Interview: Mizuho Nishikubo

by Zac Bertschy, Feb 10th 2014

Director Mizuho Nishikubo is a veteran of the anime industry; he's directed classic OVAs from Zillion to Video Girl Ai to California Crisis and has worked closely with auteur filmmaker Mamoru Oshii for years. His newest film at Production I.G is Giovanni's Island. Here's the official synopsis:

Giovanni and Campanella, nicknamed after characters in the beloved Japanese novel Night on the Galactic Railroad, live a free-spirited island life, chasing each other along beach-side cliffs and endlessly dreaming about adventures on the Galactic Railroad. But when the Red army occupies their tiny island following Japan's surrender, they are suddenly confronted with an influx of foreigners – including a peculiar and enticing new neighbor, the golden-haired Tanya, daughter of the Soviet commander. Learning about each other's exotic and strange cuisines, music and language creates a quick bond for the children – even while the occupation brings on heavier implications for their families. An elegance and beauty permeates the hand-drawn animation and symphonic score of the film, creating a timeless drama where moments of emotional impact are tempered by animated flights of whimsy and fantasy, as the brothers prove much larger in spirit and strength than their rosy-cheeked, small frames would suggest.

And here's a trailer:



ANN: How did a project like this get off the ground? Films like this don't get made very often; what's the story behind this one?

MIZUHO NISHIKUBO: Personally, I've always been very interested in the historical period from the 30s onward, when Japan relentlessly throws itself into that conflict one step after another. I confess I had always wanted to confront myself with a story set in that period. Then this project suddenly came across my desk. But it was about a part of that war that I did not really know. It was not set on the Asian continent or in the Pacific, but on a remote island up in the north, told through the fate of a family and two brothers in particular, Junpei and Kanta. To me, this project started as an opportunity to depict a forgotten episode in our history as seen through the eyes of two children.

Did you feel a particular connection to the material? How did the story touch you?

For this film we could rely on an invaluable primary source. This gentleman, Hiroshi Tokuno by name and who eventually served as a model for the protagonist, Junpei, told us his extraordinary story of an ordinary child living on the island of Shikotan when the events narrated in the movie happened. We learned about the relatively peaceful life on this little piece of land without electricity while the world around was burning; we heard stories of competition, but also cross-cultural friendship, among Soviet and Japanese children, who lived side by side for two whole years… and a lot more. We believed we could talk about that war and its aftermath from a completely different point of view by telling a story nobody ever told in a movie. And I deliberately tried to render every aspect or object in the daily life of those days with documentary-level accuracy, although the animation itself is far from being photorealistic. For this purpose, we went through thorough research in order to recreate 1945 Shikotan Island and the surrounding area. We also consulted a Russian university professor as cultural advisor.

What was your number one concern creatively when it came to adapting this material?

As I said, in this movie we see historical events unfolding as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. All we know is what Junpei sees and experiences. But then I thought that I wanted to add a fantastic element to the story, and this came from Kenji Miyazawa's novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad. The novel and its world are a sort of psychological driving force for the two brothers, it's what sustains them in face of hardship and provides a little escape from the chaos around them, but also the key to interpret what's happening. And I wanted the movie's story to be linked to one of the novel's themes, epitomized by the line “What is true happiness for all?” It also helped to enrich the movie visually, by interrupting an otherwise very realistic context with sudden, colorful sparks.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

I tried to depict the historical backdrop to this story as much accurately as possible, avoiding any biased interpretation of those events. There are no good or bad guys. There's no specific strong message. I just want people to re-live Junpei's experience as he goes through it.

You recorded the Russian characters in Moscow; tell us what that process was like.

For this film, we wanted each character to speak their own language: Japanese would speak Japanese, and Soviets would speak Russian. It was part of the realism we were trying to achieve. We created a script in Russian for all Russian lines, we did a preliminary recording in Tokyo with two Russian actors, and then we flew to Moscow for the actual recording sessions. Well, just the place the studio was located in was kind of amazing. It was a 15 minute stroll from our hotel, and on the way you would walk in front of the Russian Federation State Institute of Cinematography, and after saying hello to a statue of Andrei Tarkovsky you would get into the studio. All the voice actors were great, starting from Polina Ilyushenko, who performed Tanya, the Russian main character. Everything went smoothly also thanks to the two translators who were with us. For the songs in the film, we had hired a professional children's chorus, but they were so astonishingly good I had to beg them to sing more like... ordinary children, as their Japanese counterparts had done. But they were all really, really impressive.

Did your extensive work with Mamoru Oshii color or influence your process on this film?

I don't believe I have received a direct influence in creative or artistic terms, however there's something to learn from Oshii's approach to filmmaking. Once the schedule is set, he would tenaciously pursue the best possible result through the end within the given time frame. Indeed there are many “tenacious” directors, but he also sees things with the producer's eye, and you can tell the difference once the completed film is out in theaters.

Another point is that he always gets things done the way he wants by adding his personal touch. For Oshii, that would be his proverbial erudition, conspicuously exposed by his long dialogue lines. For me, that would be music. I'm always trying to give music an important role in my films. I hope you will enjoy it.


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