‘Isle of Dogs’ and Orientalism

I recently attended the ‘Isle of Dogs’ premiere here in London with a Q&A by some of the animators that worked on the film here at the 3 Mills studio and also went to see some of the puppets on display at an exhibition.

Although, I have for the most part had a great love for Wes Anderson’s work and ‘Isle of Dogs’ was seamlessly animated and executed I had a familiar feeling when talking to my Japanese classmate I had seen the film with about what she thought about it. She mentioned how the main protagonist’s Japanese was virtually unintelligible for her and that she didn’t know how she felt about the film as she didn’t relate to any of it.

The reduction and exoticisation of non western cultures is nothing new. This was a by product of colonialism as European societies expanded out and attempted to find means for justify their occupation of the Americas, Africa or Asia. With India as arriving colonists discovered that North Indian languages had deep rooted connections to their own, they were met with a conundrum. How could these ‘uncivilized’ people be the same as us? It presented a roadblock to the process of ‘other-ing’ and so the Aryan invasion theory was developed. This eventually became the flawed dogma behind Hitler and the second world war. Jain symbol of the Swastic appropriated so far out of context that it cannot be connected to its original meaning today.

With Japanese society much of its relationship to the ‘West’ was formed by the Second World War. The legacy of allied war propaganda was inexerably wrapped in with animation in its formative years. Although many racist ideas have eroded over time, many others became cannon.

Over time western interpretations of the ‘East’ have become simplistic stereotypes. The poor and savage Indians can be seen in the ‘Jungle Book’, the blood thirsty Middle-east can be seen in ‘Arabian Nights’ and the exotic and strange orient can be seen in ‘Isle of Dogs’.

Also, the ‘white-savior complex’ is alive and well in ‘Isle of Dogs’, where a white supporting character who in the end is key to stepping in and saving the day, leaving the protagonist to stand on the side and look on. This would not be a strange element in the film’s narrative were it not a theme that shows up again and again in western film history.

I would have hoped for a more nuanced story and characters from one of the most revered filmmakers of our time but was unfortunately left wanting.