An Almost-Lost War Story

Di­rec­tor Mizuho NIshikubo finds poignancy in rarely told tale of World War II an­i­mated as Gio­vanni’s Is­land. By Charles Solomon.

Animation Magazine - - Features -

Un­like the high-en­ergy cy­ber­punk Ghost in the Shell films he worked on with Mamoru Oshii, Mizuho Nishikubo’s fea­ture Gio­vanni’s Is­land is an ele­giac evo­ca­tion of oc­cu­pied Ja­pan. The set­ting — a re­mote is­land in the still-dis­puted Kuril Is­lands im­me­di­ately after World War II — is un­fa­mil­iar to Western view­ers. But the de­pic­tion of the need­less suf­fer­ing of chil­dren caught in po­lit­i­cal con­flicts they don’t un­der­stand has a poignancy that tran­scends time and place.

Nishikubo talked about his work in a re­cent in­ter­view con­ducted via email with the help of trans­la­tor Maki Terashima-Fu­tura. Although he had long wanted to make an his­tor­i­cal film about Ja­pan as a way of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ear­lier time, Nishikubo was in­tro­duced to this story by Shigemichi Sugita, a pro­ducer-di­rec­tor who has worked pri­mar­ily in live ac­tion and who co-wrote the script.

“The film is based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of Mr. Hiroshi Tokuno, who cur­rently lives in Ne­muro, Hokkaido, and who wishes to re­turn to his na­tive is­land of Shikotan,” Nishikubo says. “I spoke with him for hours, and his de­scrip­tions of his ex­pe­ri­ences were very in­for­ma­tive and de­tailed. So Gio­vanni’s Is­land re­counts true events that no­body re­ally knew about — in­clud­ing my­self. I wanted to go deep into the lives of the chil­dren who grew up on this small is­land where the movie takes place.”

Much of Gio­vanni’s Is­land de­picts the daily life of its char­ac­ters and might seem bet­ter suited to live ac­tion. Ten-year-old Jun­pei and his younger brother Kanta are grow­ing up on Shikotan when World War II abruptly ends. Soviet troops oc­cupy the is­land. The boys’ lives take a turn for the worse when their fa­ther is caught il­le­gally dis­tribut­ing rice to his neigh­bors and im­pris­oned. The brothers, their el­e­men­tary school teacher and their conniving un­cle are shipped to an in­tern­ment camp on Sakhalin, where they suf­fer from the bit­ter cold and in­ad­e­quate ra­tions.

Choos­ing An­i­ma­tion

“Mr. Sugita was plan­ning on mak­ing the film in live ac­tion, but the chal­lenges of re­al­iz­ing the his­tor­i­cal lo­ca­tions and events led us to choose an­i­ma­tion,” says Nishikubo. “I think this decision was cor­rect. The com­plex in­ter­re­la­tion of re­al­ity, imag­i­na­tion (and) flash­back can be ex­pressed through an­i­ma­tion in ways that would be dif­fi­cult in live ac­tion. Also, an­i­mated char­ac­ters sur­mount the bound­aries of eth­nic­ity, mak­ing the movie more ac­cept­able to the world­wide au­di­ences.”

When Jun­pei and Kanta are un­happy, they tell each other sto­ries based on Kenji Miyazawa’s beloved “The Night on the Galac­tic Rail­road,” a fable about a mag­i­cal train that jour­neys among the stars, car­ry­ing souls from this life to the next. Dur­ing th­ese se­quences, the look of the film changes to a flat­ter, more graphic style and soft blue pal­ette.

“This movie con­sists of three ba­sic el­e­ments: re­al­ity, flash­back and imag­i­na­tion,” Nishikubo says. “The ‘real’ scenes are almost pho­to­re­al­is­tic; the flash­back scenes are a com­bi­na­tion of ab­bre­vi­a­tion and ex­ag­ger­a­tion; the imag­i­nary scenes sug­gest the ideal world of the main character, while in­cor­po­rat­ing sketches and ‘magic lan­tern’ images.

“The majority of the movie is the main character’s flash­backs,” he con­tin­ues. “Th­ese

scenes are pretty much all Jun­pei’s mem­o­ries, so the char­ac­ters and back­ground art­work, are mostly drawn in a sub­jec­tively ab­bre­vi­ated way. Character de­signer At­suko Fukushima and an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Nobu­take Ito did an in­cred­i­ble job, bal­anc­ing the way they ab­bre­vi­ated and ex­ag­ger­ated the com­plex el­e­ments on the screen. Back­ground art di­rec­tor Santiago Mon­tiel did a great job cre­at­ing art­work based on the character’s mem­o­ries.”

