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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.)