Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ Triggers Debate Over Cultural Appropriation

Anderson’s latest film is supposed to be an homage to Japanese culture, but some say it “appropriates and marginalizes” instead

Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight

Wes Anderson has received another round of critical acclaim for his latest stop-motion animated film “Isle of Dogs,” winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his story of dogs exiled to an island full of trash in dystopian Japan. But some critics are calling the filmmaker out for his use of Japanese culture, some saying the film “appropriates and marginalizes.”

Concerns about the film’s cultural sensitivity have been bounced around since its first trailer debuted back in October, but the debate began in earnest after a mixed review from Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang was published on Wednesday. Chang said that there was much to enjoy about “Isle of Dogs,” but criticized the director’s decision to have his Japanese characters speak in their native language without subtitles, while all the dogs all speak American English.

“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,” Chang wrote.

“Their assumed passivity is further underscored by the singularly unfortunate character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign-exchange student who becomes the angry, heroic voice of Megasaki’s pro-dog resistance. At one point, she even smacks down a scientist voiced by Yoko Ono. (Yoko Ono!)”

Chang’s review was praised by fellow critic Jen Yamato, who called Anderson’s portrayal of Japan and its people “very ugly.” Others on Twitter criticized Anderson for having the dogs — who hold most of the lines in the film aside from Gerwig’s character — be voiced by his usual stable of non-Asian actors like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban and Tilda Swinton.

The criticism also comes in spite of the presence of Japanese actor and filmmaker Kunichi Nomura, who produced and shared story credit with Anderson and plays the film’s main antagonist, Mayor Kobayashi. In interviews for the film, Nomura said he had been brought in to ensure cultural authenticity.

Chang responded to the Twitter storm triggered by his review by distancing himself from it, saying that he “wasn’t offended; nor was I looking to be offended” and that his review was meant to be a “mixed, measured appraisal.”

“My chief issue — the handling of language — feels like the result of a compromise, rather than blunt negligence or a desire to give offence… I sincerely hope you enjoy the movie, as I largely did, despite my reservations.”

“Isle of Dogs” will be released in select cities this Friday.