We've got to see some cool things in these last few weeks. The new Wonder Woman Trailer. The return of Baby Groot’s adorable face. And two Japanese films that have made it across the Pacific Ocean to Australian shores. What a time to be alive!
The Red Turtle is the latest from Studio Ghibli, and the Japanese animation powerhouse’s first international co-production. This realistically drawn feature was a creative partnership with Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit.
Michaël Dudok de Wit won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2001 with Father and Daughter, and we all know Studio Ghibli. The studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata (who directed the sombre, bittersweet Grave of the Fireflies in 1988) is The Red Turtle’s artistic producer.
This 80-minute feature tells the story of a shipwrecked man who finds a family and new life on an island that appears uninhabited. Uninhabited, that is, aside from the animal life, and the spirits that hide just beneath the surface – of the water, and of this world.
Oh, and the entire story is told without dialogue. Did I mention that part yet?
The characters have no names, and no background. All we know is that a man lands on the island after a storm, and must slowly figure out how to survive in this unknown place. He finds fruits to eat, he seems to befriend sand crabs, and has a narrow, tense escape from an underwater cave. At first he tries, repeatedly, to escape the island – but his makeshift rafts are destroyed by an invisible force from the ocean below. What’s holding him captive?
He then encounters an enigmatic red sea turtle, with pitch black eyes. Here, the film changes into something else entirely. Our protagonist makes peace with nature; which isn’t to say he is safe from it. If this synopsis sounds nebulous at best, that’s because the film itself has the mythical, sometimes surreal feeling of a fable.
This is a film of sounds – the stormy turbulence of the sea, the sweetness of birdsong, the stillness inside a bamboo forest. Credit must be given to the film’s composer Laurent Perez Del Mar. It’s a film that shows how much of what people (and animals) communicate is without words. It’s the way we look at someone, or turn away from them, or reach for them with our fingertips.
The Red Turtle is a beautifully drawn film that asks what gives meaning to a life.
Now for something completely different: Shin Godzilla is a monster mash-up of low-fi creature thrills and satirical political references. Japan’s Toho Studios has created the first Japanese-made Godzilla film in 12 years – which is actually the studio’s 29th, and the 32nd worldwide. At the helm are Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno, of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame.
In this monster movie, the central conflict is the government vs. Godzilla. Who are you going to back? A group tied up in red tape; or a giant lizard-like creature with gills that spew blood, which can mutate to adapt to its environment? This Godzilla has lasers, people.
Yeah, that’s what we thought.
A strange fountain of water erupts in the bay of Tokyo, causing panic among government officials – they suspect it might be a sign of volcanic activity. But the situation goes from molten to monster when a giant, lizard-like creature emerges from the water to wreak havoc across the city. Shin Godzilla – or Godzilla Resurgence – is a reboot, so the nuclear-charged newt that emerges from the water takes Tokyo’s inhabitants completely by surprise.
Cut to the government assembling – not a team of Avengers – an endless series of boardroom meetings and briefings to try to determine what action to take next. (A reference to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, which casts a shadow over the interpretation of the entire film.) The Prime Minister is no President Thomas J. Whitmore from Independence Day; he doesn’t want to act decisively, or deliver any inspiring speeches, or really do much of anything.
Instead, an oddball team of government outsiders led by Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) try to cut through administrative regulation and discover a way to defeat Godzilla. But with foreign superpowers getting involved and catastrophe looming, they have to work fast.
The special effects are a mixture of CGI, models and puppets, which gives the film some old-school charm – although audience members in this writer’s screening did giggle at Godzilla’s googly eyes.
What’s interesting about both The Red Turtle and Shin Godzilla is the extent to which both feel like unexpected choices for their genre.
Studio Ghibli is known for creating animated films that are not exclusively for - or even intended for - children, but an 80-minute feature without dialogue, that slips between throat-catching realism and fantasy is still a bold move. Given the direction Godzilla movies have taken over the past decade, Toho Studios’ decision to stick to a low-fi Godzilla, and endless scenes of government meetings, is nothing short of daring.
The inactive, bureaucratic nature of Japanese administration might be a problem if a bug-eyed eel that breathes fire ever attacks Tokyo – but innovation and imagination in cinema is going strong.