Why Isle of Dogs is Problematic for Asian-Americans in Movies

dog in a rice hat
Oh hi Dog-kun

A few days ago I posted an article about the new Wes Anderson movie “Isle of Dogs” to my Facebook account. It was an article about how some reviewers noticed that the movie was marginalizing Japanese culture. I expected the usual, a few friends like it, a few friends post some comments that agree with it, and most people ignore it. What I didn’t expect was to get into a 24 hour long argument with my friend Alejandro over our ideas about art, culture, politics, and diversity in media. Other friends contributed their ideas to the argument, but what we could all agree upon was there is a problem in American media. The problem is that Asian people are barely visible, and when they are, they are usually secondary characters, treated as props, or just a background to non Asian people.

What’s Got My Underwear All Up in A Bunch?

Let’s take this back to the beginning, it all started with an article from IndieWire titled Isle of Dogs’ Backlash: Wes Anderson Criticized for Racial Stereotypes and ‘Marginalizing Japanese Culture. “Isle of Dogs” by Wes Anderson is currently sitting comfortably at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said in his review “Wes Anderson’s joyous stop-motion feature looks and sounds like nothing we’ve encountered before, including his previous stop-motion feature, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which was pretty wonderful too”. A review written by Chris Klimek of NPR states “Isle of Dogs takes Best in Show”. This is what most reviews look like. I had also noticed that on social media many people were posting the trailer and gushing over how good the movie looked like it was going to be. I even saw some friends of mine had “liked” the movie on Facebook before it had even come out. Don’t get me wrong, the movie actually looks really good. I’m a fan of Wes Anderson’s work, but just because something is a good piece of art, does that exclude it from being problematic?

That’s where something seemed off, there was lots of praise and anticipation for “Isle of Dogs”, but a little backlash as well. In Odie Henderson’s review on RogerEbert.com he states “This is a film where a character is literally whitewashed, an act that makes him more agreeable afterwards. Isle of Dogs treats this as a sight gag. It plays more like a confession.” In The Christian Science Monitor’s review, Peter Rainer admits that the film “… is almost fetishistically patterned.”, but he ends his review stating “… I was transfixed. There is so much to look at in “Isle of Dogs” that a second viewing is almost mandatory. You can forgive its fetishism”. Justin Chang of the LA Times stated, “It’s in the director’s handling of the story’s human factor that his sensitivity falters, and the weakness for racial stereotyping that has sometimes marred his work comes to the fore”. In a few of these reviews, some familiar terms kept popping up. Whitewashing, cultural insensitivity, cultural appropriation, you get the idea. Even though a few people were pointing it out, it hadn’t picked up much steam in the media, like many other movies or TV shows that had been accused of the same in the past few years.

This is why I felt the need to write this article. Most of the time, I don’t bring up the problems with the way Asian people are treated in television and film on social media, because honestly, I feel like other people do it enough for me. I’m not even talking about the stuff that happened a long time ago like Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi.

Picture of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's
Holy shit can you believe this? Source

Also let’s hope nobody forgot that John Wayne played Genghis Khan.

Picture of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror
I died of a nosebleed, pilgrim.

These past few years, several movies have come under fire on social media for how they were treating Asian people. Here are some of the instances:

Doctor Strange (2016)

Tilda Swinton is cast as the Ancient one, a character originally Asian in the comics. As with many of these movies, a large amount of backlash was experienced and many people on the project gave their reasons as to why they went with this choice. Producer Kevin Feige tried to say they wanted to avoid a stereotype stating “I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical”. One of the writers of Doctor Strange, C. Robert Cargill, said in a Double Toasted interview that the decision was political. He said “The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people…” So to avoid political backlash in China they set it in Nepal instead of Tibet. But that brings up the question, if they set it in Nepal why wouldn’t they just make the Ancient One Nepalese instead of white? The only person on the project who owned up to what happened was the director Scott Derrickson, “The angry voices and the loud voices that are out there I think are necessary… And if it pushes up against this film, I can’t say I don’t support it. Because how else is it going to change? This is just the way we’ve got to go to progress, and whatever price I have to pay for the decision I’ve made, I’m willing to pay”.

