Tuesday 6 July 2021

What “Isle of Dogs” gets right about Japan

week ago, I saw Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” or “Inu-ga-shima.” I saw it as someone who, upon hearing that name, is forcibly reminded of Oni-ga-shima, the isle of demons where Peach Boy, a hero of Japanese folklore, fights evil with his canine band of brothers. In the first grade, I was cast in a school production, in Tokyo, as one of the demons. The role required red face paint and Sharpie horns and growl-prancing, and I was as terrifying as a four-foot Japanese Caliban could be. This is all to say that I watched “Isle of Dogs” as a Japanese person—as someone who was born in Japan, who spent my childhood and adolescence there, and who looks and speaks and reads and eats like a native.

I saw the movie in New York. I arrived early. As I waited, I read critiques of the film, which is set in the fictional city of Megasaki, and which follows a group of dogs, and one or two humans, after the mayor banishes all canines to nearby Trash Island. The dogs speak English; the humans, for the most part, speak Japanese, which is often but not always translated. Reading the reviews, I found that there were some familiar gripes: the film Orientalized, it Othered, it had a white-savior narrative, it rendered Japanese people flat and mysterious and inscrutable, and it was part of a grand old Euro-American tradition of white men plundering Japanese aesthetics for their art. I put on my headphones and listened to a Slate interview in which a critic, Inkoo Kang, responded to the movie with a “first reaction: Yuck. Second reaction: Yawn.”

The movie began. The Japanese characters started speaking, without subtitles, and suddenly, in a Loews in Lincoln Square, surrounded by a sea of Americans inhaling corgi-sized tubs of popcorn, I was hearing voices from home. 

They were neither inscrutable nor flat. They were Japanese, in various shades of age and talent and fame. I heard Mari Natsuki—better known Stateside as the voice of Yubaba, from “Spirited Away”—in the host mother who dresses down an overexcited white girl: “Be quiet, go to sleep, I don’t care about your newspaper, just go to sleep.” I strained to place a TV-news anchor’s voice until, yes: it was the lead singer of the teen-rock band Radwimps, who’d starred in a mixtape that my first boyfriend had given me, in a brown paper bag, in front of Shibuya Station, more than a decade ago.

To say that the Wes Anderson film dehumanizes the Japanese is to assume the primacy of an English-speaking audience. Photograph by Fox Searchlight Pictures / Everett

Even when the voices weren’t familiar, they were distinct. Someone—if not Anderson, then perhaps the actor Kunichi Nomura, who co-wrote the film—cared enough to insure that the voices sounded pitch-perfect as types. A scientist, presenting her findings on snout flu, spoke with the bored, clipped tone of every ponytailed researcher on Japanese daytime TV. In a scene that must’ve seemed an incoherent buzz to non-Japanese viewers, a doctor interrupts another’s hushed importance during surgery with an equally serious “Gauze!”—a deadpan, bull’s-eye rendition of “Iryu,” the Japanese version of “ER.” No one else in the theatre got it, but I couldn’t contain my laughter.

As the film progressed, I picked up cues hidden from the rest of the audience. At one point, the dogs leapt on a trolley that read “Trash: For Compression and Crushing” in faint white kanji. Mayor Kobayashi’s propaganda poster—“For the Greater Good of Megasaki City”—was a playful riff on “For the Greater Good of Children,” a principle upheld in Japanese courts to protect kids against negligent parents. (That it was being used as a campaign slogan was, of course, ironic, given that Kobayashi was deporting his ward’s pet.) And then there were the gags: Atari, the ward in question, washes the dog Chief in a tub-sized can labelled “Hokusai Beer.” When the credits rolled, the staggering number of kanji characters—of Japanese people involved in making the film—lit the screen brightly for seconds and seconds.

