Anime Reporter visits Giovanni’s Island, Mizuho Nishikubo’s historical anime film set in post World War 2 Japan.
Many of those familiar with Nishikubo’s work may know him best for his work collaborating with Mamoru Oshii as animation director, particularly for his acclaimed work on Ghost in the Shell, but Nishikubo has long since proved himself to be an attentive and knowledgeable director. For insight on some of Nishikubo’s thoughts on his latest project, take a look at my recent interview with him while he was attending the UK premiere of Giovanni’s Island.
Based on the true life events of Hiroshi Tokuno, Giovanni’s Island details the takeover of several remote Japanese islands by Soviet forces in the fallout of the Second World War. Junpei, the character based upon Tokuno, and his little brother Kanta are well used to loss, following the death of their mother. Their ability to cope and compromise is tested beyond reason as they, and the other occupants of their island are ousted from their homes and regularly ransacked for any food, supplies or valuables they might have. Making things even more uncomfortable, Junpei’s class is ejected from their classroom to make room for the children of Soviet troops stationed on the island.
What follows is a reminder of the wonder of innocence, starkly contrasted with the absolute horrors of war, even after it ends. Junpei and Kanta often turn to their mother’s favourite storybook, A Night on the Galactic Railroad, the story of a magical train that lets you travel anywhere in the universe. Comforted by this story, the boys are able to persevere through the hardship that comes. It is worth noting that, while this story details hostility towards Japanese natives, focusing on two young Japanese boys and directed and written by Japanese men, this film is not a way of voicing political outrage. This is not a story of heroes and villains. Soviet and Japanese characters alike are flawed and fleshed out. This is a tale of something entirely human and beautiful and heartbreaking. While there are undoubtedly moments of humour throughout Giovanni’s Island, this is not a film for casual, sunny day viewing. More than a few tears may be shed while watching.
It is a combination of many things, from the wondrously evocative score, to the absolutely superb cast (in both Japanese and Russian), to the rustic but very charming and astoundingly emotive animation, which makes this film both beautiful and heart-wrenching to watch. Production I.G.’s animation team did a remarkable job of bringing the boys and their friends and family to life. While computer animation is much more commonplace these days and it would be easy to assume that the hand-drawn characters are something crude or dull, nothing could be further from the truth. The simple, fine-lined representation of characters is used masterfully, carrying humour and resonating emotion with a lot of skill. Characters feel truly alive and it’s so easy to become totally engrossed in the plot and in the beautifully rendered scenery.
Giovanni’s Island is, quite simply, a remarkable piece of cinema. It is at once something brilliantly beautiful and charming, while also being harrowing and painfully honest. While some may long for more shine in the animation, one would hope that most viewers would accept this film as it is by the end, a lesson on just what is beautiful and brilliant and brutal about being human, warts and all.
Giovanni’s Island premiered in Japan in February 2014 and will be showing in select theatres in the UK soon.
Emotional Range: 10
96% – “Heartbreaking, Breathtaking and Altogether Wonderful” – Giovanni’s Island takes us on a refresher course on what it means to be human and puts us through our paces. While some of the content may well be too dark for very young viewers, this film will undoubtedly become seen as a classic within our time.