Picture of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange
If we erase one marginalized person but insert another marginalized person in their place, that makes it okay right? Photo via Marvel

Iron Fist (2017)

The casting of the actor Finn Jones as the lead character Danny Rand. Though the character was originally white in the comics, this casting was still considered problematic. Some people may give the reasoning that Danny was white in the comics as enough of a reason for him to be white in the show, but it’s not. The Iron Fist character needs to evolve–just because something was done a certain way in the past, doesn’t mean it isn’t an opportunity to do something different in the present day. Luke Cage started as a very racist parody of black culture, and is now something completely different. I can explain more, but that’s for another article altogether. Another surprising fact that most people may not know is that they were actually auditioning Asian American actors for the role of Danny Rand, but ultimately ended up going with a white actor anyway. When people got wind of it, social media did what it does best, memify it.

Meme that says "you vs. the guy she tells you not to worry about" with Finn Jones on the left and an Asian actor on the right
I wish I was clever enough to go viral like this. Source

Ghost in The Shell (2017)

Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major in the live action production of Ghost in The Shell. This is one that was very divisive because some people believed Major was white person in the comics as well, that’s a different debate entirely. A rough premise of the movie is that the main character is a woman with an artificial robot body. Through a bunch of drama and action you eventually find out that the main character was a originally a Japanese woman, but they put her brain in a white woman’s body. Marketing for Ghost in The Shell gave people the opportunity to create their own marketing material with a promotional photo generator. Many people on the internet took it as their opportunity to lambaste this movie for it’s casting choices.

Meme that says "I am oblivious to my white privilege." superimposed over Scarlett Johansson
Never has whitewashing looked so sensual. Source
Meme that says "I am the woman that should've been cast" superimposed over an Asian actress
Maybe the movie wouldn’t have flopped if she was cast. Source

I could go on for a while, but here are some more quick examples:

  • Kubo and The Two Strings (2016), another film set in an Asian background, but with a majority white cast.
  • The Martian (2015), which had two Asian characters in the book, but were both changed to non Asian characters in the movie.
  • Aloha (2015), which had Emma Stone play Allison Ng, a character that was originally a quarter Asian in the source material.
    Meme that says "I am expecting you to believe I am Asian" superimposed over Emma Stone
    Ghost in The Shell Meme strikes again. Source

It’s a lot right? I’m only naming some big ones from the past three years. But why don’t we take a look at how things are progressing for other minorities in American media.

Coco (2017) came out last year and has been well received by critics and audiences alike. It has an almost entirely Latino cast and comes off as a sincere love letter to Mexican culture.

Black Panther (2018) is another film regarded as an achievement for minorities. It appeals to almost all audiences, pleasing critics, casual viewers, hardcore comic fans and so on. Not only does it have a black director, black writers, and majority black cast, it also comes off as an homage to African culture while still tastefully acknowledging the great injustices to black people throughout history. It also is totally crushing box office numbers, recently surpassing The Avengers as the highest grossing domestic superhero movie. All in all, it’s not just a home run, it’s a triple.

I’m in no way saying that now that these movies have been made everything is better. I’m only saying it’s a start. The ball is finally rolling in the right direction and movies are being made in America that celebrate other cultures and represent people of color. So why is there such a contrast with Asian cultures? Asian cultural appropriation or Asian erasure in American media seems to be happening constantly. All of these movies put a great amount of effort into having an Asian setting or inspiration, but make almost no effort into having an Asian cast. It’s quite the contrary, it seems as if all of the effort is being put into justifying why Asian people aren’t the focus in these movies. To add to that, there are also situations like Aloha and The Martian, which had characters that were originally Asian in the books but just cast them as non Asian people in the movies for no reason.

So when I saw the trailer for “Isle of Dogs” and the cast, I thought to myself ‘not again, aren’t we past this shit?’. I expected the same backlash that was given for all the other movies and TV shows that did something similar. But all I saw was praise and anticipation. I thought maybe I was alone in this one, that maybe because Wes Anderson is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, people would forgive this one. Then I saw the IndieWire article criticizing Asian stereotypes and the marginalization of Japanese culture. I thought to myself “finally”. I knew I wasn’t alone.

This brings me to the conversation I had with a few of my friends. It was a very beneficial conversation that I believe brought new ideas to everyone who participated. It really does raise lots of questions. I’m here to give my many reasons why a movie like Isle of Dogs actually is problematic, why we should be paying attention to this problem, and why something like this shouldn’t be happening right now.

