Giovanni’s Island (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jul 17, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Giovanni’s Island (Blu-ray Review)


Mizuho Nishikubo

Release Date(s)

2014 (February 21, 2023)


Production I.G (Shout! Factory/GKIDS)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B-

Giovanni's Island (Blu-ray)

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Giovanni’s Island is a heartfelt 2014 animated film that was inspired both by the real-life experiences of children in post-war Japan during the occupation, as well as by Kenji Miyazawa’s classic 1927 fantasy novel Night on the Galactic Railroad. In fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Claude Lelouch’s neglected 1995 version of Les Misérables in terms of the ways in which it blends the two. Lelouch structured Victor Hugo’s novel as a story within a story, with his protagonist Henri learning about how his experiences in Vichy France during the Nazi occupation parallel that of Hugo’s Jean Valjean. Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai’s script for Giovanni’s Island does something similar, not just drawing inspiration from Miyazawa’s novel, but also making the book an active part of their story.

Giovanni’s Island opens with a journey into the past, with the elderly Junpei (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his former teacher Sawako (Kaoru Yachigusa) traveling back to the island of Shikotan, where they had lived during the war. As a child, young Junpei (Kota Yokoyama) and his brother Kanta (Junya Taniai) had deal with the Russian occupation of the Shikotan in late 1945. Along with their father and their grandfather, they ended up being displaced from their own home by the family of the Russian commander, and were forced to live in the stables instead. They ended up befriending the commander’s daughter Tanya (Polina Ilyushenko), and for a time, their fortunes seem to improve. Yet nothing could stop the implacable flow of history, and when the Russian government decided to send all the Japanese residents of Shikotan back to the mainland, Junpei and Kanta were forced to make an arduous journey of a very different sort.

Night on the Galactic Railroad was the favorite book of the boys’ late mother, so she nicknamed them Giovanni and Campanella after the two lead characters in Miyazawa’s novel. They end up sharing the book with Tanya, and that’s how they form a bond despite their vastly different circumstances. They all share a love of trains, and there’s a wonderful scene early in the film where the three of them connect via a toy train that bridges the gap between them. Later, as Junpei and Kanta’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, they take even greater solace in Miyazawa’s story, with Junpei retelling it to the ailing Kanta. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a Christian parable, with Giovanni dreaming of a journey to the stars, stopping at the Southern Cross constellation as the final destination for his friend Campanella. Junpei uses the story as a way of reminding Kanta that he has nothing to fear on their own voyage.

Decades later, everything comes full circle when the elderly Junpei and Sawako complete their journey back to the island for a reunion of sorts. The surviving children of Shikotan have returned to be honored by finally graduating from the elementary school from which they were exiled 56 years earlier. Of course, not everyone can join them in this journey, making the reunion a bittersweet one. Yet they’re still reunited in the glorious dance that concludes the film, blending the past with the present as they join the stars in the grand celestial dance.

During moments like this, Giovanni’s Island takes Lelouch’s concept to the next level, not merely existing as a story within a story, but as a story within a story within a story. Director Mizuho Nishikubo leans into that angle, blending different styles for each level of storytelling. The modern-day sequences use all the digital tools available to modern animation to create a naturalistic look, while the flashbacks rely more on hand-painted backgrounds. Finally, the scenes aboard the Galactic Railroad fully embrace the fantastic. All three different styles meld during the climactic dance number, merging the past with the present, reality with fantasy, and the lives of those who have gone before us with those who remain behind. It’s a beautiful way of expressing the themes of Miyazawa’s novel, as the elderly Junpei explains to Tanya’s granddaughter before they join hands in the dance:

“When people die, they rise up into the heavens and become the stars in the night sky. Those countless stars fill the night sky, shining brightly and eternally. And we live our lives down here, basking in their light.”