Get­ting Cul­tures Right

Although the main char­ac­ters are Ja­panese, they have to deal with the oc­cu­py­ing Rus­sian forces and their fam­i­lies, and with sym­pa­thetic Kore­ans who help Jun­pei’s fam­ily on Sakhalin. Nishikubo had ac­tors from each eth­nic group speak in their own lan­guage, to em­pha­size the cul­tural gaps. When the Rus­sians and Ja­panese are forced to share a school build­ing, they ini­tially try to drown out each other’s songs — then learn to sing them, as hes­i­tant friend­ships be­gin to form.

Nishikubo trav­eled to Rus­sia to record the ac­tors in a lan­guage he doesn’t speak. “On the way to the stu­dio, we would walk past the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion State In­sti­tute of Cin­e­matog­ra­phy, which has a statue of di­rec­tor Arsenye­vich Tarkovsky: it was a very pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “All the Rus­sian voice ac­tors, in­clud­ing Polina Ilyushenko, who played Tanya, were amaz­ingly tal­ented. The ses­sions went very quickly. In the singing scenes, I had to ask the Rus­sian choir not to sing not so well, be­cause they were all such great singers and they were sup­posed to be a small class of chil­dren.”

Nishikubo says he’s both “very sur­prised and ex­cited” at how well Gio­vanni’s Is­land has been re­ceived out­side of Ja­pan. It’s been screen­ing around the world on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, and win­ning awards. (The film is in con­tention for an Os­cars Best An­i­mated Fea­ture nom­i­na­tion.) But the di­rec­tor is al­ready look­ing ahead to his next project.

“Gio­vanni’s Is­land was a movie that talked about the exit from the war,” he says. “I want to make an an­i­mated film that talks about the en­try into the war. I hope I will make a movie that can be en­joyed by peo­ple all over the world.”

It’s long been a sta­ple of TV shows to seek out strange new worlds on a weekly ba­sis, but rarely has it been done in the in­ven­tive style only an­i­ma­tion brings to it as show­cased by Dis­ney XD’s up­com­ing se­ries Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.

The se­ries, set to premiere in Fe­bru­ary, fea­tures Penn Zero, voiced by Thomas Mid­dled­itch — a re­cent break­out star for his role on Mike Judge’s HBO live-ac­tion se­ries Sil­i­con Val­ley — as the tit­u­lar part-time hero, who is sent into var­i­ous di­men­sions to fin­ish ad­ven­tures other he­roes have left un­fin­ished. Join­ing Penn are his su­per-tough and highly trained side­kick, Sashi, voiced by Ta­nia Gu­nadi; and goofy best pal Boone, played by Adam DeVine. They face off each time out against part-time vil­lain Rip­pen, voiced by Al­fred Molina, and his side­kick, Larry, voiced by comic Larry Wil­more.

Cre­ated by Jared Bush and Sam J. Levine for Dis­ney TV An­i­ma­tion, the se­ries rel­ishes putting its char­ac­ters into the most bizarre gen­res and sit­u­a­tions pos­si­ble. A quick tour of the show’s of­fices in Bur­bank re­veals dozens of episodic model sheets for ven­tures into set­tings like outer space, the Old West and an un­der­wa­ter king­dom. Even within those en­vi­ron­ments, there are in­ter­est­ing twists, such as an Old West mash up with di­nosaurs in­stead of horses and cows.

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Bush and Levine say the show — one of Dis­ney’s big TV roll­outs of 2015 — took quite a while to de­velop and went through mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions be­fore reach­ing its fi­nal form.

“I al­ways liked the idea of some­one who could jump to dif­fer­ent gen­res, but I didn’t have a way to tell that story ex­actly in a for­mat,” says Bush. “I pitched that as a log­line to (ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment) Jonathan Sch­nei­der at TVA, and he said: ‘I re­ally like it, but we need to do a lot of work on it. There’s some­one you have to meet who is to­tally go­ing to get this.’ And Sam and I met and it was im­me­di­ately this awe­some con­nec­tion. And very quickly we took this rough nugget of an idea and started re­ally beat­ing it out, fig­ur­ing out who the char­ac­ters were, get­ting into the mythol­ogy of the show.”

Levine, who also serves as su­per­vis­ing di­rec­tor on the show, says that while the world

Up­dat­ing a Vin­tage Look

A key part of that was the look Bush and Levine en­vi­sioned for the show. Levine says he grew up loving the look of an­i­mated films in the 1950s and 1960s — mostly the Dis­ney work by such in­flu­en­tial artists as Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Tom Oreb and Milt Kahl — but also the more ab­stract and tex­tured work of stu­dios like UPA and early Hanna-Bar­bera.