Before we jump in, here are some short bios on everyone involved in the conversation:

  • Alejandro Urena – A writer for this blog and a friend who I’ve known for a long time but originally met at a job interview for Barnes and Noble. He probably doesn’t remember that.
  • Michael Spinelli – A fellow actor who I met during my time studying theatre in college. He’s probably seen me cry after being yelled at by a teacher.
  • Alicia Rae – Makeup artist extraordinaire who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a film that had long hours and little sleep.
  • Kyle Stephens – Long time friend who shares similar obscure musical interests and promised to make me a cake for my birthday ten years ago. He hasn’t made the cake yet.
  • Cong Guo – Asian-American actor and friend who I met on an overnight shoot where they made us wear loincloths in 30 degree weather. He’s gone viral on Reddit a few times.
  • Austin Amberg – Bff and musician who also occasionally writes scores for films. We used to play in a band together. The two of us met when he hit me with a giant pizza box in high school. We talk about this kind of stuff all the time.
  • Shaun Morris – Filmmaker and friend who I’ve collaborated with probably a dozen times. Occasionally we play Dungeons and Dragons.

The Facebook Squabble That Swallowed My Whole Day

The conversation first started with my sharing of the aforementioned Indiewire article about how Isle of Dogs only trivially engages with its Japanese setting:

Screen capture of my Facebook post sharing the IndieWire article
Tbh I’m a little bummed no one “liked” my initial post.

My circle of friends then began discussing the issues surrounding this movie. The first counterargument I engaged with was given by my friend Alejandro. (Reader beware, I’ve edited some of the comments to help with the flow of the conversation):

CounterArgument #1: Can’t really fault Wes Anderson for it, he always makes movies with the same type of cast.

Alejandro Urena… I personally can’t fault Anderson for not realizing he would offend people, his movies are always about rich white families with problems and reuses lots of the same cast…”

Michael Spinelli I think you can absolutely fault Wes Anderson, a famous and successful filmmaker with a huge team of artists under his helm for blatantly profiting off of a stereotype of another culture which, tbh, has already made masterful animation depicting their own culture. It reads on screen like WWII anti-japan propaganda. The scenes with only dogs are wonderfully charming and engaging but the scenes with humans were painful.

Alicia Rae I find it very very very hard to believe that a smart guy like Wes Anderson hasn’t heard the news about Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist, etc and didn’t understand the conversation surrounding it. One can only assume he did not care. The problem isn’t with the rich white family trope which he uses and loves. It’s setting your story against the backdrop of a culture that isn’t yours because you find it ~beautiful and exotic, but then including nothing from that culture in the film. As the article mentions, the dogs barks have all been translated into English while the Japanese boy’s lines are rarely even subtitled. Why don’t Asian people get a voice in movies set in their home? Anderson himself said the movie could’ve been set anywhere – great! Don’t use Asian aesthetic and Asian people for props then. You can enjoy someone’s movies and respect them while still calling out the things they do wrong. He can listen to these criticisms and try to do better, or he can keep making the same old things. No one is going to force him at gunpoint. But talking about it is great because it’s the only way anything will change.

Cyrus Soliman I think Alicia and Michael have a good point and used all the words up so I don’t have much to say. To not realize what he’s doing at this point in time is just incredibly tone deaf.

Alejandro Urena Discussion is always good. I hear what you’re saying, though comparing it to WWII propaganda is a very charged accusation. Can’t speak on that though, I’ll try to watch it tonight and share my thoughts. I was personally intrigued by the artistic choice to not use subtitles as long as it is clear what the characters are saying. I wonder what the Japanese think [of] this film.

To add to the point Alicia made about using an Asian backdrop, but not featuring Asian voices, it brings up the question about why the dogs don’t have Asian personalities.

Shaun Morris It’s pretty maddening. These dogs are Japanese dogs, so unless we presume that dogs have the mentality of white people, they should culturally mirror Japanese people. It’s so nagging to me, because I’ll always be thinking this isn’t what a Japanese dog would do.

Cyrus Soliman Actually one would question why the dogs aren’t more Japanese and don’t understand the people around them. Dogs do have the capacity to understand limited language.

For context, I want to point out that dog breeds found in different countries do have personalities that are more similar to the culture they are raised in. Now I know that this is a work of fiction, but it hearkens back to the question of why the dogs can’t understand what the Japanese people in the film are saying. Most well trained dogs in America usually understand when I tell them to sit. I’m not saying that a work of fiction has to be just like real life, I’m just saying the logic of the dogs not being able to understand what the people are saying isn’t really all that sound.

