Yup, figured based on the trailer this was going to be the case. And now that I've seen the film ...
The island is the red turtle is the woman. Of course the turtle is the carrier of the world and this is a trope you seen in some Japanese cinema from time to time.
So, yeah, it retroactively makes a whole lot of the film seem super squicky. I heard one woman in the theater actually go "Ew" when the woman's hand became the turtle flipper.
I'm not anticipating a huge, wide release for this film. It was a Ghibli co-production so the film is immaculate and beautiful but compared to the Ghibli films I've seen over the last twenty years this was beautiful and elegant but ... dare I say it? Pedestrian. It wasn't without moments of beauty and power but ... well ... everyone can do that in cinema these days.
Well, okay, so not Michael Bay or the Wayans brothers, perhaps.
This wasn't a film that seemed steeped ina very specific metaphysical view. Miyazaki's pantheism permeates his whole approach to film. It informs his approach to villains and heroes. This film was more like "isn't life beautiful" stuff. It "can" be but this was ... not like even other Studio Ghibli films I've seen that run with that idea.
Only Yesterday is a plodding film about a mousy woman in clerical corporate work who goes on a work vacation at an organic farm and decides to become an organic farming housewife. Thing is, even though that film is more literally pedestrian than the fable about the turtle the film anchors its earth veneration in observations about 1980s ish era Japan embracing mass agricultural approaches. The idea is that this beauty of tradition is precariously hanging on in a world of mass production. Moments of stillness and beauty hinge upon a recognition of the precarity of those moments. There are also jokes about how when city-dwellers go and gawk at what they regard as unmitigated nature that, in fact, there's not a single thing in a beautiful landscape a farmer hasn't deliberately manipulated. In other words, the farm life is revealed to be artifice, a life-giving artifice that helps people grow food they need to survive, but an art.
The Red Turtle has more of a vibe that the earth si the red turtle that collaborates with us to make life beautiful for just one man and one woman and the one kid they have who goes off on his own. The man at the start of this film is drifting in a stormy sea and there's no explanation for how or why he ended up there. The fable doesn't intend to give this man a backstory that explains anything. We're just thrown straight into a fable that's obviously a fable but what, precisely, it's a fable for beyond "isn't life beautiful?" is hard to pin down.
Having seen this Studio Ghibli production I'm afraid it's the one film I've seen where my gut reaction is to say that it's watchable but pedestrian, beautiful but to a fault. Even in the gorgeous scenery of My Neighbor Totoro the forest can harm you and, crucially, the mother is possibly not going to recover from tuberculosis after all.
In Miyazaki's stories the earth choose to help but Miyazaki's films reveal a nature that could just as easily have chosen to go the other way and killed us. That's the thing about Miyazaki's pantheism that can be deliberately missed by Westerners in awe of his work. Yes, he sees a great deal of beauty in the world and in people but he doesn't downplay the savagery. It may seem that way because he can highlight how there's the possibility for beauty in even the savagery but the savagery isn't removed. The king of the forest that is benevolent in Totoro has to be appeased and kept from destroying every human in sight in Princess Mononoke. The king of the sea that is persuaded to relent in Ponyo could have chosen to crush.
I suppose I'm riffing toward this idea that Miyazaki's films are beautiful but the power in their beauty lays in Miyazaki's capacity for what Edmund Burke would have described as the terrifying element of the sublime. The Red Turtle has a moment or two where it seems nature will crush us but it's okay, really. If the men died after falling into a crevice in the first third of the film there'd be no more film. It's all a set up so that when the inevitable kid has the same experience the kid gets out okay, too. What would have been a real shock would have been if the kid died and the man and the woman/turtle were left bereft. This is where the attempt at the fable gets self-defeating. If the man died in the first third of the film and we saw animals feeding on his carcass the whole point of the film would be lost. If the red turtle devoured the man the whole film would be a different film. No matter how beautiful Miyazaki's films get he'll have these little moments where he reveals that nature could, and maybe even should, bring that kind of horrifying unstoppable deadly force against us. Maybe nature should unleash its full fury on us precisely because we seem, as humans, to feel entitled to the beauty of the world but not to the terrifying power of death it brings with so much of that beauty.
There s, at least, a sense in which the man on the island feels imprisoned. The island is full of life and beauty but it's an imprisoning kind. This is an element that saturates Takahata's take on the Princess Kaguya legend. The beauty of Kaguya is confining and imprisoning for her. She feels trapped by the expectations and demands made upon beauty and by beauty. In The Red Turtle the man attempts to escape three times and, of course, on the third attempt to escape discovers he has had his plans foiled by the red turtle. Why? Ours is not to ask why, apparently, and theirs is not the place to tell, there are no words beyond a few grunts and "hey" in this film. Wordless fables can be powerful, to be sure, but the idea that a man and a woman and a child can go through the entire cycle of life and reproduction and death without so much as a single sentence strains credulity pas the breaking point for me. We're always in fable mode but real fables very frequently have words. The English class axiom to show don't tell can be misunderstood because in the language of cinema showing is still telling. What are you telling us in what you show?
