“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” – Leo Tolstoy
When it comes to Japan covering the World War II, it is always a subject treated with wariness. There are still plenty of people in Japan, including the current Prime Minister, who try to revise certain controversial parts of history, while more liberal people, including anime director Hayao Miyazaki, believe Japan should do more to apologise for its mistakes. Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is responsible for making one of the great anime war movies, Grave of the Fireflies. Giovanni’s Island is a movie with many elements similar to it.
Both films deal with the role of children at the end of the war and the resulting aftermath. Both films are also based on real events. But there are many differences: the quality of the animation, and the soundtrack among them. Also Giovanni’s Island deals a lot more with the aftermath of the war. In the part of Japan the movie is set in, the northern island of Shikotan, the issue of the war is still alive. Another group of nearby islands, the Kuril Islands, is still controlled by Russia to this day. The control of these islands has been so problematic that Russia and Japan have never strictly declared an end to hostilities. You could argue that World War II is still going because of it.
Giovanni’s Island is told in flashback, and sees two of the main characters travelling back to Shikotan. It then goes back to 4th July 1945. 10-year-old boy Junpei Seno lives on the island with his younger brother Kanta, father Tatsuo, grandfather Genzo and servant-girl Mitchan. Junpei has a happy life on the island, and is mainly obsessed with the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyasawa. But then on 15th August, Japan surrenders. Later Junpei’s Uncle Hideo comes to live with the family, but things become much worse when on 1st September the island is invaded by the Soviet Union.
Many changes are made: Russian families move to Shikotan. The children are educated at Junpei’s school and a family moves into the main part of Junpei’s house. While this is a rough deal, it is made slightly sweeter by the fact that one of the new Russian occupants is a rather beautiful girl named Tanya, who is the daughter of the gigantic* commander of the island’s Russian troops. Soon the relationship between Junpei, Kanta and Tanya grows. However, Junpei and Kanta decide that because Tanya does not understand Japanese so well, they give themselves the names from the main characters in Night on the Galactic Railroad: Giovanni and Campanella respectively.
For most of his time on the island, Junpei keeps a watch on any Russian shipping as Uncle Hideo begins a smuggling operation between Shikotan and the mainland. He also discovers that other members of his family are doing dangerous deeds. Tragedy eventually strikes when Tatsuo is arrested and sent to Russia. Later the entire Japanese population is moved to an internment camp, also in Russia. After learning from Hideo that that Tatsuo is alive in a prison camp not too far away, Junpei and an increasingly sick Kanta decide to take their own “Galactic Railroad” to visit him.
The story, which as stated before is based on real events, is very good. It is moving, has plenty of drama and the odd comic moment too. The animation however is a bit more variable. There are the dream sequences reflecting Night on the Galactic Railroad which look wonderful, but then some of the other animated sequences look rather patchy in comparison. The way the characters are animated look a bit wrong.
The music (by Masashi Sada) is a big plus. My favourite scenes in the film take place in the school after the Russians move in, so there is a class full of Russian children next door to a class full of Japanese children. In one instance, the classes sing a traditional song, but keep hearing each other between the walls, so they try sing louder than the other class, which is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca in which the French and Germans try and sing their national anthems louder than each other. But then in another scene a little later, in another singing lesson, the Japanese students decide to sing the song sung by the Russians. After doing this, the Russian students respond by singing the song performed by the Japanese students, and so the two groups of children become friends.
In comparison to Grave of the Fireflies, Giovanni’s Island does not top it, but it certainly a good film in its own right.