Russia successfully annexes Crimea, what happens to the ethnic Ukrainian and
Tartar population? If history is any guide, we should not be shocked by forced
deportations. Frankly, they should probably consider themselves lucky if they
do not take a detour through a Russian gulag. Residents of the Soviet occupied
Kuril Islands were not so fortunate. The Production I.G team best known for the
Ghost in the Shell franchise revisits
a painful episode of Japanese history with Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (trailer here), which screened
during the 2014 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
and Campanella are not traditional Japanese names, but they are the main
characters of Kenji Miyazawa’s fantastical classic, Night on the Galactic Railroad. Tatsuo Senō is so fond of the novel
he named his sons Junpei and Kanta to roughly correlate. At the time of Japan’s
surrender, the elder Senō is the island’s civil defense coordinator, but since
he is not technically military, he is not rounded up with the other soldiers.
rumors spread like wildfire of what the Americans would do when they arrive.
Unfortunately, it is the Soviets instead. Needless to say, their arrival is
quite disruptive for the island community. Many families, including the Senōs,
are displaced to make room for the occupiers. Similarly, Junpei’s class is
forced to share space with the lower grades to make room for the soldiers’ children.
Still, he forms an unlikely friendship with the commander’s daughter Tanya that
steadily develops romantic overtones.
the Soviets will do no favors for tweener romance. After his father is arrested for distributing
rice to needy villagers (so much for “to each according to their needs”),
Junpei, Kanta, and their school teacher Sawako (who long carried a torch for
dad) are forced to board the supposed repatriation transport without him.
Ominously though, they do not seem to be bearing south towards Japan.
screenwriters Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai are remarkably restrained
in their depiction of the Russian occupiers, perhaps for fear of reprisals.
Nevertheless, the grim realities of the forcible deportations are inescapable.
For all intents and purposes, the occupied islands were ethnically cleansed.
Those familiar with Miyazawa’s short novel will also realize the Senō family is
destined to experience acute tragedy.
the way the Galactic Railroad is
weaved into Giovanni’s narrative is
quite thoughtful and literate. Hardly stuck in denial, the film forthrightly acknowledges
the misfortune of Koreans displaced by the Imperial military, whom the Russians
never bothered to repatriate. There are also a few decent Russians in Giovanni (such as Tanya’s parents), but
the Stalinist war machine is a brutal, impersonal fact of history.
like Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart,
Giovanni uses poetic imagery to
soften the blow of the on-screen heartbreak. Yet, there is a maturity to the
film and how its characters (especially the young) resolutely “endure the
unendurable” that is quite powerful. Viewers will not feel bereft at the end,
despite the grueling journey it takes us on. While it focuses quite intimately
on the Senōs and those closest to them, it is a rather epic story. Featuring
characters you will care about caught up in historical forces likely to repeat
themselves, Giovanni’s Island is the
sort of animated film adults will appreciate as much or more than children.
Highly recommended as a legit big screen drama, Giovanni’s Island had its first
screening outside of Japan at this year’s NYICFF. Patrons should keep an eye on
their website, just in case another screening is added. Regardless, it should
have a long life on the festival circuit. For additional NYICFF reviews also
check out Steve Kopian’s coverage at Unseen Films.
Labels: Animated films, Japanese Cinema, Kuril Islands, NYICFF '14