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Wes Anderson’s Japan-Based Isle of Dogs Stars Notable Asian Actors Tilda Swinton & Scarlett Johansson

The trailer for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs dropped today. It’s an adorable looking stop-motion story of a boy searching for his missing dog. It’s also a whitewashing mess.

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The movie is set in Japan, 20 years in the future. And to his credit, Anderson did cast a number of Japanese actors and musicians, including Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono, Yôjirô Noda, Mari Natsuki. However, all of those cast members are billed (on IMDB at least, which is not the official billing, but commonly indicative of it) far below the film’s white actors.

Even worse–much worse–is that a number of those actors have been central figures in the current whitewashing conversation. Yes, apparently noted Asian actresses Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton didn’t learn any lessons from being at the center of the debate over Hollywood’s exclusion of people of color. That or they just don’t care, I suppose.

And let’s not forget Fisher Stevens, whose role as an Indian man in Short Circuit 2 was brought back to our collective attention thanks to Master of None.

After that episode aired, Fisher Stevens talked to Aziz Ansari about the effect his role had on Ansari as an Indian child. Stevens called it “eye-opening.

The entire cast feels like a big middle finger to the Asian American community and the subject of whitewashing, although I would guess that on Anderson’s part, casting three white actors who have been at the center of this issue in the last year was not deliberate. He doesn’t seem like he’s that tapped into the discourse, and he announced the full cast almost a year ago. While Hollywood’s whitewashing problem is an old one, the attention being paid to the conversation is relatively new. I would imagine Anderson wasn’t ahead of the curve. I don’t think he’s paying attention even now.

I’m sure Fisher Stevens, like Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton and probably much of this movie’s eventual audience, don’t see voiceing animated dogs as being the same level of offensive or damaging as Stevens’ brownface from 30 years ago. After all, they’re not playing Japanese people, right? They’re playing dogs who happen to live in Japan.

Except Wes Anderson is using Japanese aesthetics as pretty window dressing, and using Japanese people as background. By casting white actors in the lead roles over a Japanese backdrop, he’s reinforcing the pervasive white-as-default mindset at the center of so much whitewashing. Whimsy and anthropomorphization don’t change that. Just because they’re stop-motion dogs, that doesn’t give Anderson a pass to put whiteness at the center of a story set in Japan.

(image: screengrab)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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