IDENTITY: Annexed by Russia after WWII, inhabitants of a picturesque Pacific island long for a better future while finding traces of its Japanese past.
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 28, 2020

If you look at the map of Japan, and you put your finger on the northern island of Hokkaido – just 14 km of its north-east shore lays Kounachir, one of the two main islands of the Kuril Archipelago. Kounachir used to be Japanese territory, with all the traits of traditional Japanese life. But in 1945, at the end of WWII, the flow of life on this fishing island was severed and forever changed, as the island was annexed by the Soviet Union. Since then, Kounachir remains under Russian control, and no peace agreement has been signed.

Almost 75 years later, Vladimir Kolzlov’s film, Kounachir, creates/builds a bittersweet lyrical portrait of island’s story and of the official «winners» life – the Russians inhabiting now a stagnant island, living a disillusioned life, in sharp contrast with the delusional official Russian narrative of military might and glory.

Decades past

Decades have passed since 1945, but on Kounachir time is standing still. An underdeveloped island, its inhabitants live a simple and uneventful life marked by Russia’s WWII win, and the ghosts of the life the island had when the Japanese were still there. After a short year of cohabitation following its occupation, its 17000 Japanese inhabitants were deported, forced to leave behind anything of value and beauty, including photos and cultural traces of how life was. Stalin brought new inhabitants to take over, coming from Krasnodar and Belarus, people that had never seen the standard of life the Japanese had. In a mix of state policy and ignorance, they destroyed almost everything the Japanese left behind, and except for a Lenin statue surrounded by flowers, nothing came to replace it.

Decades later, the camera sees some of the current aging inhabitants scavenging for both a life and the remaining artefacts of the Japanese culture. Decaying remains of temples, of fishing infrastructure, and tiny objects found in the earth remind of better days on Kounachir. Reading behind the lines of the stories the Russians tell, one can feel the bitter admiration these people hold for how the Japanese managed to …

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