What about Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me avoids the drive-by romanticism of a foreign community that bedevils Anderson’s Isle of Dogs? What makes this a richer portrayal of cultural otherness?
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A lesser-known, mid-career movie by Akira Kurosawa, Dodes’ka-den (1970), is, by far, his strangest. The film follows a motley cast of characters, who, in a series of overlapping vignettes, daydream, make mayhem, and double-cross each other atop a refuse heap in modern-day Japan. Critically acclaimed for many reasons, not least being for its causative role in Kurosawa’s suicide attempt in 1971, Dodes’ka-den is an obvious antecedent to Wes Anderson’s recent animated feature Isle of Dogs (2018), which, in Anderson’s words, is an homage to his “love of Japanese cinema, especially Kurosawa.” Set in the imaginary land of Megasaki City, where all dogs, as local fears of canine influenza reach hysteria, are banished by Mayor Kobayashi, who himself resembles the power-hungry, mustachioed executive of Kurosawa’s 1963 thriller High and Low, Kingo Gondo, Isle of Dogs unfolds on a literal mountain of garbage – Trash Island. This backdrop unmistakably recalls Dodes’ka-den, which, as Kurosawa’s first non-black-and-white film, enlists bold primary colors to accentuate its surreal landscape. The film’s dreamy color palette majorly shaped the visual language of Isle of Dogs, which, like all Anderson’s films, deploys color to great effect.1 This is by no means the extent of Kurosawa’s influence on Anderson’s latest stop-motion project. A writer for Vulture, Charles Bramesco, incisively delves into the film’s many Kurosawa-inspired allusions and a clever YouTube video juxtaposes several stills from Isle of Dogs against shots from Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai. Anderson, too, candidly conceded the debt his film owes not only to Kurosawa, but also to the celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Anderson’s admiration for these Japanese filmmakers, however, has not shielded him from backlash for what many see as his problematic representation of Japanese culture.
A contributor for The Daily Beast, for example, characterized Isle of Dogs as an act of “gross Japanese appropriation,” and a film critic for the LA Times called it “ugly in ways beyond what even its maker could have intended.” The critique of Anderson, whose cinema bears a history of racial tactlessness, or what one commentator aptly describes as an “unbearable whiteness,” largely proceeds from his portrayal of Japanese culture not for what it is, but for what he imagines it to be, that is, for what a representatively white filmmaker – someone white enough to wear L.L. Bean duck-hunting boots to class – projects onscreen when asked to conjure up an image of Japan … mushroom clouds and all. Indeed, Anderson himself showed no compunction in describing Japan as a thing of pure arbitrariness and surreality. “The story could take place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan.” The most thoroughgoing, measured analysis of expropriation in Isle of Dogs was penned by Alison Willmore of BuzzFeed, who reveals that an homage to cultural differentness, however well intentioned, can be just as problematic as its abhorrence. The flipside of phobia, after all, is philia. Willmore writes, eloquently:
There’s no overt malicious intent to Isle of Dogs’ cultural tourism, but it’s marked by a hodgepodge of references that an American like Anderson might cough up if pressed to free associate about Japan – taiko drummers, anime, Hokusai, sumo, kabuki, haiku, cherry blossoms, and a mushroom cloud (!). There’s a plot development in which poisoned wasabi is hidden away in sushi, and a scientist character named Yoko-ono, who is voiced by Yoko Ono. This all has more to do with the (no doubt intricately designed and decorated) insides of Anderson’s brain than it does any actual place. It’s Japan purely as an aesthetic – and another piece of art that treats the East not as a living, breathing half of the planet but as a mirror for the Western imagination.
There’s no need to add to the catalog of ways in which Isle of Dogs (mis)represents Japanese culture. There’s been, ironically, a push-back to the push-back concerning Anderson’s cultural politics in Isle of Dogs; see, for example, Moeko Fujii’s piece in The New Yorker. This back-and-forth, though expected for a filmmaker as beloved by the commentariat as Anderson, distracts us from the larger issues Isle of Dogs, perhaps inadvertently, raises. It keeps the focus on Anderson – not on the cultural milieu that fueled his pastel fantasyland of Japan. Let’s, then, zoom out from Anderson’s visual text.
