The Unbearable Whiteness of "Isle of Dogs"

On Wes Anderson's stop-motion film as a parable for Trump's anti-immigration policies.

2 years ago

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An island populated entirely by hapless dogs rendered in stop-motion animation, an orphaned child in a quest for his lost pet, a title homophonic with “I love dogs” — with Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has made a movie that traffics in the contemporary currency of cute, clever canines. The movie is marked by the signature tension between the wry and the precious that all but empties Anderson’s films of historical meaning, but it is nonetheless difficult not to read as a parable for the time of Trump.

Many critics have taken Isle of Dogs to task for its Orientalism — for the ways in which Anderson mobilizes Japanese cultural icons, from Hokusai to sumo wrestling, in the service of a fanciful, ahistorical Japanese imaginary. As Alison Willmore comments on Buzzfeed, “It’s Japan purely as an aesthetic — and another piece of art that treats the East not as a living, breathing half of the planet but as a mirror for the Western imagination.” The film, though, acts as a particular kind of mirror for the West, one that reflects back the global surge of ethnonationalist and authoritarian tendencies in so-called democracies in recent years. And it is troubling as a story about power and oppression for these times because it takes white fascistic, truth-skewing society, displaces it to Japan, and makes this society’s victims white (more on this below). As figures of whiteness, these victims of authoritarian species cleansing are morally and ethically upstanding, and they are assisted out of their unfreedom by a white savior, an American exchange student.

The titles at the beginning of Isle of Dogs declare that Japanese speech in the film will not be translated to English unless a character performs translation within the film’s diegesis. Dogs’ barks, however, will all be rendered in English, the titles continue. Voiced by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bryan Cranston, the lead dog characters all speak with standard white American English diction and accents. They are unable to comprehend the Japanese speech of the Japanese humans with whom they interact. For the film’s primarily non-Japanese-speaking American audiences, then, the already-untranslated Japanese characters are othered even in relation to the dogs. Said otherwise: The dogs are more relatable, more white, more American, and therefore more human than the Japanese people in Isle of Dogs. There’s even a scene where, when the gruff, rough-talking stray dog with black fur, Chief, has finally started to be tamed and to show his sensitive side, his fur is washed to reveal he’s actually white. The scene’s too-easy interpretation epitomizes the white liberal thoughtlessness that sustains anti-blackness, the fulcrum of all racism, in the baldest ways.

Screenshot of "Isle of Dogs"
Source: Jacksonville Review

It would seem that the purpose of a parable such as this would be to present a world in which the other could be the self. But Anderson isn’t interested in dismantling the self/other logic that Trumpism and other populist ethno-nationalisms exploit. Even as an oppressed class, dogs are subjects in this story at the expense of inscrutable nonwhite people who are the faceless mask, and mass, of power. Anderson manages to fashion a story about rising against fascism that is also an old-fashioned story about the yellow peril, an ethnic horde that threatens all that is good and civilized — i.e., whiteness.

This yellow peril narrative helped justify the incarceration of people of Japanese descent from across the Americas during World War II for no reason other than their ethnicity. Anderson’s ahistorical, fascist Japan inverts that history at a time when its lessons are urgently needed, amid the violent wrongs of the current racist, deportation-crazed US administration. These lessons, Isle of Dogs seems to assume, would be better imparted by imagining that the victims of racist xenophobia today are good, compliant and complacent dogs — good white people. The film thereby circumvents any consideration of how authoritarian ethnonationalism in the liberal-democratic West relies on a base of good white people, as did slavery. There’s little to take away here but that we need to stand by our innocent friends in the face of their vilification. This is true, but we must also be able to stand up for the humanity of people who are strangers and whose goodness and compliance is in question. At a time when Trump has resorted to calling some Latinx immigrants “violent animals,” we must stand up for people who are criminalized as a way of underwriting their dehumanization. We must stand up for “bad dogs.”

Just as Isle of Dogs bizarrely reverses an actual historical moment that can stand on its own as a trenchant lesson of today’s injustices, so does it manage to invoke Japan’s twentieth-century history of domination in a way that scratches at unhealed wounds. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Japanese military marched across East and Southeast Asia, killing, raping, torturing, and imposing poverty and flight among hundreds of thousands of people. As I know from my childhood in the Philippines, this violence persists in cultural memory and through intergenerational trauma. There are real victims and survivors of Japanese tyranny. And because of it, people of a range of Asian ethnicities harbor deep animosity toward Japanese people. Sensitivity about anti-Japaneseness is important in stories that invoke this history, and Isle of Dogs lacks it.

Granted, non-Asians and non-Asian Americans are unlikely to home in on twentieth-century Japanese imperialism as a historical referent for Isle of Dogs. A more immediate referent in these times, and another way in which Anderson’s Japan feels like a screen for white American projections, is North Korea and its relation to the West. Megasaki and its mayor, Kobayashi, easily stand in for Western images of vast, uniform North Korean audiences helmed by Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un. There’s the iconic, monumental staging, the leader presiding over an undifferentiated mass with his fanatical speech and gestures, threatening, as Kobayashi does, to press the red doomsday button. Orientalism manifests more and more in just such images and narratives, in which Westerners pose East Asians as pursuing sociopolitical projects in excess — hypercapitalism, hyperconsumption, hypercontrol — without an appreciation of individualism, rights, or the other humane values that supposedly make such projects’ Western counterparts good. It’s just another chapter out of Trump’s xenophobic book, this dangerous excess threatening the US economy and way of life.

Thus Anderson poses the life-or-death effects of populist ethnonationalism while skirting the questions of race and American exceptionalism that’s at its core, and he makes this venture innocuous by trading in the aesthetic of cuteness, or what Sianne Ngai characterizes as an aesthetic of powerlessness. But dogs aren’t only symbols of innocence, friendliness, and interspecies relationality. They are floating signifiers, being close to, even synonymous with, humanity but also marking its racialized limit. “No dogs or Filipinos allowed,” read an infamous sign in Stockton, California, in the heyday of Filipino farmworker immigration. In anti-Asian stereotypes about dog eating, dogs either indicate savagery because they are too close to humanity to be food or they signify incivility because they are too dirty to be consumed by humans.

Isle of Dogs’ cute-baiting anti-authoritarianism is, to borrow Kimberlé Crenshaw’s words, “race talk without racism.” The film renders a world where racial difference is marked, but racial, and geopolitical, power is invisible. Cute metaphors don’t serve when the aim is empathy for real people that can be translated into meaningful solidarity against dehumanization. In Isle of Dogs, cute irony instead makes vulnerable subjects available as objects for others’ power. Anderson’s vision of a political regime founded on policing difference manages both to exaggerate and to flatten the pivotal difference: Those who are criminalized and excluded are not only a different race but a different species, yet they are also encompassed by whiteness.

A paradox of whiteness is that it is as universalizing as it is exclusionary. Its universalizing function, the way by which it centers itself and asserts its primacy in all mainstream narratives about these settler United States, cannot also be used to relate a lesson against its exclusionary, exceptional force. But this is how Isle of Dogs reads. If it manifests the lessons that white people in general have gleaned about what kinds of stories we need in these times, it is very disappointing.


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Athena Tan

Published 2 years ago