Giovanni’s Island was animated digitally using a combination of hand-drawn 2D and 3D elements, presumably at 2K resolution, and released theatrically at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s been re-framed slightly here to 1.78:1, and like most modern anime productions, that was likely the intended aspect ratio, with the theatrical version having been matted to the standard 1.85:1. The stylized nature of Giovanni’s Island embraces the look of digital animation for the scenes set in the present day, with everything looking smooth and clean, and the 3D elements are used to provide a deliberate sense of depth. When the boat is heading toward the island during the opening sequence, the water has been generated in full 3D, and it looks quite realistic. During the flashbacks, however, there’s less depth and more of a hand-drawn look. The slightly abstracted hand-painted backgrounds retain their authentic brush strokes, and while 3D animation is used for some elements such as the houses, they’re also given textures to simulate a hand-drawn appearance. All of those effects are reproduced well in this 1080p master, and while it’s possible that the neon-tinged Galactic Railroad sequences might have a bit more pop via an HDR grade on UHD, this is still an outstanding presentation of the film. Thanks to a good encode with a healthy bitrate, any artifacts like banding are limited (though not quite non-existent). Shout! Factory and GKIDS continue to maintain a consistently high level of quality on their Blu-ray releases, and Giovanni’s Island is no exception.

Audio is offered in Japanese and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles. (Note that the English subs are for the original language version, so they’re not dubtitles.) Predictably, the Japanese language version has superior voice acting, although the choice is still yours to make. Either way, it’s a suitably restrained mix for much of the film, although there are some strong dynamics during a few scenes, like when the island is being shelled or during a thunderstorm. Otherwise, it’s a gentle mix that keeps the focus on the characters themselves, as well as on the heartfelt score by Masashi Sada, with the surrounds generally being used for light ambient effects and reverberant support.

Note that while most recent Shout! Factory/GKIDS Blu-ray releases have been Blu-ray/DVD combo packs, this one is Blu-ray only. It includes a slipcover that duplicates the artwork from the insert as well as the following extras, all of them in HD:

  • Making Of (37:42)
  • Interview with Polina Ilyushenko (4:25)
  • Troika Music Video (4:13)
  • Art Gallery (7:22)

The Making Of mixes interviews with some behind-the-scenes footage and examples of artwork. Director Mizuho Nishikubo is front and center for most of the piece, describing the ways that he mixed what he calls documentary-style animation with the imaginative Night on the Galactic Railroad material. That’s confirmed by General Art Director Santiago Agustin Montiel, who talks about varying his art style to match the blend of past, present, and future in the film, as well as to convey the mixing of cultures. He confirms that many of the backgrounds were oil paintings that he did by hand. That blend extended to the production of the film, with Nishikubo employing motion capture for the dancing sequences, essentially using it as reference material in a modern version of rotoscoping. There’s also some interesting footage of both the Japanese and Russian voice casts during their recording sessions, and even an interview with Hiroshi Tokuno, the man whose wartime experiences became a model for Junpei’s. Nishikubo wanted Giovanni’s Island to depict the way that people can form a connection, even in the middle of a war, and the international production of the film mirrored that fact.

The Interview with Polina Ilyushenko is an extended conversation with the Russian actress who played Tanya, recorded during the same Russian sessions that were glimpsed in the Making of. She talks about her impressions of the story, her experiences working on a Japanese production for the first time, and her feelings about the character of Tanya. She tells viewers of really understand Giovanni’s Island, they need to live it and to feel it.

The music video for Troika presents an alternate version of the song that’s heard in the film. They recorded two different takes of it, opting to use the “drunken soldiers” version in the final cut, but this is the more polished “male choir” version performed by the chorus at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. Finally, the Art Gallery offers an exploration of artwork for the character models, props, and backgrounds. It’s an interesting look at the fact that very single detail in an animated film, no matter how small, has to be carefully designed.

Like all the best works of art, Giovanni’s Island will speak to different people in different ways. It’s a great reminder that animation isn’t just for children, as the story will likely resonate more with older audiences than it will with younger ones. The more miles that you’ve traveled, the more that Giovanni’s Island will affect you. It’s proof positive that animation is a truly universal art form, it’s also presented beautifully via this Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and GKIDS. Highly recommended.

- Stephen Bjork

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