In resisting the impulse to dismiss Isle of Dogs as an isolated offense committed by a racially unlettered director, this article uncovers how, beginning in the 1960s, a structural appropriation of Japanese cinema in the Western canon empowered a present-day project like Anderson’s. This wider view allows us to examine the place of Japan in the Western imaginary more broadly. A productive way to grapple with Anderson’s clumsy cultural politics in Isle of Dogs, furthermore, extends beyond a laundry list of grievances (though dirty laundry always demands cleaning). A film like Isle of Dogs invites us to imagine an alternative mode of cultural representation. It offers, to quote a recently maligned Obama-era aide, a “teachable moment.” Is it possible for an outsider to represent otherness faithfully? Can an interest in cultural difference exceed fetishization, eulogy, and generality? Can a filmmaker resist the urge to subsume the voice of historically marginalized communities in his/her own directorial pursuits? These questions are answered affirmatively in the work of Chloé Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, whose treatment of the American West rethinks how foreignness is portrayed onscreen. Zhao’s cinema doesn’t engage in cultural appropriation so much as it does in the act of cultural sharing.
Wes, Japan, and the Canon
The narrative and visual style of filmmaking that characterized mainstream American cinema from the 1920s thru the 1960s – linear chronology, well-defined characters, spatial continuity, depth of field, etc. – rapidly became the standard against which all alternative styles of cinema were measured. “Films which do not engage the classical Hollywood cinema are by and large relegated to irrelevance,” writes Judith Mayne, a feminist film scholar. “Frequently, the very notion of an ‘alternative’ is posed in the narrow terms of an either-or: either one is within classical discourse and therefore complicit, or one is critical of and/or resistant to it and therefore outside of it.”2 The Hollywood juggernaut accordingly assumed a transcultural and transnational significance for Western film critics. Per such logic, it indiscriminately impressed itself on national cinemas from Europe to Asia to South America in equal force. “The West and non-West do not voluntarily engage in cross-cultural exchange,” writes Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, a film historian, “The relation between the two has always taken the form of political, economic, and cultural domination of the non-West by the West. Not surprisingly, the emergence of Japanese literature and film more or less coincides with the age of high imperialism and nationalism.”3 The reign of Hollywood, however, came under siege circa 1968 when far-reaching thinkers, inspired by revolutionary events in Paris, Prague, Saigon, and Mexico City, began challenging Western hegemony all around the globe. Through intense theorization and radical innovation, avant-garde filmmakers and theorists launched inestimable projects that undermined mainstream norms onscreen. Indeed, a desire to subvert conventional modes of narrative expression still motivates contemporary filmmakers. Such is the cultural backdrop out of which such an idiosyncratic and wry raconteur like Anderson could emerge to widespread critical acclaim.
In his essay “The Difficulty of Being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Postcolonial World Order,” Yoshimoto argues that the unique style of Japanese cinema – given its “privileging of surface over depth, presentation instead of representation, organization of non-linear, non-narrative signifiers” – was embraced by rebellious Westerners because it refused to conform to the dominant practices of Hollywood cinema.4 In the 1960s, then, Japanese film acquired particular currency among Western scholars for its subversive, un-American poetics. The oft-cited, highly controversial work To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema (1979) by Noël Burch, a seminal figure in the ’70s-era struggle against Hollywood, represents the peak of Western idealization of Japanese cinema. “There is an awkward problem which the observer of things Japanese must confront … the uniquely Japanese faculty for assimilating and transforming elements ‘borrowed’ from foreign cultures … these traits also lend themselves to a Marxist critique of modern Western history in many of its aspects.”5 Japan, for Burch, became a place where Western critical theory materialized in artistic practice. The Japanese “Other” could rescue modern cinema from itself. The white savior was, suddenly, in need of saving itself. It turned its gaze eastward for its own redemption. This line of thinking, also sustained by Roland Barthes’s touristy Empire of Signs (1970), reinforced a long-standing fetishization of Japanese culture in the West. A Western-style radicalism could be found in the works of Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi – hence their canonization en masse. It is not by chance that Kurosawa holds the record for most films inducted into the Criterion Collection, an American video company whose clients consist mostly of Western cinephiles.
