A man is lost at sea with no hope of being rescued. He wakes up on an island with a bamboo forest and a small pool of fresh water. Using the bamboo to craft a raft and collecting leaves to use as a sail, he attempts to leave the island. Shortly afterwards, his raft is destroyed by an unknown force. A second attempt meets the same fate, and on the third attempt, the man discovers that a red turtle has been sabotaging his attempts to return to civilisation. He resigns himself to his fate of being trapped on the island for the rest of his life, but not before getting revenge on the turtle. He soon discovers that there is more to this turtle than meets the eye.
The Red Turtle is not a conventional film. It has no dialogue, has a mere three characters with no names and barely features any signs of civilisation. By breaking film conventions, Dutch animator and director Michael Dudok de Wit tells a story that is engaging in a different way to that of the films Studio Ghibli is known for. It is focused on the natural world and the various creatures that inhabit the island; it presents the man as just one part of nature. Crabs are often seen scuttling across the beach near him, and while they serve no purpose to the plot, their presence helps illustrate the fact that he is neither more nor less important than the sea life in the grand scheme of things. The crabs are about as high up on the food chain as the man is; he designs a spear to capture fish to eat, and the crabs eat dead fish as well. One of the many turtles shown does take an active role in the man’s life, however, and decides to completely sabotage the man’s attempts at returning to his original home. A strong feeling of rage builds up inside of him, but after he seemingly kills the turtle, it transforms into a mysterious human female. His anger subsides as he spends time with this woman, and the two eventually raise a child together. The question of why the turtle turned into a human can be answered by interpreting its reasons for trapping the man on the island in a certain way, but how it was able to become a human is not explained. It may represent a transformation of the man’s wishes; he comes to accept his life on the island, and finds happiness in spending time with his girlfriend and raising their child. The story is relatively straightforward and not entirely original, but it succeeds in spite of its unconventionalism because of its attention to the natural details of life and its use of body language and physical expressions in place of dialogue.
The animation is the most important aspect of this film, and a significant amount of time and effort has gone into ensuring that it looks every bit as good as it needs to in order to tell its story. Everything looks natural; right from the opening scenes, it is clear that the production team studied natural movements carefully and observed nature on a real island to get a feel for how to accurately draw realistic movements and realistic settings. Everything from the crabs to the waves of the ocean and the humans move fluidly and naturally, allowing for total immersion in the story. Nothing ever looks out of place, not even the unusual bottle that the son grows so fond of.
What really sets this apart from other animated productions is how expressive the characters are with their body language. Typical anime eyes are not to be found here, or in any Studio Ghibli film, for that matter. The eyes of the characters living on the island are inspired by The Adventures of Tintin, giving their design more of a Western European look. Having smaller, more realistically proportional eyes shifts the focus to the eyebrows, which very noticeably move according to whether a character is angry or sad. What one character is doing with their head and the rest of their body is just as important; noticing that the man is holding his head low reveals his remorsefulness just as well as words would, and what the characters do with their hands is often worth paying attention to as well. One of many things that are clear about this film is that it is no ordinary anime. Isao Takahata may serve as the artistic director, but he is not one to produce typical anime in the first place. It may be different even when compared to other films produced by Studio Ghibli, but it is consistently expressive.
As with the visuals, the sounds are all natural, with few signs of the existence of human civilisation present. The man only infrequently uses his mouth to express something; grunts and an apparent ‘hey’ directed at a bizarre mirage are the only sounds he makes. They are enough to help convey his feelings, and his body language compensates for the lack of dialogue. Light pieces of music are occasionally present in the background, and stronger piano and string melodies can be heard during dramatic moments. The most noticeable aspect of the audio is not the man’s sounds or the music, however, but rather the sounds of nature prominent throughout much of the film. The sound of rain and rushing water has more of a presence in this film than it typically would in other films, adding to the natural feel that the film has.
All of the extras are on the second disc of this set. Three of Michael Dudok de Wit’s short films are included: “The Monk and the Fish” from 1994, “Father and Daughter” from 2000 and “The Aroma of Tea” from 2006. A trailer and a French TV spot are also included, but anyone interested in learning about the production of the The Red Turtle will find “The Birth of a Turtle” and “The Secrets of The Red Turtle” to be the most interesting extras. They feature the director discussing various aspects of the film, such as the development of the human characters and the extensive research conducted before the animation process began, and show him drawing a scene on paper while discussing how he produces his drawings. The only problem to be had with the extras is the poor choice of having white subtitles against the frequently white backgrounds, resulting in them being difficult to read at times.
If you want to see something different from the dozens of generic anime series coming out of Japan every season, or just want to see something unusual, The Red Turtle is worth watching. It is unconventional and has a Western European art style, but its portrayal of nature and the humans’ presence on the island make it a fascinating experience. The turtle’s transformation into a woman and the man’s brief delusions prior to his acceptance of his fate may be a little unusual, but “a little unusual” is the sort of thing that helps an anime film stand out in a sea of bland nonsense.
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