Alejandro did bring up a good point, what do Japanese people think about the film? After an hour or so he brought in a Deadline article that detailed the collaboration between Wes Anderson and Kunichi Nomura on his film. This brings it to the next point:

CounterArgument #2: Kunichi Nomura worked on Isle of Dogs and gave it his okay.

Alejandro Urena ‘Isle Of Dogs’: Kunichi Nomura On The Asian Authenticity Of Wes Anderson’s Stop-Motion Canine Adventure

Cyrus Soliman Just because one person worked on it and said it was okay [it] does not account for everyone’s opinion on it. Even if people in Japan felt it was okay, it would still not be okay. It’s an American film that’s appropriating an Asian culture. The plight that’s experienced is an Asian American one. Because no matter what anyone in Japan feels, Asian people are still marginalized in American media.

Kyle came in and shared an article that perfectly stated what I was trying to express.

Kyle Stephens I Don’t Care if Asians in Asia Aren’t Offended by Offensive Asian Portrayals in Hollywood Movies

Cyrus Soliman …[This is] exactly how I feel about people’s opinions in Asia as an Asian American person. They don’t live here so they don’t have the same experiences as I share with many Asian people in America. I see it like, they aren’t me or my opinion, should we be tallying Asian people around the world’s opinion to see if something is okay? Of course not. People in America have a problem with something, so it should be acknowledged, not cross examined by someone from a different country to see if it’s okay.

Cong Guo Like the yomyomf article says, I think it’s funny that they always get some Asians in Asia to say “oh I don’t see a problem with this” as [if this is] some reason [why] Asians overseas are wrong, especially since they bust a gasket when Chinese people play Japanese characters and vise versa in movies…

To bring more context to what Cong said, it’s pretty well known that people in China get upset when someone who is Japanese plays someone who is Chinese or any other Asian person playing an Asian of a different ethnicity. The best comparison I could make for it is if someone who is Russian got angry that Scarlett Johansson was playing Black Widow because she’s not actually Russian, but that doesn’t happen. Cong’s example perfectly summed up that people who live in Asia have different concerns about media than people who have roots in Asia, but live in America.

CounterArgument #3: Would you consider something like Kubo and the Two Strings cultural appropriation too? Aren’t we going too far with all the cultural appropriation charges?

Alejandro Urena Not trying to downplay that it’s frustrating to Asian American actors to see an Asian themed movie played with whiteys, even if it is a Wes Anderson original. Just thought it addresses some of the previous comments. I still don’t totally understand the appropriation allegation myself. Would you consider Kubo and Two Strings cultural appropriation?

Cyrus Soliman I think in regards to Kubo, Isle of Dogs, Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, etc etc, the question that everyone should be asking is, why is something made by Americans set in a other cultures and why are the main focuses of that piece not the people in the culture? I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong to do that. What I am saying is it’s very common in Hollywood for people of status to take from a culture for their benefit when they really have nothing to do with that [culture] and for others who are directly involved with [that culture or share roots with it] to not have the same opportunity.

Forget dogs, forget original comic storylines, forget all the reasons people come up with for why it’s justified for certain people to be cast in certain roles and ask yourself something really simple. What if in the new Spider-Man movie Miles was voiced by a white kid?

In my previous comment I brought up two points that Alejandro acknowledged in his next comment, which brings up the next two points:

CounterArgument #4: Anderson tried to make it as respectfully as he could, should he be bashed for that? He’s just a symptom so the anger is misplaced. Artists shouldn’t be held back by identity politics.

CounterArgument #5:  It’s justified for certain people to be cast in certain roles if their race isn’t integral to the character. Something like Miles Morales being cast as a white person is a completely different instance because that would never happen so you can’t compare it to this.

Alejandro Urena You’re right it is unfortunate that there is still a lack of diversity in entertainment especially behind the camera and in terms of production roles. I just don’t agree with bashing Anderson for making what he wanted to make as respectfully as he honestly could, he didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think he’s adding to the problem, he’s merely a symptom. The frustration is understandable but the anger is misplaced imo. Wes or any other artist shouldn’t feel held back by identity politics. That’s where we want to get to, a world where that doesn’t matter anymore. We as minorities have been working our asses off for representation and I have no doubt that the entertainment biz will eventually catch up to the times. It has to and is already making bigger strides than ever. Also your question is pretty loaded, that’s almost like saying Ryan Gosling for Black Panther. It wouldn’t happen because it’s truly integral to the character and his source material. You can’t really say that about your examples.

