The Red Turtle (2017)

I made the mistake of believing that, because it was a PG-rated Studio Ghibli release, The Red Turtle would be able to hold my 10 year old sister in law’s attention for its brief 80min runtime. It turns out that this Oscar-nominated animation is less whimsical kids’ fare like a Kiki’s Delivery Service or a My Neighbor Totoro and more of a quiet art film reflection on existential stillness. The Red Turtle is a quiet, lonely fairy tale with no backstory and, more notably, no dialogue. Its grimly whimsical retelling of The Little Mermaid (now with a giant turtle!) feels much more closely aligned with its nature as a French Art Film than its distribution through Ghibli might suggest. I wouldn’t recommend making a small child sit through it (I really should have more thoroughly researched it beforehand myself), but it does have a quiet power in its visual, emotional storytelling style that makes it worthwhile for those with the right amount of patience.

A nameless man shipwrecked on a remote island spends his days building a raft that might lead him back to civilization and his nights dreaming of signs of humanity: bridges, string quartets, etc. His few successful attempts to build a raft are disrupted by a giant red sea turtle that, seemingly without purpose, destroys his vessel by ramming it from below. Angered (and now outfitted with a beard that makes him resemble the Sad Keanu meme), the man exacts violent revenge on the turtle that leaves it similarly shipwrecked on his new island home. At this point, the narrative’s similarities to The Little Mermaid emerge and the walls dividing fantasy & reality gradually break down. The turtle transforms into a human woman, the pair’s guilt over their violent acts & their isolation lead to lifelong devotion, and they form a romantic partnership that lasts decades, making room for both awe-inspiring triumphs & emotionally devastating downfalls as Nature take its course.

The most striking aspect of The Red Turtle is its fascination with the ebb & flow cycles of The Natural World. Plant life is treated with the complex visual detail of a classic children’s book illustration. An intense contrast is established between the muted grays of night & shadow vs. the vibrant colors of day & sunshine. Baby sea turtles & scattering crabs go about their daily business no matter the significance of the times in the human lives that surround them. Violence, love, survival, death, and rebirth flow across time in a full spectrum of the human condition. Even the back & forth cycles of dream & conscious reality are treated with a respectful awe & religious reverence for their Natural power. Without a word of dialogue outside a couple desperate shouts of “Hey!”, The Red Turtle finds a lot to say about the Natural course of human existence (and I suppose, by extension, turtle existence).

I don’t mean to scare parents off from sharing The Red Turtle with young children. The film’s themes sometimes stray toward the somber & the cruel, but there’s nothing especially traumatizing about its overall narrative. The film is more “adult” in its requirement of patience for stillness & quiet. If you’re watching movies with a child who isn’t easily distracted in long stretches of silence, you’re likely to have a better time of it than I did. My personal expectations of a Studio Ghibli animation release clashing with the delivery of a silent French art film was a poor exercise in Doing Research & Reading the Room. When I return to The Red Turtle, it’ll likely be at a time when I can watch it alone in that late night or early morning headspace where the walls between dreamworld fantasy & daytime reality are more malleable than usual. It’s the cinematic equivalent of what’s referred to in pop music as “a headphones listen,” so choose your audience with a lot more care than I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Daikaijû Gamera (1965)

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I’m far from an expert in kaiju cinema, but recently catching a couple outliers in the genre, Reptilicus & Pulgasari, has sparked my interest a great deal. I’ve sen a good number of films that feature Godzilla & King Kong, who seem to be the top brass of kaiju fare, but there are so many other giant monsters of creature feature past that I’m missing out on between those borders. You can’t only listen to The Beatles & The Stones and claim to know the totality of rock n’ roll, right? As many times I’ve seen drawings or action figures of kaiju like Gamera, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla, I don’t think I’ve ever given their originating films a solid, up-close look, which feels like a blind spot in my horror/sci-fi film education.

Daikaijû Gamera (literally translated Giant Monster Gamera and re-cut & released in the US as Gamera: The Invincible) doesn’t do much to buck the idea that once you’ve seen one kaiju film you’ve seen them all. It plays remarkably like the original Godzilla film (which was then a decade old) in terms of tone, production, and plot. The most crucial difference between the two works, of course, is the design of their titular monsters. Yes, Daikaijû Gamera is essentially a too-soon remake of Godzilla, but it’s a Godzilla remake that features a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that can turn its shell into a flying saucer. I don’t think I need to explain any more than that to get the film’s basic appeal across. It’s a concept that pretty much sells itself.

Illegal Cold War nuclear activity in the Arctic frees an ancient beast known a The Devil’s Envoy, Gamera. Yes, The Devil’s right hand demon is a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that once plagued the lost continent of Atlantis (according to the Eskimo tribes that witness his rebirth, at least). Scientists expect that the nuclear fallout that freed Gamera from his icy prison will be the creature’s very undoing. That is not the case. Gamera not only breathes fire. He inhales it. All weaponry, industry and nuclear destruction thrown in his path only make him stronger. Nations must put aside their potential World War III tensions to peacefully plan Gamera’s undoing, calling into question the way the unnatural power of nuclear war can loosen & anger forces of Nature like typhoons, dead aquatic life epidemics, and fire-breathing turtles the size of mountains. At one point an observer asks, “Something must really be wrong with Earth, huh?” The answer is a resounding yes and a lot of anxieties about the destructive nature of modern life is clearly on display here in the guise of giant monster mayhem.

Although Daikaijû Gamera is a direct echo of Godzilla & in many ways feels like a standard issue kaiju flick (on the sillier side of the genre), it also did a lot to establish that standard in the first place. There’s a brief scene involving a beatnik surf rock band & a major storyline about a little boy obsessed with turtles (and turtleneck sweaters, apparently) that telegraph a lot of the winking camp tone in kaiju films to come. At this stage of kaiju cinema the monsters are supposed to be majestic & terrifying, but Giant Monster Gamera hints at a future world where they function as heroes of children & monsters with a sense of humor. Godzilla may be the most looming influence over the entire spectrum of kaiju as a monster movie subgenre, but Gamera‘s impact is a lot more readily recognizable in the DNA of the genre’s goofy, 70s future in titles like (my personal favorite) Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.

Again, though, there’s really no need to sell Giant Monster Gamera as an innovator or a historical landmark to make its genre thrills feel worthwhile. You can get its basic plot in any number of 1960s kaiju movies, but where else are you going to get a giant, fire-breathing turtle that occasionally functions as a flying saucer (besides its eleven sequels)? This is a genre that survives on the strength and/or novelty of its monsters & Giant Monster Gamera did not disappoint on that end, not one  bit.

-Brandon Ledet