As the Second World War nears its end in July, 1945, Junpei (voiced by Kota Yokoyama) and his little brother Kanta (Junya Taniai) are happy on the idyllic island of Shikotan where their father Tatsuo Seno (Masachika Ichimura) commands the local defense force. Everything changes the day Japan surrenders although the boys welcome the return of their genial if wily uncle Hideo (Yusuke Santamaria). While Grandpa Genzo (Saburo Kitajima) dreads the arrival of Americans it is actually the Soviets that invade, placing the island under martial law. Soon the Japanese are forced to share their homes with Russian military families with the local school run by Sawako (Kaoru Yawagusa) split into two seperate classrooms, one for Japanese kids the other for children of the Russian army including beautiful blonde Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko) whom Junpei unexpectedly befriends. Yet their innocent, blossoming romance is tested by the tumultuous aftermath of the war.
Giovanni's Island is only the most recent in a long line of anime films that examine the Second World War from a child's perspective. By far the most celebrated of these was Isao Takahata's profoundly affecting Studio Ghibli production Grave of the Fireflies (1988) though other examples range from Masaki Mori's impassioned and harrowing Barefoot Gen (1983) to Toshio Hirata's blinkered and banal Rail of the Star (1993). Some critics find this sub-genre particularly troubling, a means by which Japanese filmmakers sidestep atrocities committed during the war to portray themselves as guiltless victims, essentially hiding behind the innocence of children. In some aspects Giovanni's Island upholds this regrettable stance. Confined to a child's viewpoint the film presents a familiar if nonetheless moving story of lost innocence, hardship, sacrifice, suffering and tragedy without addressing the larger issues of the war.
Penned by writers Yoshiki Sakurai and Shigemichi Sugita the script might avoid probing political analysis but to its credit attempts some moral complexity. Far from brutal invaders the Russian soldiers are drawn as faceted human beings, exhibiting compassion as well as ruthlessness in their dealings with the Japanese, driven by a sense of duty shared in common with Tatsuo than by cruelty. Tanya's family warmly welcome Junpei and Kenta into their home (which is technically the boys' home) in a charming scene where the young Japanese struggle with knives and forks to eat a hearty Russian meal then dance along to gramophone recordings of folk songs. Later on a terse exchange between Sawako and a displaced Korean woman who shelters the family acknowledges not everyone is sad to see the Japanese go. The film fumbles the values struggle between duty-bound traditionalist Tatsuo, who insists the family do all they can to help their fellow Japanese endure the Russian occupation, and the more morally flexible Hideo, who believes in survival at all costs, that goes unresolved much like Sawako's thwarted feelings for both men. Yet it succeeds in shining a light on a hitherto little known consequence of the Pacific war (the dispute over the Kuril islands between Japan and Russia continues to this day) as Junpei and Kenta join the hundreds of Japanese exiled to forced labour camps and eventually sneak away to find their dad with harrowing results.
Mizuho Nishikubo deftly interweaves real-life events with allusions to the classic children's fantasy Night on the Galactic Railroad as Junpei and Kenta nickname themselves after the protagonists Giovanni and Campanella and dream frequently about boarding the famous fantastical train to the stars. Written by poet Kenji Miyazawa this much beloved novel was adapted into a seminal anime in 1985. Nishikubo also artfully renders the charming juvenile romance between Junpei and Tanya via some beautifully poetic imagery as when an unseen Tanya extends an extra track allowing a toy train to run from her room to his or when Junpei's lovelorn sketches come vibrantly alive. Framed by contemporary scenes where legendary voice actor Tatsuya Nakadai voices an aged Junpei, Giovanni's Island is handsomely crafted and spins a compelling, powerful story with some deeply moving moments. Like Grave of the Fireflies it is unafraid to delve into darker territory reflecting the true horrors of war albeit as a more self-conscious weepie. Still one would have to have a heart of stone not to weep when a key character finally sees that long-sought train to the stars.