Now They're Using A Dog Movie To Appropriate Asian Culture

“The problem is that Isle of Dogs falls into a long history of American art othering or dehumanizing Asians,” critic Angie Han wrote.
Writer/director Wes Anderson has come under scrutiny for his latest film, "Isle of Dogs," with one critic saying th
Writer/director Wes Anderson has come under scrutiny for his latest film, "Isle of Dogs," with one critic saying the movie treats Japan like "an endearingly quirky playground for yet another white American narrative."

Wes Anderson’s film “Isle Of Dogs,” which hit theaters on Friday, has drawn applause from critics, who were captivated by the imagery and heartwarming doggo-centric plot.

But many Asian-Americans argue there’s an ugly side to the film that needs to be discussed.

Anderson’s movie, a work of stop-motion animation set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, has spurred a debate about cultural appropriation, as discussed in a review by Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. Chang questioned whether Anderson, who’s white, successfully paid homage to East Asian culture, or whether the movie is “just a clueless failure of sensitivity.”

In “Isle of Dogs,” Megasaki is hit with a canine flu outbreak, and authorities order the area’s pooches sent to an island. With the help of a pack of scrappy canine exiles, a young boy named Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, sets out to rescue his own beloved hound. The movie is largely focused on the dogs ― but Chang took issue with the way the humans are portrayed.

The residents of Megasaki speak Japanese, often without subtitles, while the dogs in the movie speak English. Most of the Japanese dialogue is “pared down to simple statements,” Chang writes. And it’s Tracy Walker, an American character voiced by Greta Gerwig, who spearheads the film’s pro-dog movement. Ultimately, the movie reduces “the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city,” Chang argues.

Other Asian-American critics have voiced similar concerns. Though the movie is full of nods to Japanese film masters, including Akira Kurosawa, its handling of Japanese people locates “Isle” within a larger problematic trend, Mashable’s Angie Han said.

“Anderson wants us to see this situation from the perspective of the dogs, and not the humans, and language is a powerful way to steer us toward a side,” Han writes. “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.”

It’s not clear why the story needed to be set in fictional Japan at all, Han notes. And while Tracy is rebellious, persistent and heroic, her strength only highlights the weakness and compliance of the Japanese characters.

“In treating Japanese culture like superficial embellishments, Japanese people like unknowable others, and Japan itself like an endearingly quirky playground for yet another white American narrative, Isle of Dogs’ messaging about protecting the vulnerable falls flat,” Han writes.

Chang and Han’s reviews gained traction among Asian-American social media users, and many added their voices to the group of frustrated viewers, including film critic Inkoo Kang and the L.A. Times’ Jen Yamato. 

Anderson, who both wrote and directed “Isle of Dogs,” did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

CBC Radio points out that Kunichi Nomura, a Japanese actor and writer, served as Anderson’s consultant for the film, helping with issues of authenticity. In a recent interview with the outlet, Nomura ― who also voices Megasaki’s villainous mayor ― addressed the cultural appropriation issue. While the actor had a say in the movie’s elements, he didn’t want to stifle Anderson’s creativity, he said.

“It has a real side but it’s a setting 20 years in the future, and it kind of reminded me of Thunderbirds or how in the ’60s, when they would make a sci-fi movie or a comic, it’s kind of retro-future. So when Wes would ask me, is this really authentic, then I would answer yes or no,” Nomura told CBC Radio. “But at the same time I didn’t want to interfere with his imagination. You know, like you don’t really have to make everything accurate.”

Still, amid the many recent examples of Hollywood films and series that have employed Asian cultural elements in disappointing, insensitive ways ― like this one, and this one, and this one ― it’s no wonder Asian-Americans were hoping for something better.