The Red Turtle is a collaborative project between the iconic Studio Ghibli and the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, known for his interpretive short films. The film was marketed as an East-meets-West production, and it bears creative influence from both traditions. It combines elements of the imaginative landscape in the classic Ghibli film Nausicaa, with the austerity of the figures in de Wit’s short film “Father and Daughter.” The result is a simplified but visually rich style.
While the film’s design has enchanted critics, no one quite agrees about what it is they’re seeing. The official synopsis characterizes the film as “the milestones in the life of a human being”; reviews often refer to it as a “fable.” Equally applicable genre labels might be survival or adventure fiction, bildungsroman, folk tale, even a nature film. Most unusually, it incorporates elements of the silent film genre—or rather, the absence of elements: There are sound effects, but no speech in the film.
Red Turtle’s speechlessness is a practical advantage, as well as thematically significant. Eschewing language circumvents tricky choices about whether to privilege the film’s Japanese or European origins; it allows the story to be timeless and universal in its indeterminacy. Instead of a vocabulary and structure necessarily bound to a particular culture and era, the film offers the raw materials of nature sounds and inarticulate human noises like grunts, sighs, laughter.
In the absence of speech, Red Turtle evolves its own visual language. The innocuous crab, for instance, develops into a symbol of death through its repeated association with scavenging and shipwrecks. The characters roleplay this process of creating a visual language when they share their stories by drawing in the sand. Their muteness brings the viewer into a transition space, akin to cross-cultural encounters, where nothing yet exists because the unlike elements have yet to find a way to communicate.
A Parable of Concord
In the meeting of man and sea creature, the Red Turtle invokes mermaid mythology. Because they merge fish and human bodies, mermaids symbolize hybridity, or the union of two unlike things. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story infused this duality with spiritual significance: The Little Mermaid longs for immortality; she seeks to share a human soul and so unite her finite essence with the eternal.
Through its semi-realistic adaptation of that well-known fairy tale, Red Turtle gives us a picture of how God reconciles man to Himself. At the heart of the film, man reacts with violence against an alien being, until a resurrection-like transformation opens his eyes to its true nature. From forgiveness, emerges the possibility of loving and life-giving relationship.
The familiar mermaid story, re-imagined as a cross-cultural encounter, affirms the possibility of union with God. Like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, it reveals an aspect of divine love to us by recasting it as a human relationship. It acts as a parable of concord, between two beings originally at odds with each other. Without a shared language, they cannot come together, just as the Word must enter the world to mediate between mortal and divine.
Set on a beach, where the land meets the sea, Red Turtle is about making something new out of two unlike things. If I were to choose a genre for the film, I would call it a “Biblical epic.” Complete with first man, flood, and exodus, it is the story of struggling in a world marked by death to bring our conflicting natures into harmony with divine love. It reminds us that the desire for communion speaks across cultures and even without words.