Director: Mizuho Nishikubo
Screenplay: Shigemichi Sugita, Yoshiki Sakurai , Wendee Lee
Starring: Kota Yokoyama, Junya Taniai, Polina Ilyushenko
Producers: Kaeko Sakamoto, Eric P. Sherman
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Well, I complain about there not being many anime films to review these days and two come along at once. A couple of weeks after reviewing Patema Inverted I've sat down to watch Giovanni's Island, still Japanese animation, but a totally different film.
Where Patema Inverted was a disorientating sci-fi adventure, Giovanni's Island is a moving true-life inspired drama set just after World War II. Junpei (Kota Yokoyama) and Kanta (Junya Taniai) are two young brothers who live on the small island of Shikotan, off the northernmost coast of Japan. As Japan surrender on August 15, 1945, the island becomes Soviet Union territory and the Japanese residents are forced to share the island with the Soviets who come to claim the land.
The two boys are cautious of the invaders at first, until they meet Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko), a beautiful young Russian girl whose family forces them out of their homes. Junpei falls head over heels for Tanya and the two become close friends, until a series of incidents split them apart and the Japanese are sent from the island to a mainland refugee camp. From then on, tragedy continues to strike and Junpei must stay strong beyond his years as he's forced to look after his brother. He finds strength and solace in the story his dad used to read to them, 'Night on the Galactic Railroad', as the two boys recreate the wonderful fantasy world within it to maintain hope amongst the adversity they must endure.
As you can imagine from the story described, Giovanni's Island is an incredibly moving film. The first half is actually very sweet though. The children are less affected by the end of the war than the adults and are curious about their new neighbours rather than hateful as the adults are. There are some nice little scenes at the school the Japanese and Russian pupils must share as they first battle for supremacy, singing their country's folk songs (like in Casablanca) but later join in with each others'. It's a potentially cloying scene, but the beauty of the music and the direction keep things from veering off course. The young innocent love between Junpei and Tanya is beautifully portrayed too, blossoming very quickly, but balanced perfectly.
The second half of the film is where the film gets more emotionally powerful though. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I shed more than just a tear during a couple of scenes and was bawling my eyes out by the end. This portion of the film is reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies and whilst Giovanni's Island isn't as harrowing as the anime classic, its added warmth and hope make it a possibly more overwhelmingly emotional experience. I'd still say that the earlier film is stronger overall, as Giovanni's Island maybe tugs at the heartstrings more blatantly and less uniquely, but it's certainly worthy of comparison.
Another striking aspect of Giovanni's Island is the look of the film. The backgrounds have a gorgeous hand drawn oil painting style, complete with textured brushstrokes. The scenes on the island are soft and almost pastel and on the mainland things get darker and colder. The fantasy sequences as the children get drawn into the dream world of the 'Galactic Railroad' are wonderfully realised, full of bold colours and magical imagery, often using semi-transparent objects against a starry sky. The characters and animation can be a bit basic at times, but largely this is a stunningly beautiful film with a look all of its own.
Giovanni's Island possibly overdoes the sentiment from time to time, but I don't think I've ever been so physically moved by a film. Aided by the fact that it's also one of the prettiest animations to come along for a while, this is one of the films of the year for me and I'm looking forward to revisiting it in the future. I'll just make sure I have plenty of hankies on stand by.
Giovanni's Island is out on 12th January on Blu-Ray, DVD and Collector's Edition in the UK, released by Anime Ltd. I watched the standard DVD version and the picture and sound quality was very good. You get English and Japanese language options – I watched the Japanese version with English subtitles.
I'm not quite sure what the difference is between the three versions with regards to special features, but the DVD I watched had a handful of extras. Front and foremost is a 38 minute Making Of. This is technically quite basic (the sound can be quite poor), but the content is fantastic, covering most aspects of the production process and interviewing the man whose story inspired the film.
An extra interview is included with Russian voice actress Polina Ilyushenko, who plays Tanya. This is OK, but a bit too arse-kissy for my tastes. You also get an art gallery with lots of interesting pre-production designs and the like. Finally there's an alternative version of the Troika song featured in the film. The one used was sung badly by drunken soldiers, but the choir also recorded a 'proper' version, included here, which sounds gorgeous and is played over clips from the film.