Giovanni no Shima Review

Title: Giovanni no Shima / Giovanni’s Island
Length: 1 x 102 minute movie
Genre: War, Drama, Slice of life
Year of release: 2014

Are you acquainted with Night on the Galactic Railroad? Excellent. I’ll just assume you said ‘yes’, because otherwise this movie will very regularly make no sense, and you’ve got some reading and/or watching to do to figure out what is, honestly, a fairly simple war movie.

To be honest, if you’re watching a fairly deep cut in the anime fandom like this and haven’t come across that story, I’d be surprised. Personally, I came across those story’s beats long before realising I had – Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad is a philosophical children’s book that’s taught in Japanese schools, and as such, is deeply embedded in anime culture. That story, about a boy following another boy onto this intergalactic train ride and seeing the sights of the universe, is full of powerful metaphors on life and death, and is gentle with that iconic ‘mono no aware‘ Japanese style oozing out of its transient tale.

Giovanni’s Island is an anime movie that leans heavily, heavily, heavily into Kenji Miyazawa’s story to the point that, if you aren’t at least aware of its ideas, half of its scenes will whoosh over your head. The main characters names are lifted from it, much of the monologue and even some of the dialogue has characters quoting it, and the story’s progression is typically juxtaposed alongside or foreshadowed by Night on the Galactic Railroad’s own progression.

The scenes often go into the boy’s imagination, to show them dreaming of a train that will take them anywhere, anywhere better than here- but not to the final stop and its allegory for Heaven.

It’s a fitting reference point for the movie, though, because Giovanni’s Island is actually about Post World War 2 occupation of a small Japanese island by Russian forces.

Okay so we’re already hitting a landmine. If you’ve read my Hidashi no Gen review, you’ll know how I feel about a lot of these types of movies.

Now, Giovanni’s Island does dabble in that sort of victim complex tragedy porn, at least, to begin with. As the movie starts, we see the normal life of children Junpei (Giovanni, or near enough) and Kanta (Campanella, again, near enough), uprooted as Japan surrenders before a Russian boat pitches up, marches the Dawn Corps soldiers down from the mountains, ships them off, and those Russian soldiers forcibly occupy the island. There is no shortage of emotional stakes during this scene, and it rots the stomach.

But it takes a good 10 minutes or so before there’s any balanced argument, changing ideas, or development beyond ‘hard to watch’. It takes a while before it shows any sign that these oppressors are human or how being oppressed is more than just uncomfortable. And it’s this sort of thing that inspires and justifies nationalistic rebellion – it’s that sort of thing that spurred the rise of the Nazis in Germany! So I am very wary about tragedy porn featuring events that caused political sanctions, especially ones that continue to be relevant to this day.

It’s concerning on a meta level, and ultimately, it’s not that entertaining to watch a miserable scenario that can’t spur on any interesting discussion or dialogue with the audience. The whole purpose of these early scenes is to make us feel bad, and that’s why Hidashi no Gen was largely not that entertaining, and where Grave of the Fireflies’s attempt at an anti-war message sounded more like ‘look at how they made children suffer!’

But, to my surprise, Giovanni’s Island merely used that as scene-setting, and began to humanise the Russian groups a little later on.

There’s this scene early in the movie where the Russian soldier’s children are moved into the classroom next door. During hymn time, the Japanese children are drowned out by the Russian children also having hymn time with their piano, and they lose heart. After a Russian girl moves next door and plays with their train toy, Junpei begins singing along to the Russian children’s hymn. The music stops, and then the Russian children begin singing the Japanese hymn back.

The scene of Tanya putting a bow on their toy and opening herself to the boys was a really great scene. The movie’s exceptional lighting and use of moving camera made it all feel so magical, and naturally moved the movie into one of its dream-like sequences lifted from Night on the Galactic Railroad.

That. That kind of complex emotional story building. That’s the kind of film making I watch anime for.

I come to see hope, and perseverance, and inspiration. These moments of humanity, of struggling to get along, is something Giovanni’s Island excels at. In these scenes, no matter how sad it gets, this movie is no tragedy porn; it moves the heart in such a more complicated, genuine and hearty way.