This sort of hero worship is precisely what incited Anderson, an avid student of modern-day auteurism, to make Isle of Dogs in the mold of Japanese cinema. An echo of Burch is even heard in Anderson’s statements regarding his latest feature. “With Miyazaki you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not in the American animation tradition so much. That inspired us quite a lot.” The award-winning Japanese animator perfects what Anderson casts as the garrulous nature of American cartoons; his whimsical movies are seen as lily pads floating pensively in a sea of ugly Western capitalism. Miyazaki enlivens – animates – Anderson’s quirky canine film in opposition to Hollywood norms. The Japan that Anderson discovers in Isle of Dogs has a therapeutic effect on him, just as the Indian countryside did for his woebegone protagonists in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). In this light, Isle of Dogs participates in a larger cinematic discourse of Japanophilia that has its roots in the 1970s. There’s nothing novel about Megasaki City – despite Anderson’s suave coloration and his meticulously crafted mise-en-scènes. Anderson’s is a beguiling aesthetic premised on hackneyed conventionality. Upon closer look, it crumples as quickly as his plasticine puppets. Wes is another smirking Westerner admiring his discovery of a supposedly more innocent, mysterious East. For anyone with a soft spot for cats, Isle of Dogs is, too, a gross affront to feline culture. Its title is a tongue-twister that, repeated five times fast, exposes Anderson’s allegiance in the great cat-versus-dog debate. It’ll take nothing short of Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), with its close-ups of slinky, sunbathing felines, to redeem our cinematic image of cats.
This view of Japanese cinema as a kind of corrective to Western cinema elides the specificities of Eastern culture, history, and society permeating Japanese art. It assumes that Japanese directors are primarily responding to the prevalent aesthetic and ideological imperatives of the West rather than to their own; it reduces the particularities of Japanese cultural production to an exercise of assimilation and imitation. Our benighted compulsion to resist Eurocentrism by embracing Japanese cinema results in an ironic recapitulation of the very paradigms of dominance we seek to dismantle; we end up celebrating Japanese movies strictly in the shadow of Western ones. The narrative of an all-powerful Hollywood redeemer turns into one of an all-powerful Hollywood menace; Hollywood, in the end, remains all-powerful, wholly unassailable in its place at the fore in our filmic imagination. The works of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, then, are retooled – reappropriated – by Westerners for Western ends. “The Other is cited, quoted, framed, illuminated, encased in the shot/reverse-shot strategy of a serial enlightenment,” writes Homi K. Bhabha, a major postcolonial theorist, “The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its ‘desire,’ to split its ‘sign’ of identity, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse…”6 Anderson’s Japan, like Burch’s, is safely cocooned by the limits of Western imagination. Wes’s “Other” can do no more than sing us Bowie songs in Portuguese from a crow’s nest – sufficiently different, but familiar enough. Much like Anderson’s scruffy mutts in Isle of Dogs, Japan is tamed, declawed, neutered … banished to Trash Island.
