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Jonathan Clements on this season’s classy anime feature

In the tense aftermath of World War Two, the Kuril Islands in northernmost Japan are handed over to the Soviet Union. A Japanese father assures his family that all will be well, although the post-war Soviet Occupation ironically brings tension and fear to an island that has previously been relatively untouched by the conflict. Young boy Junpei develops a halting, international friendship with the newly arrived blonde beauty Tanya, but her countrymen prove to be less accommodating, shipping Junpei’s father off to Siberia.

Originally mooted as a live-action project, but switched to anime due to the expense of location shooting and re-enactments, Giovanni’s Island features a script from Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai deeply enmeshed with ideas of universal language. As the film winningly suggests, there are many other ways to communicate, as the cast become friends through the means of music, games and even mathematics. The film also relies heavily on allusions to the conveniently out-of-copyright novel of Night on the Galactic Railroad, complete with retellings and references, including the characters’ own names — Junpei and Kanta derive their names from the Giovanni and Campanella in Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 story.

Ever willing to poke around in the interstices of history for children’s stories of the war, the Japanese animation industry alights here on the true story of Hiroshi Tokuno, on whose life story this film is partly based. Director Nishikubo spoke in interviews of heartfelt drama and documentary realism, using Russian voice-actors in the style of First Squad, and employing the same tactic as Hayao Miyazaki in Spirited Away, by refusing to depict anything beyond the understanding of his child protagonist. However, using such a perspective in a wartime theme arguably plays into Japan’s ongoing amnesia about the war, once again depicting the Japanese as guileless innocents, caught up in determinist historical events not of their making. We might also point to Giovanni’s Island as another iteration of a sub-sub-genre in Japanese animation about the end of WW2, sitting alongside other films such as Rail of the Star, Memories of Youth, Story of the Tsushima, and Kiku and the Wolf in their focus on the Japanese imperial subjects who found themselves in “foreign” territory after the surrender.

It is difficult to regard the giddy internationalism and pacifism of the film itself out of its political context – in 2006, the then-president of Russia Vladimir Putin offered to return Shikotan and the Habomai rocks, as long as Japan accepted that the larger disputed islands of Iturup and Kunashir were Russian ever more. Japanese school textbooks continue to refer to the islands as Japanese territory, and director Nishikubo has admitted in interviews that the author of the original book and inspiration for “Giovanni” had a much more strident political message to convey.

“But I met with him when we started production,” he told me at Scotland Loves Anime last October, “and I told him that I was more interested in his story itself than the point he wanted the story to make. It’s better to get people talking than simply telling them what to say.”

Giovanni’s Island is out on UK Blu-ray on 12th January from Anime Ltd.

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