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Analysis: Dissecting the Racial Undertones in Wes Anderson’s Filmography13 min read

3 November 2020 9 min read


Analysis: Dissecting the Racial Undertones in Wes Anderson’s Filmography13 min read

Reading Time: 9 minutes
 Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wes Anderson – American writer, director and the man behind critically acclaimed films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). He is recognised for his quirky, offbeat style, comically dysfunctional characters and dark, deadpan humour, Anderson is one of the most beloved American directors working today. With visually stunning compositions and heartfelt stories, it is easy to be seduced by his works.

Anderson’s films somehow always manage to capture the magic of childhood, in part due to the meticulous mise-en-scene he sets up where everything holds a sense of whimsy. Watching his films puts you in a slightly off-kilter world where everything feels possible. 

Yet somehow, watching his films makes me feel hollow as if something is missing. When you peel back the charming facade, you start to realise the glaringly obvious truth: Wes Anderson’s movies only care for white characters and stories.

Looking through his repertoire of films, you may notice a pattern. It is no secret that certain actors always crop up in Anderson’s films, most of whom are white Americans such as Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton and Owen Wilson. That in itself should not be a mark of insensitivity.

However, it is with Anderson’s filmic ventures into Asia where we can also see a lack of care or attention to non-White cultures and characters. Perhaps the starkest example is with Isle of Dogs (2018).

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

When Isle of Dogs was announced, I remember the excitement that came with Anderson’s return to stop motion. As someone who loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was excited about the possibilities. I mean, adorable dogs, a great cast and the culturally-rich background of Japan! What else could you ask for? 

That is until I caught the film and realised Japan was just a colourful backdrop for – the lack of a better description – a very ‘Wes Anderson’ film with all the familiar beats. While it is a great, tear-jerking movie for any animal lover out there, I just have one question: Why is it set in Japan?

It isn’t difficult to see Isle of Dogs set in any other country – therein lies the problem. Apart from the ‘language barrier’ Japan provides, it’s not hard to imagine the events taking place in any other non-English speaking country. It would feel like Japan, to Wes Anderson, is just a visual backdrop and nothing more; a fetishisation of Asian and Japanese visuals as an aesthetic. So absent is Japanese culture that it is reduced to a bunch of stereotypes and typical Anderson-esque visuals.

The problems don’t end there; it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The film is simply set in Japan because of ‘the mystic of the Orient’. In choosing Japan as a setting, the film is able to ground itself in reality while also exploiting the ignorance of their American audience. As such they create a blank slate with vague Asian ties, allowing them to paint any Eastern stereotypes on.

In the film, we see a mish-mash of Asian stereotypes painted on the blank canvas of Anderson’s Japan. I mean, the name of the fictional city is Megasaki. With constant references to explosions and mushroom clouds, it’s hard not to question how much Anderson cares for Japanese culture and history.

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The disregard for Japanese culture also manifests as a disregard for the language. While typing ‘犬ヶ島’ (inu ga shima) into Google Translate does give you ‘isle of dogs’, it is a strange form of the phrase. In ‘isle of dogs’ the ‘of’ suggests possession – the island belongs to the dogs.  ‘ヶ’ (ga) is usually used in reference to counting or passage of time. While ‘犬ヶ島'(inu ga shima) is not necessarily incorrect, it is an archaic form not commonly used. The preferred form in Japanese is ‘犬の島’ (inu no shima) where ‘の’ (no) is used for possession, thereby being the more accurate translation for the word ‘of’.

This disregard is extended to the language used in the film. Initially, we are given a sort of disclaimer, stating that the barks are translated to English, a sentiment that is not extended to Japanese characters. While this may have been done with the intention of having the audience relate to the dogs and to create a gap in understanding between human and animals, it is handled callously at best.

The problem lies in the fact that the film’s one white character, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), is able to speak and be understood by the audience. In doing so, the Japanese are ‘othered’ in their own country, as we are able to understand literal dogs over them.

Isle of Dogs is the most prototypical example of a white director’s foray into Asian culture and subsequent orientalism that has emerged in recent years. Orientalism refers to the viewing of Asia and the Middle East (generalised at the East) through a Eurocentric lens, which results in distortion and exaggerations of the cultures. It perpetuates colonial ideas of the East as being ‘backwards’ or ‘inferior’ to the West and how the East is in need of rescue by the West.

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

So if I ask again: why is Isle of Dogs is set in Japan? It is my opinion that the film capitalises on the already fraught assumptions about Asians and dogs. It is a common stereotype that Chinese people ‘eat dogs’ and while we know China and Japan are different, I don’t know if I can say that for Anderson. The film perpetuates the mentality that Asians hate dogs. 

Not only that but this is extended in a needlessly cruel and violent sushi scene, where we see sea creatures butchered while they are still alive. While some places still slice up live fish and serve ikizukuri (live sashimi), most sashimi is prepared from already filleted fish or fish on ice. In choosing to show this style of preparation, Anderson intentionally highlights the Japanese’s animal cruelty. It feels like a call-back to the colonial era and how we in the East are always portrayed as cruel savages.

