Unpacking the Fictional Japan of Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s film uses elements of the country’s language and culture to create a fraught sense of unfamiliarity.

A still from 'Isle of Dogs'
Fox Searchlight

One of the best sequences in Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs, is of a sushi chef preparing a boxed lunch. In a bird’s-eye shot, we see the chef’s hands pin a still-living fish, chop off its head and tail, set it to the side in a shallow bowl, and fillet the carcass. A wriggling octopus leg is held deftly, cut into neat rectangles, and pressed onto handfuls of vinegar rice. The chef dots vivid-green wasabi on each slice of octopus, arranging the sushi carefully in a lacquered bento box. This beautifully executed sequence is identical to the process so many sushi shokunin undertake, as they stand behind counters performing for hungry audiences. It is also the only scene in Isle of Dogs that needs to be set in Japan.

That’s because Anderson’s movie, despite featuring Japanese voice actors and iconography, isn’t really about the East Asian nation. The fictional metropolis of Megasaki is the fantastical setting for this tale about a boy searching for his dog, who has been exiled with all other canines to an island made of trash. 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 (a point I’ll return to in a moment).

Why then does Isle of Dogs take place in Japan —or in a land that gestures at Japan via curated aesthetic flourishes and references? Some have rightly pointed out that this decision is in line with the director’s style. As the Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang put it in his review of the movie, “Every one of Anderson’s films is an act of imaginative plundering—a crazy-quilt of popular touchstones and personal influences, tailored to a specific milieu.” But it’s also worth moving beyond the question of appropriation and considering Isle of Dogs’s use of Japan as a backdrop. In the film, the country is a plot device that creates a vague sense of unfamiliarity to move the story forward and explain away bizarre narrative elements. It’s an approach that relies on a long Western tradition of, intentionally or otherwise, rendering Japan as a mysterious land with an incomprehensible people and culture.

The strangeness of Japan figures into the movie’s largest plot point: the banishing of all dogs to Trash Island. In the opening scenes, Megasaki Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura, also one of the film’s co-writers) gives a vitriolic speech explaining the quarantine as a response to an outbreak of incurable “dog flu” and “snout fever.” This reasoning is thrown into question immediately by Kobayashi’s political opponent, Professor Watanabe, who claims a cure-all serum is already in the process of being engineered. Anderson slyly hints to the audience that his villain, Kobayashi, has an ulterior motive we will later come to understand.

But Isle of Dogs’s explanations for the mayor’s actions are scattered. Sometimes, it offers a jaunty historical narrative, citing the Kobayashi family’s distaste for dogs on account of their devotion to cats. A Kobayashi Shinto-esque shrine even displays two feline guardian statues on its steps (though most Japanese shrines use guardian lion-dogs called komainu). At other points, the film suggests the motive is financial, depicting the Kobayashi clan as staging an industrial coup of sorts, like a quirky Andersonian take on the zaibatsu (a term for the family-controlled business monopolies that dominated Japan until the end of World War II). What the coup accomplishes, though, is unclear. Does the family want to replace all the real dogs with robot dogs issued by the government? Are the robot dogs a response to their prejudice toward real dogs?

Whatever the logic, by the end of the film, Mayor Kobayashi brandishes a red button that if pushed will cause all dogs to be executed via poison wasabi—a baffling move the audience, seemingly, isn’t expected to question. In response, the film’s human hero, a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), makes a triumphant entrance, ostensibly to convince Megasaki’s citizens not to abandon their canine companions. But instead of any meaningful confrontation, Atari stands on Mayor Kobayashi’s stage and delivers a plaintive haiku in favor of “man’s best friend.” At this point in the film, Anderson has already conditioned his audience to shelve their skepticism, and to accept that a poetry reading can be a meaningful denouement to the story’s many conflicts. Taken alongside the movie’s cultural oversights and reinterpretations, this conclusion is just another instance of Isle of Dogs using Japan as a way to normalize outlandishness, thus creating the illusion of a cohesive story.

