By Andrew Osmond
Giovanni’s Island is a story of cultures meeting, a meeting caused by war, accompanied by hardship, and yet also a source of new friendships, communities and love. It starts in 1945, as the inhabitants of a small Japanese island hear a radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito, announcing their nation’s surrender. Soon Soviet boats arrive, disgorging soldiers who march into their streets, their homes, their school.
We see all this through the eyes of two kids, tearaway brothers Junpei and Kanta, who are initially terrified by the invasion. But as the months pass, they begin acclimatising to life with people who may be their occupiers, but who are also their new neighbours. “Even in the middle of war, even in all this confrontation, there were still people getting along with one another,” says director Mizuho Nishikubo.
Comparing Giovanni to Grave of the Fireflies, another wartime anime, Nishikubo said that Takahata’s work was intimate, interior, while Giovanni is outward-directed. The child’s eye-view means that the characters are not simply divided into heroes and villains, aggressors and victims. There’s a pointed scene with a South Korean woman who’s been forcibly displaced from her homeland, thanks to Japan. “If we weren’t talking about kids, I wouldn’t feel the least bit obligated to help a bunch of Japs.”
Although much of Giovanni is fictional, the Russian occupation of the title island, called Shikotan, was very real. The filmmakers were heavily influenced by the accounts of Hiroshi Tokuno, who lived through the occupation and appears in the ‘making of’ film on the Anime Limited home release. Scenes such as the Russian soldiers storming into the children’s classroom come from Tokuno’s memory, as does the soldier who writes on the blackboard. On a bleaker note, Tokuno’s cousin died during a boat crossing, the death concealed; the tragedy is echoed in the film’s darker scenes.
In the making-of, Tokuno mentions some details which aren’t in the film, such as Japanese and Russian kids holding impromptu sumo contests on Shikotan’s beaches. Like Junpei in the film, young Hiroshi was smitten with a beautiful Russian neighbour… who was the mother of one of the Russian girls. “I remember even little me thinking, gosh, she’s pretty!”
Giovanni’s Island is an unusual mix of talents. Nishikubo has been immersed in anime for decades; his early credits include work on Rose of Versailles and the original Mysterious Cities of Gold. However, the project was also driven by Giovanni’s co-writer Shigemichi Sugita, a feted live-action director.
Sugita first wrote the story as a novel, and then developed it as a live-action film project. However, he ran into problems, such as presenting the island of Shikotan on screen. Shikotan is Russian territory today, and the subject of ongoing political sniping between Russia and Japan.
For that reason, Giovanni became an animated film by Production I.G. The studio is known for Ghost in the Shell and other urban actioners (Patlabor, Eden of the East), with highly detailed, even hyperreal backdrops. Nishikubo worked on some of them; for instance, he was animation director on Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, under his real name Toshihiko Nishikubo. On Giovanni, though, he wanted a very different look, importing a talent from outside anime.
The film’s background art director, Santiago Montiel, is an Argentinian with a fine arts training, counting Japanese printmakers and Van Gogh among his influences. Interviewed in the ‘Making of’, Montiel stresses the simplicity of Giovanni’s backdrops, their textures taken from oil paintings. If Montiel’s backgrounds feel detailed on screen, that may be because the characters look even simpler. It reflects the child’s point of view in the film – or more accurately, an adult’s memories of how things looked in childhood.
Giovanni’s characters are drawn with loose-feeling lines and occasionally shocking cartoon distortions, such as when little Kanta wolfs down his food. If you’re looking for more ‘anime’ designs, then watch the boys’ sly uncle Hideo, one of the most colourful characters. He bears a distinct visual (and character) resemblance to a madcap manga rogue, Lupin the Third. There was talk of giving Hideo a different fate in the film – when you watch it, it’s obvious how he could have ended up. However, the staff decided it against it, because it would have distracted from the impact of the final scenes,
The director Nishikubo describes Giovanni as being like a documentary, but with the characters’ emotions foregrounded in the animation. There’s no attempt to keep things naturalistic. A happy interlude between the boy Junpei and a Russian girl called Tanya is overlaid with floating blossoms and a tunnel of greenery, a la Spirited Away.
In the making-of, Nishikubo recounts how Montiel insisted on revising a crucial scene midway through the story. It’s when (small spoiler) the boys depart the island on a ship, looking back to their home. Montiel wanted to change the scene’s predominant colour from blue to a warmer orange, expressing the sweetness of even this bitter moment. The scene was already half finished and had to be hastily reworked; the making-of has ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions.
It also shows the creation of the film’s last shot, a vision of the characters dancing together, as memory dissolves the decades. Animators have long relied on live-action footage to animate dancing, going back to 1937’s Snow White, shown in this video. The old animators drew over live-action frames (‘rotoscoping’). Production I.G, though, used twenty-first century motion-capture; the flesh-and-blood actors wore black Gantz-style suits covered with sensors.
Even so, the dancers still had to be turned into the film’s drawn characters, which required an exceptional artist. The job went to the legendary Toshiyuki Inoue, famed for animating the bikes in Akira, the flights in Kiki’s Delivery Service, and much more.
Giovanni’s script is thoroughly bilingual, with Japanese and Russian voice-actors. Whereas many boys are voiced by adult women in cartoons, both Junpei and Kanta were played by real boys, the same ages as their characters. According to Nishikubo, they also had the same personalities. Kota Yokoyama (Junpei) was serious and diligent, while tiny Junya Taniai (Kanta) was unruly and free-spirited.
It was Sugita, not Nishikubo, who wrangled them. Sugita was experienced with handling child actors in his live-action work, such as his two-decade Hokkaido TV saga Kita no Kuni Kara (From the North Country). The ‘making-of’ shows that the boys voiced at least some of their scenes together in the studio. Yokoyama was given strenuous breathing lessons to cope with the most emotional scenes (and if you’ve seen Giovanni, you’ll know Junpei’s really put through the wringer).
The main Russian actress, Polina Ilyushenko as Tanya, is also seen in the Making-of, recording her lines in Moscow. She looks a few years old than the boys, and mentions she’s worked on British and American animation. The lack of Anglophone references to her work online suggests that she probably dubbed the cartoons into Russian.
Ilyushenko also joined the youngsters who perform the song “Katyusha”, as sung by the Russian children in the film. The “Making Of” shows Nishikubo faced with an amusing problem. The Russian kids sing too well, so the director has to tell them to sing more lustily, less tunefully! An adult Russian choir sang the folk song “Troika”; the tuneful version is included as an extra. The film itself uses a ‘drunken’ take, to accompany prison guards ringing in the New Year.
Nishikubo says the scene which plays best with both Russian and Japanese audiences is when the schoolkids stop out-singing each other and instead start swapping songs. “Everyone’s favourite scene is where the children all sing together.”
The director insists the film is apolitical. In a Q&A in Annecy last year, Nishikubo said that Giovanni was criticised by right-wing Japanese groups for its neutral stance. He acknowledged, though, that Hiroshi Tokuno, the man who inspired the story, also calls for Shikotan to be returned to Japan. Nishikubo worried Tokuno might be angry at the way the film presents the occupation. “But Tokuno also recalled his fascination with the Russians, the pretty girls, the great food.”
Yet the Giovanni film turns increasingly tragic, in ways that might surprise viewers unused to Japanese animation. “We concluded that we should not run away from death,” said Nishikubo at Annecy, even if it affected how his film played to younger audiences, and its popularity overall. “I’m happy with the decision that was made.” Yet the director says that Giovanni, ultimately, is not bleak. “The film is sad, but I wanted to have hope in the end.”