Also not to be ignored is the ‘joke’ said by Bryan Cranston’s canine character Chief where he states that he was born in a litter of nine but “they drowned the sisters”. This is Anderson’s not-so-subtle jab at the savagery of the East, referencing the female infanticide in China, which again is NOT the same as Japan.

Another obvious example of this orientalism is the whole character of Tracy. Tracy’s character is that of a foreign exchange student from Ohio, studying in Japan. She is also the embodiment of the white saviour trope. Not only is she the only human character that is easily understandable but she also speaks for the Japanese characters. 

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In the climax of the movie, the little pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) gives an emotional speech to the Japanese audience – before Tracy’s translation of his speech into English saps it of its weight. Using English to appeal to the Japanese audience makes no sense – symbolically it is even worse. Tracy literally speaks over the Japanese protagonist and is the hero of the story. A white American is the hero of the story set in Japan, while the main villains are Japanese against Japanese heroes who have no agency.

As a standalone film, it may be said that the mistakes in Isle of Dogs are just unwitting mistakes. While it may seem like it is not his intention to ‘other’ the Japanese in the film, we only need to look at his 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited to establish a pattern of behaviour when portraying Asia.

While The Darjeeling Limited may seem like another typical, offbeat Anderson film, it is painful how casually racist the film is. The story follows three American brothers who meet in India for a ‘spiritual journey’. This is already a bit of a red flag, considering how Asia, when viewed through an orientalist paradigm, is always seen as a culturally-rich paradise where people can find themselves. The whole film capitalises on this idea of ‘the mystic of the Orient’, where the East, its world and people are strange and inverse to that of Eurocentric Western culture.

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Overlooking the racist undertones of the premise, I would not have a problem with the film if the characters learn and grow to be less ignorant and more culturally aware and accepting. Thematically, the characters do grow, realising their own hang-ups and becoming less dysfunctional people. But do they learn anything about India or Indian culture? No.

Instead, we get to see these three idiots stumble around India, with the bizarre Indian landscape offending their delicate Western sensibilities.

Again, the Indians in the film don’t get subtitles so we don’t get to understand them either. On top of that Anderson stacks orientalist clichés upon clichés in the film. Rita (Amara Karan), becomes the exotic, hypersexualised Eastern female, willing to have sex with Jack (Jason Schwartzman) after no more than five sentences exchanged between them. Waris Ahluwalia’s character isn’t even given a name as he plays the uptight chief stewards that eventually kick the three brothers off the train; His stereotype being that of the impotent Eastern male as Rita (a woman he is implied to be in a relationship with) cheats on him with Jack.

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

On top of that, Waris’ character lives up to the model minority stereotype – a stereotype unfairly thrust upon all Asians in the West, tying back to the first Asian Americans. When Chinese immigrants first moved out of Asia and to the Western countries such as America, they were dubbed ‘The Yellow Peril”. After immigration laws were passed to favour skilled Asians, these Asians worked hard, got good educations, and eventually rose up the social ladder and to become the exemplar for minority groups. Imperative to this stereotype is the idea that they should be stiff, rigid, and rule-abiding.

To see Waris, an Indian character in a film set in India be relegated to this stereotype is offensive beyond words. Even more so than that, he acts as an antagonist to the American characters, being an annoyance and a hindrance to their ‘spiritual journey’. While there is so much more to talk about in the film, like how an Indian child’s death only goes to helping the character growth of Adrien Brody’s character, Anderson’s subtle racism extends beyond his films set in Asia.

 Image Credit: Focus Features

As mentioned earlier, Anderson favours white American actors and it has to be said Asians are not the only disadvantaged race in his movies. His films often include no People of Colour (POC) or if they do, they are the token minority to add ‘colour’ to his films. In his 2012 classic Moonrise Kingdom, Actor Andreas Sheikh is given only three lines in the film’s 94-minute runtime.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Zero Moustafa, a Middle-Eastern character, is played by Tony Revolori, an American-Guatemalan actor. On top of that, the film only shows Zero’s life in relation to the White character Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). While Zero is the one telling the story, he is made a side character in his own narrative. Zero plays a subservient role in his own story, getting involved in Gustave’s hijinks and having no agency. The film also has a painfully stereotypical white saviour narrative and paints Gustave as an almost Christ-like figure for how he is so noble and anti-racist.

While it can be argued that this exclusion stems from the idea of “write what you know”, Anderson proves time and time again to be oblivious to anything outside his comfort zone of White American stories. After Isle of Dogs, The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel, it hints at the fact that Anderson is indifferent rather than unknowing. He shows that he doesn’t care about learning or knowing more about the cultures he depicts.

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

While Anderson’s films are stunning and unparalleled to anything found in Hollywood nowadays, it would be great to watch his films without feeling offended by the racist undertones. The point of this is not to say that Anderson is a racist but instead that he has subconscious biases that seep into his films. With his new film The French Dispatch coming out in 2021 and Steve Park, a Korean-American, set to be cast in it, one can only hope that he will do right by us.

Overall, I think Anderson said it best in his words from The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a scene Gustave says to Zero, “a lobby boy is completely invisible yet always in sight” and goes on to state more about his duties before wrapping it up with “so keep your mouth shut”. I wonder if to Anderson, we Asians are no more than lobby boys.

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An avid reader and movie watcher struggling to balance a love for life with inherent existential nihilism.
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