Studio Ghibli’s comeback centers around a stranded young man who’s only company is a domesticated group of crabs, battling with solitude, surrealism and finding serenity in his reality. Shipwrecked, the initial part of the movie follows the young man day and night as he comes to terms with what has happened to him. Determined to leave the island, he builds a sturdy raft made from bamboo (a major fixture in the landscape of the island), yet at every attempt to sail away, a mysterious marine being destroys his makeshift vessel. The tension builds and builds, coming to head when the man encounters the titular Red Turtle on the sand, turning it over on its shell to die in an act of warranted frustration. What happens next is the beginning of a mystical journey and is a fantastic piece of non-verbal story-telling.
The Red Turtle’s lack of a tangible plot will turn off certain viewers, as the story is more about the underlying meaning of the experience and journey than a neatly tied up ending. The story is not about him returning to civilisation, but more to do with his acceptance of the situation and his experiences on this fruitful island. The beauty in this wordless tale is most certainly the lucid-dreaming effect it produces on the viewer.
Avoiding over-saturation in all areas, the artwork is striking in its minimalism and refinement of details. Vivid colour palettes help contribute towards a fuller immersion into the magical realism of this story. To reinforce this, Dudok De Wit’s choice to emphasise the island’s isolation add to the viewer’s dreamlike state, which permits the more fantastical events that occur to be unquestioned.
Laurent Perez del Mar’s soundtrack seamlessly fills the space and need for dialogue, perfectly tailored to the emotional waves of the film. The music feels almost spiritual, again transporting us from any notion of this film being one-dimensional.
During the film, I frequently found myself associating the atmosphere and deeper existential journey with much of Haruki Murakami’s literature and the vivid pictures he creates. Both Murakami and The Red Turtle merged western and Asian themes, creating culturally rich stories. Similar elements to Murakami’s magical realism such as giving animals a human-like depth or making the surreal believable are present in The Red Turtle. The film’s effect reminded me that many readers of Murakami have stated the experience of reading his work is the closest they have come to lucid-dreaming.
As much as the film is enchanting, one can but wonder what the underlying meaning to this fable is. Our main character starts off utterly alone on the island, which I perceived as the man’s inability to forge social connections around him in society. The Red Turtle can be seen as another person before he makes the connection (or in other words a stranger). When the shell cracks, it is the beginning of the connection being made. He then finds life more bearable and stops trying to leave.
The non-existence of dialogue or narration and universal theme of Man’s basic need for companionship used together makes The Red Turtle a unique film that transcends boundaries of language, culture and age, all of whom can in one way or another identify with the story at hand.
It is inevitable that one will be left pondering the larger questions of life, such as what it means to be human, what makes Man desire social interaction contrasted to the need for solitude and the fragile balance of one’s reality. The major theme that contains all these sub-interrogations is the cycle of life: birth, death and re-birth. The Red Turtle is the acknowledgement of Nature’s way of always restoring balance in life, and how death is an integral part of that.