That meant giv­ing tex­tures like paint­brush­strokes to char­ac­ters and to back­grounds and try­ing for that dis­tinc­tive rough-line an­i­ma­tion ex­em­pli­fied by the films in that pe­riod.

“I felt (that style) would support the com­edy but also ground it be­cause I think the thing about those Dis­ney films is you re­ally be­lieve in it and the world and the stakes,” says Levine. “We wanted to cre­ate all th­ese worlds that were vis­ually graphic and ex­cit­ing but vis­ually had some stakes to them.”

“We wanted to make sure you know that if you turned it on it was some­thing dif­fer­ent,” says Bush. “We wanted it to not look like any­thing else but also to not be try­ing hard to not be like ev­ery­thing else at the same time.”

Work­ing with Mer­cury Film­works, the Ot­tawa, Canada-based stu­dio an­i­mat­ing the se­ries, the duo came up with a look they liked and a test pi­lot. But fig­ur­ing out how to make it work on a TV se­ries bud­get and sched­ule was a dif­fi­cult process.

“When we went to se­ries, it was a se­ri­ous ques­tion: Can we achieve that look as a se­ries, be­cause it’s so la­bor in­ten­sive?” says Bush. “We had to think about it and saw some sim­pler ver­sions of what it could be and said, ‘No, we love this so much,’ and re­ally fought for that. We made a bunch of tough choices be­cause we thought this is a re­ally im­por­tant thing.”

Cast­ing was another im­por­tant nut to crack. Levine and Bush say they feel lucky to have found Cana­dian co­me­dian, ac­tor and writer Mid­dled­itch, whose au­di­tion fit their vi­sion per­fectly after a long search.

“We de­cided we wanted some­one who was just nat­u­rally funny and was kind of play­ing the hero with a lit­tle bit of a wink to the au­di­ence, and Thomas brought that in spades,” says Bush.

DeVine also brought to Boone the kind of sen­si­tiv­ity they were look­ing for. “He’s not just a meat­head best friend guy,” says Levine. “He’s got his own world and is into his own head and wants to have the fun he wants to have.”

Even the vil­lains get in on the ac­tion. When they are in other di­men­sions, Rip­pen is the main vil­lain and Larry is the side­kick. But when in the town of Mid­dle­burg, Rip­pen works as an art teacher at a school where Larry is the prin­ci­pal.

“(Rip­pen) takes ev­ery­thing very se­ri­ously and wants to do his job be­cause he doesn’t want to be a part-time vil­lain any­more; he wants to be a full-time vil­lain, and he needs to beat Penn in one of th­ese worlds to have that hap­pen,” says Bush. “But Larry con­stantly un­der­mines him by ac­ci­dent be­cause he’s kind of a sweet­heart and he re­ally wants to do a good job and he just re­ally wants to be Rip­pen’s best friend and typ­i­cally screws ev­ery­thing up.”

Another key el­e­ment to the show is the mu­sic by Ryan Shore, Levine’s friend and for­mer next-door neigh­bor and nephew to Os­car-win­ning com­poser Howard Shore.

“We wanted some­one who does movies be­cause we’re go­ing to dif­fer­ent gen­res,” says Levine. “The way this show is struc­tured is the way he likes mak­ing mu­sic, be­cause it’s just jumping around to dif­fer­ent worlds.”

Early Re­sponse

The se­ries aired a pre-Christ­mas ad­vance episode, to which the re­sponse has been sur­pris­ingly good, Levine and Bush say.

“This is a show that needs you to see three or four episodes for you to get the whole scope of it and it’s fun to see peo­ple kind of try to fig­ure it out from just one episode,” says Levine.

And stick­ing with the show will pay off for view­ers, with the ori­gin episode set as the next-to-last show of the first sea­son.

“It was fun to write it late in the sea­son and ac­tu­ally know what the char­ac­ters are,” says Bush.

One thing Penn Zero’s cre­ators are not con­cerned about is run­ning out of gen­res or dif­fer­ent worlds to visit. “When we first pitched the con­cept, we lit­er­ally came up with like a hun­dred — and that was in one week,” says Bush. “Then we started think­ing we could do lit­tle mash-ups, and then we thought we could re­turn to th­ese worlds and have some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pen or have a dif­fer­ent character come in.”

“If you have the grounded char­ac­ters, the genre is a back­drop,” says Levine.

Worlds (and vari­ant character de­signs) col­lide with glee­ful aban­don in the mash-up worlds of

Sam J. Levine Jared Bush

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