It is rare that a film can seem to be poetry, and that may be even more difficult when the film has no dialogue. Yet The Red Turtle manages to be just that. It certainly has the elements of myth and legend, but it is at its core the story of humanity as seen in a man and the life that he lives out in a self-contained world.
Dutch animator Michael Dudok De Wit’s Oscar winning animated short Father and Daughter (2000) so impressed Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, that he was invited to be the first non-Japanese director to make a film for the studio. And so began a multinational collaboration that has yielded a beautiful and moving film. The animation is somewhat different than we often find in Studio Ghibli films, but it has a beauty and power of its own.
[Synopsis includes material that might be considered spoilers, but only mildly.]
The film opens with a man tumbling about in a stormy sea. He eventually finds his way to the shore of a deserted tropical island. As he explores he discovers there is ample fruit and fresh water. But he begins to build a raft to head back to the larger world. But a giant red sea turtle keeps breaking apart the raft. When the turtle comes ashore, the man’s anger gets the best of him. He flips the turtle to its back to kill it. Yet through some mystery, the turtle is transformed, and so too is the man’s life.
After killing the turtle, the man has remorse and tries to save it. But to his surprise the carapace splits open and a woman’s body has replaced the turtle’s. He cares for the woman who soon becomes his companion on the island. They have a son who has a special affinity with the turtles. The various events that make up human life play out through the years.
[End of spoilers]
The story gives no hint to the time this may be happening or the man’s origin. In essence he is not so much a man as Man. As the film plays out he has times of joy and sorrow. He faces trials, but he also experiences a fullness of life.
Of course the first story brought to mind is Robinson Caruso, but that would be to oversimplify this film. Robinson Caruso is a story of a man overcoming his environment—of establishing a kind of dominion over nature. That is not the case with The Red Turtle. Instead we go through a discovery process that is not about man versus nature, but rather man within nature.
The film also invokes the biblical story of Eden (and other creation myths). What does it mean to live one’s life in what might be seen as a paradise (or as a prison). In the Eden story Adam is entrusted with the Garden. In this story it seems much more like the man is entrusted to the island.
Studio Ghibli films almost always have a strong ecological element. This story is certainly a part of that tradition. The island is a wonderful ecosystem of plants, birds, crabs (the slightly comedic element of the film), and the sea that surrounds it. The man is an interloper to this place. To what extent will his presence enhance or diminish the balance of nature? When he builds rafts, most of the materials are dead plants, so he’s not destroying things. He takes advantage of various things he can scavenge. His fishing is not enough to harm things. So he generally is not the menace to the environment that humankind has been in recent decades. Rather, he seems to fit into this setting—especially after the turtle’s transformation. Whereas originally the man is a foreigner, as time passes we see that he is at home in this setting. This is his ecosystem.
This is a film rich in possibilities for further consideration. We might wonder what it means to be human in a natural world by comparing this man to the biblical Adam. What does it mean to “have dominion” over creation, as Genesis puts it, and how is that different than the way this man relates to the environment? Or we might consider what it is that makes for a good and happy life? How do the catastrophes of life (such as being shipwrecked) shape our lives and how do we find happiness in the aftermath of tragedy? What is the role of other people in making our lives content?
Special features on the Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack include comentary by de Wit, the Q&A at AFI Fest, and two featurettes, “The Birth of the Red Turtle” and “The Secrets of the Red Turtle.”