A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an occasion for celebration among animation enthusiasts, given the studio’s reputation for being a purveyor of the finest animated films. The Red Turtle is Ghibli’s latest outing, and it marks the first time in over three decades that the Japanese animation studio has invited an outsider to make a film for them.
To grasp the import of this, a little background is necessary. Japanese culture has a long history of celebrating the drawn image: notable examples of this include the 17th-century artistic genre of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), as well as the contemporary media manga and anime (comics and animation, respectively). Permeating all walks of life, these media form an intrinsic part of Japanese culture.
Studio Ghibli is a cultural titan, both inside and outside of Japan. With five Academy Award nominations (winning in 2003 for Spirited Away), Ghibli is a touchstone for many – appealing to both children and adults alike. Their films are emotionally complex, tackle themes of social responsibility and environmental awareness, and brim over with dazzling imaginative charm and fondness for the minutiae of everyday life.
Despite being a studio employing over a hundred people, Ghibli’s filmmaking often embodies something of the auteur tradition, a process that was beautifully recorded in the 2013 documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.
Around 2008, Studio Ghibli chose to break with a 30-year tradition of producing films in-house by inviting the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit to direct a film for them. This invitation was based on the strength of his sublime animated short Father and Daughter (winner of an Academy Award in 2001).
After a screening of the film at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, Dudok de Wit stated that “… a profound, deep awe for nature” formed the emotional basis for The Red Turtle, a fact evident in every beautifully rendered frame. Wordlessly following the fate of a castaway on a verdant island, it tells the tale of a life stripped bare, far from the trappings of civilisation, and the richness of his ensuing experience – portrayed with occasional touches of fantasy. According to Dudok de Wit, it is “… more than about survival, it's about life in general.”
To say much more would take away from the joy of experiencing the film, but suffice it to say that it is a masterful and deeply reverent celebration of nature and a life lived amidst it.
A version of this article was published in the January 2017 edition of METROPOLE