by Damian Robb
All Studio Ghibli fans out there put your hands up. Okay, put them back down, I can’t see you. For those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese film studio let me quickly bring you up to speed. Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 and has been releasing award winning animated feature films ever since. Considered the Disney of the East their animations are known for their visually stunning and whimsically fantastical style. The main face of the Studio is Hayao Miyazaki, who was the director and smiling taskmaster behind most of their productions. He oversaw such films as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle, and my favourite, Spirited Away, or wait, maybe Ponyo! Damn, so many good films. If you’re a fan of animation and haven’t seen these films I really can’t recommend them enough, although I will add prepare yourself for a different style of storytelling than we’re used to in the Western world. One that relies less on three act structure and instead lets the story come out in a more naturalistic way that doesn’t always seem to be serving the plot but that I find deeply engaging none the less, and could in fact be an argument for our films to be less structured.
With Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement two years ago it was announced that the company was temporarily halting production, much to the distress of their fan base, as well as yours truly, but they’re now back, collaborating with France and Belgium, to make their most recent feature, The Red Turtle.
I saw this film last Friday night with my girlfriend, The Lady Holly at the Nova cinema in Melbourne. Prior to purchasing tickets I quickly googled to check if the showing was dubbed in English as I find subtitles inevitably take a bit of fun out of a movie, causing you to be one more step removed. I instead found out that this film didn’t need to be dubbed because it doesn’t in fact have any dialogue. I know. This film is a gamble to be sure, an animated foreign film without any dialogue. I totally get how that sounds. I found it a gamble worth taking.
The style, due to the European collaboration, isn’t in the usual anime style of previous Studio Ghibli films but does maintain the detail and fantasy of their previous work.
The plot centers around a man shipwrecked on a small island and his attempts to escape from it, which are constantly being hindered by a giant red sea turtle. Think Castaway only with even less talking, animated, and Wilson gets replaced with a large reptile.
The film starts in the middle of the shipwreck. The unknown man, whose history we never learn, is lost at sea in the height of a storm, his small boat capsized next to him. It’s a terrific start to the movie as it immediately puts us right in the action and shows how vulnerable this man is all by himself. He makes it to shore and with him we quickly explore the beautiful, but imprisoning, tropical island. After acclimating himself to his new situation he does what anyone would do, try to escape it. The man builds a number of rafts, attempts a number of escapes, but each time only makes it as far as the breakers before the red turtle shows up and destroys his vessel. Moral of the story: turtles are dicks. From there the story dips into fantasy but I won’t explain any more plot in order to keep this as spoiler free as possible.
Despite its single location and small cast the film manages to give us enough action to keep us interested, while also showing the quiet, beautiful, life of a man alone on an island. One way it did this was to make the basics like food, water, and fire, never an issue. You may think this would take away most of the stakes. Instead it caused the stakes to be pushed further and by doing so found other, more original, sources of peril that still kept you on the edge of your seat; including an especially suspenseful scene where the man becomes trapped in a pool of water, his only escape to swim through a very long and narrow underwater tunnel. The film also kept the tempo up by using the crabs on the island to provide a pixar-esk, slapstick style comedy, which worked well to give a reprieve and make it more child friendly. Cheeky crabs = chuckles.
My main fault with the film was the uncertainty to what the point was. The theme, due to the lack of dialogue, is fairly open to interpretation. I believe it was an exploration of the lifecycle of man. We end up seeing the man’s whole life on the island, and if washing up alone, wet, and afraid after a traumatic event isn’t symbolism for birth I don’t know what is. This theme is explored not just for the man himself, but also for the plants and animals with him, and arguably even for the island itself. My issue then comes from there being little opinion or point of view on the theme. The film provided questions but not always answers, and while it can be fun to opine answers for yourself it doesn’t provide much closure, which can be frustrating. Just look at the end of Birdman.
Beyond that the animation was beautiful, the story compelling enough for the ninety minute run time, and I got to see a giant red turtle. This isn’t a film for everyone but it will provide you with something different, thought provoking, and doesn’t involve any superheroes; which might be just what you’re looking for.