Isle of Dogs is a (mostly successful) attempt at cultural respect

At this point, we know what a Wes Anderson movie will be before we see it. Anderson is both a critically revered director and a punchline, his distinct visual style both innovative and ripe for parody. There are many takes on “What if ___ was directed by Wes Anderson” on Youtube, and Slate has put together a bingo card you can use when watching an Anderson film to mark down all the tropes the director so often repeats.

Critics use this consistency as a knock on Anderson. The typical refrain is that he’s simply doing the same thing every time. But I think this repetitiveness a strength of Anderson’s. You know you’re watching an Anderson film within 30 seconds of turning it on. He has a visual style all to his own, and few directors can say that.

Still, the sameness in style across Anderson’s movies makes it harder, or perhaps less interesting, to write about them. Isle of Dogs, his latest, is good. The film focuses on an island just off of Japan, where all dogs have been banished from the mainland, and where a young boy goes in search of his banished pet. It might even be the worst Anderson film, but it’s still good, because they’re all either good or great. But with Isle of Dogs, Anderson is again hitting on many of the same ideas and beats as the rest of his films. What makes this new film unique? What makes it worth writing about?

The answer is two-fold. First: this might be Anderson’s most visually advanced film. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second stop-motion animated feature, after Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the animation here is gorgeous. Trash Island is a more fully developed world than that of Mr. Fox, and Anderson’s mixes his typical precision with the colorization and stylings of Japanese artwork. This brings me to the other aspect of Isle of Dogs that makes the film different than its director’s previous works: the film is an inventive act of cultural respect.

There has been a minor outcry over Anderson’s decision to take his band of white actors and create a story in a culture that is not his own. As Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang succinctly writes, putting the white characters on the forefront “effectively reduc[es] the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.” Chang calls out Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a white foreign-exchange student in Japan who becomes a leader of the pro-dog movement, as the most problematic character in the film.

Chang is right: Tracy is Anderson’s biggest misstep. But her obvious flaws make it apparent how much else Anderson gets right in this cultural balancing act. Tracy is a regrettable character not by her mere existence, but because of the ownership role she takes on. Tracy doesn’t immerse herself in Japanese culture; she attempts to take control of it and talk over it. And in doing so, she becomes a representation of the tendency for white people to take foreign cultures and make them their own.

The rest of the film, however, does just the opposite, both in the structure itself and the Japanese history it pays homage to. Throughout Isle of Dogs there are Japanese characters speaking Japanese, but Anderson gives them no subtitles. It’s a gimmick, but it also allows the Japanese characters to exist on their own terms. Further, the film is draped in images of Japanese art, in a way that respects its beauty rather than claiming ownership over it. For buffs of foreign cinema, there are references abound to legendary director Akira Kurosawa. As one of my favorite film critics, Josh Larsen, writes:

Isle of Dogs doesn’t cherry pick Japanese culture, but incorporates these influences holistically: any onscreen English text is accompanied by Japanese script; there are snippets of traditional animation that echo contemporary manga comics; and many of the landscapes recall the woodblock prints of Katsushika Hokusai. Even the mise en scene is influenced by Japanese screen prints, as when sequences set back on the mainland are divided into separate panels. It’s a movie at once of Japan and not of Japan.

This is the difference that makes Isle of Dogs more an act of cultural appreciation than cultural appropriation. Being in favor of more diverse representation on screen is not an excuse for whitewashing. But if done with an acknowledgement of, and admiration for, the source material you are honoring, cultural references are not inherently problematic. As Jenni Avins writes for The Atlantic:

In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalization—isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.

That’s not to say that Anderson’s treatment of Japanese culture is perfect. It’s not. But it’s a delicate, mostly successful attempt.

Lost in all this visual acuity and cultural homage, unfortunately, is the heart that elevates some of Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox) above the rest. In these films, Anderson’s visual panache is supplemented by a profound emotional resonance. For a movie about the love between a boy and his dog, it’s disappointing that emotion doesn’t really come through here. Isle of Dogs is delightful, and often funny, but a bit dry. As a companion, Isle of Dogs isn’t necessarily my best friend. But it’s a good boy.

Isle of Dogs: 3 stars