For those of you who have been following the films released by the Japanese company Studio Ghibli, you have probably felt like you were dipping your toes into a tiny bit of Japanese culture. Whether it was the storylines based on Japanese folk tales or the anime aspect of them, Studio Ghibli’s films always succeed in transporting its viewers beyond space and time.
However, the interesting aspects of “The Red Turtle” are that first, it is Ghibli’s first non-Japanese film directed by Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit. Second, even if the animation style is still reminiscent of Japanese tradition, the story feels global and reflective of the human condition beyond any cultural borders. And finally, the story does not have any dialogue, an aspect of the film that significantly contributes to this borderless type of storytelling.
The story is quite simple: a man’s boat gets ravaged by the sea and he winds up in a desolate island. The man’s only companions are nature and the wonders of his vivid mind. What can a social creature such as a human do in such solitude? What is more powerful: the urge of food hunger, or being hungry for some company?
Chuck Noland in “Cast Away” gave life to the legendary Wilson volleyball, which indubitably helped him survive the loneliness. Pi Patel in “Life of Pi” was able to maintain his strength in that boat by embellishing his story with zoomorphic characters.
In the case of the unnamed gentleman in “The Red Turtle,” he finds himself unable to sail away from the island because a mysterious red turtle keeps destroying his rafts. The man reacts violently toward the turtle, but little did he know that the turtle was there to provide some much-needed companionship to prevent the man from drowning himself in his own loneliness.
As you might expect, there is a myriad of surrealist elements in this film. The turtle, given its transformative abilities and its chromatic nature, raises the question of whether the turtle was even real at the end. However, what is real and what is an illusion in a world where there is no one else to disprove such hallucination? It is like Albus Dumbledore’s response Harry Potter in “The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” after Harry asks him if something is real or if it’s happening inside his head: “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Thanks to its intimate approach to storytelling, and its mystic, two-dimensional animation that is a legacy of Japanese art, “The Red Turtle” feels like you are watching a dream: a lyrical, speechless visual poem in which you find the viewer floating and drifting alongside this man through a journey of companionate survival. It is a tale that pays tribute to the stories we tell ourselves, not necessarily to live in a lie, but to survive.