What It’s Like to Watch Isle of Dogs As a Japanese Speaker

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

When the first trailer arrived for Isle of Dogs last fall, I had three immediate, consecutive reactions: One: Oh, no. Two: Wait, I take that back. I’m going to be a good critic and reserve judgement until the week of March 23. Three: This is exhausting.

In the week since Isle of Dogs’ initial limited release, a measured, varied, and nuanced discussion about Wes Anderson’s use of Japanese culture — and other cultures in general — has happened in fits and starts. It’s not a new conversation; it’s been happening over the course of Anderson’s filmography, probably starting in earnest with the India-set The Darjeeling Limited in 2007. What’s louder to me, this time around, is the contingent of people seemingly broadsided by this conversation, and furious it’s even taking place. Justin Chang’s review for the L.A. Times in particular asks more questions than it answers, but thanks to the diligent coverage of everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Fox News (when was the last time Fox News cared about Wes Anderson’s honor? I’m guessing never), it became the central proof that the PC police were out to get America’s most symmetrical auteur.

I’m of the belief that the phenomenon commonly known as cultural appropriation can be benign, even illuminating in the right artist’s hands. The thing is, Anderson hasn’t done anything in a while, if ever, to convince me that those are his hands, but I like to think I’m always down for a pleasant surprise. Darjeeling, which somehow managed to turn an entire country and culture into a prop for white enlightenment, and look really chic while doing it, was a bad example of such appropriation. But for those of us who reluctantly still keep a candle burning for Anderson’s early filmography, and love adorable dogs, there was reason to hope that Isle could do better.

Still … those Japanese-people puppets. And the largely non-Asian voice cast (Yoko Ono was one of a few exceptions, and an extremely Andersonian one at that). American cinema, from schlocky action to critical-darling indies, still has a long way to go when it comes to depicting — or not depicting, as the case may be — Asian people and cultures. It had been half a year since we did the Ghost in the Shell outrage shuffle, but the dots were failing to connect to Anderson’s highbrow doggy-puppet movie. That’s where the exhaustion kicked in.

As it turns out, Isle of Dogs is a kind of perfect artifact for our current-day conversation around cultural appropriation, if it can even still be called that. It’s hard to call it offensive, exactly, and yet, it’s not devoid of a kind of opportunism. It’s not a crime, but it’s certainly something to unpack. Anderson self-consciously uses Japanese-ness — a very curated, Showa-era version of Japan — as a kind of costume, and Isle of Dogs depicts a heightened essence of the Japanese culture as filtered through a Western understanding, the sort of thing your grandpa or Neal Stephenson would call “Nipponese.” (Kurosawa! Sumo! Taiko drums!) There’s a creakiness to its appreciation, but it feels self-aware about the limits of its references; at no point do I think that Wes Anderson is suggesting that his 2028 stop-motion version of a fictional city represents anything real or accurate about Japanese culture. It’s a look. You could swap it out for, say, Finland, and not much would change. If I’m playing cultural-appropriation cop (a terrible job, please don’t make me do it), I’d file it under benign. Maybe too benign!

The exception is the film’s use of Japanese language, which felt bizarre to me, even as a nonfluent (seriously, the opposite of fluent) Japanese speaker. Human characters speak Japanese throughout the film, but it is almost never subtitled, just occasionally translated by Frances McDormand’s interpreter character. It’s clearly meant to echo the fact that the dog characters can’t understand the human characters, but I wondered: What is the experience of watching the film like for a person who can speak and understand Japanese? Is the metaphor just not made for you? Is the film not made for you? Is there a hilarious, enlightening parallel movie happening in the Japanese dialogue, or is it, like Anderson’s painstakingly crafted little shoji walls, punchably paper-thin set dressing?

It was hard for me to answer these questions myself, given my pathetic grasp of the language of the country I was born in. (Sorry, extended family.) So I reached out on Twitter to a handful of native and/or fluent speakers of Japanese who saw Isle of Dogs on opening weekend, to get their impression of the film’s use of language. Their observations were fascinating and occasionally conflicting, as were their critical opinions of the film. What I found, even in this small sample size, was a similar dynamic I’ve seen before in debates about Asian culture as reflected by Western culture — perspectives can vary wildly between Asian-Americans and immigrated Asians, and what feels like tribute to some feels like opportunism to others.

Who I spoke to:
Anthony, a Japanese-American translator for a Pasadena tech start-up, who was born in L.A. and grew up bilingual in Tokyo.
Lisa,* a Japanese woman working in the entertainment industry, who grew up in Japan and has lived in the U.K. and U.S. as an adult.
Beam, a Thai culture writer living in San Francisco, who is fluent in Japanese and lived in Tokyo for five years.

*not her real name

(It should be noted that finding people to talk to was a task in and of itself. The film just opened in select cities this week, so the pool was already small. But several people mentioned to me on social media that many of their Japanese friends living in the States didn’t even know about the film, much less have passionate opinions on its treatment of their culture. Just something to take into account.)

The spoken dialogue is fine.
If you’ve ever watched a foreign film in which an “American character” makes a cameo, you know it can sometimes be unintentionally jarring. (My favorite, extremely goofy recent example is in Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla, in which Satomi Ishihara plays the half-Japanese daughter of a U.S. senator, who is the singular embodiment of a trope you rarely encounter in English-language film: Sassy American Friend.) All three people I spoke to said this was not a problem for Anderson’s film. “For what it’s worth, the spoken Japanese made complete sense,” Anthony told me. “There was no accent or awkwardness.” Isle of Dogs employed Japanese voice actors for many of its non-starring roles, and Japanese writer and DJ Kun Nomura, who voiced Mayor Kobayashi, has a writing credit, which probably helped Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman avoid such basic faux pas.

