Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs': Is Cultural Appropriation Hollywood's Next Big Battleground?

Who gets to make what art? And where should we draw the line between ripping off and paying homage to another culture, asks a Hollywood Reporter columnist.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
'Isle of Dogs'

I grew up on a steady diet of Godzilla movies — as a kid born in New York in the 1970s, my viewing habits were a constant rotation of giant monster flicks, syndicated kung fu movies and Star Wars knockoffs. When I finally got to write my first comic book, it was called Monster Attack Network and it was about, among other things, a Pacific Island paradise that was routinely beset by giant monsters. I understood the metaphor behind Godzilla and why it is so specifically Japanese — the internalized guilt of the only country to have been subject to nuclear bombings is haunted by a monster fueled by atomic fire, one that would destroy Japanese cities over and over and over again.

When I co-wrote that comic book in 2004, with Adam Freeman, I didn't give a second thought as to whether I should tell this story, one that has so many signifiers from a culture that wasn't my own. I just thought it was fun.

But today, in the midst of an awakening to the artistic (and financial) merits of inclusion and representation, we're having a much different conversation than has ever taken place between artists and audiences: Who gets to make what art?

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs is wading into a world that didn't exist when he started making his stop-motion fable about a Japanese boy lost on a completely canine island. Even two years ago, when Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings hit theaters, the conversation there was about whitewashing, about populating an inherently Japanese story with an overwhelmingly white voice cast. But few of the people who came for Kubo didn't take issue with the fact that the story was being told by an almost entirely non-Japanese creative team. (You have to scroll a bit on Kubo's IMDb page before you get to John Aoshima, the head of story.)

But as traditionally marginalized audiences begin to find their collective voice, things that used to fly … don't. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson sets his boy-and-his-pooch story in the fictional island of Megasaki, where a nation's dogs have been exiled, left to fend for themselves. The conceit of this film is that all of the dogs speak English, and are voiced by actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson. The overwhelming majority of the human characters are Japanese and they all speak in Japanese, which is conveyed to an English-speaking audience through subtitles or a translator or, sometimes, not translated at all.

Cinema is an empathy-injection mechanism. It maneuvers us, emotionally, so we can care about people who don't exist, whom we have never and will never meet. The issue that surfaces in Isle of Dogs is whom are we being asked to empathize with?

We empathize with those we can understand. Literally. By placing the Japanese characters behind a wall of language, Isle of Dogs is placing its empathetic weight on the canine characters. Which are all voiced by white actors.

So when film critics like The Los Angeles Times' Justin Chang or culture writers like Mashable's Angie Han wonder why Isle of Dogs needed to be set in Japan at all, as it doesn't really ask us to care about Japanese people, they have a point. This is a story that could've been set in Iowa for all it cares about the humans. As much as it seems that Anderson does have a real fondness for Japan — and the story is co-credited to Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura — he treats the culture a bit like wallpaper, set behind his drama as opposed to an integral part of the drama itself.

The question of who gets to make what art is a thorny one. Are we allowed, as artists, to tell stories that move us, or are we supposed to pass some kind of test to be allowed to tell those stories? And who is grading that test? If I'm, say, a Mexican filmmaker who loves giant robots and giant monsters, do I have to present myself to an anime gatekeeper for permission? If I'm a British filmmaker who desperately wants to devote years of his life to tell a romance set in Mumbai during a run on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, can I just do it … and later win an Oscar for it?

Isn't the beauty of art that it affects us profoundly and deeply, becoming a part of who we are in the world? And if that's so, how can anyone be barred from making the art that moves them?

That's an even harder nut to crack when it comes to music. The legacy of black music in America is a long one, fraught with many of the same problems that come with the legacy of black people in America. Jazz, soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip hop can all trace their origins to people of color in this country — and all of those musical modes have become an inseparable part of the fabric of modern culture. Is it wrong for a kid who grew up listening to Motown to want to make music that sounds like Motown? Do we penalize Bruno Mars for making the music he was born in the bosom of? Do we have to go back in time to tell Dave Brubeck that jazz isn't his to play, or inform Freddie Mercury that gospel isn't to be touched, or remind every white boy that ever picked up a guitar that unless he pays restitution to Chuck Berry, we're taking that ax away?

No, of course not. We are the world we live in. And our world is enlivened by the culture we consume. It's an ecosystem that must be allowed to nurture itself if it's going to continue. Telling an artist that she or he can't make art is too close to censorship for my taste.

That said, the free pass that storytellers used to get when they decided to employ cultural signifiers as fetishized exoticism is a thing of the past. So what's the way forward? Hell if I know. This area of study is fuzzy at best and offensive at worst. But I'm going to make two suggestions.

First: Do the work. It would be easy to try and call out director Ryan Coogler for hiring a white guy to compose the Black Panther score. And not just any white guy, but a guy from Sweden — the whitest of white places. But Ludwig Goransson did the work. Not only has he scored each of Coogler's movies, but he's produced artists like Chance the Rapper and Donald Glover. And when Coogler brought him on board for Panther, he took it very seriously. "I was incredibly excited as it was a dream of mine to score a superhero movie," Goransson told THR by phone in February during a break from producing the new Childish Gambino album. "I also felt incredible pressure to pay homage to African culture and its traditional music. It's not lost on me that I'm a Swedish guy from one of the coldest countries in the world."

He spent months researching traditional African music and went to the continent itself to travel with African musicians, before recruiting some to play on the score itself. Goransson did the work and it shows.

When Pixar makes a movie like Moana or Coco — films rooted in very specific cultures with centuries' worth of tradition — they send their filmmakers on extensive research trips. Such effort allows for both accuracy and sensitivity when portraying those cultures and lets the storytellers be inspired by the very people and places they're dramatizing — and incorporate that inspiration into the work.

"Not only is [Coco] based in a real place, in Mexico, but it's based in real traditions, so we knew it was very important to do the research, to get every detail recorded," said Coco co-director Adrian Molina in the film's press materials. "So that when we get back to Pixar and we start deciding what is this town going to look like, what is this grandmother going to wear, what kind of dancing and music are they going to listen to, it can all come from an informed place."

And second: Don't be a strip-miner. Don't treat culture like some kind of Vegas buffet, filling your plate with exotic flavors and setting it in front of a Caucasian protagonist to be tickled and amused by. Remember the importance of empathetic weight: Who is the story about? And if it's about a person from the culture you are drawing from, you've already gone a long way toward achieving a fidelity of intention as well as execution.

If I were writing Monster Attack Network today, knowing what I know about the world I live in at the moment, would I still do it? Yeah, I would. It came from a place of love. But I'd make the hero of the tale a Pacific Islander instead of a beefy white guy. (Funnily enough, when Disney optioned the comic a little over a decade ago, they did so for Dwayne Johnson to star. They were way ahead of that particular curve.)

But that's just me. Maybe there are no easy answers. Maybe this is an issue we will all have to stumble blindly through until someone figures out how to turn on the light. Maybe the first step is realizing precisely how long we've been in the dark.

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