Wes Anderson’s new film ‘Isle Of Dogs’ accused of cultural appropriation

Its "cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation", one critic says

Wes Anderson’s new movie Isle Of Dogs has been accused of cultural appropriation in a new review.

Isle Of Dogs, the first film Anderson has directed since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a stop-motion animation that follows a pack of dogs who are forced to fight for survival after a canine-borne disease in Japan results in their exile to a bleak and barren island.

Critic Justin Chang, reviewing the film for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote that Anderson’s picture is “often captivating”, but its “cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation”.

“Bluntly put, does this white American filmmaker’s highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?”, Chang writes.

“For what it’s worth, every one of Anderson’s films is an act of imaginative plundering — a crazy-quilt of popular touchstones and personal influences, tailored to a specific milieu, designed to flatter his sophistication and the viewer’s as well. Anderson’s appreciation of Japanese culture is nothing if not wide-ranging”.

Chang adds: “Anderson, a stickler for verisimilitude even in the weirdest situations, has the human residents of Megasaki City speak their native Japanese, a choice that would seem respectful enough except for the conspicuous absence of English subtitles.”

“The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing. 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 marginalisation, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city. “

“I can hear your indignant protests already: This isn’t really Japan, stupid. It’s Wes Anderson Land, and everyone here ultimately speaks his language and his language alone. I get it. I like Wes Anderson Land; it’s always a fun place to visit. But some parts are less fun than others, and what we see of it in “Isle of Dogs” is finally ugly in ways beyond what even its maker could have intended.”

Following the publication of his review, Chang has since taken to Twitter to clarify that “my issue is not that Anderson set a film in Japan, but how he went about it”.

“My job is to assess what’s on the screen, not the intentions behind it, but since you asked, I don’t think Anderson’s were malicious,” he continued. “My chief issue — the handling of language — feels like the result of a compromise, rather than blunt negligence or a desire to give offence.”

Many praised the reviewer for raising the issue of cultural appropriation.

Fellow LA Times writer Jen Yamato tweeted: “Thank you @JustinCChang for devoting far more attention than most critics will to many of the willfully tone-deaf ways Wes Anderson appropriates and marginalizes Japanese culture and people in his so-called homage. It is ugly, indeed.”

However, others didn’t agree:

Other reviews have been more favourable. “Everything you might expect to be cute, charming and generally edible about a canine-themed Wes Anderson stop-motion animation is spectacularly upended, then poured into a landfill, during Isle of Dogs,” Tim Robey wrote for The Telegraph.