Thoughts On: The Red Turtle - Cast Away In The Domain Of The Feminine


The Red Turtle - Cast Away In The Domain Of The Feminine

Thoughts On: The Red Turtle (レッドタートル ある島の物語, 2016)

A man is cast away on an island that he cannot sail too far from without having his vessel destroyed.

Today was to be the day that we finished off the Ghibli Series with a look at When Marnie Was There. However, I've decided to pick up on one or two films that are slightly tangential to the series before concluding it. And so today we will be taking a look at a key Studio Ghibli co-production, The Red Turtle.

Michaël Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle feels like a Studio Ghibli film only in slight spirit. The style of story and animation distinguish The Red Turtle from core Ghibli films quite acutely. However, there is a subtle and subdued beauty in the story that Ghibli are so often known for. Ultimately, the Ghibli-ness of this film then doesn't matter as it is simply a terrific picture.

The Red Turtle before all else is a story of survival. Completely subverting classic American survival films such as Cast Away, this is not about a struggle for survival, rather the sensation of surviving, of being lost and forgotten in the world, trapped in vast wilderness. So, whilst you could watch this as a touching fantasy film about finding a place in the world, I think there is a clear ambiguity and abstractness in the narrative that calls attention to itself, implying that this is allegorical and metaphorical.

To step into the world of metaphor, we have to first ask why the movie starts where it does: at sea. We don't see a huge vessel go down and we don't see an aeroplane crash. We don't know where we are in the world; we are in a realm of ocean, that is all. All we ever get to know about our nameless main character is that he once had a small row boat. But, why would he be far out at sea with such a small boat? How did he get so far out?

We are never given any answers, any back story - in fact, the narrative unfolds in such a way that none of these details seem to need literal questioning. What becomes clear as The Red Turtle expands is that this is a highly existentialist film, one that turns out to be a loose allegory about life itself. It would then be easy to perceive the vast ocean to be the domain of our lost wanderer; the immense waters life itself. The storm that capsizes the man's boat is an ambiguous catastrophe: the man's life is in chaos. This chaos is insurmountable, it destroys his ability to stay afloat and leaves him for ruin on a tiny island.

This island has all the man needs to survive; he will not have to struggle, but he will nonetheless want to escape. When the man uses the resources the island provides to escape, forces in the water destroy his plans and wreck his rafts. He does not know why. He has used his intuition, he has worked hard to build multiple strong crafts, he has mustered the courage to leave many times over, yet, he is denied. Why?

Again, we are never told. Even when it is revealed that a giant sea turtle is destroying the rafts, no motivation is ever given. There are assumptions that we are given the tools to make, however. Two major moments that will inform us will be the scene in which we see infant sea turtles venture out from the island, and the transformation of the red turtle into the woman. These two moments are bound together by a core theme of nature as a creative force. Not only are they then tied to the island, which becomes a mother of sorts to the man and the woman, but also the sea and the greater currents of life and nature. It is this abstract recognition of the forces of nature as creationary and feminine that lies at the heart of this film, its main character and its title.

Across native North American cultures, the turtle is perceived to be a symbol of life and mother earth. This would have much to do with the idea that sea turtles can live for a very long time. Whilst many speculate that turtles can life up to 500 years old - which may itself be a projection of the mythologised image of a turtle - scientists estimate sea turtles live between 10 and 80 years. That said, pet sea turtles, or turtles in captivity, aren't likely to live too long, and data on turtles in their natural habitat would be difficult to gather. Nonetheless, the idea that sea turtles live for at least many decades - as long as the average human - would be one key reason why they would be presented by folklore and mythology as mother earth. In addition to this, however, the sea itself is so often central to many creation myths, perceived as the domain of reality and one of the encompassing forces of the universe. With the sea turtle as one of the most magnificent and awe-inspiring creatures that rule the seas, and also transition to the land, makes them a incredibly unique creature. The amphibious attributes of sea turtles would be particularly ripe for mythologisation because there is much potential for abstract, meaningful storytelling in a creature that is land and earth, that bridges one of the great gaps upon the earthly landscape. For these reasons and many more, we can easily see why the turtle is such an evocative and powerful symbol/creature.