But it’s not really meant to be heard.
Anthony reported that there was a muffled quality to much of the Japanese dialogue. “It was very hard to hear — it kind of sounded like they had put cotton balls in their mouth,” he says. “It was distracting, because I wanted to hear what they were saying.” Lisa didn’t quite have this problem, but found herself ignoring much of the Japanese dialogue anyway. “I didn’t exactly find it hard to hear,” she says. “But I didn’t care much about it; I knew it didn’t have much meaning.”

Shocker — there’s some stilted dialogue in a Wes Anderson movie.
While Lisa agreed that the Japanese writing made perfect sense, some of the performances, including Koyu Rankin’s performance as Atari, struck her as a little unnatural. “The main [Japanese-speaking] characters, or anyone with relatively more dialogue, like Atari or Major-Domo, sounded a bit weird,” she said. Lisa thought that Nomura’s performance as the mayor worked, but she sensed that the dialogue had been written differently for other characters. “They didn’t try to speak Japanese precisely,” she says of Atari and Major-Domo. “But they had a Japanese ‘cultural effect.’ So it was kind of caricatured.”

Beam also observed a kind of “Japanese affect” that he suspected was intentional in its stiltedness. A scene he liked in particular was one in which the scientists working on the Dog Flu serum make their discovery and cheer their victory with a unison “Kampai!” “It’s what you really see Japanese people do in real life — they’d drink, cheer, congratulate, and say thank you to each other,” Beam says. “It’s slightly robotic which is kind of cute and comical at the same time.”

Tracy is definitely a problem.
The lack of subtitles for the Japanese characters is one of the more controversial aspects of the film. While Beam enjoyed the film overall, his biggest gripe was with the film’s use (or non-use) of subtitles, and he felt that the treatment of Greta Gerwig’s American character Tracy provided an instructive contrast to the Japanese characters. “I feel like it uses its self-imposed rule to not use subtitles as an excuse to make that character white, because someone needs to speak English in Megasaki City,” he told me. “Without that rule, the character might as well have been a plucky Japanese schoolgirl and it would have made equal or more sense (or like, just cut her character out entirely).”

The written language is a little spotty.
Both Lisa and Anthony noted that the written language, as it appears in the art direction and onscreen text, stood out more than the un-subtitled dialogue. “A lot of it was an awkward, kind of choppy phrasing,” Anthony said. “It kind of made me think that someone had thrown these English phrases into Google Translate. The [characters] weren’t the exact characters you would use in that context.” One example he gave was with the drones that appear in the film, which were referred to as mujinki (literally, “machine without a person”). “People today wouldn’t use the literal translation of drone,” he says. “Most people would just say du-ron. It just makes more sense.”

Lisa also says that the written-out “Megasaki City,” a fictional name which doesn’t mean anything in Japanese, contains a fictional nonsense kanji character presumably made up by the art department. Anthony’s sense was that the art department and graphics department perhaps didn’t consult as much with native Japanese speakers as the writers did. “When something was handwritten in the film, it looked perfect. It was just the graphics that were off.”

There are pretty much no Japanese Easter eggs.
I was also really curious about any hidden jokes or gags in the script’s Japanese, but all three viewers agreed that the dialogue, for the most part, is purely utilitarian; when it came to playing to the Japanese speakers in the room, Lisa says, “It didn’t seem like they really cared.” She adds, “There were no hidden messages, [the language] just there to make an atmosphere, like ‘It’s Japan!’”

The exception is the title of the film, which in Japanese is Inugashima, which Lisa says will read to Japanese viewers as a direct reference to the folktale Momotaro (“peach boy”). In the story, which every Japanese child (even me) knows from birth, Momotaro travels to the island of demons, or oni, which is called Onigashima. The parallels end there, but the name will lend a mythical feeling to the film for viewers who grew up with the story.

The reviews are mixed to positive.
“All in all, despite a few things that are tone-deaf, I think it’s quite a respectful depiction of Japanese culture,” Beam says. Even when some of the language quirks stumbled, the essence of the film felt particularly Japanese to him. “I love that Atari, a Japanese character, is portrayed as an ultimate hero who values friendship more than anything, which is the same concept (‘nakama’) as what most Japanese animes/dramas, old or current, revolve around.” Lisa also really enjoyed the film, and thinks it will go over well with Japanese viewers when it’s released there in May. “It’s not an accurate reflection of Japan, but it’s based on Japanese fables and a Japanese point of view, and Japanese problems. And we love dogs.”

Anthony, meanwhile, has more misgivings. “There’s a kind of disconnect with the Japanese-ness, which made it feel like Japan was just a backdrop to tell this story,” he says. Then there’s the question of intent vs. reception: Watching the film at a theater in Pasadena, as the only Asian person in the audience, couldn’t help but affect his viewing experience. He described inexplicable laughter from the crowd every time a Japanese character reacted to something in Japanese. “It made me think, What are they laughing at? The fact that they speak a foreign language?”

Still, as someone with a foot in both cultures, he’s been tracking the film’s reception on both sides of the Pacific, particularly the hype on Japanese Twitter. Much of the anticipation revolves around the appearance of Yojiro Noda, lead singer of the rock band RADWIMPS, as the voice of a news anchor in the film. But there’s also a general eagerness to see it. “People are like, ‘I know he’s going to respect Japanese culture,” Anthony says. “Japanese people love Wes Anderson.”

What It’s Like to Watch Isle of Dogs As a Japanese Speaker