Giovanni's Island

Rating: 3.5

This is a story of death and loss and friendship and of life carrying on. It's a restrained depiction of the effects of war and occupation. It's about the power of dreams and imagination.

Japanese people on a boat nearing the island of Shikotan, off the north-east coast of Hokkaido. It's the first time since the late forties that they're allowed to go back to what used to be their home. Two of them reminisce of the events of that time.

Jumpei and Kanta are about 10 and 6 when the Emperor broadcasts the surrender of Japan: they may not understand the full impact of that event, but they know that their life is going to change. Their father is the chief of the island's defence force, but not actually military: in Jumpei's words, he's the head of the fire brigade. He loves Kenji Miyazawa's novel, "Night on the Galactic Railroad", and the children have read aloud from it since they learned to read. Jumpei and Kanta often imagine themselves as the characters in the book their names were even chosen to resemble: Jumpei for Giovanni, Kanta for Campanella. The novel was also their dead mother's favourite, and its message that the souls of the dead get transported to the sky to become stars has helped all of them to cope with her loss.

With the end of the war, comes the Russian occupation. Soldiers come to the island, occupy the houses and the school, take away the soldiers. A difficult co-existence begins, but while the adults of each nation are suspicious and resentful of the others, the children do their best to be children and forge friendships, across the barriers of language and status. We follow in particular the story of Jumpei and Tanya, and how they cope with the upending of both their worlds.

Giovanni's Island carefully avoids demonising the invading forces, without discounting the effects they had on the lives of people who had little or nothing to do with the war. Narrating everything through the point of view of children allows writer SUGITA Shigemichi (杉田 成 道) to show clean, raw emotions but also avoid tearjerker tropes. The animation seems to be a mix of computer-generated backgrounds and hand-drawn characters, which is a bit jarring at times.

There's no way this movie won't be compared with Grave of the Fireflies (1988, director TAKAHATA Isao, Studio Ghibli): both are set in the same period, both tell the story of two young siblings, both show the tragedy of war. Although I consider Grave to be overall a better work, I can't usually recommend it to people: on the one hand, it's extremely tragic; on the other, Seita's behaviour is upsetting and borderline criminal. By contrast, Jumpei's and Kanta's story is full of hope, and none of the characters (not even the Russian soldiers) are shown as malicious or homicidally stupid: Giovanni's Island goes into my list of recommended historical films on post-war Japan.

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DatesCreated: 2015-03-08 16:16:25 Last modification: 2023-02-10 12:45:24