Island life is an unremittingly harsh struggle against nature in Kaneto Shindo’s black-and-white docu-tone poem The Naked Island. However, it has its charms as well as its dangers for an animated castaway, whose story is maybe not so stylistically dissimilar. It is the sort of meditative, archetypal tale we rarely see in feature animation, but Studio Ghibli is/was like no other animation production house. Just when we have resigned ourselves to their long-term, possibly permanent development hiatus, they release their first legitimate international co-production. Directed by London-based Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit and crediting the great Isao Takahata as “artistic producer,” The Red Turtle (trailer here) is another masterwork from all involved, which is now playing a special one-week Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles.
There is nothing beautiful about the storm-churned waves battering the unnamed man through the sea. It is practically a miracle when he comes to on a proverbial desert island, but whenever he tries to sail away on a makeshift raft, a mysterious giant sea turtle blocks his way. Just as he starts to get rough with the beast, he notices a shy but obviously pretty woman, who is presumably a castaway herself. This changes everything.
What follows is a deceptively simple story that is deep as the ocean surrounding their idyllic isle and ultimately serves as a metaphor for absolutely everything. It is told without a word of dialogue, but there is plenty of emotional engagement. Indeed, the pay-off is achingly beautiful.
It would be unwise to reveal too much about the graceful narrative, but it should be safe to say Red Turtle probably boasts the most intense tsunami scene rendered to date in any film, of any genre. It also captures the beauty of nature and inexplicable bond human-animal bond. Dudok de Wit’s style is simpler and more evocative than the rich lushness that often distinguishes Studio Ghibli productions, but his visuals are still striking, in a way that is spare and even Spartan, yet undeniably gorgeous.
It also sounds incredible, thanks to the soaring themes of composer Laurent Perez Del Mar and the extraordinarily lifelike ambient sound (supervised by Bruno Seznec). This film should not only be a strong contender for the animated Academy Award. It truly deserves to be nominated in all the audio categories as well.