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"Isle of Dogs" generates "ruff" discussion of culture

by Nicholas Mazur - Campus Talk Editor
Tue, Apr 3rd 2018 09:00 pm

Wes Anderson made a movie and people are claiming cultural appropriation, huh? Well, let’s dive right into it, shall we?

It feels like we have the cultural appropriation conversation a lot nowadays. Probably not because it’s happening more or less, but because we have become more aware of it. Usually it seems pretty easy to pin down. White people in dreads? Very yucky. This case? A little bit more to sift through.

Seeing the headline from Entertainment Weekly caught me off guard. I had seen the trailer and it seemed to me that it was simply a movie about a boy looeking for his lost dog. Then, after seeing that headline, I saw a The Atlantic article giving the argument a little more nuance. The Atlantic states that the movie fails to represent a real Japan, and instead treads closely to tokenism of japanese culture, giving charactures of Japenese people and attitudes. The article also cites plot points in the movie, like the explanation for the exile of the dogs to trash island in the movie as nonsensical and playing into a western stereotype of Japan as “mysterious and incomprehensible.” 

All of this sort of left me at a loss. There was a lot to think about. After all, as a white moviegoer and a white person in general, what kind of conclusion could I come to that would not be tainted with prejudice in some way? Despite the disadvantage, I decided the thought exercise could still do me some good. 

I first considered the idea that the film is nonsensical at some points, according to The Atlantic article. While that may be true (having never seen the movie myself) ,the examples the article provided seemed perfectly in line with what I’ve seen of Japanese and Japanese-inspired media. I’ve seen Japanese anime in which the idea of a story will often be preserved at the risk of seeming extremely nonsensical. That seems to go perfectly with Wes Anderson’s colorful off-kilter style of movie.

The next thing that I considered was the idea of using Japan as a quick and easy backdrop for the movie. I thought about whether or not that warranted the phrase cultural appropriation. After some deliberation, it seemed like the film’s subject and its setting were not necessarily integral to one another. It could have easily been anywhere in the world and been roughly the same story, I imagine. That combined with the fact that Wes Anderson is himself not Japanese, it seemed like there was no reason to have a Japanese setting.

I could easily forgive that, if, Anderson had done a careful and faithful representation of Japan to the satisfaction of the Japanese themselves. This, unfortunately, seems to be anything but the case. The Atlantic as well as other outlets seemed less than impressed by the hodge podge and sloppy replication of Japanese culture present in the movie.

So, my verdict for this case: guilty.

My thought exercise turned up no definite rebuttal for this claim. Although I doubt that Anderson meant any maligning action against Japanese culture, his careless handling of something that was and is not his has cost him in this case. Representing another culture is fine, and cultural exchange can be a beautiful thing. Especially if it’s with Wes Anderson’s style. 

However, in this case, Anderson did not tread lightly on a culture that has suffered a lot. As a result, he has created something that has to bear the ugly title of “culturally appropriative.”

So what do we do with this? I guess we move on. That’s all you can do. You can't put milk back in the glass once it hits the carpet. The only thing to do is to move on, and remember. People are great at moving on but not so much at the remembering. If you don’t remember your mistakes, they’re going to come back and haunt you all over again. We could (and more than likely will) see this problem again on the horizon in not too long.



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