At this point, Austin chimes in to point out that there have actually been instances where Asian characters in comics have been recast as non Asian characters in movies.

Austin Amberg Ancient one is Asian in the comics and they changed that so I think that’s a fair example. I get the reasons why they went against it but it isn’t great. Wanna talk about politics…. Anyway, even Scott Derrickson [the director of Doctor Strange] admitted that it was hurtful to people and that he was unaware of the issue. The problem isn’t identity politics, it is identity erasure. Treating Japanese people like props is the problem. Wes Anderson could have hired Japanese voice actors for the Japanese dogs and the dogs still feel like their own world. It isn’t like there aren’t amazing Japanese voice actors out there to do the job. Or even hiring Japanese voice actors and having it take place in London where the real Isle of dogs is. Have the English speaking people speak nonsense. There are plenty of other ways to go about what he wanted to do.

While I agree Wes Anderson is not the problem, it is important to point out when something someone does is not helping. I don’t want excuses or loopholes that justify it, I want acknowledgement that what happened hurt people and an open discussion about it. Even if intentions are pure, the actions still mean something.

Cyrus Soliman The thing is you can’t just give people a pass for being ignorant of the situation. Calling attention to a situation isn’t attacking a person, it’s simply calling attention to what happened. I also have to respectfully disagree with how being a symptom of a problem is not adding to it. That literally is the problem, that certain types of people are treated as props or lesser for the benefits of others. Like Austin said this isn’t about identity politics, this isn’t about politics. This is a real problem in media that affects people and causes others not only to not be seen as much, but also to have stifled careers because of it. Trust me when I say it literally affects my livelihood. I also think it’s fair for me bring up the Miles Morales thing as an example because it IS absurd and would never happen [for that specific character, but it has happened to Asian characters]. That’s the point I’m trying to prove, I’m trying to say, why does it happen to Asian people when it would never happen to someone like the Black Panther?

Cyrus Soliman I need to add that acting in the interest of how we want things to be is something that we CAN do but it’s ignoring what’s actually happening right now. Sure, we want to get to a point where people can do what they want and it won’t affect people, but right now it DOES affect people and we can’t ignore that.

CounterArgument 6: Isle of Dogs isn’t really adding to the problem, it just points to the real problem: that there aren’t enough minorities in Hollywood making films so there are less minorities portraying their own cultures. Anderson just wanted to make a movie set somewhere cool and that’s all it is–he’s not really stealing/appropriating culture. He tried to make it tastefully and co-wrote it with a Japanese collaborator. It’s not that we need less white-led films, we just need more minorities making movies. People shouldn’t feel victimized by films where they still tried to make it respectful to the original culture.

Alejandro Urena I think where we differ is that we see the problem differently. To me the real and underlying issue is that there aren’t enough minorities making hollywood films to begin with so there’s less examples of them making films that portray their own culture how they see it. There’s lots of reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that white and usually male filmmakers are grandfathered into the system. No matter the reason, that has to change. I do not however, blame (white) directors for perpetuating this issue. Any culture is fair game as far as I’m concerned as long as they legitimately attempt to make the movie tastefully. Not having seen the movie, I think it’s a big accusation to say that he’s using Japanese culture/people as props, if I find that to be true, I would honestly be very upset. I don’t think Anderson was being ignorant though, he co wrote it with his collaborator who lives in Japan and constantly checked for taste. I do believe Wes Anderson clearly did everything in his power to do this right. I feel like no matter what he did though, he would have received shit. It’s just how the social/political climate is right now. Like I said though, I know people are frustrated but I personally don’t see this as stealing or erasing or appropriating someone’s culture. Sometimes someone just wants to set their movie somewhere cool and that’s all it is and that’s all it can be. Japan is fair game for everyone, I personally would love to see an Asian-American led film containing Eastern culture. I don’t think getting angry at instances like these gets you anywhere though. Isle of Dogs reminds us that we don’t have enough actual Asians involved in Asian-themed movies, that’s true. Where we don’t agree is that I don’t believe that Isle of Dogs adds to the problem, it merely reminds us that it still needs fixing. It’s not that we need less white-led films involving other cultures, it’s that we need more actual minorities making movies. A lot of well-intentioned folks get those ideas conflated and feel victimized by films when I believe they shouldn’t. It doesn’t help the cause.

