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Isle of Dogs: Can the dog speak?

Is it not possible to just "let people speak in human’s way, let dogs bark like dogs" without any hesitation?

Publication date: 2018/6/10

In the animal kingdom the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined. (Thomas Szasz)

“What does the fox say"? In Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson makes the fox speak, but instead of the “fox-like" cry, his fox protagonist speaks English and walks upright in suit and ties. Portrayed in this animation more like a father’s figure in human world, the protagonist, possessing the characteristics of a fox, faces the dilemma between the freedom of the wilds and the stability of family life.

In Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson moves the stage to Japan with quite recognizable cultural elements such as ukiyo-e, sumo, kabuki, sushi and wasabi, a country in reality experienced various natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanic eruptions, and tells a people-butchering-the-Other story. Although set as “Japanese human’s persecution of Japanese dogs" in the movie, the easily recognizable genocide and atomic bomb subtext inevitably evokes the historical aspect of Japan as both sufferer and perpetrator of harm . However, Isle of Dogs allows the perpetrators to speak Japanese but let the victim, neither barking nor standing up to fight, but through the film’s set-up a priori, speak English.

In the prelude, the door to the “cat’s temple" opens and a dog starts to tell the story of being ejected by “cat people" in Japan, accompanied with the image of patrolling the painted screen, zooming in or out, presenting the dog’s history, from freedom to slavery. Then the story extends as a scroll opened up on the movie pictures, going to reveal the world outside the temple, however, this extension is interrupted abruptly by the title card: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” This reminds the audience that there is certain apparatus deciding what should be translated and not the others in the film. That is, what the local Japanese say is not translated whether through voice or subtitles without the translation mechanism set up in the film; but the local Japanese dog’s barking is directly presented in English. After this introduction, the movie lead to the mayor’s speech. In the very beginning of Mr. Kobayashi’s speech, there is no translation yet, but the audience would feel through the several tilt angles, popped up from this originally ordered world, to strengthen the fanatic eyes on the mayor’s gloomy face. In this way, the mayor’s standing in front of the screen of his own big photo recalls a more sinister version of the speech scene in Citizen Kane, and because the discourse is yet unknown, it provokes the audience’s imagination of distrust. When the mayor’s voice is finally covered by the volume of the simultaneous interpreter, we could first comprehend the content of the speech, which is that he wants to exclude all “Japanese dogs". In the beginning of the movie, the first “Japanese" representation is so distorted, and the first “Japanese dog", the former guard dog Spot, framed by a narrow cage, seemed to be naive and pitiful.

Would this stimulate the audience (both the English audience and non-English speaking countries’ audience who choose to listen to the dubbed version) to join the side of “Japanese dogs" against the persecutor “Japanese" ? On the other hand, does the Western director Wes Anderson deliberately chose to “other” Japan, by way of Orientalism, through the language setting that excludes the “Japanese" audience, along with the encyclopedic appearance of the Japanese culture in the film?
Is it not possible to just “let people speak in human’s way, let dogs bark like dogs" without any hesitation?

This question makes me think of the Spivak’s article “Can the Subaltern Speak". When put into the context of Isle of Dogs, the title should become “Can the dog Speak"? If the dogs in Isle of Dogs simply expressed itself by barking, the image can still convey a considerable degree of character traits and the complexity of the story. Such dogs can speak, but can hardly make a “word." The movie Isle of Dogs really makes dogs “speak", but from the perspective of the foreign exchange student, the dog’s language is directly expressed in her native language. Does this really represents the dogs’ statement?

Spivak does not think that people of subordinate ranks cannot speak for themselves, what she does argue is that because of various restrictions, their voices do not have the power as the intellectual’s word does. On the other side, Spivak does not think that the intellectuals are not able to speak for the subordinates or present the subordinates’ visage, but it is more important for the intellectuals to assist the subordinates in establishing situations in which they can speak, and to be careful about whether they are presenting or representing the subordinates in an improper way.

The situation of “Japanese dog" in Isle of Dogs cannot be expressed in Japanese precisely because the ruling “Japanese" does not allow them to speak. With the help of the young protagonists, the dogs through its speech and action help humans to find out the conspiracy of the cat people and gather forces against them, and thus proving their intrinsic values. The real killers are all human beings, regardless of being in the dogs’ or cats’ side, the only killing done by a dog is a kind of euthanasia. The dogs seem to be more of benevolent than people — not to speak of what people do to them in the end.

In the movie itself, this situation of whether one could speak or not is put in contrary. The subordinates, the dogs, can speak English, and the persecutor, the Japanese, could only express themselves through translation. Perhaps this could be imagined as the dogs’ spirit moves the foreign student’s heart to present their thoughts in English (mother tongue of the director himself). In addition, the arrangement of both the narration and the film language serves to reinforce the dogs’ somehow ironic and pitiful situation from under the cat-people’s to the dog-people’s administration. However, why are the Japanese people in this movie obstructed when trying to speak for themselves?

Extending the concept of what Spivak articulates about the relationship between the director and the aesthetics and history he tries to represent, I argue that the very apparatus controlling translation/non-translation is exactly that what stops the director’s rendering of “Japan-ness” or “Japanese style” from directly representing the Japanese. On the contrary, the direct representation of the “Japanese dog" in the film is of course not limited to dogs in real-life Japan. In his various works, dogs are used by Wes Anderson as different metaphors to play different roles in order to understand the fictional world of the director. In Isle of Dogs, it is utilised to depict a kind of political situation that could be recognised by most people in the world. The division of language, the  translation/non-translation device, from a fable in narration to the film itself, all serves reminds us that all presentations are self-presentation, while the “others” are not represented whatsoever. If both the person and the dog speak English in the movie, the tension of the dog being oppressed and unable to speak would be lost. If it is fully in Japanese, the translation device would be flattened, obscuring the essence of the director’s involvement as an outsider.

That anticipation for anyone to represent an absolute concept of a culture or a country, regardless by a native or a foreigner, is an unattainable expectation. Conversely, it is too difficult to present a kind of vacuum world with the least amount of realistic material. Art is never about seeking the most “definite" representation, nor is it about seeking a vacuum that does not refer to reality at all. Wes Anderson’s film aesthetics are like framing a paintings of ukiyo-e, framing his own inspiration from Japan that he “cannot represent". This “unrepresentability" is also like an irony in the ironic situation of the story: The protagonist who helps the dogs to speak at first later comes to represent the dogs as soon as he gains power and incorporates his agenda upon them  (let the stray dog Chief ,who had just learned how to love during the adventure, to ironically believes that it is now justified to bite protesters against the new regime in the end), and let the dissident dogs become the symbol of martyrdom (dismissing the former guard dog Spot to live a subtle life hidden behind the “cage statue"). This disillusionment and horror of “representation", discoursed through the heroic adventures in a “unrepresentable" country, seems not so unpleasant once the distancing and act of paying tribute is accounted for.

關於 甜寒

甜寒,台灣大學醫學系,英國華威大學(University of Warwick)社會學碩士。電影文字工作者、編劇。 @TGHFF Asian Cinema Observation Group 19' @BerlinaleTalents Press '23

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