Beware of ‘Isle of Dogs’: the Fussy Racism of Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson with his dolls

Wes Anderson is from Texas and in Texas there’s a saying: “All hat, no cattle.” That’s Wes Anderson. He should have been a costume designer or set designer, but giving him the director’s chair leads to fussy, masturbatory material. He-man director John Huston would take away Wes’ little Barbie dolls, kick him in the pants and say: “Stand up, man. For God’s sake, you’ve soiled yourself with all this Irish lace.”

Isle of Dogs is emblematic of every Wes Anderson movie save for Bottle Rocket, his debut film. Bottle Rocket stands out as different because Anderson worked closely with James L. Brooks on the screenplay. Brooks, for whatever his flaws as a filmmaker — and there are many — is known for his ability to articulate the foibles and quirky emotions of the human experience. Anderson shows no such capacity. He’s more interested in superficial glossy details than in exploring how people relate to each other.

Walt Disney understood the trick to making an animated film work was to humanize the characters. Anderson continually veers in the opposite direction, turning his characters into caricatures, as he did in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Somehow Anderson managed to take an immensely complex and interesting person like Jacques Cousteau and transform him into a parody where style trumped heart. Anderson treats his actors as life-sized dolls he can dress up and manipulate, not as complete human beings. His foray into stop-motion animation, rather than playing to his strengths, reveals his man-boy failings.

While Isle of Dogs is rated PG-13, it should really be rated R for Racist. Short of ritual suicide (seppuku), every American cliche and stereotype about Japanese culture is present in Isle of Dogs. Cherry blossoms? Check. Bad Japanese teeth? Sumo wrestling? Yakuza back tattoos? Check, check, and check. What about wooden shoes, boy baseball teams, robotic pets? Anderson makes sure to include them. Steam baths? Sake? An image of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave? It’s all there for our superior Western eyes to look down on. Anderson’s version of Japan is seen through the lens of Western culture. And given his fan-base, this lack of authenticity should be the ultimate sin, but wait — it gets worse. He references tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes. He shows several mushroom clouds majestically blooming, completely insensitive to the death and horror they represent in Japan. He has taiko-drums banging and booming throughout the score, and on screen. There are haiku poems, kabuki theater, Buddhist temples, and an elaborate scene of sushi being prepared from live fish and octopus. The scene is well-animated, yet pointless to the story. It suggests we should be disgusted and revolted by Japanese culinary norms. It’s designed to make us squirm. The closest depiction to the preparation of food in Western art would be the slaughterhouse scenes in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. If all that weren’t enough to condemn Anderson as a secret racist, consider this: the human hero of Isle of Dogs, the one person who stands up to the greed of the evil mayor at the center of the plot, is a blonde white girl from Ohio visiting Japan as a foreign exchange student.

To claim that Anderson is merely paying homage to the Japanese films he loves so dearly by referencing them obliquely does not absolve him of racism. In fact, Isle of Dogs proves Anderson as a racist of the worst kind. The ignorant artist-auteur, so unschooled of history and culture that he doesn’t even realize he’s racist. He either thinks he’s being progressive by including Asians in his movie, or he fetishizes Asian culture the way some men fetishize Asian women. Possibly both.

If his cultural misappropriations weren’t damning enough, Anderson compounds his racist problems by eschewing subtitles for his Japanese-speaking characters. This quirky device, which I’m sure Anderson thought would play as ironic humor, actually creates a linguistic distance between us and his characters. As a result, the Japanese come across as less than human. He adds to his woes by giving his people-dolls a plasticine look whereas the dog-dolls are all fur and gorgeous texture. These twin mistakes dehumanize the Japanese characters. The whole point of anti-Japanese propaganda during World War Two was to dehumanize the noble Japanese race into subhuman ‘yellow monkeys’ that our military forces could murder with a clear conscience. The entire premise of Isle of Dogs is that the Japanese are so evil they want to kill all dogs. Since the movie is told through the canine point of view, dogs are the ones we sympathize with and, more importantly, understand. After all, they speak English. As a result, Anderson’s Japan is a land of murderous dog killers which is neither logical nor charming.

