Watching Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata’s rightly lauded film about two sibling children’s wartime experiences is an emotionally draining experience. Giovanni’s Island, a 2014 anime movie from Production I.G. is in a similar vein, though in truth it is mostly a post-war tale, also seen through the eyes of two young brothers. The film makes frequent and detailed allusions to and quotes from Kenji Miyazawa’s classic 1934 Japanese children’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad that was itself adapted into an animated movie in 1985. Giovanni’s Island assumes its audience’s familiarity with the novel, so I felt at something of a disadvantage from the outset. I had to research the book after finishing the movie, in order to decode its deeper meanings.
Night on the Galactic Railroad is a work of fantasy about the friendship between two boys. One dies and in a vision/mystical experience the other follows his friend’s soul on an astral journey towards the heavens in a train on the titular railroad. That the grim tone of Giovanni’s Island follows that of the story it so frequently references should come as no surprise. SPOILER - Like Grave of the Fireflies, this is the kind of movie in which children die. Other spoilers will follow.
Junpei (Giovanni) and Kanta (Campanello), two brothers named by their father after the main characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad live on the island of Shikotan, part of the Kuril Archipelago north of Hokkaido (most northerly of the main 4 islands that make up the Japanese mainland). Traditionally this was the home of the Ainu people (who featured in the recent TV anime The Golden Kamuy), though in 1855 it was officially recognised by treaty as part of Japan. In 1945, after Japan lost to the Americans in the second world war, Russia opportunistically annexed the island and by 1949 had displaced all of the Japanese people who lived there. Giovanni’s island is a fictionalised account of the people affected.
At the start of the story, Junpei and Kanta live fairly idyllic lives in their small fishing village. Their father’s position as village fire chief makes him the de facto leader of the island’s equivalent of the “home guard” while the island’s trained soldiers have duties manning guns on the hillside. To the boys, the war seems like a distant thing that barely affects their lives, save for a single bombing run on a nearby town. Then, shortly after Japan surrenders, Russian ships appear in the bay and their lives are disrupted by the appearance first of brutish Russian soldiers and then their families. The Japanese residents are evicted from their homes to make way for the Russians, giving opportunity for resentment to grow.
This is no simple story about racial tensions or armed uprising, though. Although the boys lose their house and end up staying next door in their stable, they make friends with the beautiful blonde Russian girl who moves in - Tanya, daughter of the Russian commandant. Over time the Russian and Japanese children at school learn to respect and interact with one another. Tanya’s father turns out to be a decent family man, but he’s still in charge of the occupation of their island - and their home. As kids, they’re just grateful to be invited to eat at his dinner table and spend time with his pretty daughter, while the Japanese adults scrabble behind the Russians’ backs for scraps of illegal food.
Tanya herself is a friendly and loving little girl who both boys fall head-over-heels for. She is strong but gentle and knows her own mind. It is her who makes overtures of friendship towards Junpei and Kanta. They joke about who will marry her when they are older, cultural differences holding little meaning for them. Later in the film, when circumstances tear them apart it is more than a little heartbreaking, especially when it is revealed that they were never reunited.
One particularly effective sequence involves the Japanese children who have been evicted from their classroom to another by the Russian children. During the Japanese kids’ music lesson when they sing a traditional Japanese song accompanied by the teacher’s acoustic guitar, they are drowned out by the Russian kids singing a traditional Russian song, accompanied by a much louder organ. This makes the Japanese kids only sing louder.
Later, in a counterpoint to this sequence, they again start to sing and are once again drowned out. Their teacher resignedly tells them to stop singing and do mathematics instead. In what I initially thought was a chilling scene about the indoctrination of children and destruction of a local culture, the Japanese kids start to sing along with the Russians in their song. But then to invert my expectations, the Russian classroom then starts to sing the traditional Japanese song that the Japanese kids were originally about to sing! What initially seemed sinister then became something quite heartwarming.
