Isle of Dogs: Orientalism in Film

Isle of Dogs' might be Wes Anderson's most dramatic film yet ...

In 2018, Wes Anderson, stop motion savant, directed the film Isle of Dogs. The film takes place in a future dystopian Japan. Due to an outbreak of “snout fever,” all of the dogs of Japan have been sent to a desolate island that is home to Wall-e like trash cubes, and toxic waste. The movie received rave reviews about its aesthetic look and witty humor. Though at the same time, the film has been criticized as being both racially insensitive and a westerner’s take on Japanese culture. 

Orientalism takes on multiple forms in this movie. The first example can be seen through the voice acting. Though the film includes some phenomenal voice actors (Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson) sadly none of these actors speak a lick of Japanese. In the opening sequence, captions reveal that there will be no subtitles present in the film. This works for the majority of the movie, but there are lines of Japanese dialogue that are included and left untranslated. Though maybe unintentional, this leaves certain characters disenfranchised and often misunderstood. 

The film continues to display problematic elements with its main heroine. Tracy Walker is an American exchange student who has vowed to bring justice for the abandon pups. Tracy’s character is essentially the typical “white American savior”. The rest of the Japanese characters are overshadowed by her involvement. These characters are then seen as compliant in the regime, and once again, Western views of how society should function are pushed towards the forefront. 

The racial insensitivity of this film takes on a different look through the leading dog, Chief. When the audience first meets Chief, the dog has a jet black coat and a “gruff” persona. As the movie continues, he becomes softer and more compliant with his human overseers. One of the ways Anderson shows this transformation is by Chief undergoing an extensive bathing process. The audience is surprised to find that in actuality, the color of Chief’s hair is white. The symbolism from this scene is extremely problematic. Essentially Anderson associates aggression and “feral” behavior with darker tones. The white fur (which could be compared to the skin) is then perceived to be friendly and tame.  

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Anderson is keen to utilize Japanese and Asian aesthetics, but he fails to capture the richness of the actual culture itself. Naming a scientist Yoko-Ono and including sumo wrestling is one thing, but actually providing greater substance and detail to aspects of the culture is another. Anderson seems to provide an image of the Western perspective of Asian culture, but fails to provide a holistic view of how the culture actually functions. 

5 thoughts on “Isle of Dogs: Orientalism in Film

  1. The comment I just made about Quentin Tarantino (see the previous post by Seth) can be applied, in many ways, to Wes Anderson. I think Anderson genuinely loves Japanese cinema — and has relations and gives credit to those influences. So he probably would think your critique is harsh. But Orientalism isn’t just about hatred and demonizing stereotypes. It’s also about the adoration of the exotic, which is Wes Anderson’s style, for better … and clearly for worse.


  2. Jane V

    Though I haven’t seen this movie, the things you have pointed out in it are shocking! While the negative stereotypes and symbolism in the movie are well intentioned, they do not come without harm. Many Americans will never sit down and watch an asian movie with english subtitles, and so their perspective of asian cultures comes from movies like Wes Anderson’s, which doesn’t paint an accurate picture.


  3. Finn G.

    I remember seeing this movie in theaters when it came out and talking with my family about much the same thing. It felt like Anderson wanted to make a fun animated movie about dogs, and then just set it in Japan as an excuse to add a dash of Orientalism. I think the “no translations/subtitles” part of the movie could actually have been really cool had Anderson committed to it further — leave more of the movie in Japanese; don’t have one of the main human characters speak English just so you can have a “relatable” white savior stereotype in the movie (and obviously cut back on the other problematic elements). Making an audience interpret your film without the aid of precise verbal language that they understand fully is a great idea, but it seems like Anderson did it mainly to be “authentic” to Japanese culture or something (and that authenticity is questionable), rather than as a storytelling device.


  4. Pingback: Wes Anderson pretendía amar el periodismo pero se enamoró de sí mismo – El Diario de Hermosillo

  5. Pingback: Wes Anderson pretended to love journalism but fell in love with himself | Money Training Club

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