Other critics have blasted Anderson for the racism inherent in Isle of Dogs. But there is another fundamental problem with the film: the story doesn’t hold together. Before anyone lauds Isle for how creative and inventive it is, it’s worth pointing out the film is essentially a remake of Escape from New York with plot elements stolen from The Wizard of Oz, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out thrown in to appeal to the kids. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the intellectual and emotional depth of any of those films.

Why doesn’t the Isle of Dogs work? For starters, the story is too complicated while simultaneously, thinly realized. Too much of the film is explained in voice-over narration, the directorial equivalent of taking Adderall during exam week. The blame for this narrative crutch falls squarely on the waifish shoulders of the screenwriter, Mr. Anderson himself. The weak plot is also evident in how many trips Anderson the writer takes to ‘the convenience store’, a.k.a. deus ex machina, or just plain ‘lucky.’ That’s screenwriting jargon for making certain story elements conveniently happen because the writer needs them to happen, not because they are organic to the story’s internal logic. Granted, these silly faux pas are less egregious in an animated film, but they are lazy writing. And Isle of Dogs is filled with lazy writing, which makes sense because in Anderson’s masturbatory writer’s room, he doesn’t need to make sense to anyone but himself. He can indulge in jacking off to his own whimsy.

As a general screenwriting rule, escalating trouble for your main character makes for a rip-roaring yarn. Having your hero navigate situations that go from bad-to-worse is the motor of nearly all the movies we love best. Films from North by Northwest to Apocalypse Now to The Devil Wears Prada have thrived on this tried and true device. It works because by continually putting your characters in increasingly perilous situations, you create rising tension. As viewers, we’re dying to find out how characters will get out of their current shitty predicament (think of the trash compactor scene in the original Star Wars). Anderson, though, has no apparent interest in creating a compelling narrative. Instead, he prefers playing with Barbie and Ken on an epic scale, he prefers fussing over set design and putting little ironic costumes on his action figures. Story is an afterthought for him. He’s more interested in a cherry blossom falling on a dog’s nose than he is in crafting a story that moves to a rousing climax. The cherry blossom is a pretty touch, but details of beauty only work in movies of substance. This cherry blossom withers under the kind of spectacle you can see in every frame of David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. Without substance, artistic visuals are just glitter on a stripper’s tits, a cheap advertisement better suited for music videos or beer commercials. You can’t enjoy goopy icing spread over the thinnest cake.

Where Anderson does succeed in Isle of Dogs is with the dogs. The dog dialogue and the expression of their thoughts and feelings work exceedingly well, as do their stop motion facial expressions. The dogness of the movie is to be applauded. The movie grinds to a halt whenever it leaves the actual Isle of Dogs, though. And that’s the problem. Too much time in Isle of Dogs is spent off the island. Anderson is a vexing filmmaker. You see flashes of a unique voice and hear snippets of quality writing, but at this late stage of his career, he is still not mature enough to make a compelling, thoughtful movie. Nobody cares about his tin-can plot devices and the cartoon political machinations of mayoral politics in a fictional Japanese city. That’s art school stuff. In a film about dogs, we care about dogs. We care about how dogs interact with other dogs, and how humans and canines interact with each other. Pixar got this emotional core right with Ratatouille, an animated film that examined rat-human relations with uncommon heart and foodie magic.

Interpersonal relationships are at the spine of every beloved movie. This is the lesson that James L. Brooks tried to teach Wes Anderson so many years ago. Yet as Anderson has grown older, he proves himself uninterested in real live humans. Instead, he’s retreated back to his childhood. This makes his films unsettling to watch since now more than ever, we need smart filmmakers to comment on the complex challenges of modern adult life. Tell us about ice caps melting, refugee crises, starvation, police shootings, corruption, poverty, and the massive social disruption of the 21st century. Tell us about robotics, genetics, and globalized economics. Tell us about the enduring threat of a real nuclear bomb, not a cartoon one. Talk about something honest and current and important. Wake up, Wes. When things get tough, you can’t hide in your dollhouse forever.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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