This is, of course, not to say that one can’t unproblematically admire Japanese cinema or that Westerners can’t think imaginatively about non-Western places or that Kurosawa or Ozu don’t deserve to have their films minted in glossy collector editions – they certainly do – but it does invite us to reflect on how one metabolizes and, more importantly, articulates said admiration. In expressing his love for Japan in Isle of Dogs, Anderson displaces Japanese culture with his own peculiar, pastel vision of easterness. Affinity bleeds into identity. A whole nation becomes yet another one of Wes’s wacky worlds; he claims Japan as his own, as another diorama – akin to those seen in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – of his relentless creativity. Like Burch, Anderson aestheticizes a preexisting culture with which he has little relation besides his clichéd idolization of Kurosawa. Do Miyazaki’s Japanese-influenced fantasylands resemble Anderson’s? The answer, if (hopefully) negative, speaks volumes. “What is required by the hermeneutics of the Other sought out in non-Western national cinema,” writes Yoshimoto, “is neither a simple identification with the Other nor an easy assimilation of the Other into the self. Instead, it is a construction of a new position of knowledge through a careful negotiation between the self and the Other.”7 The “Other” can’t be misrepresented because it is already a misrepresentation. If, then, Anderson’s Japan further distorts what is already distorted, is there a counterexample in modern cinema of a filmmaker encountering otherness on its own terms? Can one’s status as an outsider be acknowledged without having his/her filmic treatment of cultural difference backslide into appropriation?
“I don’t feel at home anywhere,” says Chloé Zhao, a Chinese-born, American-based filmmaker, in an interview discussing her latest film, The Rider (2018), which chronicles a young cowboy’s attempt to (literally) get back on the horse that threw him after a near-fatal rodeo accident. “That’s a blessing and a curse. I have always felt like an outsider.” A daughter of a Chinese steel-company manager and a Mao-era troubadour actress, Zhao, born in Beijing in 1983, is an unlikely director to, as one critic put it, “reinvent our sense of the Western,” a classic genre of American cinema of which Zhao has reputedly seen only a handful of films – four, to be exact. Yet Zhao does just that; she reimagines our image of the American West without any hint of the mawkishness or bravado or barbarism that has long suffused its portrayal, especially as it concerns those old tropes of “cowboys and indians.”
Years after her parents sent her to boarding school in England, Zhao, defying their wishes, moved to the United States and enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school in Massachusetts, where she studied Political Science. Following graduation, Zhao relocated to New York and worked a series of odd jobs party planning and bartending. She then, on a whim, applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to study film production. Accepted as a kind of dark horse, Zhao distinguished herself as a director with a “warm heart but an extremely cold eye.” A story about a suicide epidemic among teenagers on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the largest communities of Lakota people in the United States, naturally struck her. It was a dark story that Zhao could compassionately render onscreen. Finishing her MFA, Zhao began what would become a three-year stint of traveling back-and-forth from Manhattan to Pine Ridge, where, for seventeen full months, she lived on the Lakota reservation, familiarizing herself with Lakota culture, its communities, and indigenous history. “I just turned up and started knocking on doors and everyone was very inviting,” Zhao recalled. “People just thought it was funny a Chinese girl wanted to make a film about them.” Here, in the Badlands, Zhao acquired her first of several nicknames, “that Lakota girl with a Chinese name.”
These trips fueled the screenplay for Zhao’s debut film, then titled Lee, which retold the story of a Lakota boy who committed suicide in 2013. But, as Zhao herself acknowledges, being a woman of color with an idea for a cheerless story about indigenous plight – an enduringly touchy subject for a white American viewership – Zhao found her project without any major backers. After her funds ran dry, Zhao, refusing defeat, captured over a hundred hours of footage through highly untraditional methods: improvisational scripts, non-professional actors, and a skeleton crew. This material became the basis for her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), an elegiac work that straddles the fault lines of fiction, documentary, and ethnography. The film follows a high school senior, Johnny Winters, as he plans to leave Pine Ridge with his girlfriend for Los Angeles, where they hope to begin afresh. He supports his family by training horses, repairing cars, and trafficking alcohol, which, until 2013, was forbidden on Lakota territory. The docudrama, which eventually won the institutional backing of Forest Whitaker, is less motivated by narrative events than it is by a series of interrelated, quotidian incidents (funerals; Halloween parties; horseback rides; backyard cookouts, etc.) that offer an unvarnished glimpse into life on Pine Ridge. Songs premiered at Sundance in 2015, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, and, later, at Cannes for a Golden Camera Award. It then won Zhao accolades for directing at the American Indian Film Festival for its realist portrayal of a present-day Native community – a rarity for a people besieged by stereotypes of backwardness, spiritual purity, and indigence. “I wasn’t interested in a romanticized version of Native Americans,” Zhao said, “or the cowboy way of life. It was more about what is it actually like today for these young people.” Her film captures the sort of everyday, personal dramas happening on a reservation otherwise unencountered by American audiences. What about Songs, then, avoids the drive-by romanticism of a foreign community that bedevils Anderson’s Isle of Dogs? What makes this a richer portrayal of cultural otherness?
