Waylaid on the Isle of Dogs

Written by. Lizzy Martinez

Illustrated map depicting the films origins which was originally conceived in the UK by Anderson, an American, who lives in Paris about a fictional location in Japan (shout out to the author’s home in St. Louis)

Wes Anderson’s ambitious new effort in stop-motion takes on many cultural issues, sometimes inadvertently, while also indulging full-force into this lovable form of story telling that evokes the charm of a child’s imagination that has bewitched their toys to life.  The film is impressive and the particular art form, charming, but even before seeing it myself at the St. Louis premiere, it was facing considerable controversy for cultural appropriation.  I will attempt to carefully construct a review that doesn’t spoil the picture for those still intending to see it while still giving some thoughts on the charges against it, the greater trends in the American landscape of stop-motion, and its place in history within the media.

Two dogs from the film exchange sideways glances. Photograph: Allstar/American Empirical Pictures

I did enjoy the artistry of Dogs, for reasons that extend beyond the fact that it stars a jaunty crew of beardy, scruffy canines (the author is a proud schnauzer-mutt owner), or my lifelong love of stop motion (Rankin and Bass’ holiday specials, Will Vinton’s treasure trove, Aardman Animations, and many more).  And while I encourage everyone to see the film themselves before they level their opinions, I do see validity in some of the complaints against Anderson’s creative choices.

Isle of Dogs should be considered not just as an animated movie but also as a journey film.  Others one might compare it to include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 1, The Goonies, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or any of the three Indiana Jones films (pretend that 4th one doesn’t exist, I’m pretty sure Spielberg would take it back if he could).  This band of ruffians led by a four-legged Bryan Cranston aide a human boy through a hazardous landscape, trying to reunite families, take on weaponized foes, and not succumb to a widespread outbreak.  A dystopian fantasy has never looked so scrappy or cute!

photo of an artist carefully adjusting stop motion armature dogs

Anderson is attempting to pull off the hardest thing for a director of an American animation: create something that kids can enjoy but with an eye for adult audiences. This has always been difficult prey to hunt (Shrek got lucky with the fairy tale puns).  Mainstream American audiences heavily favor the medium when it is expressly packaged for children.  There are few exceptions.  As much as his taste isn’t inline with my own, Seth Rogan’s Sausage Party did pretty well coming in at #2 its opening weekend; maybe I prefer my religious satire without mustard…  But the beautiful and compelling Kubo Two Strings did not meet its earnings target.  Indeed, LAIKA, the studio that made Kubo as well as Coraline may now be circling the drain.  Travis Knight, the head of the studio has taken off to Los Angeles to direct the latest schlock, Transformers movie, Bumblebee, because apparently Michael Bay is sick of doing them.  Will LAIKA persevere?  Will Knight use Transformers money to give a necessary defibrillator jolt of electricity to the house that Will Vinton built?  My hope for them has been that they could squeeze out a Best Animated Picture at the Oscars, but they continually are boxed-out by the wider trafficked, often more franticly paced, offerings of DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar.  If LAIKA is the American counterpart to the UK’s Aardman (it is!) she’s in great danger of going extinct due a lack of public support, awareness, proper promotion of projects, and maybe a few questionable creative decisions.  Why does this matter in an article that’s supposed to be about Wes Anderson’s latest?  Because he soon, with the occasional whim of Tim Burton, may be the only one in America making full-length stop motion and the criticism of Isle of Dogs now parallels some questionable creative decisions I mentioned at LAIKA.

Animator rigging tiny scientists in a laboratory set

Kubo, another film I enjoyed, may have employed relatively more actors of Asian descent, but it seemed the most culturally linked actors such as George Takei found their way to smaller parts.  Similarly in Isle of Dogs, none of the canines are portrayed by actors of Asian descent, and all speak in English.  The most sensitive casting may have been done in choosing the relative new-comer Koyu Rankin into the role of Atari, who does get a lot of screen time but still seems less essential to an English speaking audience due to the language barrier devised in the script.  Anderson has chosen to mostly create a separate human atmosphere outside of “dog culture”, in a fictionalized, near-future, but researched version of Japan in Japanese.  The director attempts to bridge this with his story telling through the use of cue cards, news commentators speaking English, and the use of an American exchange student voiced by recent Best Director nominee Greta Gerwig.  Some in opposition have stated that Anderson has set up a barrier within his story telling, a de-Japanized Japan.  Aware of the charges before the premiere, I could see some of the choices creatively as the director’s unwillingness to just do a movie completely with subtitles or have all the parts spoken in English but deal with the confusion that would be both humans and dogs are talking in the same tongue but still have a large gap in their communication (a basic element to the story premise).

