Five years after Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit won an Oscar for his short Father and Daughter, he received an email from Studio Ghibli. “It simply said … have you considered making a feature film? Because we would like to produce it,” Dudok de Wit later explained. Obviously, he said yes.
The Red Turtle, released in 2017 and streaming now on SBS On Demand, is Studio Ghibli’s first film by a non-Japanese director and made without Japanese artists since the studio was founded in 1985. Realised over nine years, by charcoal, paintbrushes and CGI animation, the dialogue-free fable traces milestones in the life of a nameless sailor marooned on a tropical island. The first 20 minutes of the story feel familiar, like a tranquil, cartoon Cast Away: the man searches for food, shelter and a way home. But every escape attempt is thwarted by a huge enigmatic red turtle, forcing him back onto the island, where he soon surrenders and adapts to a new life.
A symbol of longevity in many cultures, the turtle’s presence initially reveals the man’s frantic instinct to preserve himself in the short term, and return to normal. But over the course of the film he learns to consider the intrinsic splendour of nature and the circle of life.
The animation is magnificent, capturing the delicate balance of life, the beauty of death and the power of the landscape through incredible attention to detail. Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn, beady-eyed protagonist nods to Franco cartoons such as Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, and the drawings of Jean Giraud aka Moebius, known for his contribution to the concept designs on films such as Alien, Tron and The Fifth Element.
While worlds away from the Studio Ghibli aesthetic, the many island creatures the man encounters have a recognisable whimsy; from cheeky crabs (who play the roles of comic-relieving sidekicks) and baby turtles flapping over the sand towards the surf, to a giant, adorable millipede that gently inspects the man’s foot in one scene. Even the turtle, with its emotive black eyes and striking red shell, is a vehicle for a very Ghibli-esque sense of mystery and wonder.
Stunning visuals, heartbreaking soundtrack and sensitive storytelling aside, The Red Turtle’s beauty is its fluidity and universality. With only breaths, cries and grunts, the story is so open to interpretation that, not only does each viewer imbue different meanings, each viewing brings new significance. Rewatching during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, lends another perspective on the man’s feelings of isolation, longing and frustration – and even a better grasp of the concept of time standing still.
Fleshing out the deepest feelings of despair and love, the audience can be left with both a sense of peace for the inevitability of birth and death, and grief for a lost concord between humanity and the environment. It’s hard to watch the film in Australia today and not be reminded of our country’s disregard for our land and First Nations peoples, when just last month the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people lost a 46,000-year-old sacred site without traditional owners’ consent or consultation at the hands of the second largest mining company in the world, and the same fate almost befell more than 40 other sacred sites just days ago.
Weaving between reality, dream, hallucination and fantasy, it’s not always clear what’s going on in this fable, and there’s no one message to take away from it. Instead, The Red Turtle is a 75-minute exercise in listening.
“I really, really want to tell people,” said Dudok de Wit, “when you watch this film, I hope you can just let yourself be carried by the story, and don’t question anything – a bit like you let yourself be carried by music.”
• The Red Turtle is streaming for free on SBS On Demand
Source: The Guardian