Given how media is often known to distil the events of WWII into a sort of morose highlights newsreel, you’d be forgiven for developing a sense of cynicism every time another retelling of the events of Pearl Harbour, The Blitz the Normandy Landings, etc. appears, often with more emphasis on spectacle than emotional resonance. While Japanese depictions naturally tend to focus on the human cost of a defeated nation with little to celebrate, the same type of summation is also a common occurrence, usually centred on the various allied bombings. In contrast, Giovanni’s Island depicts a far more low-key & less recognised, if often just as unflinching account, from the point of view of those hit hardest once the conflict ended.
The movie focuses on ten year old Junpei & his younger brother Kanta, living in a small fishing village on Shikotan, one of the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido. Largely undisturbed by the war around them, life continues at a fairly relaxed pace until the citizens are ushered into the town hall to hear a radio broadcast from the Emperor, announcing Japan’s surrender. The villagers are filled with apprehension over what the arrival of the US forces will mean for their livelihoods. However, it isn’t the Americans that eventually come to claim Shikotan, but the Russians, who after forcefully absorbing the chain of islands into its territory, send over the families of the soldiers stationed there, with the aim of colonising the area.
Loosely based on the autobiography of Hiroshi Tokuno, many of the events depicted are true to life, with the sudden arrival of Russian warships eliciting a genuine sense of terror as the soldiers invade the island, looting homes & storming Junpei’s classrooms waving guns & screaming at them in a foreign tongue. To the film’s credit, the Russians aren’t depicted as a bunch of faceless monsters, but as jittery & paranoid of the inhabitants, and after treating themselves to the spoils of war on territory they now boldly claim as their own, quickly settle down & start to live a peaceful, if high-strung and segregated co-existence with the local community. As an army they’re certainly intimidating, but as a individuals you do see genuine warmth & humanity beyond their defined roles.
The central cast are relatively simple, although thankfully nuanced enough not to require the film to loudly exposit their motivations. A brief scene of Tanya, the daughter of the Soviet troops commander, crying in the dark, doesn’t need to come with a monologue, after all, she’s a stranger in a strange land left largely on her own due to her parent’s roles. Likewise, Junpei & Kanta’s grandfather’s extreme act of stubbornness later in the show is sufficiently given prior context, with him coming across every bit the kind of man who has proudly led a simple life in a defined role, & wants absolutely no part in the change he sees is coming.
An interesting sense of duality emerges from the characters interactions with each other. You can clearly see this on a surface level, with Kanta’s outspoken enthusiasm counterbalancing Junpei’s shy awkwardness, or the role of Tanya’s father as both a soldier & family man, but there are deeper threads throughout. The Japanese citizens on the island are deliberately pushed to the side as the invaders claim whatever settlements they wish, yet clearly have a sense of place & belonging on Shikotan, while the Russians, for all their arrogant entitlement, definitely come across as uncomfortable outsiders, clinging onto calming reminders of their homeland. The contrast between Junpei & Kanta’s stoic father, Tatsuo, & their playful uncle Hideo is also of note, with the former clinging on to his sense of duty by covertly looking after the village, even if it means being discovered by the Russians, while the latter uses morally questionable means to benefit the family alone. One of Junpei’s dreams, in which he imagines his father as a ticket instructor on a train, & his uncle as a vagabond fellow traveller, is an effective nod to how he places the two adults within the context of his own life.
These connecting arcs come to a head by the film’s halfway point, when the villagers are forced to leave Shikotan & the tone & structure of the story starts to significantly shift. Instead of fixating on small incidental moments in a child’s life, the story becomes far more rooted in established war movie tropes, making the problems in the film far more pronounced than they were in the first arc. While many scenes, both prior to & after the exodus from Shikotan are clearly based on historical accuracy, they become incorporated into a fictional narrative which often feels overblown & trite, clearly focused on milking emotion from the audience. For as unsubtle as the classic ‘children from different cultures finding friendship’ theme during initial portion of the movie was, it clearly worked as part of the central message of people coming together by what connects them. The latter half in comparison feels far more like a classic tragic adventure story, & while the film does a fairly sound job of making you care for the cast, it never fails to stop feeling cheap or exploitative in the way it accomplishes this. Real life parallels or not, sad things happening to sad people in the snow has long since been overplayed in anime & beyond. The fact that you can clearly separate the parts based on recollections with those of a fairly standard war film is easily the movie’s biggest flaw.
