BILL MURRAY and Scarlett Johansson have been here before, of course, 15 years ago this summer, when they starred in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” But it’s illuminating to see how much has changed in the critical waters between that film and their newest, Wes Anderson’s mostly acclaimed “Isle of Dogs,” which was co-written by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, respectively Sofia’s brother and cousin.
Back when “Lost in Translation” opened, most negative criticism of how the film depicted stereotypes of Japanese characters and culture came from overseas outlets, and not from American writers. Today, a film like the animated “Isle of Dogs,” which is set in a fictional retro-futuristic vision of Japan, comes under strong scrutiny — over matters of cultural appropriation and sensitivity — from U.S. reviewers, too, stoking the social-media bonfire of conversation.
This week, a response that has especially sparked such conversation is the thoughtful “Isle of Dogs” review by Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang — aptly topped by a headline that, to come full circle, says that “cultural sensitivity gets lost in translation.”
Chang writes a wide-ranging review that intentionally doesn’t answer a couple of the questions it simply aims to raise. But Chang — who has tweeted to clarify that he wasn’t offended by the film — digs into the stark choice by Anderson to treat the canine and human dialogue quite differently.
“The dogs, for their part, all speak clear American English, which is ridiculous, charming and a little revealing. You can understand why a writer as distinctive as Anderson wouldn’t want his droll way with the English language to get lost in translation,” Chang writes.
“But all these coy linguistic layers amount to their own form of marginalization, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.” The dystopian city’s humans speak pared-down Japanese, and without subtitles, instead of flowing, native Japanese with subtitles. He continues, “Their assumed passivity is further underscored by the singularly unfortunate character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign-exchange student who becomes the angry, heroic voice of Megasaki’s pro-dog resistance.”
“Black Girl Nerds” critic Leonardo Faierman highlights that same issue over dialogue, asking rhetorically: “Is it not bad enough that a white American filmmaker is utilizing the language and visual qualities of another culture, but simultaneously distancing them from the viewer through some arbitrary mechanism we’re meant to applaud?”
Anderson, for his part, told Entertainment Weekly about his film’s untranslated human dialogue: “I don’t like to watch Japanese movies that are dubbed into English. I like the performances of actors in Japanese. It’s interesting to me, and it’s a very beautiful, complex language.”
Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post’s chief film critic, is among the reviewers who note Anderson’s obvious passion for many Japanese art forms — from film (such directors as Kurosawa, Ozu and Miyazaki) to theater to architecture — while also pointing out the effect of this precious cherry-picking. She writes: “The specter of cultural appropriation haunts a production that clearly revels in the design elements and mood-board inspirations of Japanese technology and art.”
Chang allows that this fastidious curatorial preciousness marks every Anderson film. (Co-production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod told Entertainment Weekly that this “film’s aesthetic is the 1963 vision of a futuristic Japan, drawing from the urban architecture, advertising, and graphic design of 1960s Japan as well as old Japanese woodblock prints and tapestries.”)
Chang also anticipates that some readers will let the film off the hook by reminding that “Isle of Dogs” is not set in a Japanese reality but rather in a stop-motion fantasy of “Wes Anderson Land.” And Variety notes that “while the film pays homage to Japanese art and culture, the designers allowed themselves some latitude to convey Anderson’s vision.”
Yet Slant’s Steve MacFarlane asks “why Anderson had to set this fairy tale in the real-life country of Japan. Using feudal history … and remixed anime tropes (the characters appear hand-drawn on TV screens and faux woodcuts), the film yields only aesthetic answers: The images may be rich, but their context is shallow.”
One of Anderson’s key collaborators on the film was Kunichi Nomura, who, in a fitting bit of symmetry, made his screen debut in “Lost in Translation.” Nomura’s role grew much larger here: Not only does he voice the city’s evil, cat-loving mayor, but he helped conceive the film and served, he told CBC Radio, as an expert when it came to cultural authenticity and accuracy, from design aspects to language translations.
Yet Nomura’s acting role — among a starry voice cast that includes not only Murray, Johansson and Gerwig but also Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and Liev Schreiber — spotlights another criticism raised by some reviewers: A film that plumbs Asian culture features so few actors of Asian descent.
In that regard, “Isle of Dogs” has perhaps no more similar peer recently than Laika’s stop-motion “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Its director, Travis Knight, told The Post’s Comic Riffs that he has long deeply appreciated Japanese art and culture.
Yet much like Anderson, Knight chose to cast white Hollywood stars in most of his animated film’s featured roles, including Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara. That sparked yet another round of debate over whitewashing, which in recent years has included films starring Johansson (“Ghost in the Shell”) and her “Isle of Dogs” castmate Tilda Swinton (“Doctor Strange”).
In terms of casting, “Isle of Dogs” and “Kubo” stand in marked contrast to the more recent pivot by Disney to hire voice casts predominantly of color for such culturally specific films as “Moana” and Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco.”
As more American film critics call out cultural appropriation, insensitivity and whitewashing, even animated Hollywood movies will surely see a continued increase in diverse casting.