The feeling of indoctrination never quite goes away though. The Russian kids make very little effort to learn any Japanese, not even Tanya. It is up to the main characters to learn some Russian in order to converse with them. Also only the Russians get to use the newly installed electricity, not the Japanese. And the Japanese people are at constant risk of starvation - both the boys’ father and their uncle in different ways risk their lives to bring food to the village. As the film is viewed very much from a child’s perspective, we see little of the adults’ struggles. Although the children from different cultures eventually integrate reasonably well together, the same cannot be said of the adults and when that comes to a head, the tone of the film changes completely.
The boys’ uncle Hideo plays a polarising role in the story. On one hand he’s brave - he has returned from the war and continues to provide for his people and family with risky trips to the mainland to sell items for food. On the other, he’s reckless, opportunistic and economical with the truth. It may be his fault that the children’s father is caught by the Russians when he uses the banished Japanese servicemen’s secret supplies to feed his countrymen. Hideo’s portrayed similarly to Kaji from Evangelion - on the surface happy-go-lucky and irresponsible but inside a somewhat selfish and cavalier schemer. It’s his tall tales that later put the boys in danger, but only by his brave sacrifices that they are saved. Sometimes he looks like he’s been drafted in from an entirely different genre of film - his expressions and limbs are so elastic he could have escaped a 1930s Fleischer animation production.
Apart from the innocent Tanya, the only other female character of note is Sawako, the boys’ schoolteacher who holds a not-so-secret crush on their father. As their mother died some years previously, she takes on more of a maternal role as the movie progresses. Any romantic subplot is left unresolved, or at least undetailed as the boys are not party to that information.
Once the boys’ father is arrested, everything goes wrong for them. The entire indigenous population is repatriated further north to Kholmsk on the formerly Japanese, now Russian-captured Sakhalin island. There they must wait for a boat to take them back to the Japanese mainland, and the adults are put to back-breaking, life-threatening work in the meantime. The movie’s already earthy colours are muted yet further to portray a bitterly cold and grey coastal Russian outpost. This part of the film becomes unremittingly grim, as the boys discover their father’s prison camp is “only a stone’s throw away”, according to their uncle - who true to form, is economical with the truth. Their ill-advised journey to seek their father is what leads ultimately to sickness, injury and tragedy.
Somewhat improbably (after many difficulties), they do manage to reach the prison camp, though quite what they expected to do there, I’m not entirely sure. After a brief, heartbreaking scene across a barbed-wire divide they have to say a final farewell. The movie never reveals their father’s final fate, I expect he probably died in the camp some time after.
It wouldn’t be an anime war film without a tragic death at the end, and those death flags had been springing up constantly for some time. One of the final scenes where one brother has to carry the corpse of the other -while pretending he is still alive by talking to him - was particularly affecting. I wondered if the fantasy scenes with the galactic railroad were a bit overdone by this point in the film, I did feel they lessened rather than enhanced the dramatic impact. Perhaps that was only due to my lack of familiarity with the original reference material.
I enjoyed Giovanni’s Island for its lovely hand-drawn, earthy aesthetic. There is a little very tasteful use of limited CGI that does not intrude and only enhances the motion of what would otherwise be static scenes. The children act like children, for all the good and bad that means. They can be impulsive and stupid, but they don’t hold grudges and adapt to the challenges they face. The adult story is kept in the background, told only in the snippets the children themselves witness. Sometimes we as viewers are kept as much in the dark about events as the characters are themselves. The movie succeeds in building sympathy towards a suffering people I had previously known nothing about, and certainly led to a prolonged Wikipedia binge on history and geography. I feel a need to seek out the anime of Night on the Galactic Railroad now too. If you don’t mind a bit of education with your animated entertainment, give Giovanni’s Island a whirl. It’s not the best World-War-II-related anime, but it’s certainly a good one.
Director: Mizuho Nishikubo (Production I.G.)
Japanese Cinematic Release: 22nd February 2014
Format: PAL/Region B
Language: English, Japanese with English subtitles
BBFC Classification: PG
Distributor: All the Anime
UK Blu-ray Release Date: 12 Jan. 2015
Run Time: 102 minutes