I went to the movies on a Monday (daring move) and tried out my Moviepass™ for the first time, works like a charm! I was going to see Ready Player One but the movie showing was really late, and also I love myself, so I saw the latest Wes Anderson film: Isle of Dogs.
The name itself is intriguing... Isle of Dogs! Already there's an elevated energy about it. The choice of the word "isle" instead of "island" makes it somehow feel special and grand. True to the title, the movie was special and grand, chalk full of Anderson's classic tongue-in-cheek style brought to life by charming characters. And while I am so in love with many things about this film, like many things I've been in love with, it has some glaring flaws.
Okay, here goes.
The movie takes place in an imaginary city in Japan where disease-ridden dogs have been banned to "trash island" (AKA my apartment lol) by a dictator-type governor. We follow a ragtag group of all-male dogs as they aid the governor's nephew Atari in finding his long-lost doggie, Spots.
So the premise is adorable and of course most of us love dogs (tbh I'm a little obsessed) but the fun doesn't stop there!! This movie is absolutely beautiful: from the animation to the color schemes, the witty quips and the action-intense scenes, this is one of Anderson's prettiest films. But at the same time, it is also one of the most culturally insensitive.
The film is set in Japan, right? Meaning there is an opportunity to create a film rich in Japanese culture, marketing it to US consumers and Japanese consumers. But, they decided not to go that route. No, instead Wes hired ONE Japanese person onto the creative team (after the script was already written) basically as a way to say "it's not racist, look this guy approves it!" smh. And if that weren't bad enough the representation of Japanese culture is reduced down to aesthetics intended to wow the white people in the audience.
While Atari searches for Spots, turmoil builds in the city as the topic of banning dogs becomes more highly contested. The uprising to bring dogs back to their rightful position as man's best friend is headed by Tracy, a while foreign exchange student. Talk about a *literal* white savior complex. We are then shown a series of disturbing scenes featuring Tracy as a getting-things-done American, surrounded by a passive population of Japanese citizens. In one scene, she takes a scientist by the collar, yelling in her face and physically assaulting her in an attempt to get things done. And while this is supposed to be comical, the irony of it lying in the fact that Tracy is a young girl whereas her victim is an accomplished (and full-grown) scientist, you cannot remove this scene from a racial, historical, and real-world context, making it pretty cringey.
Oh but the fun doesn't stop at cultural exploitation and preservation of toxic stereotypes!!!
Let's discuss how women are portrayed in this film!
One of the only other women we meet is a dog named Nutmeg, who just so happens to be Tracy's dog (why did she bring her dog on an exchange trip?) and the object of the male doggie's affections. Nutmeg's characterization is primarily through what the boy dogs say about her: she has a perfect coat, was possibly a show dog, and she mated with Felix.
You read that right!
One of the biggest things that characterize Nutmeg, and the thing about her most frequently mentioned, is whether or not she mated with another dog. 😯 Her character goes on to be the manic pixie dream girl the film needed (or didn't) and is reduced to her being fawned over by men. And at a pivotal point in the movie's plot a curse word is uttered, giving the film that PG-13 status, where Nutmeg is called a bitch. A technically correct term, because she is a female dog, yet unsettling that the minimal use of cursing was directed specifically at one of the only women characters.
And Tracy? Despite the other glaring flaws about how her character is written, I was nearly relieved that at least she wasn't only characterized by her relationship to men. But oh wait, we need to really show that she's a girl so let's just give her a completely arbitrary crush on Atari. Cuz that makes sense. It was literally one line where she says she has a crush on him that they could have scrapped, why was it necessary at all? It didn't advance the plot, it didn't make her more interesting, and what it did do was take the only female character not built around men and God Damn Ruin It! u g h.
It's not far out of Anderson's realm to create women characters who are always flawless, always simply the projection of a man's supposed fantasies. But to extend this trope to a film already featuring minimal women, most of whom are dogs, is a brilliant display of lack of creativity.
If you do see this movie, try to keep the themes of one-dimensional women and cultural aestheticization at the forefront of your brain. If you don't see this movie, that's okay, you can watch countless other films with poorly written female characters and whitewashing of an Asian culture. And if you want more discussion on this film in particular, you can pop on over to Crow Talk: Film Squawk where my girls Cassidy and Stacy go HARD.
That'll do it for this blog post, til next time!