The Struggle for Earth, Family, Life and Nature
by Shy K. Segev
The Red Turtle is the new film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which previously produced Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. A co-production between Ghibli and German distributors Wild Bunch, it was directed by the Dutch- British director Michaël Dudok de Wit and brought to the screen with the assistance of French producers.
Given this international collaboration, one might expect an uninspired, slow and awkward film. Not so: this alliance between speakers of different languages has spawned a film with no dialogue. However, the lack of speech might be a gimmick if it didn’t connect so well with the film’s themes or add strength to its emotional, poetic atmosphere.
The Red Turtle is a hand-drawn 80-minute animation. Each frame looks as if it was pulled out of a gallery and projected onscreen. But the film doesn’t rely purely on impressive technical work – it provides a philosophical and intriguing story. It tells the story of a man whose background is unknown to the audience. One day he is swept away to a desert island. To reveal any more would be a terrible spoiler, since the film does not build its story in a traditional way – it is difficult even to define its premise. Key events occur one after the other, without a clear narrative to them – there is no major conflict that holds everything together or expository scene which tells us about the characters’ goals and experiences. Sometimes this is a weakness. But for the most part, this structure only enhances the story, giving it a rich mythical ambience.
The movie is a metaphor for a long, complex, thoughtful but unforgettable experience. This is usually the kind of cinema I usually cannot stand, but The Red Turtle succeeds on all levels. It depicts an existentialist process: the story of a man who repeatedly encounters chaotic nature and learns to accept chaos as part of life. The image of the turtle is a perfect emblem for this – a creature with a home (on ??its back), symbolizing a random island, and accepting randomness as part of its experience. The human protagonist tries to reject this approach (indirectly through the image of the turtle and more directly through the sea and the island), sometimes violently, but finally accepts it and becomes part of it.
This existentialism is represented through expressive and sweeping drawings. On occasion the film risks becoming boring festival bait, but escapes each time thanks to the wisdom of its approach.
If poetic movies aren’t really your cup of tea, I recommend you drink a different cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fascinating journey, presented with modesty and good taste, which determinedly dives headfirst into themes such as the relationship between nature and man, family and existence, the environment, and the journey of a person who learns to accept chaos, then go see The Red Turtle as soon as possible.
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2016