ANIME & MANGA - Review
12:00 - 17th January 2015, by David West

Giovanni’s Island

Junpei and his kid brother Kanta live on the small, northern island of Shikotan, a remote community that has largely escaped the horror and devastation of World War II. Their grandfather goes out every day to catch fish, and the boys climb up the rocks by the beach looking for puffin eggs. It’s an idyllic existence, but when Japan finally surrenders in August 1945, the island becomes the property of the Soviet Union. The first that the islanders know of this is when Russian troops arrive and occupy Shikotan, terrifying the locals in the process, who breathlessly remark that Russians can kill bears with their bare hands. Junpei’s family is forced out of their home which is taken by the Russian commander for his wife and daughter who arrive soon thereafter. While the adults remain suspicious and frightened of the Red Army soldiers, the island kids slowly begin to form friendships with the Russian children, and Junpei develops a big crush on Tanya, the beautiful, golden haired daughter of the Soviet commander. But tensions continue between the Russians and the Japanese – and between the boys’ father Tatsuo, head of the island’s defence force, and his brother Hideo, who is always on the lookout for a way to profit from the occupation.

Giovanni’s Island is the latest work from Mizuho Nishikubo and marks a considerable change in style from his last outing, Musashi: Dream Of The Last Samurai. Where that was an animated documentary about the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, Giovanni’s Island is a fictional tale, albeit one inspired by Hiroshi Tokuno, who experienced the historical Soviet takeover of the Kuril Islands. It is, at heart, a coming of age story as Junpei and Kanta are forced to grow up fast in the wake of the Imperial Army’s surrender. Unsurprisingly for a Japanese film dealing with World War II, the script casts Japan as the victim of foreign aggression, while singularly failing to make any mention of Japan’s imperial ambitions, aggressive expansionist agenda and appalling human rights abuses committed during the war. Nishikubo is hardly the first Japanese anime director to commit such sins of omission – he’s following in the footsteps of Hayao Miyazaki in The Wind Rises and series like Samurai Girls that similarly avoid asking difficult questions or questioning the morality of the wartime leadership. However, Nishikubo never demonizes the Russians, and the fact that the story is set on a distant, northern island far from active combat makes his choices easier to forgive. Like Miyazaki, Nishikubo displays a left-leaning, humanist tendency, finding common ground between his characters whatever their nationalities. This is best expressed in a clever sequence when the Japanese schoolchildren, forced to give up their classroom for the newcomers, spontaneously started singing with the Russian kids in the room next door, even though they don’t understand the words of the song. The childhood romance between Junpei and Tanya is handled without excessive sentimentality and the script maintains some distance between the Japanese and Russian kids by never removing the formidable language barrier.

In the first half, there is a sense of innocence about Junpei and Kanta’s story but the tone gradually darkens as the Russians decide to relocate the Japanese residents from the island. The film never becomes as deeply harrowing as Grave Of The Fireflies or Barefoot Gen, either of which will likely scar you for life, but it is not afraid to embrace tragedy, and some dark subject matter that may be too intense for young children. The boys’ fate is deeply moving but Nishikubo refuses to end on a note of despair, once again asserting his humanist outlook with a final sequence that restates the power of the ties that can link people from different countries and cultures together.

The screenplay makes repeated references to Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night On The Galactic Railroad. The movie takes its title from the book’s protagonist Giovanni, although the references may not have the same resonance for western viewers as Japanese ones familiar with Miyazawa’s tale. Trains are a recurring motif, representing the modern world intruding into the boys’ previously sheltered lives and the possibility of escaping their difficult situation to reconnect with distant loved ones. Seeing a locomotive for the first time, as experienced through Junpei and Kanta’s awestruck eyes, is a reminder of the power of wonder.

It is a beautiful film to watch, and quite different from the usual fare from the studio Production IG. The characters are simply rendered with highly fluid lines that provide for a broad range of facial articulation and expressions that can become overtly stylized. Backgrounds tend to be naturalistic and more heavily inked to give them weight and provide a contrast against the figures. The fantasy sequences inspired by Night On The Galactic Railroad are gorgeous, built from twinkly stars and swirling galaxies. Nishikubo has a strong sense of composition and makes excellent use of light and shadow, showcased in the scene when the boys play with their electric train set for the very first time. He keeps the camera at the children’s eye level, frequently looking up at the adults around them and emphasising the smallness and vulnerability of the boys.

The Japanese voice cast is excellent, with Koto Yokoyama and Junya Taniai completely naturalistic and engaging as Junpei and Kanta, while Yusuke Santamaria deserves mention for his excellent performance as Hideo. The English dub was unavailable for review so fingers crossed the cast measured up to their Japanese counterparts.

Giovanni’s Island has snapped up awards at film festivals from Chicago to Montreal and Scotland Loves Anime and it’s easy to see why. Nishikubo has crafted a powerful and emotionally rich tale of a family struggling to survive the sudden upheaval of their lives and there won’t be a dry eye in the house by the end. Bring tissues.
SCORE: 4/5
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