An Elegiac Lament For War-Torn Youth

A friendship between children from two different countries blossoms under difficult circumstances in director Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island. Based on true events, the anime film from Japan is set in the country’s remote Northern islands during the hectic aftermath of World War II.

The Soviets forcefully controlled Shikotan Island with its small Japanese population for a number of years after the war. Giovanni’s Island is the stirring tale of two young Japanese brothers becoming friendly with the Soviet commandant’s daughter despite the language barrier and growing hostilities between the native population and their occupiers. The historical drama is a sobering account of innocence and heartfelt emotion with a bittersweet ending.

Giovanni’s Island is the stirring tale of two young Japanese brothers

Two young Japanese brothers, Junpei and Kanta, are beguiled by the sweet Tanya. She’s a Russian girl who doesn’t speak Japanese, having arrived with her father on the island as the Soviets take over. Having lost their mother, Junpei and Kanta love being read Night on the Galactic Railroad, a classic Japanese children’s novel about two young boys named Giovanni and Campenella. Their imagination place themselves in the novel as a respite from the horrors of their increasingly desperate situation for food and shelter.

Giovanni’s Island is both sad and uplifting in its storytelling, serious drama told with heart. Rarely maudlin, the powerful story focuses on the children’s positivity despite hardships, lightening the mood with childish frivolity and whimsical imagination. It’s not perfect cinema – the bittersweet ending for our protagonists is telegraphed miles away.

Comparisons to Grave of the Fireflies are inevitable, though not completely accurate. They approach the tragedies of war from different perspectives. Giovanni’s Island has an undeniable optimism and hope baked into its cake.

The movie also isn’t necessarily for children despite its appealing visuals and juvenile protagonists. Younger ones will likely have a difficult time dealing with the realistic characters meeting their mostly grim fates. Giovanni’s Island is worth exploring for adults interested in wistful memories of children torn apart by war and the clash of civilizations. Thoughtful in its implications, a sweet finishing touch to the story ties the perfect ribbon on the package.


Production I.G animates Giovanni’s Island, a well-established animation house in anime with a litany of far-ranging credits in the field like Miss Hokusai among other projects. They aren’t known for pushing artistic boundaries like Studio Ghibli but produce quality work. They go outside the anime industry this time using Argentine artist Santiago Montiel. He creates striking backdrops for the rather simplistic character designs.

Montiel’s style is certainly unique and brings a fresh perspective, employing a deeply expressive palette and relatively intricate artwork by anime standards. It’s beautiful while conveying a realistic sense of space and weight, aiding the moody historical setting of Giovanni’s Island. Resembles brushstrokes more than pure drawing. One minor complaint would be the over-done lighting effects added after the fact. They often distract from than enhance the action, only working in the few fantasy sequences.

GKIDS provides a nigh perfect rendering of the 1.78:1 animation on Blu-ray. The main feature runs 102 minutes, encoded in AVC on a BD-50. A wisp of banding aside, the pristine animated material features deep black levels and a welcome contrast. Character designs are bland outside of Tanya and could have been done better. Tasteful CGI blends well into the traditional two-dimensional animation.


The “native” audio for Giovanni’s Island is primarily in Japanese with a little Russian and Korean dialogue included for good measure. It receives an impressive 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, replete with swelling music and detailed sound design. An active mix fills the surround channels with excellent atmosphere and discrete placement. Bass is deep when the Soviet tanks arrive, more than is common for a Japanese mix. Dialogue is quietly intelligible yet doesn’t get lost within the wider dynamics of the orchestral score.

The English dub retains the Russian and Korean dialogue bits, replacing the Japanese dialogue as Natalie Hoover voices Tanya. The similarly impressive 5.1 DTS-HD MA is also a winner, expansive in scope with nice dynamics and a big soundstage.

Optional English SDH, English and Spanish are included. The English and Spanish subtitles are a translation of the original Japanese/Russian/Korean audio.


Giovanni’s Island arrives on Blu-ray for the first time in North America courtesy of GKIDS, years after its 2014 debut in other territories. The included special features from other Western countries have all been ported over, so nothing is exclusive. It comes with a glossy slipcover. The disc is locked to Region A.

All foreign-language featurettes include English subtitles.

The Making of Giovanni’s Island: A Random Journal (37:42 in HD) – Broken up into 13 parts, this a meaty interview with the director who delves into many different aspects of the production process.

Interview with Actor Polina Ilyushenko (04:25 in HD) – The young Russian voice actress for Tanya explains her background in the industry while throwing in a few trite observations on her character and the film.

“Troika” Music Video (04:13 in HD) – An alternate version of a tune from the movie.

Art Gallery (07:22 in HD)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided by the label for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page.

Giovanni's Island
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A heartfelt yet bittersweet tale of friendship struck between children from different cultures after World War II in this poignant historical anime drama.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 40 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray:

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