For one, Zhao’s point of departure in making a Western was to disabuse herself (and her audience) of stereotypes – not to reinforce them. “It’s all how you conduct your set and how you plan on making the film,” Zhao says, “If you’re gonna do it in a way that everything has to stop for you, then your authenticity is going to be dramatically weaker.… [It takes] a lot of watching, spending time with people, and also just trusting that you are gonna stay true.” Working on Songs, Zhao submitted her directorial will to her subject matter; she allowed the “looked at” to determine the nature of the looking. Hence, Zhao drafted over thirty versions of Songs only to discard them all because her actors – most of whom, residents of Pine Ridge, had little prior experience performing (save rodeos) – kept expressing themselves differently. “They’ll write their stories on their status updates, and sometimes that will change a scene,” Zhao said, “The script, the story, the people and the place all exist within each other. It’s an organic process.” Songs is a work about Pine Ridge by Pine Ridge; it is a presentation of otherness fluidly informed by the “Other.” The film upends that misguided notion of do-goodism that inspires so many well-intentioned humanitarians to “give voice to the voiceless.” There is no such thing as an inexpressible community – only our (un)willingness to listen to what’s already being said. In Songs, Zhao creates the space for those of Pine Ridge to speak for themselves, to relay the songs of their histories. Her camera acts more as a mirror than it does a narrative framing device.
Yet Zhao does not naively attempt to erase her filmic presence. In the opening sequence of Songs, Johnny meets a photographer, an out-of-towner named Angie, who, later, makes a flirtatious pass at him. The camerawoman is an avatar of Zhao herself, a meta-filmic acknowledgment of Zhao’s role in her own docudrama. The film, in other words, honestly exposes itself for what it is – a piecemeal, collaborative view into ordinary life at Pine Ridge. “Angie was, like myself, one of the many photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who pointed their lens towards the reservation,” Zhao said. “The lucky ones end up learning something about themselves along the way. She left in the end, like all of us did. It was for those who remained [that] we celebrate this film.” Songs, then, is a product of mutual respect: of Zhao first earning her invitation into the Lakota community, and, once inside, of not letting her creative ambitions overrun the nature of its representation. The onscreen portrayal of Pine Ridge closely approximates that which exists in real time. In Songs, Zhao collapses the gap between the real and the reel. The film, fittingly, opens with a metaphor – accent on meta – that distills its discursive practices. “If you’re gonna just keep on running horse,” Johnny says, “you’re gonna break its spirit.” Zhao doesn’t seek to “run” Pine Ridge broke, to tame it like her protagonists would a stallion. Instead, she opts for a visual form of mindful listening. Her unobtrusiveness endeared her to many of Pine Ridge’s inhabitants, among them Brady Jandreau, a rodeo star who later agreed to be the protagonist of Zhao’s follow-up film, The Rider.
That film, which begins with a jarring sequence of Jandreau – here renamed Blackburn – pulling staples out of his skull, charts his struggle to resume horseback riding after suffering a severe head injury during a rodeo competition. Like Songs, The Rider is a slightly fictionalized retelling of actual events, a lyrical form of reportage. Jandreau’s family members and friends play themselves, including the grievously injured Lane Scot and his autistic sister Lily; a recording of Jandreau falling off a bronco is, in fact, real footage; and the scenes in which Jandreau is training – or, in his lingo, “breaking” – horses are not staged. Here, again, Zhao curbs her directorial impulses to let this moving story of loss and recovery relay itself. If nothing else, Jandreau wanted to keep his day job training horses and only agreed to participate if Zhao could begin filming after he returned home from work, thus explaining, in part, why so much of The Rider is shot at “golden hour,” that brief period before sunset when daylight reddens and softens. The arresting vistas of the South Dakota desert harken back to the expansive views of the Argentine countryside seen in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1994), a film Zhao abidingly re-watches each time before she begins a new project. Here, Zhao pays tribute to her creative inspiration without lazily reappropriating his creative, culturally specific work; affinity does not devolve into self-identification.