The Red Turtle consciously uses the complexity of such a symbol by attaching it to the sea, the land and also the female human. Taking a step back from the narrative, it becomes very clear that this is very much so a film about a small man's confrontation of the great female forces of the universe: the sea, the land, creation, nurture, nature and women. We can categorise the female symbols and characters of The Red Turtles into two separate groups, and in accordance to our male character. On one hand, we have the home and the mercy of female forces. Fresh water, fruit, land, greenery all seem to be merciful homes for our male character. On the other hand, however, we have the pull, push and judgement of female forces. The sea, the turtles, the wind and the woman are all such forces that test and guide our male character.

To my knowledge, Carl Jung has made most sense of this phenomena of male and female in body and in nature. Within his theory of Eros there is a complex network of ideas around a force of the universe that is connective. Eros is all and more than sexual pull, love, nurture, nature, relationships, etc. (Let it be noted that the colour red can simultaneously represent many of these ideas). Eros is an abstract idea of completeness, magnetism and togetherness. We can map such an idea onto The Red Turtle by recognising that the two sets of female forces, mercy and judgement, are all geared towards keeping the man on the island. Agents of fate, the female forces seem to designate the man a place in the world - the island - and provide him an opportunity for a path through life - one alongside the sea turtle-turned-woman. To rise to the task of the female forces, the man seemingly has to submit to it before building a relationship. And in such, he must recognise that his life was chaotic, that the waters around him were perturbed and violent. He wants to brave the stormy ocean, maybe because he's brave, maybe because he's stupid, maybe because he has a death wish and nothing better to do. When he is given a godsend, a personal island of his own, he refuses it. We are not allowed to assume that he has a home to go back to and reason to escape the island beyond the assumption that the island is death, that isolation is death. But, the female forces have him stare death in the face and see life, they have him stare isolation in the face and see profound attachment. In such, his will to power, his courage to conquer and venture, is tested. Will his will to power overwhelm his humanity and morality?

This is the question posed by the turtle. It seems that the turtle knows the man has no reason to go and float about the sea. The man destroys the turtle out of resentment, and so he may pursue his nonsensical, unconsciously driven ideal. But, denying Eros, bearing arms against it, has him stop and contemplate. The death of the turtle is a significant event - the man stops venturing and starts preserving; he finds a life on the island instead of looking for one on vast oceans.

It is now, looking into the void of isolation as he cares for the turtle and abandons his boat, that he begins to reconcile with Eros, and thus the woman manifests. The moral of this character arc is strangely simple, but nonetheless abstractly profound: accept the judgement of nature and thank nature for its mercy, and you shall be rewarded. This is a version of the prince and the princess in the dragon-keep narrative, one of the strongest versions in my view, that sees the female choose the man after he has proven himself; the treasures of the dragon-keep given and earned in earnest, not taken with eyes on a prize.

It is from this point in the narrative that a new arc comes to be through the son. The son is not his father. Around him is stability; he respects the land and is committed to it. Because he is raised differently, he eventually seeks a new home and a different path through life. This is made clear when the glass bottle he finds becomes an object of his character; he is intrigued by the world that exists beyond his mother and father.

Chaos then manifests in the natural world. The son would be wanting his own Eros to exist within and care for. Thus, the tsunami hits his island home, taking away his father. The son's mother cannot become his Eros, however, and so he must rescue his father again from the oceans of life. And, in such, the father's life comes full circle. He has aligned himself properly with not just the feminine forces of the world, but also the masculine ones, so that he is forever protected. And, as with feminine forces, masculine forces must be surrendered to; the son must leave home and be swept away onto his own path.

After years of tranquillity and harmony, the final point made by The Red Turtle is that, whilst the masculine may be transitory, the female is eternal. This is why the woman transforms back into a turtle. The female is the domain, she is also the consciousness in said domain that demands respect. Masculine forces within the female must find themselves in support and cooperation with the domain. The precise reasons why this is so profound and seemingly true are a little lost on me. However, there is a harmony and a purity in this set of ideas that resonates through The Red Turtle and within he or she who witnesses its narrative. Deeply touching, masterfully crafted, The Red Turtle is a pure gem of animation.

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