In one of the loveliest sequences in The Red Turtle, a youth swims to the crest of a cliff-high tidal wave suspended motionlessly in the air. He is seen by tiny figures on the beach below and gives a small, hopeful smile, but it’s a prelude to a permanent parting.
Separation and isolation are central themes in the latest work produced by Studio Ghibli, the Tokyo animation house co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki. A modern Robinson Crusoe tale, it’s about a young man cast adrift on a hitherto uninhabited tropical island after a storm at sea.
After acclimatizing himself to the island and learning how to survive on fruit and fish (though with none of Crusoe’s survivalist zeal), the man determines to escape. His discovery of the carcass of a once-lively seal spurs him on. It may have died of old age, but there are intimations of climatic disturbance, notably in the tsunami that devastates the island years later.
The rafts the man strings together and propels through foliage sails are successively buffeted by a huge red turtle and he is forced to start over. When the beautiful reptile comes ashore, the castaway takes out his frustration on it.
This moment is sickening. The castaway is overcome with guilt, like the slayer of the albatross in Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Then a typical Studio Ghibli transformation takes place, bequeathing the man a gift that seems rather more than he deserves.
The Red Turtle depicts a cycle of birth, life, death, and renewal; even the man’s arrival on the island, where he’s delivered by waves, suggests semination. He carries out his spontaneous brutal act with the petulance of a small child, indicating he is barely formed.
Overcoming cruel instincts is consistent with growing. Most adults shamefully remember killing insects when they were young, or deliberately making another child miserable. Who’s to say each of us wouldn’t have done what the castaway did when he felt he was condemned to a life of solitude and bare subsistence? An equivalent of Man Friday arrives to show him how to live in the world, ushering the film into a long phase of serenity.
Unlike most of Studio Ghibli’s films, including Miyazaki’s surreal masterpieces, The Red Turtle is devoutly minimalistic. The first of the company’s movies directed by a European, the London-based Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, it has an old-fashioned, lo-fi look and a moody palette often drained of color. Dudok de Wit specializes in long shots that miniaturize the humans, rendering them no more significant than other animals. In keeping with this idea, the film is without dialogue — there’s no neurotic chatter — and Laurent Perez del Mar’s plangent score only occasionally rises to a choral peak. This is not an animated movie for the Shrek crowd, but discerning adolescents and adults should love it.
One sideways composition of the man sitting on a beach recalls Howard Pyle’s 1909 painting Marooned. There’s a gentle nod, too, to the anthropomorphized animal familiars in Disney animations. The four crabs that amusingly follow the stranded hero don’t have human mannerisms and they don’t break into song. But when one of them pulls a small, exhausted turtle from the water’s edge, it’s clear the movie is hinting that compassion has a role outside civilization.