* * *

The perceived foreignness of Japan also figures heavily into the movie’s approach to dialogue. Up until Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s oeuvre had been characterized by punchy writing and crisply articulated delivery. No matter how awkward the character delivering the line, Anderson made sure audiences knew exactly what was said. But the Japanese-language dialogue employed in this film borders on unintelligible. Though the canines are voiced by white American actors, the humans speak Japanese—while occasionally being spoken over by Frances McDormand’s character, who provides English translations throughout the movie. The result is a sort of auditory cacophony. In a piece by Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, other Japanese speakers who saw the film had a hard time understanding the Japanese characters: “It kind of sounded like they had put cotton balls in their mouth,” one viewer said. “It was distracting, because I wanted to hear what they were saying.”

At one point, before allowing his opponents to make a counter-speech, Mayor Kobayashi inexplicably barks out “Risupekto!,” a Japanized pronunciation of respect that isn’t used in colloquial Japanese. While there are many English words that are commonly used in Japan, Isle of Dogs opts to invent its own. For instance, instead of having his characters say osuwari (sit), Anderson has them parody English by shouting “Sitto!,” another word Japanese speakers don’t use. This emphasis on certain pseudo-English words ends up making the actual Japanese spoken feel like decorative background chatter. (For what it’s worth, the aforementioned sushi scene is completely dialogue-free, preserving its authenticity as a snapshot of Japanese culture.)

Some writers have also criticized Anderson’s handling of the main human character, Atari. Though best known as the name of a popular video-game console, “Atari” isn’t an actual Japanese name. Depending on the inflection, it could be the word meaning a “hit,” or a “correct guess”—not that Japanese-speaking audiences are ever given an opportunity to figure this out. Viewers never hear the main character’s name spoken in his native tongue. In Isle of Dogs and elsewhere, Japan and its visual and linguistic characteristics serve as a whimsical wonderland for Western auteurs to interpret and re-create.

As I noted earlier, treating Japan as a symbol or narrative device has long been part of Western storytelling. In 1885, the British librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan wrote The Mikado, an absurd comic opera that takes place in the fictional Titipu, Japan. Much like Isle of Dogs, The Mikado isn’t actually about Japan; it uses the exotic setting of “the Far East” as a vehicle to satirize British politics. In his review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that “for Anderson, Japan is a sort of mirror-America,” offering a reflection on “the xenophobic, racist, and demagogic strains of contemporary American politics.”  (It could be argued, though, that an internment narrative like Isle of Dogs’s, wherein Japanese characters detain English-speaking ones, implies an anachronistic reversal that borders on distasteful.)

In 2003, Sofia Coppola directed Lost in Translation, a film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (who are also in Isle of Dogs) as melancholy Americans staying at a hotel in Tokyo. Coppola renders the capital through their eyes: as a city of scrambled sidewalks, illegible neon signs, and sexually perverted citizens who can’t keep their “R”s and “L”s straight. In 2016, the horror film The Forest dropped its American protagonists in Japan’s Aokigahara—a real-life forest known for its high incidence of suicides—while trivializing the deaths that have occurred there. (Aokigahara came to global attention recently when the American YouTube celebrity Logan Paul uploaded a video making light of a suicide there; around the same time, he uploaded a video of him and his friends screaming and throwing things at people in Tokyo, at one point crowing, “I swear, Tokyo is just a giant playground.”)

Isle of Dogs, too, regards Japan as a curiosity that doubles as useful scenery. Anderson himself has acknowledged that a tale about canines living in a garbage dump could’ve taken place anywhere, but said the film “came together” when set in a “fantasy version of Japan.” However gorgeously animated or meticulously constructed, the fantasy that pulled Isle of Dogs together is also what breaks it apart. What could have been a poignant ode to the genuine and precious relationship humans share with their pets (styled after Moonrise Kingdom and its irreverence toward childhood) or a meditation on legacy (like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) is ultimately degraded by a convenient plot trick. Once again, Japan is reduced from a real place to a quaint tool, just eccentric and malleable enough to keep Isle of Dogs narratively afloat, as it has buoyed other Western stories through the years.