Acts of aggression always come with unintended consequences. On the smaller scale, as when my children fight, it could be that the toy they’re fighting over takes a break for a bit and neither gets to use it. On the larger, loss of life or worse happens on a grand scale. Right now, there’s a war in Ukraine between its people and Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, which he began years ago and now has earned an arrest warrant for war crimes. Thought they aren’t the first country to have behaved so maliciously toward other peoples, this also isn’t the first time that Russian forces took over land that wasn’t theirs to begin with. In 2014, co-produced and presented by the Japan Association of Music Enterprises, studio Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell) and director Mizuho Nishikubo (Vlad Love/Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest) released the film Giovanni’s Island, a tale based on real events post-World War II when a small Japanese island was commandeered by Russian troops. Told from the perspective of two young brothers, Giovanni’s Island is as much a tale of familial love and growing up, as it is about the way in which war tears us all apart, leaving nothing behind unless we take action to stop it. In short, a kind heart wins over a cruel one.
On the small island of Shikotan, brothers Junpei and Kanta (voiced by Kōta Yokoyama and Junya Taniai respectively) live with their father, Tatsuo (voiced by Masachika Ichimura), and grandfather (Saburo Kitajima), going to school and playing with their friends. Their fairly idyllic lives come to a grinding halt on an otherwise lovely August day in 1945 when Russian forces arrive on their beaches and commander everything on them. For a time, the invaders and the Japanese co-exist in relative peace, from the children’s perspective, until all the residents are forced off the island to an internment camp. This is the journey Junpei and Kanta undertake, wondering if they’ll ever see home again.
Giovanni’s Island is a heartbreaker that offers a child’s-eye-view of an aspect of World War II that most individuals don’t know of. It could have been a wider story, one which fills the audience in on what the adults are doing to provide a wider context for events, but by keeping the focus on the children, original story creator and screenwriter Shigemichi Sugita (Kikyo) allows there to be some joy inside the bittersweet story. It’s bittersweet not just because Shikotan is still considered part of Russia even now, but for the way in which Sugita demonstrates that the war is something that the adults deal with and the children are mostly oblivious toward. It’s not that Junpei and Kanta aren’t aware of the dangers involved with armed troops everywhere or the fact that they and their family are moved out of their home into the adjoining stable so that the Russian commander can live somewhere with his family, it’s that the children (Japanese and Russian) generally get along together. They may not speak the same language (at least at first), but there’s a sense in the story that neither group blames the other for what the adults are doing. Incidentally, this comes up in the included “Making of” featurette and seems to be historically accurate. Yet, for all the adolescent play, there’s still a serious undercurrent throughout, especially when the residents of Shikotan are forcibly removed from the island entire. This is not a spoiler as the film opens with an aged Junpei coming to the island for the first time since he left, the dialogue making it clear that this is a journey a long time coming. There is innocence lost throughout Giovanni’s Island yet it’s not presented in a way that the audience feels desolate during, until something happens late in the film that created immediate waterworks for this reviewer. When that occurred, I’d realized just how much of the emotion had been sneaking into my subconscious, building up until it couldn’t hold back any longer.
What helps balance the light against the darkness is the use of animation throughout the film. At first, one expects a more traditional look based on the stills or the trailer, until Junpei and Kanta start telling the story of Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, a book beloved by their father and late mother and from which the boys got their names. It’s a fantasy story about two boys and a train that travels the stars. It’s a story of comfort for the two and doorway for the animation of Island to transform from traditional hand-drawn-looking animation into something magical, beauteous, and inspiring. It’s not that the regular look isn’t lovely, it’s that in order for the fantastical moments (either imagined by the two boys or evoking a bit of magical realism in the everyday) to come across as fantastical, something has to be the ground, the anchor. What’s particularly striking about the use of animation is the way that it adapts to convey intensity of circumstance. In one scene, as the audience is shown a landscape for location purposes, the sky is animated red with visible brush strokes, offering a sense of artistic and imaginative creation against the more physical-looking ships below. With so many forms of animation at work throughout the film, conveying different tones and emotions, as well as communicating the difference between the reality of Junpei and Kanta’s situation compared to that of their comforting imagination, it’s no wonder that Giovanni’s Island was awarded with the Satoshi Kon Award at the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For fans of the film or animation nerds (::waves hello::), the bonus features offer a little something for everyone. There’s a 37-minute, nine-chapter “Making of” featurette lead by Nishikubo that takes the audience through the concept, give them a look into the art direction with Santiago Montiel (concept artist for LAIKA Studios’s Missing Link), a look at the casting process for the children characters, as well as some insight into the musical portions. For instance, I wouldn’t have guessed from the final product that Nishikubo used mocap to design and develop one of the dance sequences. Interestingly, rather than giving the Japanese voice actors a singular focus, in a four-minute featurette shot in 2014, IIlushenko answers some questions and offers her thoughts on what the film means today. Additionally, the home viewing audience is given an opportunity to hear an unused version of the Russian traditional “Troika” sung by a male choir. For those interested in the character, set, and production design, there’s an automated seven-minute art gallery that’s supported by the beautiful score from composer Masashi Sada (Kura). The bulk of what you’ll learn regarding the making of the film is, obviously, in the “Making of” portion, but there’re still things to learn and appreciate in the other portions, even if it’s a little odd that it focuses more on the Russian aspects.
Perhaps it’s the difficulty of the times talking or the fact that I have two boys who are often attached at each other’s hip, but I couldn’t help but breakdown over Giovanni’s Island, a film that I admittedly was not interested in seeing. Now, however, I wonder when it’ll be the best time to show this PG-rated film to my eldest, to sit him down so as to show him a different side of the world in which he exists. Luckily, for those like him who aren’t ready for subtitles, there is an English dub (among other options), so that he doesn’t have to wait until he can read a little faster. Would I show this to him now? Not quite. Even animated, the message within packs quite the wallop. The film, though, is a powerful way to highlight that even when a war ends, the victims are generations in the making. Thanks to GKids Films and Shout! Factory for bringing the film to the U.S. in physical formats, there’s a greater chance that this story won’t stay so secret anymore.
Giovanni’s Island Special Features:
- Making Of (37:43)
- Interview with Polina Ilyushenko (4:26)
- “Troika” Music Video (4:14)
- Art Gallery (7:22)
Available on Blu-ray and digital February 21st, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.