One thing it does exceptionally well is tying the story to a central motif; in this case Kenji Miyazaki’s novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad. Both Junpei & Kanta are named after the central characters, Giovanni & Campanella (a deliberately prescient choice), & the events of the book follow them throughout the story as reflections to their own lives. Initially this is done through fairly cheerful means, such as the children proudly reciting the book to their father, or Junpei’s various daydreams about riding the train, but as the real life consequences of the war start to affect the people around them, the tone of the quotations start to apply themselves to increasingly heavily subject matter. While the idea of trains as a metaphor for connecting people together is clear, so too are the passages within the book dealing with sacrifice & inevitability. The two stories ultimately share the same message of trying to live on with the memories of those you lose. Watching the film as a companion piece to the 1985 Galactic Railroad anime would be a pretty favourable choice, both in terms of context & in the sharing of themes. Giovanni’s Island exists as much as a love-letter to the novel as it does a retelling of historical events.
On a technical level the film is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, the background animations look breath-taking, using the talents of Argentinean art director, Santiago Montiel, who infuses the various locations with a gentle, almost watercolour-esque coating. The character designs seem a more confused choice, eschewing many of the standard anime aesthetics in lieu of realism, yet keeping the lack of detail around the same level. As such we get bunch of flat looking people, with strangely dead eyes & a habit of pulling oddly exaggerated or comedic expressions during moments of emotional weight. Think of a less stylised version of the character designs found in The Tatami Galaxy. I’m not sure if this decision was due to budgetary concerns or just a failed gambit, but it feels a rather poor stylistic choice to use in a war drama.
The scene directing is generally rather laid back & content to focus on the static backgrounds, but definitely puts emphasis on pivotal scenes. The instance when the Commander of the Russian forces marches into Junpei’s classroom is a standout moment, with the camera moving to the point of view of his pistol holster, swaying with the movements of his steps as the sound of his feet walking across the room gains a deep booming quality. The various train daydreams are also given a certain abstract quality, playing with light & shadow. Despite being made on a moderate budget, it usually nails the parts that are supposed to be the most affecting.
One final, slightly off-topic matter to note is the amount of comparisons that have been made between Giovanni’s Island & Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. While there are obvious superficial similarities, with both stories dealing with children suffering as a result of the war, the way both films go about it is markedly distinct. The story of Junpei & Kanta is ultimately a fairly traditional tale, with a central message of learning to make connections with people, regardless of circumstance. It’s certainly bittersweet, but from the suffering comes the promise of hope, by not repeating the same mistakes again. Grave of the Fireflies, by contrast is an abyss of despair, with no exit or relief for its central cast. Both are clearly anti-war films in that regard, but the former shows its message through living & learning, while the latter makes this point entirely through death. I’m not sure which approach I prefer, but the two films work well as mirror images of each other.
Ultimately though, I do think Giovanni’s Island is pretty fascinating tale, even if many of the storytelling elements often don’t quite live up to the uniqueness of the events they’re centred around. Still, as emotionally exploitative as it can be at times, having a genuine foundation for the film to base its message on does go a fair way into dispelling some of my own personal biases. Maybe it’s the amount of shows creeping into the medium with increasingly right-wing messages (cough, Mahouka) that I’ve seen come & go in the last few years, but at this point I’ll latch onto any story that actually provides legitimate reasons to bear hatred against another culture, before acknowledging that embracing the good in people deserves to win out. If that makes me an easily manipulated sap, then I’ll wear the title as badge of honour. In that regard, Giovanni’s Island succeeds where it most matters.