April 2, 2018

∴ 'Isle of Dogs' and Japan as a Plot Device

Nina Li Coomes—The Atlantic:

Critics and viewers might argue that this invented city, which exists in a parallel universe 20 years in the future, eases the story’s burden of faithfully representing Japan. But even given this leeway, Anderson’s Megasaki at times slides dangerously close to tokenism, and often fails to truly bring to mind the country the director claims to invoke

My first awareness of a filmmaker’s flawed use of Japanese culture as a plot device came in a Medium article about Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation a couple of years ago. It was an awakening for me because that film revolves around the alienation of its two main characters from their families and their chosen lives while immersed in a confusingly alien culture, but I’d completely missed its slights to the Japanese people. The Tokyo of Lost In Translation is mentioned in this article as another example of Japanese culture and settings appropriated as a sort of Stranger In a Strange Land backdrop. It is also, as is pointed out, a caricature of a real-world culture and people.

I’m of two minds about this. While not having seen Isle of Dogs yet, I’ve watched and re-rewatched Lost In Translation. Its theme of alienation as a backdrop to Johansson’s and Murray’s Charlotte and Bob finding one another resonates powerfully with me; it is one of my most beloved stories rendered on film. At the same time, I’m somewhat taken aback and disappointed that I didn’t recognize the negative appropriation of Japanese cultural elements to tell the story. Once you see them, though, they’re impossible to miss. And yet they successfully convey a sense of disorientation through the eyes of the characters.

A better criticism asks why that is so. Is Japanese culture so different to Western eyes as to be incomprehensible, and if so does that make it an appropriate plot device?

I’d answer the former question, yes. Clearly, significant cultural differences exist and dropping a character from one into the other for his or her first time can render a comedic or even frightening, disorienting effect. Amplifying the differences for effect, though … there’s a fine line between whimsical caricature and insult.

I’m reminded of the old TV series Amos and Andy, in which caricatures of two black Americans and their interaction with one another are used to the same comedic effect. Rather than rendering their unique behavior and black American culture as a way of understanding them, they’re amplified to clown-like effect. That’s what takes place in short bursts during Lost In Translation and, I take it, in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

I like to think I’ve become more sensitive to the differences between us in positive ways, but I’m still on the fence about this storytelling trope. Humor directed at ourselves is fair. The same directed at others says something about the “us” characters, the filmmaker, and ultimately about ourselves. And who is truly an “other?”

The degree of comedic amplification is at the heart of the question. How much is too much? How much otherness is each of us willing to tolerate in the service of humor? My answer to the latter question a few paragraphs back is I don’t know what makes for an appropriate plot device, but I can take a stab at it.

Does it insult without any sense of familiarity or affection? Does the caricaturing work to move the story along? Answering yes to the first question makes the device inappropriate. Answering no to the second makes it bad storytelling.

I do know that I simply like Lost In Translation’s story, Wes Anderson’s films in general, and expect that I’ll enjoy his Isle of Dogs. I don’t know what that says about me.

Comments are welcome.

#IsleOfDogs #LostInTranslation #culturalAppropriation