They say the best pictures need no words, and what are films but moving pictures? La Tortue Rouge (The Red Turtle) is the latest animated feature from Japanese giant Studio Ghibli, and has its signature themes of surreal journeys, humanity and ennui written all over it. In fact, it was the studio’s wonder child and animation maestro, Hayao Miyazaki who saw director Michael Dudok de Wit’s previous work in Father and Daughter and convinced the studio to take him on. Free of the restraints of language and dialogue, this Robinson Crusoe-esque tale of a man washed ashore on an island sings a universal song of isolation, dreams and the cycle of life.
From the get go, you know the film is going to be a simple story, as reflected by the whimsical style of animation used. It follows the plights of a man lost at sea, and who ends up being stuck on an island, like many protagonists before him. Everything about this movie is tuned to make you feel as if in an ancient fairytale or parable, the minimalistic theme adding surrealism to the story. Every time the man tries to escape the island, something knocks him into the cold waters not too far from the shore. As frustration turns to acceptance, he finds there is something mysterious about his marine rival, and the film tells the story that follows. Living on its own metaphorical island of reality, The Red Turtle consumes both protagonist and viewer with the belief of a self-contained world, unaffected by all that is outside it. This isolated atmosphere is only strengthened by the absence of dialogue and conversation, which necessarily internalizes the man’s thought and emotions.
Although it seems from all angles a fairytale, don’t go looking for a straightforward moral or message, as it gives us none. Quite similar in this regard to other films from Studio Ghibli, what The Red Turtle delivers is a feeling that cannot be reduced to simple words, leaving no rights or wrongs in its path. The story told is one of destiny, and actions coming around full circle, as the man’s relationship with the waters around the island – both his captor and his route to escape – take on various forms throughout its course. The filmmakers successfully manage to create an atmosphere of wonder and whimsy within the confines of a solitary island that is small enough to be covered by the first few minutes of the film. The visual design has a sort of hypnotic quality to it, as the images feel as though actually on paper and with rough edges – just enough to lead us down deeper into its narrative. In fact, the film tells so universal a story and in so dreamlike a fashion, that the time you spend watching it feels borrowed from someone else’s: truly taking us on a life’s journey without getting off our own islands.
It is also not advisable that you go foraging in search of deeper meanings, for I do not think that is what the film is about. Telling a very simple story with a very simple human thread for us to latch on to, The Red Turtle is best experienced as exactly what it seems: a voyage of the human soul catching at every last straw for survival. Restricting its world to the shore, the forests and the shore of the island, the film is able to cleverly chart the passage of time, and the evolution of life as comes with it. In order to emphasize this eternality of time, the film leaves its beginning and end open: the man washed ashore on the island has left a life behind him, and the character wading into the ocean is heading out into a different world than the one they left. Studio Ghibli’s latest film makes no tall artistic or intellectual boasts, but simply wishes to tell us that the tale we are told is not a complete one, but a fabric in the larger story unfolding every moment around us.