It’s a complex issue that’s way more about the machinations of the Hollywood machine than by the individual visions of established filmmakers and we should act with that in mind.

At this point I feel it’s necessary to stop using political buzzwords to define the problem and point out what is happening is not just about feelings, but also about how a film like this has repercussions in the real world.

Cyrus Soliman Take feelings, victimization, social politics or any politics out of the situation let’s get straight to the point I’m trying to make. Because as angry as I am, this is not about my feelings, it’s rooted in the fact that this is a business. A business that benefits some people and doesn’t benefit others even though their culture is being borrowed from.

To me this isn’t about Asian people telling Asian stories. It’s about white people using Asian culture to tell white stories while Asian people can’t even be a significant part of any stories, let alone tell their own.

Let’s break down the hard facts that have nothing to do with artistry or taste. How many writers are credited on the production? Five, one of which is Japanese. How many producers are credited on the production? Four, none of which are Japanese. How many people are credited as casting director? Two, one of which is Japanese and [is] also the same guy credited in writing. I’m not going to get into the actors because we know the answer here. The point I’m trying to make here is I’m not going to argue over the semantics of cultural appropriation. Is it, isn’t it? Who cares. What I’m trying to point out is fact, it’s a production that was led by a large amount of white people with the consultation of one person who wasn’t white. Remember my point was this is also a business, so it’s a profit being made for a bunch of people that aren’t Japanese even though it’s definitely using the Japanese culture for its advantage.

These facts are a problem, how do you fix a problem? First step, by acknowledging it. The article I originally shared was not one person’s opinion of a movie they had not seen, it was a collection of opinions of multiple critics who had already seen the movie. What I’m trying to say is who cares if he tried, people can still try and fail.

To acknowledge that multiple people believe Wes Anderson was tone deaf is not going to harm anyone, it’s the first step in making a change. To acknowledge a symptom isn’t villainizing it either. It’s simply calling attention to it to try and get the ball rolling on the society’s collective conscience about the situation.

To claim that something like this does not perpetuate a problem is incorrect. Here’s a hypothetical situation that is very much close to the reality of behind the scenes. A movie is made that borrows heavily from Asian culture, but stars white actors and is successful. That sends the message “look at what these people have done, we should keep doing this”. The film industry operates on patterns, they try to follow successful patterns. So to say a symptom doesn’t perpetuate a problem ignores the fact that if a pattern is successful it is actually the reason why a practice will continue. To call attention to it will not harm anyone, all it will do is show that people want the pattern to be broken.

Saying you just want more filmmakers who are people of color doesn’t acknowledge that white film makers are still kind of the gatekeepers to this industry. I keep coming back to Black Panther because it’s the first of its kind, black director, black writers, majority black actors with a blockbuster budget. But for as amazing as Black Panther was, it’s important to ask the question I’ve asked multiple times before. How many producers are credited on it? Seven, only one of which was not white. How many people are credited as casting director? One, who is white. Black Panther was only allowed to happen because white producers said it could.

So when I’m trying to bring attention to Isle of Dogs, I’m not trying to discredit Wes Anderson’s artistic merit. I’m trying to say hey look at this entire system that allowed Wes Anderson to be tone deaf about the situation regarding Asians in American media and how it’s a problem that seems to keep happening.

Just hoping that one day film makers who are people of color will rise to the top isn’t enough. The only way this will progress is if someone high up goes ‘hm okay maybe people aren’t just interested in Asian settings, maybe they are interested in Asian people too’. But if films keep getting made that take Asian culture and settings but all of the focus is white actors, that sends the message that Asian people aren’t a necessary part of the equation.

You say that we differ because of how I place “blame” on white directors. But the point I’m trying to make is that it’s a very intricate system of supply and demand that does actually perpetuate behaviors based off of monetary patterns. So even if someone just wants to do something artistically, it’s important to know that it’s a giant system that really does affect everything else.

