Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, 2014)

Back in July when I initially viewed Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, I commented that it was a story that would have been better told in live action. The subject matter was very serious, there was nothing magical required of the story. It was simply an animation that didn’t need to be an animation.

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Giovanni’s Island, the new anime release from Mizuho Nishikubo, could have had a similar issue. It is a film set on Shikotan, a small Japanese island in 1945, which tells most of the premise in itself. We follow Young brothers Junpei and Kanya Senō as they deal with the island’s occupation by Russian soldiers, the upheaval of life as they know it, their integration with Russian culture at their school and Junpei’s romantic interest with Tanya, a Russian schoolgirl with a high-level military father.

It is overall a very depressing subject matter. By this I’m talking Grave of the Fireflies sort of level of depressing. There were many teary eyes as the film reached its conclusion, and that is testament to what a fantastic job Nishikubo has done here.

The animation style was actually quite intelligent and as the film went on there was a clear reason why animation was the medium of choice to tell this tale. There are three distinct styles on show: very realistic imagery is used for all the modern-day portions of the work; a more childlike design with juxtaposing dull greys are used for the sections covering 1945; and Junpei’s dreams and fantasies are more varied, with styles ranging from basic sketches to star-filled neon visual fireworks. The decision to use all three styles to represent a now much older Junpei’s memory of the events is a smart move, especially when we see the childlike times he spends with his brother overlaying a truly grim memory of the surrounding landscapes.

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One key theme throughout is the children’s obsessions with trains and railways, inspired by the brothers’ favourite book Night of the Galactic Railroad. According to the director this book used to be extremely popular but has since become just a phrase that is used. In fact, only 10 out of approximately 100 children who auditioned for the film were aware of the contents of the book. Perhaps the choice of this particular book was a comment that the younger generations of Japan are trying to move on from the painful memories suffered by their grandparents. Or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence and I’m reading too much into it.

Nishikubo has come in for criticism for the content of the film. Some Japanese critics thought he should have used the film to make more of a political statement. I tend to disagree. It really is an important and compelling story to simply tell the experience these two young children went through, without being judgemental of any of the parties. Neither the islanders nor the Russians are particularly singled out as being in the wrong. This allows us as viewers to make up our own minds, and it’s a much more balanced approach to allow the story to gain popularity and recognition in the world markets. In so many ways, this does a far better job than being highly favourable to the Japanese islanders, who went through terrible treatment no matter which way you look at it, and I’m sure this is the conclusion most will draw.

Giovanni’s Island has a limited release in UK cinemas in 2014, including the London Film Festival (10th October onwards), Scotland Loves Anime 2014 in Glasgow (12th October), Leeds Vue in the Night (12th October) and Edinburgh Filmhouse (18th October). It will subsequently be released on Ultimate Edition Blu-ray (limited to 1000 copies) and DVD on 8th December, and standard Blu-ray on 26th January 2015. More information on all these releases can be found on the official Giovanni’s Island website.

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