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Giovanni's Island (2014)

In the light of its crushing defeat in 1945, Japanese creators understandably haven't often chosen to tell stories set in or around World War II. However, some storytellers hit upon the device of depicting events from the perspective of children- who on either side can be seen to be blameless victims of the wars of the older generation. In this tradition is Giovanni's Island, an animated feature that is based on a little-known chapter in history

Mizuho Nishikubo's film begins at the very tail end of the war, as news of Japan's surrender begins to come in.  Junpei and Kanta are two young boys living on the (real-life) remote island of Shikotan with their fisherman grandfather and firefighter father. Their mother has passed away some time ago, but their location has seemingly allowed them to live their lives relatively untouched by the war up until this point. The island's population anxiously awaits the arrival of "the yanks", but when the ships do arrive, it turns out to be not the Americans, but the Soviets instead.

The Russians don't waste much time in moving in their families, and the population soon finds themselves having to make way for the new occupiers. Cast out of home and school alike, the young residents have to try to live alongside the soldier's kids. Despite their differences- and a language barrier- though, Junpei and Kanta are able to befriend a young girl named Tanya.

Whether you watch the film in English or the original Japanese version, the Russian characters are depicted as speaking in their mother-tongue. This is effective in creating a feel of how confusing and frightening it must have been for the kids. However, the ability of the children to create friendship despite the language barrier proves to be very touching indeed.

Giovanni's Island is not your average war movie. Shikotan is depicted as a beautiful location, with Production I.G's typically gorgeous animation bringing it to life. The pretty simple and sometimes cartoonish character designs also help create an atmosphere a long way from more sombre fare like Grave Of The Fireflies. The scenes depicting the two groups of children trying to learn together have a lot of charm, as the characters seem to act much as real children would.

The result is that for quite a large proportion of its running time Giovanni's Island is actually a much lighter and more enjoyable experience than you might be expecting. The adult world occasionally intrudes, and the film's device of often depicting soldiers (even those on the Japanese side) as dark shadowy figures does a good job of contrasting it with the childhood innocence of the central characters.

The film makes frequent allusions (including in the title itself) to classic Japanese story Night On The Galactic Railroad. Those familiar with the original novel ( later adapted into a 1985 anime feature) will see parallels both in the plot, but also in the film's themes.

Inevitably though, events eventually take a much darker turn. As the Island's inhabitants are -spoilers from real-life history-  rounded up and shipped off Shikotan,  the lush green and blue skies of the first act are swapped for a more sombre colour palette, and the visual style is very befitting the turn that the story ultimately takes.

Despite the tragedy depicted later in the story, this is still considerably less bleak than similar works such as the previously mentioned Grave Of Fireflies or Barefoot Gen. Not only does the film open in modern day (thus guaranteeing that at least somebody is going to make it to the end of the story), but it also adds a hopeful coda, meaning that film is not quite the unrelentingly grim experience it could have been.

With gorgeous visuals and animation and a compelling and emotionally affecting plot, Giovanni's Island is an impressive achievement by any measure.