Isle of Dogs: Orientalism

Isle of Dogs is the latest instalment into the pastel-coloured, meticulously framed cinematic world of Wes Anderson. Telling the fable-like tale of a boy in search of his canine companion, the film is filled in abundance with whimsical nostalgia, almost drawing away from his vexing decision to use Japan as the foundation for this seemingly universal story. In his writings, Edward Said describes condescending representations of The East by Western media as “orientalism” (Said 1978), representation which is shaped inherently by the eye of the artist, or in this case, the filmmaker.

The film itself lives up to Anderson’s long-standing reputation as a distinctive visual artist. Like in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the film employs stop-motion animation to incredible effect, more kinetic and lifelike than previous uses of the medium. In addition, there is such detail placed within the emotive expressions of the dogs in particular, who are instantly positioned at the operative drivers of the film’s narrative, as well as much of the movie’s humour. Alexandre Desplat, fresh off his Oscar win for The Shape of Water, marks his forth collaboration with Anderson, bringing a succinct magic to the film’s incessant rhythm. This wonderful collaboration of score and visuals masterfully underpin the film which reads almost as a storybook with Kirasawa-like tableaus.

The ensemble cast, like in any Wes Anderson film, work really nicely. At times, however, I struggled to differentiate between the voices of the dogs – other than Edward Norton who I believe is designed for Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. The quiet dialogue is played tenderly by the major characters, with delightful cameo appearances by Yoko Ono and Tilda Swinton who plays Oracle, a pug who can read television. With similarity to many of Wes Anderson’s films, there is a lacking in female canine characters who had anything to do with the plot. For example, Scarlett Johansson voices an ex-show dog who the protagonist-hound Chief is interested in. In fact, almost all of the female characters were attached to a male character romantically, canine or no.

I must preface my next critique with the disclosure that Wes Anderson’s films have played an integral part in my own appreciation of film as a medium. That being said, I think that it is possible to both love a piece of art whilst simultaneously expressing disappointment. In Anderson’s specific case, his portrayals of people of colour as well as female and queer characters have appeared consistently problematic due to his own specific gaze as a straight white male. Although film’s story credits include a Japanese writer and actor Kunichi Nomura, this stands as an American film about Japanese culture. And whilst it is clear that he has interest and probable respect for differing cultures to his own (as also demonstrated troublingly in The Darjeeling Limited), his choices in positioning non-white and non-English speaking characters is again, unmistakably problematic.

The major issue within Anderson’s film is his astonishing choice to leave the Japanese characters’ dialogue largely untranslated. The film’s central protagonist, Atari Kobayashi (an eye-rolling-ly contemptuous name to begin with), lives in the care of the film’s villainous antagonist Mayor Kobayashi. Whilst most of their conflicts occur off screen, their relationship or dichotomy is essential to the stakes of this film, with many of Wes Anderson’s previous films kindling a breadth of sympathy for externally villainous characters. However, with little direct translation of many of the Japanese characters, they are essentially “Othered” (Said 1985) through Anderson’s deficit in character development or empathy in portraying them. Furthermore, the ways in which the Mayor is depicted in the last scene, with little to no understandable dialogue, elicited a resemblance of American depictions of Japanese caricatures post-World War Two.

Through his discussion of Orientalism, Edward Said evokes a Western propensity to retell or restructure narratives of “The Orient” (1978, p.11) which extends to not only Asia, but also the Middle East. More specifically, Said brings attention to Western representations of The Orient within their media, expressing that harmful cultural stereotypes are intensified through perpetuating the “demonology of ‘the Mysterious Orient” (1978, p.33).

Anderson’s misuse and misappropriation of cultural iconography as adornment in Isle of Dogs, whilst at times lovely to behold, does not belong to him to enlist as aesthetic embellishment. There is no purpose or resonance in using samurai stories or traditional artwork as platforms to tell a universal story about dogs, however charming the overhead tableaux of bento boxes can be. There is even the use of a mushroom cloud in an action sequence – perhaps an aesthetic reference Anderson finds melancholically charming about Japanese culture. The film contains a litany of iconography which a white onlooker might associate with the exterior of Japan, which may not be fundamental to Japanese identity specifically.

I have little doubt that Wes Anderson’s intentions in making this film were any less than honourable, although many of his choices may cast the wrong impression. I also believe that the sheer volume of the film’s incredibly nuanced critical discourse is unlikely to fall upon deaf ears, especially in ongoing discussions regarding representation in media. However, his film stands as an irrefutable example of Orientalism in cinema, with Japanese culture gazed upon with little sense of meaning.

References:
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Said, E. (1985). Orientalism Reconsidered. Race & Class, 27(2), 89-107.


 

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Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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