borrowing their “exotic” cultures and settings while disregarding the people who created those cultures and live in those settings,” Han said.
Cultural representation requires much more than simply setting a film in Japan and applying its exotic characteristics as an aesthetic backdrop. True representation infuses divergent cultures throughout the story in which people and their experiences are celebrated. Anderson’s tributes to Japan are lost in his attempts at homage, as they fail to truly represent Japanese culture.
“The ever-contentious subject of cultural appropriation has haunted ‘Isle of Dogs’ since before its recent premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Anderson won a directing prize. Bluntly put, does this white American filmmaker's highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?” said Justin Chang in a Los Angeles Times review.
Although “Isle of Dogs” entertains, Anderson’s cultural neglect prevents the film as ranking among his best.