These poetic shots, moreover, exteriorize the fragile inner world of Jandreau, who painfully copes throughout The Rider with his (literally) shattered sense of self – a far cry from the sort of cocksure cowboy portrayed elsewhere in American cinema (e.g., John Wayne). The film challenges the tropes not only of the Western, but also of American masculinity. “I would like to portray men differently than how they are often portrayed in a male dominated industry,” Zhao, a self-identified feminist, says. “That’s equally important for feminism. Not only to make our girls more confident and stronger, but also to make our boys in touch with their feminine side.” The Rider, like Songs, is a film that leaves viewers uncertain about once familiar cultural constructs. It estranges our normative perception rather than further layering it. Zhao uncovers the liquid sense of identity animating these communities in the Badlands. Her thoughtful renderings earned her a new nickname at Pine Ridge, “Auntie Chloé.” Refusing to indulge our preconceptions, Zhao makes demands on her viewers; she urges us to think harder and longer – better – about cultural representation. Her gritty visuals, perhaps, lack the kaleidoscopic seduction of an Anderson film, but so too do they its vacuity. Anderson’s cinema convinces us of its import by lacquering colors, symmetry, and British Invasion music over narratives of sheer nothingness. What could be more inconsequential than a film like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or, worse, Rushmore (1998)? They’re “unbearably white” as they are unbearably trite. Zhao’s movies, by contrast, move us; we exit the theater different than when we arrived.
Certainly, her centauric approach to filmmaking – half-fiction, half-documentary – is not the only way cultural difference can be portrayed caringly onscreen; her method is not a panacea. Yet it is a strategy. It proves an exception to the rule that says an outsider cannot creatively engage otherness. Being an immigrant, woman filmmaker herself, Zhao’s personal history surely lends itself to a more considered approach to cultural difference. She, too, is someone who’s been ignored, maligned, and undermined in popular discourse. The insights gained through her background as a woman of color are, of course, unavailable to those of historically privileged groups when it comes to cultural representation, but Zhao’s methods are available for all to see (literally on the big screen) and, more importantly, to learn from. It should be noted that Zhao isn’t the only filmmaker rethinking representational practices. See the works of Mira Nair, Chris Eyre, Ava DuVernay, and Francis Lee. For her part, however, Zhao unsettles an epicenter of American cultural identity – the Badlands – and, in doing so, invites us to rethink what modern-day notions of masculinity, selfhood, and homeland mean in the United States. If nothing else, her films make clear that for every culturally inept movie released, an edifying response lies in watching and elevating a filmmaker like Zhao, whose work aspires to disrupt cultural typecasts. It’s as important to celebrate what’s going right onscreen as it is to dissect what’s going wrong. Let Wes be Wes, but, in the meanwhile, let’s stick with Zhao and head out West.
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Images are screenshots from the films.
- Alex Buono, “How We Did It: SNL – ‘The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders,’” Alex Buono (Nov. 2013): http://www.alex-buono.com/how-we-did-it-snl-the-midnight-coterie-of-sinister-intruders/. See also Devin Orgeron, “La Camera-Crayola: Authorship Comes of Age in the Cinema of Wes Anderson,” Cinema Journal 46, no.2 (Winter 2007): 40-65. [↩]
- Judith Mayne, Kino and the Woman Question (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), 3. [↩]
- Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, “The Difficulty of being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Postcolonial World Order,” boundary 2 18, no.3 (Autumn 1991): 247. [↩]
- Ibid., 253. [↩]
- Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 89. [↩]
- Homi K. Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory,” Questions of Third Cinema, eds. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 124. [↩]
- Yoshimoto, 243. [↩]