Culture

Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle Of Dogs’ Has Been Accused Of Cultural Appropriation

The film has been described as "patronising" and "wilfully tone-deaf".

Wes Anderson has been accused of cultural appropriation, with a growing number of critics taking issue with the filmmaker’s depiction of Japanese people and culture in his new movie Isle of Dogs.

The stop-motion animated film, which was released in America on Friday, is set in a dystopian future Japan and follows a group of dogs who have been quarantined on an island due to fears about “canine flu”.

While reviews of the film have mostly been positive, several critics have expressed discomfort about some of Anderson’s creative decisions — such as the fact that the film’s human characters speak Japanese without subtitles, while its canine characters are voiced largely by English-speaking actors including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

“It’s in the director’s handling of the story’s human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore,” wrote Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Much of the Japanese dialogue has been pared down to simple statements that non-speakers can figure out based on context and facial expressions.”

“The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing,” Chang continues. “You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn’t want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation. But 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.”

Over at Slant, Steve MacFarlane wrote that “if you’re willing to consider Japan beyond the elegant tropes invited by sumo wrestlers, sushi, and cherry blossoms, then this film can only register as a gorgeously baroque failure”, adding that Anderson’s “invocations of corruption and militarism should leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone unable to abandon the thought of the world outside of the film’s perimeters”.

Austin Trunick of Under the Radar had similar reservations, writing that “Anderson’s blanket appropriation of Japanese style and culture has the potential to leave a mildly gross, Orientalist aftertaste in some viewers’ mouths”.

A subplot involving an American exchange student named Tracy, voiced by Greta Gerwig, has also attracted criticism. Angie Han at Mashable called the character a “classic example of the ‘white savior’ archetype – the well-meaning white hero who arrives in a foreign land and saves its people from themselves”, adding that the movie “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”.

Isle of Dogs hits cinemas in Australia on April 12.