Last year in the pages of this magazine, I reviewed a lovely little animated film, director Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, a melancholic masterpiece that made its way to American shores 25 years after its release in Japan. At the time, I was certain that this would be my final opportunity to celebrate one of the magical works produced by Studio Ghibli, the heralded Japanese animation studio that enjoyed worldwide acclaim when it won an Academy Award for its 2001 spellbinder, director Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Ghibli co-founders Takahata and Miyazaki—aged 81 and 76, respectively—have both retired from directing, and after a 2014 announcement that the studio was “taking a pause,” it was widely presumed that Ghibli would never produce another film, especially after several staffers left to form their own studio.
Well, I’m here to report that Ghibli is back, and what’s more, its latest project is everything you’ve come to expect from the studio. Filled with magical realism, The Red Turtle is a meditative feature that’s concerned with nature and the natural rhythms and wonders of life. However, there’s a surprise here too: It’s the first Ghibli feature to be produced outside of Japan, and by a non-Japanese filmmaker, to boot.
Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit caught Takahata’s attention with his Oscar-nominated animated short The Monk and the Fish (1994) and his Oscar-winning animated short Father and Daughter (2000). Takahata offered to produce his first feature-length film, and the resulting picture, which collected a Special Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and just received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature film, is another Ghibli masterpiece.
The wordless movie opens with one of nature’s more violent wonders: a rough, swirling sea during a nighttime storm, rendered with a minimum of hand-drawn lines. Heavy rains beat down through the darkness as our eye catches the figure of an unnamed man, swept away from an unseen vessel and struggling to make it through the surf to a nearby wooden raft.
Awaking on a sunlit beach as a crab nips at his shoeless feet, our Robinson Crusoe-like protagonist finds himself otherwise alone on an uninhabited island, but for more crabs, an occasional flock of birds or bats, a sea lion that roars on the nearby shoreline—and the massive, red-shelled turtle that gives the film its title.
After a period of exploration that introduces our hero to the tropical island’s marvels and dangers, the progressively more bearded man becomes determined to escape his loneliness. Constructing a raft from the abundant bamboo trees, he’s even able to fashion some branches into a workable sail. But what he doesn’t account for is that red turtle, a creature that refuses to let him leave, despite repeated attempts.
At first glance, the story (courtesy of Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran) is deceptively simple, but I’ll leave its layers for you to discover. You may think you’re in for an adventure like 2000’s Cast Away—with the turtle standing in for Tom Hanks’ volleyball—or a fable like 1979’s The Black Stallion, but the fantastical sights that unfold in this fable are pure Ghibli.
Takahata, who is credited as the film’s artistic producer, was absolutely correct in recognizing a kindred spirit in Dudok de Wit. Despite the differences of their cultures, the Dutchman employs ideas that have existed in Japan since ancient times, and he’s able to conjure a strong sense of reality despite the simplicity of his images. Like Takahata, he employs unused space within the frame, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. And while Dudok de Wit produced the film utilizing a compact team of French artists at a small studio in Angoulême, mixing hand-drawn and digital animation over gorgeous charcoal backgrounds, they’ve learned the lessons of their Japanese counterparts. Led by animation supervisor Jean-Christophe Lie—who worked on Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Tarzan (1999), along with Oscar nominee The Triplets of Belleville (2003)—the animators have resisted adding unnecessary detail to their shots, paring them down to achieve a refined beauty.
The deft use of minimalism isn’t limited to the visuals. Silence is respected, and the lovely music comes in only when necessary, coexisting with the sounds of nature. Truly, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar has delivered a score that is worthy of the Studio Ghibli name and the longtime work of its best-known composer, Joe Hisaishi.
Happily, not only was news of Ghibli’s demise premature, but with The Red Turtle, the studio has expanded its influence, and enriched its legacy, well beyond the borders of Japan.
The Red Turtle ****
Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit. Written by Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran, based on a story by Dudok de Wit. At Embassy and Kendall Square.