The movie may also be viewed as somewhat similar to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (they both have the Bill Murray factor).  Also, they do function as a cultural postcard from an outsider looking in on Japanese culture.  Indeed there was a culinary preparation sequence that clearly showed Anderson’s research and brought to mind many sequences not just in Coppola’s film but also how travel and cooking shows portray food to be humanity’s greatest means to express place, heritage and a way of partaking in the culture of others.  While parts of the interpretation at hand may seem somewhat kitsch at times, I believe that Anderson is reaching in a manner for something he feels is universal, the love of a pet, in a manner similar to the way he tries to reach for the appreciation for artfully prepared cuisine.  I don’t think that we can say that someone such as Coppola or Anderson should not be allowed to tell a story that takes place in Japan.  But in doing so they, and other members of American Hollywood, will repeatedly find a raised eyebrow and some amount of critical pushback.  As a culture we might ask, “is there a trend towards telling stories outside of America?”  And perhaps, “is this the reemergence of the old trend towards just using these other places as some form of exoticism?”  Consider that recently Benedict Cumberbatch was performing martial arts-witchery in Doctor Strange, in Asian cities to save the world.  The same can be said of Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost In the Shell.  When Hollywood isn’t flat-out white washing then it consistently fails to get beyond the tedious comfort level of a very heavy stain or maybe a varnish…

Does Dogs have racist fleas?

When seriously asking the question of ‘why not just cast Japanese-American actors in the parts?’ we must first consider many factors and some sad Hollywood truths.  How many Japanese-American actors can you name?  Maybe that is the truest symptom of the deeper problem Hollywood currently faces towards its approach to casting.  By placing non-white actors in the roles we might start to see them rise in profile and begin to build their reputations past bit parts.  What we seem to have at the moment is a standoff: not wanting to make a choice unless someone is “known” enough, but how can these professionals become recognized without being placed into more parts?

Animator carefully makes adjustments to the tiny pack of dogs placed before a camera rig

Somewhat separate of an issue for animation casting is the recognition of the voice without a face.  There have been many quality white actors in parts where they did not seem to deliver in their cartoon forms but seemed purely to be cast because they were on some buzzy, new television show.  Putting a voice to an animated character should have special sensitivity, choosing someone who can breathe and emote into the part purely through intonation and a unique vocal style; it’s perhaps a harder acting demand than the public realizes.  While not dealing with the Japanese cultural issues, an example of purely wonderful animation voice casting can be seen in 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas.  At the time Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, and Catherine O’Hara may not have been in the most in-demand click in Tinseltown, but each of those players made their roles singular enduring performances that audiences who cherish this unique holiday film wouldn’t dream of recasting.  Today, I often wish more feature length animations would cast more frequently outside of status or name recognition.  Lauren Tom is a Chinese American actress almost as recognized for her animated voice acting now in such franchises as Futurama as she is for her live action performances in The Joy Luck Club or Friends.  Even if not in feature length pieces, it would wonderful to see more actors of Japanese descent pursue and engage with television-based voice acting.  Every now and then people in charge do make more sensitive choices in selection.  Sab Shimono is a one example of a Japanese-American actor who has been getting a lot of voice work (Stretch ArmstrongSamurai JackTeenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesThe Simpsons).  Feature films could branch out similarly to some television voice casting.

For Dogs there may have been room for some other choices such as Masi Oka (Heros), Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls), or say Ryan Potter (Big Hero 6) to name a few possibilities.  But then the decision of choosing do they play the human roles in Japanese?  With a Japanese accent?  With their regular speaking voice?  One tantalizing possibility would have had actors who can actually speak Japanese as well as English take on two characters: a Japanese human and as well as a member of the motley dog crew.  I’m sure culturally in tune performers would have had some interesting takes on the voices of these key roles.  In Hollywood, two big parts of casting are who knows whom and is someone considered enough of a draw to sell tickets.  If we start diversifying casting, which should happen, do we need to strictly adhere to a Japanese only rule?  There have been instances in the past uproars within the greater Asian American communities in regards to some projects which crossed boundaries such as the 1994 Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl which had a mixed lineage cast playing a Korean-American family.  It also suffered from network concerns of mainstream accessibility and continual format changes( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All-American_Girl_(1994_TV_series).  Between 1994 (All-American) and 1961 when the film adaptation of Flower Drum Song came to screens showing a musical dramatization of San Francisco’s Chinatown immigrant community casting methods were almost synonymous.  At that time we saw actors Jack Soo and James Shigeta, Japanese Americans, deliver a lot of lines about the “Chinese” way.  Anderson may have garnered more support if he had given a few of the canine roles to actors of Japanese descent.  The dogs are the stars in this film.  Finding a way to bridge the isolation of the national identity past some of the humans, in Dogs humans are mostly secondary or background roles, would have been a great way to progress now.  It is 2018, but we must consider Frances McDormand’s ‘Inclusion Rider’ Oscar’s speech and why that information was so shocking, urgently needed, and must be put into practice moving forward in the entertainment arts.

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Backing up to LAIKA, even before Kubo they may have been making an offbeat creative choice with their previous effort, The Boxtrolls.  It was sort of an English story (Elle Fanning cannot sustain a convincing English accent).  It’s hard to compete as an animation studio creating an British story from the outside when Aardman does it so well and is beloved for their Wallace and Gromit as a national treasure.  In the case of Dogs or Kubo it may be similarly awkward to compete with Japan’s Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo).  Wes Anderson may have been wise to create his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox without his mostly American cast trying to put on British accents.  Perhaps the critters in Fox equates on some instinctive, personal level for him to his choice to cast all the critters without accents in Isle of Dogs.  He may just be going with a formula that he thought worked before (the farmers/business men who where outside the animal society had accents in Fox).  Maybe we have a lot of directors and writers of screenplays who aren’t attracted to telling stories that take place in American settings…  If so, why not?