I understand that somewhere deep down we all care about the ideal world in which art can be created, where anyone can make anything they want because it would be nice if everyone was artistically satisfied. But the reality of the situation is that will never happen [if this continues]. The reality is right now in America, Asian people are statistically the least seen. I’m not operating in an ideal artistic world, we can’t act with ideals in mind because there are problems we need to acknowledge and fix first. Because of that I’m concerned about the reality of the logistics of how to change what I can change as soon as possible. The fastest way to do that is pull the veil back for people to see what’s happening.

CounterArgument 7: People are quick to project evil intentions on filmmakers without digging further into why a film is the way it is. What’s the line between an homage and cultural appropriation in a film? For example, would Quentin Tarantino be criticized so widely if Kill Bill had come out today?

Alejandro Urena You do make a good point, there aren’t too many opportunities for the issue to really be shown on a grand scale so it makes sense this comes up every time an Asian-inspired film comes up. More people should realize that the diversity status-quo sucks, bottom line. It’s a complex issue, It just irks me that people are so quick to project malice on filmmakers without really digging further as to why it is that way. I guess I may just have to accept that the collateral damage on part of the filmmaker’s reputation is part of the process. I know you understand the intricacies of the issue and can separate the ideas, but just by glancing at some of the other comments on this post I see a lot of misplaced anger.

For example, I love foreign Asian movies, I wonder if I were to make one set in Korea, would I get the same treatment? I just finished rewatching Kill Bill and got me thinking if that came out today, would QT receive this level of vitriol? Does he deserve it? He made the best and loving homage he could make and I would want to make something with the same admiration, not appropriation. It almost seems nearly impossible to make a movie like this without offending anyone.

Maybe I’m wrong in saying that complaining about these movies doesn’t get us anywhere, hopefully I am and the scene changes even faster.

Again thanks for listening at least, I don’t contribute to these kinds of discussions to look down on other opinions. I do it for myself, I value other perspectives and will at the very least, always make note of them. Hope it goes both ways. Much love Cyrus.

Cyrus Soliman You know you bring up a good point about Quentin and Kill Bill, which is a great movie. But he probably couldn’t make that movie now [without some backlash]. The important thing to remember about that situation though is time and place. Right now is a bad time to make a movie like that because of the long string of media that has come out in the past few years treating Asian people a certain way. Will it always be though? That depends on how things evolve in the society and the movie industry, which of course I hope is for the benefit of all artists.

At this point, I think everyone had thoroughly made their points and had come out of it for the better. So here’s how the conversation ended.

Cyrus Soliman Btw thanks bro for making me write literally a 1,000 word essay on my issues [with] one part of the entertainment industry. I feel like I’m college again lol.

Alejandro Urena I always relish the opportunity to get into the nitty gritty of an important topic!

Stick figures high fiving each other.
I tried to put a GIF of Drake and Josh hugging here, but I don’t understand copyright law enough so here are some public domain stick figure people high fiving to represent friendship.

TL;DR Though it may seem like making a movie is like “Isle of Dogs” is harmless, the movie industry perpetuates successful behavior. The only way to get things to change regarding diversity in media is to make some noise about it, and unfortunately there will be some collateral damage on the part of the artists.

Some Stuff That Happened to Me IRL

I’d like to cap it off with some of my own personal experiences within the entertainment industry. Since I am an Asian American actor myself, this subject directly affects me and has led to some unique situations. I’m in no way trying to victimize myself, I do understand that many people experience terrible treatment as actors. For every awkward or uncouth thing that has happened to me as an Asian American actor, something equally disheartening has happened to a non-Asian actor. I am simply sharing my experience because I feel it relates to the topic at hand and I think people who aren’t in the world of entertainment might not know what someone like myself goes through.

I will not be naming any of the projects, production companies, or individuals in my personal stories. This isn’t meant to be a witch hunt, I just want to shine a spotlight on what my career looks like. Here are some, but definitely not all, of my experiences.

The most prevalent thing that happened for many years was only getting called in to audition for roles that fit Asian stereotypes. The characters had to either be pathetically nerdy or know martial arts really well. While I don’t know martial arts, I will admit I tried fitting the nerdy stereotype for a few years, but it was never fruitful (I still try to audition for them when they come up). In one instance a few years ago, I auditioned for a web series completely about hipsters. I came to the audition dressed as myself.

Me hanging upside down in an NYC subway dressed as a hipster
Me circa 2013. I’m pretty sure my mom took this picture the day I graduated from college.