Roger Ebert once said that the beauty of animation, if I'm remembering this correctly, is that nothing that appears on the screen can be an accident the way it can be in live-action film. Someone has to have thought out in advance to draw EVERYTHING that appears in an animated film, no matter how small the detail or how big the scene. In that sense the greatness or paucity of directorial imagination can come through in animation in ways that it may not as readily in other kinds of cinema.
So we get back to the red turtle that has thwarted the mans attempts to escape. The man stops trying to escape when the turtle shell cracks open and a woman is revealed. Okay. A bit standard issue but many a man chooses to endure tedium or hardship or both for the sake of a woman. Jacob labored for years for the hand of Rachel and, when he got Leah instead, labored for more years to get Rachel. We know the crazy things people do for love.
But, still, this is pretty epic Stockholm syndrome if you start thinking about it. We can feel confined by and imprisoned within the relationships we treasure most. That's one of the motifs of literature and film, the sense of entrapment men and women feel after they heat of the moment has passed and the diapers have piled up and the bills come due and all that.
and evenw ith all the symbolism inherent in turtles in Asian folkore and folk cosmology ... if this film is a fable (and it has the trappings to tell us it aspires to be one) who is it a fable for?
Or to put it another way, how do you tell a fable without a metaphysic? Miyazaki's pantheism anchors his most fantastic visual feasts and narratives with a point of view. I hesitate to say worldview because that buzzword is kind of a problem, especially in Christian blogging and writing. But there's a sense in which the question of what, exactly, our view of the red turtle as the world as the woman is supposed to be is inescapable since she is the title premise. The world is inscrutable and beautiful and, so to speak, lets us live. But this is where the fable ruptures when the son comes of age and goes off into the sea. We see other turtles throughout the film and it seems that there are turtles who stand in for the man and the woman and the son and yet the woman is always the red turtle.
In other words, for this fable to work the cosmology has to be ... I don't know ... a little more ... rigorous.
I think it may just be that the fable is about a nuclear family that, in historical terms, is the least likely family unit possible. More ancient societies so often had a clan based sense of identity so this fable feels like it's a post-modern Western notion of the erotic pair bond and precisely as many children as it ought to spawn for the sake of a fable about the beauty of life to be told. There's only one child, a son, and there's nothing over decades inherent in the narrative of The Red Turtle to get at sibling rivalry because there's only just the one kid. Genesis revealed that a murderous sibling rivalry happened exactly as soon as Adam and Eve had enough children for there to even be the possibility of a sibling rivalry.
This, as I'm mulling it over, may be why The Red Turtle ultimately fails as a would-be fable, it only wishes to present a world in which moral evils are always averted by some last-second pang of doubt or grief or regret. The idea that humans will do the wrong thing without remorse and even brag about it afterward is unthinkable in this kind of parable of the beauty of life. So we won't get the red turtle devouring or molesting the man just as we won't get the man killing and roasting the red turtle for turtle meat.
The more I think about it the more it seems that Edmund Burke would say the problem is that there's all this beauty but none of it is ultimately sublime. We're looking at a film that is unquestionably beautiful and finely wrought. It's a respectably made film and that may, in the end, be its trouble. If it's a fable it's a fable for those who live comfortably enough and beautifully enough to feel like that's the most important thing to convey about life. We don't get what we got at the end of The Wind Rises, a mixture of beauty and horror, of Jiro looking out at all the planes he built to go out to war with the wistful observation that not a single one of the planes he designed came back and that all those pilots died. He still feels he did what he set out to do, to make a beautiful plane, but Miyazaki shows us that the beauty and the horror are integral. We cannot ignore the beauty or the horror of the human condition. We cannot forget that our capacity for selfless generosity can be paradoxically self-aggrandizing. We can forget that in our philanthropy we can be harmful.
For as much blame as religion gets for perpetuating moral evil within the human race there has beenno more central concern in religion than the endless capacity of humanity to seek out moral evil. A fable that does not engage with the indisputable reality of our human capacity for oral evil is a fable that offers a comfort that we don't deserve. In Christian terms grace can only be grace if you don't deserve it; once it's some kind of divine birthright by dint of humanity being so beautiful then any obstacle to Manifest Destiny has to be treated as something or someone to be crushed.
In Miyazaki's pantheism the world and humans are beautiful but the beauty reveals the terror, too. This can show up in weird, wonderfully strange ways such as when Ponyo, princess of the sea, takes the form of a little child who is sprinting across the breakers of a storm. The terror of the storm is still there but the weird beauty of this child treating the seaside battering storm as a thing to play on and with is indelible imagery.
Here's hoping that whatever the future of Studio Ghibli's films may bring that they move back toward that and away from things like The Red Turtle. It's not exactly a bad movie, it's just merely a good movie but, sadly, in perhaps all the wost possible ways to mean that term.