Approaching “Isle of Dogs” as an Asian-American Anime Fan

Wes Anderson’s Japanese cinema-inspired stop-motion film Isle of Dogs has been the subject of controversy. Accused of racism (or at the very least racial insensitivity) towards Japan and Asian cultures in general, the movie comes at a time when Hollywood has made numerous missteps in their handling of Asian-themed works, such as the casting of non-Asian Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. As an Asian-American, I initially came out of the film without feeling offended or bothered by its contents and dressing. I still do not believe it to be a nasty film, but as I’ve reflected on my experience with Isle of Dogs by way of my long history as an Asian amd an anime fan, as well as the criticisms others have written, I find that the core issue isn’t so much racism in the “hatred or marginalization of a people” variety. Instead, it’s that the exoticization of Japan in the film can leave Asian viewers feeling we’re being othered, that we’re not the “intended audience.”

As an anime fan for the past two decades, I’ve seen both the anime being produced and my own experience with them change. When I first got into it, anime was something very foreign, very different, very exotic. Compared to the cartoons I was familiar with, it did seem like a new world, made all the better by the fact that I, as an American living in the US, was not its assumed audience. While the anime industry is increasingly aware of the global market (see the whole “Cool Japan” push by the country’s government), some of that “otherness” persists, reflecting the 99% ethnically Japanese population of Japan.

For example, in many anime set outside of Japan, the main character is often still Japanese, or at least half-Japanese—as if to assure the target audience that there is a relatable point. The spacefaring Macross franchise, now decades old, reflects this tendency in its many protagonists’ names—Ichijou Hikaru, Isamu Alva Dyson, Nekki Basara, Kudou Shin, Saotome Alto, and Hayate Immelman. So when the American exchange student Tracy Walker showed up, I saw her in the same light as those Macross characters, even if she isn’t the protagonist. While I don’t agree with the notion that she’s a “white savior” character, but rather an awkward yet well-meaning character with a bit of a self-righteous savior complex, I registered her in my mind as that American audience stand-in character. However, thinking about that moment was when it clicked for me: if she’s supposed to stand in for the American viewer who’s stepping into this film ostensibly about Japan, what does her presentation say to Asian-Americans watching it? One potential interpretation: Asian-Americans are second-class Americans in the theater.

That’s not the message that Isle of Dogs communicated to me, and I think that the lack of Asian actors playing the dogs themselves isn’t too big a deal, but I can definitely see why the film’s presentation can make Asians like myself feel like strangers in our own home. By extension, I can see why non-Asians could be sensitive to what they’re seeing as affronts of cultural appropriation. The film’s decision to leave the Japanese untranslated (outside of a literal interpreter character summarizing what some of the characters say on occasion) didn’t affect me too greatly; I’m fluent in Japanese. But the decision to not subtitle them means that direct engagement with those characters is lost for the assumed audience, and for non-Japanese-fluent Asian viewers, it can potentially create a greater sense of alienation. Again, for me as an anime fan, something like “Megasaki City” isn’t offensive because it doesn’t sound too far off from “Tokyo-3” (the 3’s pronounced “three” like in English) from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but the film is rife with imagery and symbols that might end up feeling less like loving homages and more like snarky plundering if the Asian-American audience already feels like they’re being told to “stand over there.”

I’m not familiar with Wes Anderson films, so I can’t speak to his auteur style. I’m also not an expert on Kurosawa Akira, so I have only a vague sense of how Anderson references him and other Japanese filmmakers. At most I’m very familiar with Miyazaki Hayao. Within this limited personal context, my feeling is that Anderson through Isle of Dogs tries to exoticize not Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese people, but rather the feeling of wonder and difference that he got from Japanese film and filmmakers. One of his core staff members, Nomura Kunichi, was apparently brought on specifically to help with authenticity and treating Japanese culture with respect.