Jeff Goldblum poses during the premiere with an adoptable, rescue puppy.

Many may feel that the way forward at least has to partly lie with bringing in more women and people of color as writers, producers, and directors so that we can shift and renew the framing on the stories that might rest on the setting of our, mostly, Atlantic and Pacific-bond soils.  Including under-expressed viewpoints greatly expands the narrative playing field at home.

We also have to keep embracing the best visuals and musical scores when creative people construct these megaliths that are full-length animations.  If Anderson or Knight could identify and place a musical piece that people found as karaoke-diva ready as Let it Go (Frozen), then they might be able to ride that earworm to their future Oscar.  A large component of why The Nightmare Before Christmas stands head, shoulders, and waist above The Corpse Bride is the caliber of the music.  Although Anderson seems to have tried to reach out through traditional, Japanese sounding music for Dog’s score it is largely percussion and chanting focused and doesn’t sit in the audiences memory the was the folk and rock infused sounds of The Royal Tenenbaums did.  The mistake here may not be in using the score as a means to a cultural bridge, but the choice to not consider a more current Japanese sound.  America doesn’t have exclusive jurisdiction on catchy music.  Stories about dogs or underdog, boy pilots don’t dictate a monotoned, dour orchestration.

I love a new take on an underdog story, and Anderson choosing to take a literal pack of dogs for his staring ensemble, seems like the right mix of camp and quirky.  More than 2,200 puppets and 250 sets were built in different scales; animation is not for the faint of heart or for quitters.  The director has responded to objections: “The movie is a fantasy, and I would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular (real life) Japan,” Anderson says.  “This is definitely a reimagining of Japan through my experience of Japanese cinema.”  Maybe there is an invisible barrier that is hard to reach beyond, even when one has admiration for a culture; to tell creative stories more effectively, we have to endeavor to overcome “tourist goggles”.

The Japanese public is very sensitive towards a Hollywood that often mocks and misrepresents them.  Examples can be found in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Family Guy, 16 Candles, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to name just a few.  When I reached out to Japanese artist friends to get their feelings on the matter:

      I have only watched the Preview of “Isle of Dogs, with a sigh of “again?” thinking there will be               some fake Japanese boy with the mannerisms and talking more similarly to Chinese…  To me, the           experience of American people (especially men) telling me a story about Japan has always been an         achievement, bragging thing.  “I can do Karate, I went to Osaka, I watched Sumo…” as if their                 participation is a glorious thing deserving of appreciation.  What I would actually appreciate is               more questioning and striving for an exchange or conversation.  Not an achievement story…

                                                                                                                                                           -Miwa Neishi

Having seen the movie and liked it, despite the cultural quagmire, here are my personal notes:  1. One particularly distressing character was Gerwig’s exchange student Tracy.  She spearheaded the charge, strong female characters are great, but didn’t hesitate to get physically gruff with an already down on her luck, crestfallen Yoko Ono’s scientist.  I would have rather Tracy give Yoko a pep talk, and then they actively take down the opposition together.   2.   The artistic license of a westerner creating a story that focuses on internment when talking about Japan may just be in very poor taste.  Anderson has indicated in interviews that he has been aware of the state of immigration and the willingness of many to create restrictions and literally build fences as something he wanted to take on while making this film.  But some of that intention may be submerged too deeply.  Isle was highly touted a few weeks back at the Berlin Film Festival but Anderson’s work may have trouble taking home the big awards that mean greater success if the controversy takes down his current comedy with shades of satire offering like a bad case of the “canine flu”.  Anderson may find that many of his long-time supporters can only reach a level of liking this film as opposed to love due to these issues.  Perhaps to bring home Oscar gold we need an offering free from these particular issues, where the art can aspire to an enduring cinematic legacy, where fans will watch again and again.

Since its wider American release, everyone whom seems to love the film is relatively insulated from cultural offense.  From within the controversy, some have refused to support the project at the box office.  Of those casting doubts beforehand, none whom I know who have bought a ticket and found new appreciation for Anderson having seen the film.  It seems that spectators are staying in their almost predetermined camps.  In the long run, that may be more than mere a loss for the director but a fail to gain wider appreciation for the art form of stop motion itself and in expanding the tastes and pre-conceptions of American audiences.


Author: Lizzy Martinez

Lizzy Martinez juggles a full life as an artist, writer, teacher, and illustrator who livesin St. Louis with her adorable schnauzer mutt. She is driven by an unending compulsion to bring advocacy and fine art together in new interesting ways and is currently looking forward to several large projects including “Sister Saints” in thecity of Memphis, Tennessee that will shed light on the connections between patriarchal systems throughout history and domestic violence.