The Red Turtle
Silent tale of survival holds surprising depth
The Red Turtle (2017)
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit
Among lovers of quality animation, the release of a new film from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli is always cause for celebration. The studio has a history of producing animation of rare style, simplicity and intelligence. There’s no mistaking it: The studio’s latest effort, the Academy Award-nominated The Red Turtle, is positively hypnotic in its straighforward, translucent beauty. Despite—or perhaps because of—its out-of-the-ordinary qualities, however, this poetic survival tale is sure to create a stir.
For starters, the film is not the work of famed studio head Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). In fact, it’s directed by Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit (who gave us such award-winning shorts as “The Monk and the Fish” and “Father and Daughter”). That makes this the first non-Japanese film ever produced by Studio Ghibli. Secondly, the film contains no dialogue whatsoever. With its progression of striking yet soothing images The Red Turtle is at times more meditation than movie. But the universal story those images so effortlessly relate makes this a masterpiece of elegance and economy.
The film begins with a castaway washing up on the shore of a deserted tropical isle. We are given no other information. We don’t know the time period or the location or even the name of our protagonist. He struggles in the waves, and the ocean spits him up onto the shore of an empty and oppressively green island. And that is very nearly the beginning and the end of it. He’s stuck here, and he’s just going to have to make a life of it.
Immediately, viewers will be struck by the art style—which looks quite a bit different from your typical Japanese anime. This looks much more ... well, European. With his simple, black dot eyes, our protagonist could easily have wandered off the pages of Hergé (creator of the Tintin books). The black outlines in anime tend to be sharp and angular. Here, they are loose—almost casual. In anime colors tend to cluster in large, bright blocks. Here, the hues bleed into one another like watercolors. The blue on blue of the ocean and the green on green of the island are differentiated in a dozen subtle shades of ombré. It comes as no real surprise to find that de Wit spent nine years laboring over this Zen-like tapestry of a film.
The story isn’t about pushing a narrative. It’s about mood and tone. Our silent Robinson Crusoe wanders about his island, engaging in the simplest acts of survival. There is tension (like when he slips and falls into a sea cave). There is humor (in the Greek chorus of sand crabs that follow him around). There is mystery. (His every attempt to sail away from the island appears to be arrested by some unseen force.) But this is not about narrative thrust or character arc. Like a Terrence Malick film minus the ponderous pretension, this is about the steady rhythms of nature—and by extension, life itself. Stripped down to its barest bones, life is little more than the metronomic in and out of the tide, the consistent pulse of a heartbeat.
In time, the film takes on a more mystical tint, and our lonely islander is gifted with a companion to share his isolation. The entire rest of the film could be summed up in a couple more sentences, but it’s really not necessary. The few surprises the film holds are so delicate, a mere word or two about them would spoil the mood.
The Red Turtle isn’t a film you analyze too deeply. It’s like a fable that has been pared back to its essence, stripped off all but its essentials, denuded of extraneous material. Though it contains only the most basic of elements, watching it is like witnessing the creation of a tiny miracle. By the end you may find yourself surprised at how deeply you feel its unspoken emotions: isolation, loneliness, companionship, love, separation. It is not a motion picture you watch, so much as a slow wave of sensation that you just sit back and let wash over you. Perhaps more than once.