This article contains spoilers for the entirety of Isle of Dogs. It is recommended that you see the film before proceeding.
With the release of Wes Anderson’s latest film, Isle of Dogs, there came an amount of backlash for its handling of Japanese culture by a western filmmaker. Some points by critics dealt with what it saw as a “tourist’s view” of Japanese culture, dealing with things one might see on the outside, such as sumo wrestling, sushi, wasabi, Taiko drumming, and so on. Some also questioned the idea of leaving the Japanese un-translated, leaving a distance between some of the events and characters and its English-speaking audience.
Personally I disagree with a lot of these statements, seeing what I think is a quite sincere portrayal with no intention of misrepresentation or malicious framing of Japan, as well as a genuine artistic decision for keeping the Japanese language true and un-translated without the assist of another character, as we are seeing things through the eyes of dogs, who do not understand anything anyone is saying. Despite my disagreements with these points, I can at least see where they are coming from, and acknowledge certain statements or even scenes that could give such an impression.
However one argument I stand vehemently against is the notion that Tracey Walker, a transfer student from America, acts as a white saviour in the film’s narrative. To even suggest such a thing calls into question of even seeing the same film as other people, as the film deliberately subverts this trope, calling attention to even the notion of someone acting as a white saviour in a film that makes efforts to be as faithful to the Japanese culture as possible.
Tracey Walker is a transfer student from Ohio, Cincinnati, and part of a school newspaper and student movement protesting against the unethical treatment and demonization of dogs by the Kobayashi family. While she starts only as a member, she begins an investigation, connecting characters and events in the film until she manages to uncover her conspiracy theory as fact, becoming the de-facto face of the rebellion.
Her purpose throughout these parts of the film is to show the audience the bubbling resistance to the actions of Mayor Kobayashi, as well as the on-going investigation into the corrupt actions by the political party, such as the poisoning of Professor Watanabe and dismissal of his research. Tracey Walker is integral to these parts in order to communicate with the audience, as the film has already set up its rules on language (actually explicitly stating them in a title card at the beginning of the film). Isle of Dogs is definitely directed mainly towards an English-speaking western audience, and so communicating mostly through Tracey Walker is an effective method to show actions being taken. Showing Japanese characters talking un-translated would be incredibly difficult, and translating them suddenly wouldn’t make a lot of sense, especially as the film makes note to only translate the words of Japanese speakers in didactic methods, such as through translators or interpreters who appear on screen, something that wouldn’t make sense to be available to an underground student resistance group.
You could argue that it could be possible to communicate all of this without English speech, which is something that is certainly possible. Through physical actions of the characters and displaying the emotions in their speech, the audience could certainly infer what would be going on, and the moments where their words would be translated, such as during their TV News statement and the gate-crashing of the Kobayashi re-election night press conference, would affirm the actions of what’s being said. However, this would take away from what I believe to be the most crucial scene of Walker’s, where the film explicitly attacks the notion of the white saviour that she is shown to be.
During Mayor Kobayashi’s re-election night conference, Tracey leads the students in protest onto the stage to voice their opposition to the actions of the soon to be leader. Kobayashi allows Tracey to speak in an act of “Respect”, where she brings her allegations against him to light. The fact that he orchestrated the murder of Professor Watanabe of the Science Party, that he suppressed the truth about a serum for the dog epidemic, and that his son, Atari Kobayashi is alive and not dead as he reported.
In light of the serious allegations levied against him however, Mayor Kobayashi declares that foreign powers are trying to interfere with the affairs of the Japanese people, and revokes Tracey Walker’s student visa and orders her to be deported back home. This is the film directly stating that Tracey Walker, a white American, has no business being the hero of a story which has focused so heavily on being set inside Japan. And just as we see her accept defeat, we see our true hero walk into the building; Atari Kobayashi.
We spend the majority of the film with Atari, we see him act alongside the other dogs, as well as his will to be reunited with his own dog, Spots. We see his determination for justice and even his hatred towards the cruelty of humans against his canine friends (all communicated mostly without English dialogue). It makes logical sense in the context of the film’s narrative that Atari would be the hero in this story, as he is the most central, not only in the world and setting of Japan, but amongst the characters involved as well.
This doesn’t make Tracey Walker pointless however, as her reporting published within the school newspaper helped Atari not only understand the situation back home when he found a copy of her school newspaper, but also know exactly what to do when it came time for the film’s climax. She also brings the last strain of the dog serum to the conference so that Atari can use it on Chief, his new bodyguard dog. Does this make all the help she can offer ancillary at best? Absolutely, and that’s really just what Tracey should have been in this story. She is the complete rejection of whitewashing in Hollywood in this film, where her actions ultimately just serve to assist the people who are truly meant to be central in this story.
You could even look at her unmistakably ghostly pallor, and argue this is what she is meant to represent within the film. It’s possible, that it might be looking too far into things, but I argue the fact that she has an almost plaster white inflection support her being a deliberate subversion of the white saviour, rather than another symptom of the Hollywood machine’s lack of diversity.