Thursday, December 04, 2014

An Orphan Island

Immediately after World War II, the Soviet Union annexed several islands, the Kuril Islands, north of Japan and debates over who can rightfully claim sovereignty continue to this day. 2014's Giovanni's Island (ジョバンニの島) follows the experiences of two children living on one of those islands, Shikotan, in the aftermath of Japan's defeat. Animated with an atypical but beautiful sloppiness by Production I.G., the film overindulges in sentiment but is mostly an effective war refugee drama, sort of a very light weight version of 1988's Grave of the Fireflies.

There's no-one named Giovanni in the movie--one of the kids, Junpei (Kota Yokoyama), assumes the name when he flirts with the daughter of one of the occupying Russian officers, Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko). He calls his brother, Kanta (Junya Taniai), "Campanella"--the names Giovanni and Campanella come from a 1934 children's novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の夜), a book both boys are fond of.

As things become progressively worse, and the boys are separated from their father and sent to an internment camp on the mainland, they take to imagining an escape on the fantasy railroad.

The movie begins unambiguously portraying the island populated by Japanese citizens, but, as you might have guessed from the romance alluded to above, the Russian occupiers are not portrayed as two dimensional villains. Although the officer in charge takes over Junpei and Kanta's home, forcing them to live with their uncle, father, and grandfather in the stable, both children are invited over for dinner. Kind of cold comfort now that I think about it but the movie somehow makes it look rather benevolent of the Russians.

There are several melodramatic moments, as when Junpei's class spontaneously begins singing along with the Russian children in the next room instead of trying to compete with their own song, and this is followed by the Russian children singing a Japanese song. It stretches credibility enough that the Japanese kids know the Russian song but I doubt the children of occupying military forces often flawlessly learn complicated songs of the occupied population, particularly within the first year of the occupation.

It's mostly in its visuals where movie shines, the nebulous round heads of the children vaguely recalling Peanuts and the backgrounds are charmingly Expressionist rough edges.

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