The casting director told me that I was “too cool” for the part. Turns out that even though it was a series where every character was a hipster, I was called in for the only role of a non-hipster, the nerd that they all make fun of.

Fortunately things are getting better, more roles are popping up that don’t fall into that stereotype, but they are rare and usually small inconsequential parts. One memory that perfectly shows this was a national commercial audition I had for a very big company. They have a history of making iconic commercials for their products, so I was excited for it until I read the character description. Let’s say the characters were named Steven, Todd, Georgia, and Kevin (not the actual character’s names). The character descriptions read as:

  • Steven – Kind, too polite to say anything that would make his grandmother upset.
  • Todd – A jokester, always looking to crack jokes at inappropriate times.
  • Georgia – Steven’s sweet old grandmother, but has an edgy side.
  • Kevin – African American or Asian friend.

Then I read the script and saw that the character I would be auditioning for didn’t have any lines, even though every other character did. This is just one of many job opportunities that play out almost exactly the same.

Recently a lot of my opportunities have been from playing Asian ethnicities other than my own. I’m Filipino-American, but in the last year more than half of my auditions and jobs have been for specifically Chinese or Japanese characters. This may rub some people the wrong way, but if I didn’t do it I would be working a lot less. Doing this also comes with it’s own odd or uncomfortable hurdles, like when a very big and successful cartoon calls you in and asks you to audition with a Korean accent.

When a big TV show asks you to come audition, you don’t usually say no. It was very perplexing because when I was called in, no one asked me if I was actually Korean, which had me questioning why anyone would request me specifically. I’m not Korean and this was a cartoon so it didn’t matter how I looked. In theory, it didn’t have to be an Asian person, it could be anyone who could put on that specific accent, but that opens up a completely different bag of worms. If it were a white person speaking in a Korean accent, would that be right? That raises the question, is it any less offensive that a Filipino person is making the accent just because they are Asian?

I don’t know and I didn’t get the part anyway; my Korean accent is awful.

Then there’s just the casual racism that permeates my interactions, like this script I got for one of my first auditions in Los Angeles:

Screen capture of a screenplay. Screenplay text reads: Rachel is a white girl. Arty is an Asian guy. A white girl with an Asian guy might seem highly unrealistic... but this is a movie.
Fun Fact: I couldn’t stand to throw away the script. I still have it to this day. Just kidding, I threw that shit in the trash and probably peed on it too.

Gee, thanks for the disclaimer mystery screenwriter. If you hadn’t put it in there, maybe people would have thought it was something too unfeasible to produce.

It’s all of these moments in my career that caused me to bring focus to “Isle of Dogs”. It’s not just this movie, it’s the entire ecosystem that supports this movie and dozens of others like it that I wanted to focus on. At the end of the day, the reason why this is all happening is because, for some reason, the entertainment industry still has a very limited view of Asian people. Many productions don’t portray Asian people as regular, rather they are portrayed as an other, that is, if we are lucky enough to even be considered. Oftentimes productions are made where Asian people simply wouldn’t fit into the world of the product (looking at you Georgie).

Picture of George R.R. Martin
“Well, Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world, so it is a long, long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.” Quote Source Photo Source

That’s why it’s so frustrating to see movies that would actually feasibly have Asian people in it, but then seeing them relegated to background characters.

Pardon me for getting philosophical, but I often wonder to myself why this is the case. My ponderings usually bring me back to a really specific moment in my life that I will never forget. Imagine meeting a producer of a very popular award winning production. I was a huge fan of it and you’ve definitely heard of it.

Wow cool, right? It was a really special meeting until he asked me what ethnicity I was. I answered and he followed it up with, “you’re never going to be a successful actor, no one cares about or wants to see a Filipino person”.

But you know what? I don’t believe him. At the time, it really hurt, but now it’s just one of many things that have happened. One thing we should all know is that the only constant is change. Maybe what he said at one point was true, but it won’t always be, and I’m not going to wait around for it to change. How boring would that be? It’s way more fun to roast people to speed up the process and to try doing something about the problems around me.

Cyrus Soliman
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Post Author: Cyrus Soliman

Cyrus Soliman is a Los Angeles based actor who graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Wielding his deadly BFA he is ready to destroy all challenges that stand in his way. A world class wrestling champion, with a secret collection of luchador masks, means you will never see him coming until it's too late. Cyrus has appeared in independent films, industrial commercials, all types of theatre, and even your dreams.

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