There’s so much culture clash, too. The Russian girl next door, Tanya, is the commander’s daughter, but she invites the boys over and they eat Russian food together – and Kanta and Junpei are confused by knives and forks. Tanya and Junpei, despite the wide language barrier (each child speaks only a handful of words of the other’s tongue), end up getting on really well and join the two classrooms together in games of tag. The chemistry they have is a little strained by the distance, but they put a lot of work in to make the friendship(+?) work and it’s really, really sweet. I fell in love with this movie during the scene where Tanya finds Junnpei’s drawings… of her(KUUTTEE!), and he then draws her right there, in the firefly light. It was picturesque, sweet and ever so slightly foreboding as the red flames burned brighter.

This movie’s incredible character acting goes a long way to balancing the tragedy with exaggerated movements, and I was particularly impressed by the Russian voice acting. Giovanni’s acting, too, was a real standout, and he had great lines to come across as a genuine child in wartime – though some of the reliance on Night on the Galactic Railroad scenes are a little forced. An acoustic guitar-lead soundtrack, too, keeps the movie bouncing along with potent transient reflection, but not as much dramatic tragedy as strings or piano would, and it fits the movie like a glove. On the whole, the movie looks very good, with some strong cinematography in certain scenes, but aside from the really fun looking off-model character animation or dream sequences, there weren’t too many blow-me-away visuals beyond clever framing.

One neat trick is in the character designs, distinguishing specifically between Japanese and Russian faces with varied style of facial expressiveness. The Russian characters look lifted from old Disney movies, whereas the Japanese characters have much softer facial details and small eyes, too.
Compositing different styles onto the same scene is a difficult feat that the movie pulls off naturally.

For all of what I’ve said defending the movie’s reluctance to show tragedy, the movie gets a lot heavier later on, when the whole island’s populace is transported to work camps on another island.

At this point, I’ve got to discuss the kid’s uncle, Hideo. Hideo is such a blessing for this movie. The cheeky schemer is running all kinds of plans behind the scenes – utilising the children as part of them, even – and all for… reasons that aren’t clear. Sometimes it’s the good of the island, sometimes it’s personal gain, and questioning what he’s up to makes up much of the movie’s dilemmas. There’s a sense of realism in him that contrasts the boy’s honourable father’s mindset, but even beyond that, his big ol’ smile in the face of Russian guns is a blessing that these kinds of movies need more of!

Hideo’s a scene-stealer, and that comes down to so many things – his charismatic vocal performance, the larger-than-life character acting and a strong script to extract it all. Makes the movie.

There’s a real tearjerker scene at the end, but it’s laced with enough distressing imagery that it’s not picturesque crying or clean tragedy. It’s a grotesque scene, and one where despite the hopeful messaging, the sadness has already passed and it’s not even aspiring to achieve a better outcome or acceptance – it’s just another depressing moment, but with all the humanity cultivated so far… it actually works.

But that big climax, despite tying the movie up, does not tie any theme or motif up.

If I’m going to be honest, humanising the Russians wasn’t enough to become the movie’s raison d’etre. The development wasn’t strong enough to do that. It wasn’t enough of a push to give the movie a strong message of unity and friendship and empathise with everybody involved in the situation. Tanya’s development, while important to Junpei, was scant at best, with the suggestions of her globetrotting and estrangement being just minor asides. But between her and a handful of kind Russian soldiers, there was enough to dissuade the tragedy porn – and it leaves a well-rounded movie about surviving in a shitty situation. But it ultimately leaves a movie without a theme.

Did I learn anything from this movie’s depression and uplift? There wasn’t really a hopeful message to do our best or such. It was very entertaining, and never just presented sad scenes to cry to and did a great job creating a balanced emotional palette, but I felt the story didn’t go beyond the screen. I cried with the movie several times; I was deeply moved – it’s no secret I really enjoyed it. But it didn’t even demonstrate a particularly strong anti-war message like its contemporaries.

While this might seem like a minor nitpick, it’s actually a fairly basic thing for a narrative to achieve. Giovanni’s Island is a fantastic movie, but one without a sense of purpose. Every story might be worth telling, but this one struggles to find a good reason to be told in the absence of a theme, message or point; its tale of woe is human enough to not be depression-porn, but I can’t quite figure out why it was told other than to entertain.

The hunt for a Post World War 2 movie that can knock By The Time The Moon Rises off its hopeful and inspiring pedestal, evidentially, goes on. But make no mistake, this is in the top of the pile, and existential crises aside, this is a fantastic movie.

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