The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 91 – Giovanni’s Island

Giovanni's Island

Once again we cover the ever-controversial subject of the war, or to be more precise the end of the war. This is something that has been covered before, such as in the Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies (No. 40). This article covers a much more recent film, but in some ways it connects with feelings and diplomatic issues that still exist today.

Giovanni’s Island is a 2014 film produced by Production I.G and directed by Mizuho Nishikubo. It is most notable for its setting: the northern island of Shikotan. It and various other islands to the north of Japan has been a continuing subject of diplomatic controversy between the Japanese and the Russians. At the end of the war the USSR as it was then invaded various islands including Shikotan and the Kuril Islands. The Russians did not invade Japan’s mainland because the war ended before they had the chance. Many of these islands are still controlled by Russia, and the ongoing dispute between who actually controls them has being going on so long that an end to hostilities between the two countries has never fully been declared. Thus you could argue that World War II is still going on.

Giovanni’s Island is told in flashback, beginning on 4th July 1945. It tells the story of young boy Junpei Seno and his younger brother Kanta, who live on Shikotan with their father Tatsuo amongst others, a man who is mainly obsessed with the children’s fantasy novel Night on the Galactic Railroad (which itself was made into an anime film in 1985, but that’s for another article). But on the 15th August Japan surrenders, and then on the 1st September the Russians invade, take control of the island, and the families of the Russian troops move onto the island.

Junpei first comes across many problems, as he ends up having to share the school and the best part of his house with the family of the Russian commander. There is one positive however, in that the commander’s daughter, Tanya, is very beautiful. They become friendly, but as the boys believe Tanya will never fully get the grip of Japanese, Junpei and Kanta claim that their names are actually Giovanni and Campanella, who are the two main characters in Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Over the coming months, the Japanese resort to more extreme measures to make live more comfortable. Tatsuo hands out a secret store of rice to the locals, while Junpei’s uncle Hideo begins a smuggling operation. But eventually both get caught, with the result that Tatsuo is taken to Russia. Eventually, the entire Japanese population is taken to an internment camp in Russia, separating Junpei and Tanya. But while in Russia the boys learn that their father is in a prison camp not too far away. Thus they decide to escape from the internment camp and try and see their father, walking across the frozen wastes, while Kanta becomes increasingly ill.

While there are certain aspects of this film that are questionable such as the quality of the animation, other aspects like the music are great. My favourite scenes occur in the school where the Japanese class and the Russian class, which are next door to each other, both have a music class. First they attempt to sing louder than each other, but then in another lesson the Japanese sing a Russian song and then the Russians sing a Japanese song, so the two sides become friendlier.

But the issue of the war is the main thing that comes across, especially in an area that causes so much tension today that you can argue that the war still is not over yet. Perhaps the best comment I have spotted was made by another anime critic, Jonathan Clements, in the sleeve notes for another anime series entitled She: The Ultimate Weapon, when talking about the Kuril Islands and Japan’s northern most part of the mainland Hokkaido: “Hokkaido is not merely the place where the Cold War looks Japan right in the face, it is a reminder that the Russian advance could have proceeded closer to Tokyo, dividing Japan into a communist north and capitalist south, like Korea. For the Japanese, it brings the most unpleasant thought of all – that the horrific devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in speeding a Japanese surrender, may have saved millions of Japanese lives from division and conflict.”

Films like Giovanni’s Island are a reminder that the war is something that we can never forget; no matter how much you would like to, but at the same time can bring a little bit of joy in the sense that while war can divide people it can also bring them together. While this film is not quite as good as Grave of the Fireflies, it is still a film of merit in its own right.

Giovanni’s Island is released by All The Anime as a DVD, Blu-Ray, and a limited edition “Ultimate Edition” including Blu-Ray, DVD and a book.