Because those films are so associated with foreign interpretations and expectations of Japan, however, drawing from those sources so readily while unabashedly acknowledging them through the Japanese setting of Isle of Dogs can make audiences, such as Asian-Americans who have to deal with the challenges of being Asian-American, bristle with suspicion. Bringing up the question of cultural appropriation is important, and I think the film itself has enough teeth (no pun intended) to stand up to the doubts and concerns, but those questions should not be ignored or assumed to “not really matter.”

 

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The Japanophile Without Japan

Whenever we talk about the japanophile (or the wapanese or weeaboo or other terms), the rhetoric is that this person discovers anime (or something), starts to believe Japan is a superior country and culture to the one they currently live in, and if they stop believing, it’s because they realize that the ideal Japan of their imaginations does not match up with the truth. The assumption here is that because Japan is not simply the land of anime and Pocky, or ukiyo-e and sushi, that it trivializes the japanophile’s beliefs because there is this contradiction with reality. But what if we removed “Japan” from this process?

It makes logical sense for the japanophile to discover Japan, create a modified image of it in their head, and then desire it as a “superior” culture, but what of that potential for desire in the first place? Does Japan trigger this desire to be a part of a different culture, or is that sentiment already there to some degree, and that it takes Japan (or anywhere) to allow a person to focus those desires on a concrete example with a relationship to reality? As intelligent and visionary as human beings can be, there tend to be limitations as to how far we think or consider imaginary or hypothetical situations, and maybe this is just one version of that

If we remove “Japan,” then what we’re left with is a person who desires for a better culture and environment than the one they currently live in, where better means one more understanding, one which reinforces their beliefs and their wants. Whether that is out of some progressive vision or simply a venue to live out fantasies without consequence, I’m not stating any moral or intellectual prerogative to such feelings, but I almost find it to be a sort of utopian mindset.

How Much Does “Japanese-ness” Matter to Anime and Manga Fans?

The stereotypical image of the non-Japanese anime fan is someone who is in love with Japan. He goes by many names, mostly given by others but also self-referenced: otaku, wapanese, japanophile, weeaboo. This anime fan believes that at least part of what makes anime great is that it comes from Japan, and this imbues a certain degree of specialness or at least difference to it.

But I have to wonder, just how much is it even true that Japanese-ness is that vital component for so many anime and manga fans?

This is not to say that it definitely does not matter for people or that at the end of the day fans are better off judging things from some imagined objective stance of mighty neutrality, but rather is just me asking about where that desire for Japan may or may not exist.

Let’s talk about fans of dub voice actors, the kind who line up to get their autographs every time they appear at a convention and who vastly prefer them over their original Japanese counterparts. You can say something about how those are the voices they’re familiar with, and that they were exposed to those voices through a more accessible medium like television, but what I think is that, at the end of the day, even if Japanese-ness might be present in other areas of the anime they like, be it the character designs or the settings of the stories, “Japanese-ness of speech” itself is not as much of a factor. Having the comprehensibility and perhaps even understanding of nuance of English (or whatever language) is more important than having the characters speaking in Japanese.

Once I attended a cherry blossom festival in New York, where I saw a black girl dressed in a kimono. If it wasn’t clear that she was an anime fan, she was also surrounded by friends cosplaying Naruto characters. What was interesting about the way she wore her kimono though was that it clearly wasn’t the correct way to put one on nor the correct way to walk in one but it was obvious that she didn’t care. I got the impression that even if she knew, it wouldn’t really have mattered. While the coolness and I would even dare to say the Japanese-ness of the kimono itself was important, it was also important for her to assert her own attitude, to conform the kimono to herself rather than the other way around.

A simple hypothesis would be that a fan prefers just enough Japanese-ness for their anime and manga to seem special or different, but not so much that it becomes utterly alien or unapproachable. However, I think that would be a flawed statement for a number of reasons. First, an appeal of Japanese-ness might not necessarily equate to exoticism or Orientalism (though in many cases it probably would), and second, there is a dynamic of what people do and don’t want to be, how much they expect things to conform to their own values rather than the other way around, and so “alien” for some may be preferable. Maybe I’ll think of something better eventually.