Through an unusual blend of realistic storytelling and childlike imagination, a little-known, never-before-filmed chapter of Japanese history comes to light in “Giovanni’s Island,” a moving if somewhat manipulative account of two boys forced to leave their longtime home of Shikotan when Russian soldiers seized the fishing community just after World War II. Despite the complicated political backstory, younger auds should find it easy to identify with the kid characters, though there’s something lacking in the execution that limits this unusually serious hand-drawn toon’s potential even in territories (like France) where it sees theatrical release.
Lifelong residents of Shikotan, 11-year-old Junpei and kid brother Kanta were named after Giovanni and Campanella, the central characters in Kenji Miyazawa’s “Night on the Galactic Railroad,” a novel well known among Japanese schoolchildren but not so much in other countries. The boys are smitten with this fantasy story, conjuring mental images of a magical train capable of transporting them anywhere they want to go — images that director Mizuho Nishikubo enthusiastically integrates into a tale otherwise down-to-earth enough that it could have been told in live-action. (The character of Junpei was inspired by a real person, Hiroshi Tokuno.)
In a manner relatively uncommon for animation, “Giovanni’s Island” deals in historical events including occupations, deportations and concentration camps, integrating into its fact-based narrative such troubling details as a grieving mother forced to throw her dead baby overboard. It’s a brave choice that works much as “The Book Thief” or “The Diary of Anne Frank” have done, offering young viewers a window of understanding into incomprehensible events.
When we meet the brothers, life is relatively carefree on Shikotan, an island far enough removed from the fighting that its residents are spared the firsthand inconveniences of war. For those accustomed to picturing the Japanese as aggressors, it’s a curious thing to witness defeat and humiliation shown from their side, followed by an invasion by Russian troops, who take the moment to stake claim to the Kuril Islands — an archipelago to which both countries had long claimed right of ownership. (To this day, the Russians still control Shikotan.)
Suddenly, kids who had been seen scrambling across cliffs and stealing puffin eggs in a state of carefree abandon find themselves pushed out of their homes and classrooms to make room for the Russian soldiers and their families. Tokuno’s experience offers a unique angle on the events, since he bonded with a young Russian beauty. So even as the two sides have every reason to resent one another, the story provides a gauzy opportunity for first love and tentative courtship — a postcard-perfect cliche in some scenes and wonderfully specific in others, as when the neighboring classrooms’ choir practice progresses from trying to out-sing one another to finding a kind of harmony between the two languages.
As the younger generation tries to make the awkward cohabitation work, Giovanni’s resistance-fighter dad and black-marketeer uncle concern themselves with risky grown-up business on the margins. But the focus remains on the kids. It’s cute to see young Kanta encouraging Giovanni’s feelings for their new blonde neighbor, Tanya, even as we sense the risk that the more she learns about their family, the greater the danger that she could betray them to her Russian parents.
While quite different in focus from other Production I.G offerings — which range from the future-punk “Ghost in the Shell” to the fanciful, Studio Ghibli-esque “A Letter to Momo” — this serious-minded story reflects the same flat, somewhat off-putting character animation demonstrated in those films. The studio’s artists excel at lush painted backdrops (overseen here by Argentine artist Santiago Montiel), creating stunning environments against which the oddly drawn humans appear all the more out of place.
Compared with the super-cute look of most Japanese anime, Production I.G’s aesthetic features thinner lines and cruder movements, where faces and bodies seem to change shape depending on the angle from which they are viewed. The eyes often appear to be in the wrong place, while the noses hardly appear at all, vaguely indicated by oddly shaped squiggles. In the end, it’s the story that will determine whether or not audiences connect with “Giovanni’s Island,” and yet, this house style detracts from a story that might have been more powerful still with flesh-and-blood actors.