Two brothers’ experiences on an island off the North tip of Japan in the year’s after World War 2 form the core of Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island. When the Soviet army lay claim to the island of Shitokan, Junpei and Kanta find themselves forced to share their home with a Soviet family and their school with Soviet children before seismic decisions jeopardise the fragile peace and send the boys on a terrifying journey.
We caught up with director Nishikubo and associate producer Francesco Prandoni to discuss the film.
Mr. Nishikubo, this is your first film in five years. How did it come about?
Mizuho Nishikubo: Giovanni’s Island’s writer, Shigemichi Sugita, told me he had come across an interesting, or not interesting maybe I should say unusual war story that he wanted to make into an anime. He approached Production I.G. and they told me about it and it was always something I’d been interested in.
How much did you know about the islands before and how much research did you and the production team have to do?
MK: I knew about the Northern territories, but I had no idea that anything like what happens in Giovanni’s Island had happened. I think probably 99% of Japanese people don’t know anything about this story. And what we show in the film is about 80% true.
For me one of the reasons I wanted to make this film was because of my curiosity at how the Japanese and Soviet children could get along.
In terms of the 80% true, do you mean that Giovanni’s Island is based on accounts of what happened to the islanders or was it a completely fictional story based on a real event?
MK: The film is mostly based on true events, but not 100%. In the film it is based on the memories of the protagonist Junpei – there is a man who is still alive on whose memories Junpei’s are based. We asked him in a lot of detail what it was like and used that in the film.
For example the scene where Russian and Japanese children are playing together, they play touch and sumo wrestling, which was from this man’s memories. In the film there is also a “sing off” that the children had which we don’t think happened. So there are some creative license taken.
MK: For Junpei and Kanta we auditioned about 100 children and chose the ones we thought were best and also the children whose personalities we thought were closest to the characters’. So it was quite difficult to cast them.
With Tanya we had 30 people. The girl we chose was already a professional so we could leave it to her to a certain extent. But, with the Japanese children weren’t experienced at recording and we had to coach them.
When recording was it a cast reading or separate sessions?
MK: The children voicing Junpei and Kanta tended to record together. With the adults there generally were one or two of them
And offscreen were the children like the brothers they play?
MK: They got on really well. Their houses were on the same train line so they’d often come in and go home together, play video games together, and it really was like in the film as if they were brothers.
How did you get legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai involved?
MK: I thought of Tatsuya Nakadai and Koaru Yachigusa who voice the present day Junpei and Miss Sawako as a pair. There were other candidates for these roles but Nakadai and Yachigusa had played similar roles in the past, they’d also played husband and wife. And they were very keen, so we chose them!
The animation style ranges from simple storybook designs to very rich, detailed CG visuals. What was the intention behind the look of the film?
MK: The film is basically split into three different animation styles. The present day parts are almost live action type realism, with shadows and using CGI.
Secondly, are Junpei’s memories of the war period which are affected by how he viewed things. So to a certain extent both characters and backgrounds are abbreviated.
Then there is the imagination style when they boys are reading (the famous children’s Japanese book) Night on the Galactic Railroad which combines different fantasy styles; sketching, magic lantern style and so on.
Did you and the production crew visit the island and the mainland internment camp to get visual references?
MK: Because of the political situation on Shitokan Island we didn’t go there. We based those scenes on old documents. The staff did go to Sakalin (on the mainland), but that had changed an awful lot as well just as Shitokan had. So a lot of that was also based old documents and photographs.
Hayao Miyazaki was criticised by some in Japan for making The Wind Rises, another film dealing with the era around World War 2. Is it difficult to make films dealing with this period in Japan and was there any criticism you received from Japan or Russia commentators?
MK: I don’t think it’s difficult to make a war film in Japan. I think to an extent the criticism made about Miyazaki’s film might have been to do with how interesting a film it was rather than political reasons.
It’s a film so it’s a question of whether people are going to come and see it or not, rather than a political pressure that means it’s difficult to make it.
Francesco Prandoni: And the movie screened at the Sakalin Film Festival, it was invited to be part of that. It also showed at the Moscow Film Festival and was well-received. They understood the spirit and they liked it.
And how was the experience for you Francesco?
FP: It was very interesting. I love the art, the story was good and, personally speaking, I think it was one of the best things we’ve made so far at Production I.G. I’ve been living in Japan for twenty years and also love Russian movies and music, so am kind of in between the two – not Japanese and not Russian. So I had the opportunity to put together two countries I liked.
The film is playing as part of the London Film Festival and is playing to a packed house of children here as we speak. How have children responded to the film?
MK: I didn’t make it for children, I made it in a way I was happy with. But, because of the way it’s been made I think maybe children will experience something different from what I do when they see it. And that’s fine with me, as long as they feel something when they watch it. I’d really like them to experience something for themselves.
Giovanni’s Island was selected for the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and is on release in key cities now.