Published on December 1st, 2016 | by Nathan Raine0
The Red Turtle
Japan’s Studio Ghibli collaberate with Dutch animator and director Michael Dudok de Wit to bring us a minimal but affecting story with The Red Turtle.
Known for its austere visual style and lyrical fables, Japan’s Studio Ghibli is perhaps the world’s most respected animation studio — and certainly the most refined in their rigorously detailed aesthetic. Their newest feature, the simple and brilliant The Red Turtle, a first collaboration with Dutch animator/director Michael Dudok de Wit, again reminds how uniquely hypnotizing the medium can be. Dudok de Wit, similar to his Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter, employs a dialogue-free simplicity to the narrative which allows it’s metaphors and images to breathe. The result is a quiet, dreamy survival story that seems to discreetly hint at some deeper universal truths.
It’s story is simple and familiar territory; an unnamed sailor finds himself washed ashore on a resource-rich but entirely deserted island. The man is desperate to reclaim his life, which he believes exists away from the island. He finds fruit, small critters, and a fresh water pond in a small meadow to sustain life, and eventually, fallen bamboo shoots to build a raft and take him home to civilization. But every time the man casts out from the island, he’s obstructed by a giant red sea turtle, who destroys his life-saving vessel. The man, doggedly determined to escape the island, builds bigger and stronger rafts, only to realize how hopeless he is against nature. Through almost the entirety of the film, Dudok de Wit maintains a safe distance from the man, framing him against the vastness of the sea, making his fragility of the man painfully real. And it’s here Dudok de Wit begins to develop the light allegorical accents of the story, as it nature itself is working against the man — both sea and man needing to find a way to exist in harmony.
The following act delves lightly into a bit of mysticism, where man and nature seem to bond together in a sort of paradise-regained theme. Dudok de Wit’s style and approach is so minimalist, his character almost so entirely devoid of features, that the audience almost necessarily will inhabit both that character and the island itself — the technique creating a strange, nonverbal emotional impact. A short dream sequence hints at the only connection to his past life and the outside world, where a string quartet plays classical music on the shoreline. A small portion of the film’s latter half settles into a more comfortable drift, nearly free from conflict. The new characters that spring up therefore feel a little undeveloped, and serve more as metaphor than actual characters, rendering the placidly simple third act almost simplistic.
But Dudok de Wit gently isolates his viewer into the island and the basic needs of the characters, making every experience feel either apocalyptic or like a brush of Eden. The The Red Turtle’s greatness lies in its resistance to apply any sort of explicit meaning to its more allusive and surreal elements, inviting interpretation from the viewer. The man awakens near the end, revealing how he has come to find meaning and harmony in nature. Or perhaps I’m entirely wrong. Interpretations, like any good parable, will be vast. The film is a masterstroke of minimalist vision, allowing its audience to ponder the complexities of human’s place in nature, or simply the beauty in which a turtle swims along through the water.