After Turning Red

In his book The Alchemy of Happiness, Ghazali describes the formula of happiness, writing “The heart is the sultan of the city called body.” According to him, the mind is the vizier of this city, and the feelings are its soldiers. The city is peaceful and safe as long as the soldiers are under the command of the vizier.

What a simple formula for those of us who are getting more and more impulsive amid the chaos and stimulus bombardment of modern city life. Today, I think what we need to keep this chain of command intact as it is formulated above is to recognize our feelings and watch them change from state to state. The animation titled Turning Red (2022), which is recently released, offers this opportunity for adults within the limits of an animation film.

The film is about thirteen-year-old protagonist Mei Lee’s transition from childhood to adolescence and her realization of changing emotions in the process. Mei Lee, who has an authoritarian mother and a relatively supportive father, lives in the oldest temple in Toronto.  She helps her family with the service of the temple in her leisure time after school. Besides that, we see Mei as a successful student who tries her best not to disappoint her mother’s expectations; although it means being away from her friends whom she loves to hang out with very much.

The transition to puberty, which is the main subject of the movie, comes in sight when Mei Lee wakes up as a red panda after a night where she quarreled with her mother. Although she freaks out when she first sees her reflection in the mirror as a red panda, she realizes that she can return to her own body as she calms down. Our heroine, who wants to hide this situation, finds the solution in becoming “dull”. Along with the main theme of the film, we are invited to think about the necessity of preparing the children for the difficulties they will experience during the transition to adulthood.

When the nosey and over-controlling mother figure finds out about the panda, we also learn that this is a legacy Mei inherited from her grandmothers. It turns out that the red panda transformation was a gift that was given to the great-grandmother who begged the gods to protect her village in ancient times, and passed down from generation to generation. Later, it caused difficulties for women when their families moved to the city. Due to the danger and destruction caused by the uncontrollable emergence of the panda, this gift should have been excreted from the body with a panda liberation ritual performed during the Red Moon.

Although her family wants to keep Mei at home until the ritual time, Mei gains self-regulation skills thanks to the compassion and trust shown by her friends, to the point that they even collect ticket money for a concert with the help of Mei’s special ability.

In the scene where the mother, who learns about Mei and her friends’ crazes for concert tickets blames all the other children, we watch Mei’s relationship with her friends and family comparatively. Besides we observe the relationship between the “family” and the “friends” as a third dimension. Being able to observe the emotions of the side characters helps us mirror the relationships we have in our lives. On the other hand, the communication of Mei’s mother with her sisters and mother who came for the ritual invites us to think about the genetic transmission of behaviors.

When the red moon appears in the sky and the ritual begins, Mei, who meets her panda for the last time in company with  heartfelt songs sung by her family members, does not want to let it go. Because Mei refuses to give up on the red panda, the ritual fails/could not be completed. Thus we meet the pandas of other family members. In these scenes, besides the showdown between mother and daughter, we also get to see the solidarity between the family members along with the support among friends. While the movie ends with the acceptance of the red panda by Mei’s circle, we also understand that Mei, who did not give up on her panda, is the first grandchild who truly honors her grandmother, even though she seems to be breaking the tradition.

While the elders of the family imprison their red pandas, using the excuse that they are uncontrollable, Mei learns to control hers at a young age. This of course is about getting to know her emotions and learning to balance them instead of escaping from them. Although the film is criticized for being overly didactic, it opens a new window for the audience who watch the film with the intention of seeing themselves on the screen. During Mei’s transformation scenes, it is possible to find clues about what we can do when we experience emotional outbursts. In addition, I have to admit that this animation, which contains a little bit of nostalgia in terms of taking place in the 2000s, breaks from the general paradigm by including side characters wearing headscarves. Turning Red allows you to observe the differences between; being a slave to  the emotions, trying to dominate them or taking them into consideration. From the perspective of self-acceptance, it captures the audience while offering an enjoyable experience about being human.


She was born in 1993 in Isparta/Turkey. She completed her primary and high school education in Isparta. She started her undergraduate education in the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Istanbul University in 2011, and graduated in 2015. In the same year, she started her graduate studies at Marmara University's Institute of Social Sciences, in the Department of Turkish-Islamic History and Arts. She got her master's degree in 2019 by completing her thesis on İ'tisam magazine, which was published in the early 1900's. During her graduate education, she kept working on Ottoman Turkish in various institutions. From 2016 on, she is giving lectures and preparing workshops about reading the manuscripts, inscriptions and tombstones written in Ottoman Turkish.

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