Meet Kunichi Nomura, the man Wes Anderson brought in to ensure Isle of Dogs' authenticity
As the cultural appropriation debate swirls around the film, its Japanese co-writer weighs in.
Wes Anderson has built a career based on the kind of singular vision and diorama-like attention to detail that ensures every one of his films is greeted with exultant fanfare. Who else but Anderson could take a stop-motion film about dogs to Berlinale, where it not only opened the German film festival, but won him the Silver Bear for best director?
Isle of Dogs, his ninth film in which he both writes and directs, tells the story about a pack of dogs stranded on a toxic island in a retro-futuristic dystopian Japanese city, Megasaki. It's inspired in equal parts by the the quaint stiffness of the 1964 stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as the epic scope and grace of Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan's most beloved and respected auteurs.
Anderson is known for his grand, ensemble casts of regulars, and Isle of Dogs is no different, featuring his largest ensemble yet. Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Harvey Keitel and more lend their voices to the canine cast, who all, as explained in the intro to the film, have had their barks translated to American English. All but one of the humans of Isle of Dogs speak Japanese, including Yoko Ono and Ken Watanabe as a pair of scientists, Koyu Rankin as Atari, the young boy who sets out to save his dog from Trash Island, and Kunichi Nomura as the evil cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi, who is dead set on wiping out the dog population. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an American foreign exchange student who ends up leading a pro-dog resistance.
It's this linguistic trick, among other things, that have caused some critics to level charges of cultural appropriation against Anderson. In a review, the LA Times wrote that it reduces "the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city."
When Wes would ask me, is this really authentic, then I would answer yes or no, but at the same time I didn't want to interfere with his imagination.- Kunichi Nomura
Isle of Dogs was co-written with Anderson's regular collaborators, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, but for this project, he brought on a newcomer for the first time, Kunichi Nomura, who also voiced Kobayashi. Nomura, a writer, editor and designer in Tokyo, helped with everything from references for the set and costume designs to making sure the Japanese, both written and spoken, was accurate. His work as a consultant and interpreter of Japanese culture was so integral to the process that he earned a co-writing credit, his very first.
"Kun, who we've all been friends with for some years, helped us keep a variety of details authentic and to make it feel more Japanese, because we were all writing from the point of view of non-Japanese people," Anderson says in the production notes.
Nomura, for his part, says the film borders between reality and imagination in such a way that the idea of authenticity came down to the tiniest of details, but not in a way that would hinder the story.
"It has a real side but it's a setting 20 years in the future, and it kind of reminded me of Thunderbirds or how in the '60s, when they would make a sci-fi movie or a comic, it's kind of retro-future. So when Wes would ask me, is this really authentic, then I would answer yes or no," he says. "But at the same time I didn't want to interfere with his imagination. You know, like you don't really have to make everything accurate."
Anderson's attention to detail fit with Numura's own obsession for historical Japanese architecture and fashion, something he uses when designing store interiors. As such, he would research everything from post-war department stores and uniforms worn in theatres to "what's the right signage, what posters should be on the wall," he says. "We can get along well, me and Wes. I think I kind of understand what he's looking for, which is very precise. Everything is always very precise with him."
Nomura also took the script and translated the necessary parts to Japanese, even initially voicing every character so that Anderson's team would know exactly how long each line and subtitle had to be. They liked his interpretation of the Mayor so much, a character who was based on and resembles celebrated actor and Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, they kept it.
I hope it's going to be a cool reason for Japanese kids to be like, who's Toshiro Mifune, who's Akira Kurosawa?- Kunichi Nomura
"I don't know if the young kids will know who Mifune is," he says, "but I hope it's going to be a cool reason for Japanese kids to be like, who's Mifune, who's Kurosawa?"
This isn't the first time Nomura has waded into the waters of the appropriation of Japanese culture, either. His very first role was as an extra on Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation (Coppola introduced him to Anderson, which resulted in his second and only other role as an extra on the Grand Budapest Hotel). In Lost in Translation, Nomura basically plays himself and can be seen in the famous karaoke scene with Bill Murray.
"When we made Lost in Translation, all the American team were kind of anxious about the reaction, because, you know, we made fun of [Japanese] sometime in the movie," he says. "You can't make everybody love you, but many people get it and appreciate how beautifully shot the scene was in Shibuya or the karaoke, because nobody had done that before, you know? So I think the way Wes captured Japan [in Isle of Dogs], I think all the Japanese would really appreciate the beauty."
There is, for instance, an absurdly long and detailed scene involving sushi so lovingly created in a way only Anderson would imagine. There are also lavish sets featuring Kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, Katsushika Hokusai paintings and endless nods to Kurosawa's ouvre. Alexandre Desplat's score also employs heavy use of taiko drums to break up the various chapters.
Nomura compares the overall work to Robert Frank's The Americans, a highly influential book of photography documenting post-war American life. "It's one of the greatest photography books capturing the real view of America, but actually he's not from America," he says of Frank, who was born in Switzerland. "It's always the outsider that has a really good view."
Isle of Dogs opens in theatres March 23