As I walked out of the theatre, Anderson’s decision not to subtitle the Japanese speakers struck me as a carefully considered artistic choice. “Isle of Dogs” is profoundly interested in the humor and fallibility of translation. This is established early, by the title card: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” 

From the start, Anderson points to the various and suspect ways in which translation occurs. Official Interpreter Nelson, voiced by Frances McDormand, works for the government, but her reliability is thrown into doubt when she starts inserting her own comments—“Holy Moses!”;“Boy, what a night!”—while on the job. In one scene, she’s casually replaced by a little boy. The simul-talk devices, meanwhile, are shown to be operated by shadowy men in white starched shirts. This is the beating heart of the film: there is no such thing as “true” translation. Everything is interpreted. Translation is malleable and implicated, always, by systems of power

This theme persists throughout the film, especially in the character of Tracy Walker, the foreign-exchange student who’s been deemed, in some reviews, as a white savior of sorts. Tracy has a hunch that the government is covering up a mass conspiracy. During a rally she cries, “Not fair!” and stamps up to Kobayashi, demanding that her voice be heard. Kobayashi blinks, then revokes her immigration visa, leaving her in tears. (Notably, the children who provide more than just bluster are Atari and the Japanese hacker from Tracy’s newspaper club, both of whom end up saving the day.) If Tracy is a white savior, her role is immediately neutered. What is interesting about the scene is that she speaks to the crowd in English. Both Kobayashi and the crowd understand her words, but respond in Japanese. This was a revelation: in the world of Megasaki City, the Japanese can speak and understand English but choose to speak in their native tongue. They demand fluency on their own terms. At a climactic moment, the movie rejects the notion of universal legibility, placing the onus of interpretation solely upon the American audience.

This is a sly subversion, in which the Japanese evince an agency independent of foreign validation. Indeed, to say that the scene dehumanizes the Japanese is to assume the primacy of an English-speaking audience. Such logic replicates the very tyranny of language that “Isle of Dogs” attempts to erode. Anderson is a white, non-Japanese director, but had he not been interested in the power dynamics behind translation, and instead made a twee fever dream imitating Japanese aesthetics, “Isle of Dogs” would have looked and sounded a lot different. His commitment to showing the daily rhythms of a living, breathing Japanese people reveals itself not only in his cast of twenty-three Japanese actors but in his depictions of how exactly a Japanese TV-news anchor transitions to a new topic (“This is the next news”), what milk cartons for elementary schools look like (labelled “extra-thick”), or how a couple of scientists might celebrate—with a clink, “Yo—oh!,” and a clap. The film invites a kinship with a viewer who will find these banalities familiar, and lets these moments flow by, unnoticed, for those who do not.

This is not to assert the primacy of my own experience with the film. Whenever an Asian-American controversy flares up, whether in regard to whitewashing or appropriation, there’s usually a move, in the media, to ask those in the homeland what they thought—whether they were offended, say, by Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character. That move implies that being Japanese, and the corresponding right to take offense, are innately tied to growing up there. That the Japanese person usually responds in the negative—of course we’re fine with Scarlett!—speaks only to the fact that Japan is a country with neither ethnic diversity nor a substantial critical race discourse. To be Asian-American, meanwhile, is to develop a brutal familiarity with seeing Asia, and Asian characters, distorted, passivized, and flattened by white hands.

But we might note, when considering “Isle of Dogs,” that the tradition of white men “appropriating” Japanese art was, in large part, aided and abetted by the Japanese. The history of Japonism—of the West’s obsession with Japanese aesthetics—can’t be unwoven from the fact that said obsession served as an efficient, effective distraction as Japanese troops invaded Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula. Kabuki, haiku, woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai—the very forms that are supposedly arrogated by Anderson—were, in some respects, cultural ambassadors that ushered forth imperial expansion. And Japan, too, used language as an oppressing force; in Korea, the imperial government banned the study of Korean and enforced a Japanese-only policy.

Language is power. “Isle of Dogs” knows this. It shows the seams of translation, and demarcates a space that is accessible—and funny—only to Japanese viewers. One of the most potent shots in the film is of graffiti on gray cement. A large black scrawl asks, “Douyatte bokura wo korosu tsumori?” How on earth do you plan on killing us? For most viewers, it’s a mark on the wall. For Japanese ones, it’s a battle cry.

(Source: New Yorker)

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