screenplay by Wes Anderson
directed by Wes Anderson
by Walter Chaw There's a Sumo-wrestling match in the middle of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs. It doesn't have anything to do with anything else in the movie except that it sets up one of Anderson's whip-pans to another character in attendance, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). The sequence is uncomfortable because it feels like there's about to be a joke at Sumo's expense--Sumo being, of course, a pastime steeped in ritual and history for the Japanese people. It's like if an American football game appeared for a moment in the middle of a Japanese film: we're about to get pissed on, guys, amiright? But then there's not a joke. Or if there is a joke, it's that Sumo itself is largely inscrutable outside a very specific cultural context and that in the United States, it's those giant foam suits they make members of the crowd wear during halftime of basketball games. Many of the film's depictions of Japanese culture--including a series of plays on the best-known Nihonga paintings, such as Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"--are these punchlines held in pregnant abeyance: we anticipate something off-colour or ill-considered to find that perhaps the only thing happening is a certain blithe, meaningfully meaningless cultural appropriation. It's not "okay," I guess, but saying so lands for me the way that criticism of Sofia Coppola's erasure of a slave narrative from her The Beguiled (or, more to the point, her portrayal of Japan in Lost in Translation) does. I don't think Anderson should have set Isle of Dogs in Japan. And I was never offended that his doing so is the result of his particular brand of twee solipsism. I don't know that anyone like Coppola or Anderson could make anything different. I'm also not Japanese, so my discomfort is complicated by my upbringing in a traditional Chinese household where the Japanese were not held in, shall we say, high esteem.