Eternality Tan
by Eternality Tan

According to director Michaël Dudok de Wit, when Studio Ghibli contacted him to collaborate on a feature-length project after seeing his superb Oscar-winning animated short, Father and Daughter (2000), he immediately wrote back to express interest— and disbelief.

The Red Turtle

Who wouldn’t? This is, after all, the animation studio that was responsible for a whole generation’s childhood, with such defining works as My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Princess Mononoke (1997). After nearly ten years of toil by the director and his team, the result is an understated work of incredible beauty and deep sparseness, and a gem of visual storytelling.

The Red Turtle is a Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away-type tale, made in a medium that gives its creators free reign to explore the existential struggle between isolation and companionship. A man is shipwrecked on an unknown island. It offers him the hope of survival, but not the hope of living.

Sensing that salvation lies at sea and its great beyond, he tries to build a raft for his journey of no return. However, his self-agency is always thwarted by something in the sea, which is none other than the titular creature, a magical animal whose presence is ambivalent.

The creature is key to the director’s perspective on the circle of life, and the passing of time—not just an expansion of the themes explored in Father and Daughter, but also philosophical preoccupations that we need to come to terms eventually as mortal beings. In a way, by going on the journey with the film’s protagonist, we become tuned out of our own world. Some may call it escapism, which movies have offered for the longest time.

However, The Red Turtle encourages us to escape within ourselves, to find introspection, and eventually to find ourselves and our place in the world. By vicariously experiencing the protagonist’s turbulent journey of hope, imagination, loss and frustration, we transpose our inner selves onto him.

The Red Turtle is slow-moving (perhaps ‘meditative’ is a better word), with zero dialogue and animated with an arthouse sensibility, therefore it could prove challenging for viewers accustomed to the hustle and bustle of, say, Disney animations, or even the narrative proficiency of Ghibli films.

That being said, most of its visuals and tone remind of the familiar sense of Ghibli wonderment. For example, the recurring motif of monkeying crabs is a source of fascination (and comic relief), much like, say, the soot balls in Spirited Away (2001). There are also scenes of the natural woods that look similar to the bamboo forest in Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013).  Not surprisingly, Takahata served as artistic producer for The Red Turtle

However, any Japanese-ness is neutered by the anglicised protagonist, suggesting a more European physical look and demeanour. For instance, gone are the huge eyes of Japanese anime characters, and in come eyes that look like dots. There’s also nothing remotely cute about the protagonist—he is simply a human, rather than a caricature or exaggeration of human likeness.

There’s no doubt that The Red Turtle is intellectually stimulating, and depending on how you read the film, it is either an ode to joy (of living with hope through imagination), or an elegy for Man’s ultimate loneliness. Either way, the film provokes in ways that animation rarely try.

After all, it is one thing to create a dialogue-less animated film set in a culturally-rich context with human and social signifiers—the French animation, The Illusionist (2010), by Sylvian Chomet, comes to mind—and another thing altogether to set a wordless story against the great silence and enigma of nature.