Interview with Mizuho Nishikubo – Director of Giovanni’s Island

Today, Anime Reporter received a great honour, in the opportunity to talk with Mizuho Nishikubo who was in attendance at the UK premiere of his anime film, Giovanni’s Island. Many anime fans will already be familiar with Nihikubo’s work; he’s been a long time collaborator of Mamoru Oshii, even serving as animation director on Oshii’s acclaimed Ghost in the Shell. Nishikubo was also in charge of the animation for that most spectacular and jarring piece of anime featured in Kill Bill. Anime Reporter’s full review of Giovanni’s Island can be found here. Here’s a quick run-through of what the film’s about:

After World War 2, several remote islands to the north of mainland Japan were invaded and effectively claimed by the Soviet Union. Almost seventy years later, the Japanese and Russian governments still disagree over who has a legitimate claim to the islands.

Giovanni’s Island  is based on real events, focusing on two young brothers living on one of the islands when their home is overthrown. Nishikubo uses the boys’ innocence as a lens for capturing the harsh realities of war. This is particularly effective when we see Jenpei, the older brother, turns to fantasies out of his mother’s favourite book, Night on the Galactic Railroad, to escape.

It was a sincere pleasure to speak with Nishikubo and incredibly difficult not to fall into a fit of pure anime-fan glee during this interview.

Giovanni's_Island

‘What is real happiness?’

Anime Reporter:       It’s very nice to talk with you, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Mizuho Nishikubo:     Thank you.

AR:     First off, I would just like to say, this is a very beautiful, moving film and I would just like to ask what attracted you to this story?

MN:     Well, most people in Japan don’t know about this island and they don’t know about this story of friendship between the children, the Japanese and Soviet children on the island so for me, the thing that attracted me was I could as I went along and made the film.

AR:     The humanity, the emotion that’s in this movie is something that’s so universal. Was this something that occurred to you when you decided to make this animation?

MN:     When I was making the film, to me it was more a case of just depicting the real lives of the children who lived in that time and how they acted and I [doing that] in a realistic way.

AR:     And was there a temptation for you, particularly as a Japanese man at any point to skewer the movie because it has to be said, the characters in this are so human, there is never a sense of “good guy” or “villain”. It is just very true. How difficult was it to stay unbiased when making this?

MN:     I’m sure there were people on both sides, amongst the Russians and the Japanese who did bad things and good thing, but I just chose the characters who were necessary for the story. So, I wasn’t actively trying not to show prejudice. I just used the characters who appeared and were vital to tell the story.

In making the film, I came to realise that one thing about war is that even if you get good people trying to do good things, it still ends up with a tragedy. That’s just one of the things about war.

AR:     One of the very powerful devices in this film is that many of the characters don’t speak the same language and many of the Soviet characters were recorded in Moscow. How was it trying to bridge this language gap? How did it feel to direct in two different languages?

MN:     On the Japanese side, we used some famous actors for the voiceover and on the Russian side we had a famous Russian actor who came to dub a live action show into Russian. Both the director and the actors had interpreters and that was one of the ways that we tried to make it easier to communicate. The actors we used, when they watched the film, they were very good at showing emotion, so it really wasn’t that difficult.

AR:     Today, it’s so common with anime and animation to see computer-animation. This choice for hand-drawn animation in Giovanni’s Island is a bold choice at this stage. What prompted the choice to use this style of animation?

MN:     Well we could have done it either way, but at Production I.G. where we made the film there are a lot of animators who are particularly good at hand-drawn animation so we wanted to use that and also to match it up to the background which shows the hand-drawn lines. But, at the same time, the cars and the trains that you see in the film are actually done using CG but to look like they’re hand-drawn so that was something that we tried to do.

AR:     Fantastic. There’s a very clear, distinct contrast in the animation used for the boys on the island and for their fantasies involving Night on the Galactic Railroad. How important was this book as a device for you in the film?

MN:     I think there are various ways of interpreting the book Night on the Galactic Railroad, but in this case, Kenji Miyazawa’s word “What is real happiness?” are repeated throughout the film. In this case, I’ve used this novel to spur the characters on when they’re feeling despair or confusion. IT gives them hope and a reason to move on.

AR:     Giovanni’s Island is very different to some of your other recent films. I was wondering if you could tell us what’s next? Any upcoming projects that you have in mind?

MN:     There’s nothing big planned for the near future but I would like to make more of this kind of work about people living and surviving in historical periods.

AR:     Fantastic, I very much look forward to seeing those. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on this wonderful film.

MN:     Thank you.

Giovanni’s Island premiered today, Friday October 10th 2014 at the 58th BFI London International Film Festival.

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