IOD: Appropriating or Appreciating?

The line between appropriation and appreciation in Wes Anderson’s new blockbuster

Wes Anderson, the film director known for his dramatic camera angles and aesthetically pleasing colour palette, has recently released Isle of Dogs, a story in which canines are exiled from a dystopian Japanese city to a rubbish ridden island. Since the release of Anderson’s second stop-motion animation, he has received backlash from critics who accuse him of cultural appropriation. Here we may question at what point the line is crossed between cultural homage and appropriation. As many would see it, this is when the representation of a country’s culture is lacking in accuracy or respect, and here are the reasons some have criticised Anderson for appropriating Japanese culture.

Firstly, many critics have questioned as to why this film needed to be set in Japan at all. Marc Bernardin, writer of numerous Marvel and DC comics, and editor for The Hollywood Reporter, has given his own insight; “[Anderson] treats the culture a bit like wallpaper, set behind his drama as opposed to an integral part of the drama itself.” To some extent, selecting Japan as the film’s setting may have been an aesthetic choice, yet, can this be faulted if it is executed with respect and accuracy in representation? There have been countless popular movies produced that are set in foreign countries, sometimes for no particular reason. One could say this is acceptable for art’s sake, as long as those coming from the countries that are portrayed feel their culture has been correctly depicted, without any comedic elements being at the expense of this.  

Nina Li Coomes, writer for The Atlantic, has argued that IOD has been set in Japan in order to “normalise outlandishness”, yet one could point out that Anderson’s films are known for being quirky. Sometimes events occur spontaneously and seemingly with little reason, which arguably only adds to the intrigue and interest experienced by the audience. This is also seen in one of Anderson’s most popular films, The Royal Tenenbaums, where in one particularly peculiar and dark scene Richie Tenenbaum exclaims, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”, but then instantly slits his wrists with a razor blade.

IOD has also been accused of using “cultural clichés”, with taiko drummers, sumo wrestlers and what has been characterised by some as “wryly” written haikus, as performed by Atari. Despite the inclusion of these elements, this is merely a humble attempt at representation. We live in a diverse world which is rich in history and as such, we are constantly exposed to many unique cultures, therefore it is only natural for Anderson to explore these in his works. This is something to be celebrated, and not criticised.

Of course, it is crucial that Anderson ensured he was well informed while creating this animation. Japanese actor, writer and broadcaster, Kunichi Nomura, acted as a cultural advisor and translator for Anderson during the process of creating this film. One would assume that his guidance would ensure accuracy in his depiction of Japanese culture. Evidently, achieving this was of high importance to the film’s creators as Nomura has noted, “I hope people in Japan will feel it has an authenticity even while it is, of course, a complete fantasy”, the recognition that this is in fact a story, and a made up one at that, perhaps reminding people that this is not a factual documentary but a film of adventure and companionship.

Of course, it is important to highlight that, on some level, this is also a political film. This is as during the 4 years of production, significant political change took place, perhaps one of the most considerable change being the election of Donald Trump to the post of US president. Anderson has commented that, “There was a certain point where it was like life was imitating the art we hadn’t finished making,” This is evident with the parallels that can be drawn between Trump and Mayor Kobayashi (a judgement you can make for yourself).

Critics have questioned who we are supposed to empathise with in this story. We often empathise with those we can relate to/understand – which in this case would most obviously be the English-speaking dogs, all voiced by white actors. Thus, it been suggested that as a majority of the human characters are Japanese speaking, they are placed behind a wall of language. With little subtitling, non-Japanese speaking audiences are separated from these characters, arguably making them the Other. Having few subtitles, however, is not necessarily a bad thing, as one could argue that the sheer human expression portrayed through the animated puppets, can communicate with the audience and allows them to empathise with the Little Pilot on his quest to find his lost companion. The inclusion of Japanese voice actors has been rightly hailed at Berlin’s Film Festival as a step in the right direction. The very fact that these characters do not speak in English or with a poor attempt at a Japanese accent by English speaking actors, is a progressive and commendable move.

At the end of the day, it is really up to those who come from the cultures used in film to decide whether their depiction is deemed appreciation or appropriation. Nevertheless, on a basic level, one should be able to appreciate Anderson’s attempt at doing so with dignity.

By Sophie Pearce-Hibbert

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