DYLAN FIELDS WRITES – For many years, Japan has been engaged in various territorial disputes such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands conflict with China, or the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands feud with South Korea. One such quarrel, which many non-Japanese are unaware of, is the ongoing Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and Russia. After World War II ended in the summer of 1945, the USSR used Japan’s defeat to their advantage and sent Russian soldiers to annex the Japanese and Ainu inhabited Kuril Islands, which lie northeast of Hokkaido.

The remaining Japanese soldiers stationed there were arrested and sent off to internment camps by the Russians.  Long after the end of the Cold War, Russia and Japan continue to debate who has sovereignty over these islands. One of these, Shikotan, is the setting for the year’s most profound animated film, Giovanni’s Island.

Directed by Mizuho Nishikubo, Giovanni’s Island tells the story of brothers Junpei and Kanta, the sons of a widowed Japanese military commander of Shikotan, and how their lives dramatically change after the “Russkies” invade and take control. At first, the brothers are fearful, but they soon adapt to their new Russian neighbors who occupy their homes and whose children take over their classrooms. Soon, the children of both sides become friends regardless of their language, cultural, and ethnic barriers. Junpei and Kanta even befriend the Russian colonel’s daughter Tanya, who becomes Junpei’s first love. But this newfound happiness doesn’t last long as the brothers are evicted from the islands along with the rest of the inhabitants while their father is arrested. The brothers then decide to go on a journey to say their final farewells to their father.

While the story’s premise isn’t original, Nishikubo’s execution is spot on.  The fact that it deals with an island dispute that doesn’t get its deserved attention only adds to the strength of the narrative.  Something that should be applauded is how the film doesn’t candy-coat Russia’s annexation of the islands, yet doesn’t demonize it either. None of the characters are truly good or evil, but are instead portrayed as regular people just trying to get by. These factors combined with brilliant voice acting, superb hand-drawn  animation, and a touching musical score make Giovanni’s Island a true masterpiece.

Giovanni’s Island was one of many films screened at the Japan Film Society’s LA EigaFest in September. It will receive another one week screening at the Laemmle Town Center 5 Theater in Encino, Calif.