The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorite movies, so I got really excited when Wes Anderson’s next movie, Isle of Dogs, was determined to be another animated film, this time about dogs. Wes Anderson and his doll-like stop-motion animation, telling a story about a bunch of very good dogs? Say no more, I’m sold! The first trailer for Isle of Dogs came out yesterday, and it’s everything you’d expect from Anderson—obsessively detailed, eccentric bordering on twee, and a heart-strings tugger of a story about a boy and his dog. It’s slightly in the future, and the dogs of Japan have been exiled to a trash island after a “dog flu”. One little boy ventures to the island to find his beloved dog, and a pack of trash-dogs decide to help him. That’s adorable. And it looks amazing. There’s just one problem—all of the dogs are voiced by white actors.
As the trailer shows it, the Japanese voice actors—and there are some, including Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe, and celebrated Asian actors Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson—are relegated to side roles. I imagine the plight of the voiceover artist isn’t as sympathetic to most as visible, on camera whitewashing, but the effect of Anderson’s film is that it reduces Japan and a Japanese aesthetic to mere production design. There is one exception, Koyu Rankin, who voices Atari, the boy searching for his dog. At least that’s one major role/actor match, but it does affect story context. For instance, that “I wish somebody spoke his language” line falls completely flat, because now it’s not a “dog vs. human” reference, it’s an “English vs. Japanese” joke. Would it really have been so hard to cast some Japanese actors to voice the dogs?
I’m sure someone is going to land in my inbox, explaining how there aren’t enough English-speaking Japanese actors, but that’s not going to fly. Besides Japan’s thriving film industry from which to cull talent, there is Japanese diaspora around the globe. Get a casting director to do the legwork and find the talent. That is literally their job description. Or else, don’t set the movie in Japan. Why does it need to be Japan? There’s a bunny island in Japan, is the assumption that thus a dog island somehow makes sense? You’ve set the movie in the future and invented “dog flu”. You can set this movie wherever you want. Unless the movie is set in Japan specifically to exploit the aesthetics, which is gross.