There are some movies that have universal appeal. They move people of all races, backgrounds and religions. Then other films have more of a regional appeal, which can be valuable. While placating audiences is not a good thing, I also believe not every movie needs to be for every group. In today’s Blind Spot pick we have a movie, Giovanni’s Island, that I have a feeling appeals to the Japanese in a way that doesn’t translate super well to American audiences- or at least this American.
When I first heard about Giovanni’s Island I was hopeful it would be a new Grave of the Fireflies but unfortunately it comes across like a lightweight copy of Fireflies more than an update. It has some powerful moments and beautiful animation but it never really connected with me.
Let’s start with the positive. The animation directed by Mizuho Nishikubo is wonderful. The fantasy sequences with a ‘galactic railroad’ are particularly strong.
It also has some moments of genuine heart. The story is about two brothers, Junpei and Kanta who live on an island in 1945 Japan. The early parts of the movie show them frolicking happily around the island, going to school, meeting new Russian families including a girl named Tanya and trying to find enough food. They have a father, a nare-do-well uncle named Hideo, an old-school fisherman Grandfather and a teacher named Sawako. All of these characters play out basically the way you think they will.
The island ends up getting taken over by the Russians and the Japanese get sent away to camps. This causes the boys to go on a journey to find their father and survive the war. There are moving moments but even those can feel a bit heavy-handed and played out.
I can imagine in Japan this piece of their history is very important and so they may be more forgiving of this films flaws. It has a nice heart to it and like I said the animation is amazing, so it is not a total loss. It wasn’t awful just nothing special either.
The music by Masashi Sada, with a mixture of Japanese and Russian themes, is another standout.
The ending of Giovanni’s Island feel particularly mawkish and ham-fisted, but I can see how it would mean a lot to the Japanese. It was just too much for me. I’d recommend watching Grave of the Fireflies instead.