It was a sad yet joyous day when the animation genius Hayao Miyazaki released his last feature film "The Wind Rises" (2013). As the face of Studio Ghibli he was responsible for producing some of the most remarkable hand-drawn animations of recent years and his creative input is sorely missed. The studio's two subsequent releases "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and "When Marnie was There" honour his creative spirit but are slightly less richly drawn and less imaginative than Miyazaki at his peak.
And now there is "The Red Turtle" the first non-Japanese film produced by the studio. The story goes that Miyazaki was enchanted by minimalist animator Michael Dudok De Wit's Oscar-winning "Father and Daughter" (2000) and initially asked for the rights to release it. Subsequently he asked the Dutchman to make a film under the Ghibli banner. De Wit was both surprised and flattered by this request, but now some years later we have the above movie -- a film very much removed from the typical Ghibli product but artful and ultimately moving in its own right.
The film pits one man (and for one man read all men) against the forces of nature as our shipwrecked hero fights the waves and eventually washes up on a deserted tropical island. He explores his new environment, finding food and water, and narrowly escapes its entrenched perils. For the first third of the movie he makes every effort to escape, honing the island's bamboo forests into makeshift rafts. However each time that he launches his flimsy craft, escape is undermined by a fearsome red turtle, who breaks the raft into splinters, forcing the man to swim back to his desolate island. Finally in his frustration he drags the turtle back to shore and upturns the creature, harkening its demise.
He begins to regret this rash action and helplessly tries to revive the animal, but to no avail. But soon, in a bit of magic realism, it begins to morph into a red-headed woman, who eventually overcomes her suspicions to become his helpmate. The red turtle of the title has sent him a way to find a meaningful way of life -- and soon there is a son. (I must confess that I wondered why there was only a single offspring, but never mind). This family unit finds an idyllic way of life until a fearsome tsunami rips the island apart and threatens their solidarity. They begin to rebuild their relationship to nature, until the son succumbs to adolescent yearnings for something more and swims off into the sea with some friendly turtles (his relatives?). The years pass and when the grey-haired man eventually dies his grey-haired partner turns back into the titular turtle and re-joins the sea. This leaves the viewer to wonder if this was all a fever-dream on the part of the marooned man, but regardless, the depth of feeling between the man and his animal-bride and their hostile environment is effortlessly moving.
The animation style is De Wit's trademark simple with the humans rendered in sub-Tintin style, but the waves and the woods and the endless sky are ravishingly and lushly portrayed. There are even some occasional humorous sand crabs for light relief. Most daring of all, there is no spoken dialogue, just the sounds of the island, sighs, deep breaths and the occasional scream. This delicate movie is a far cry from the usual joke-laden 3D animations aimed at kiddies and has little in common with live-action films like "Castaway" or "All is Lost"; it is rather more laid-back and contemplative of man's place in the world. De Wit will never be the new Miyazaki -- nor I think would he choose to be -- but he has given us a beguiling look at survival, love and loss.