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 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 make a home on this spectacularly beautiful place. The way they used to fish, make use of every tiny gift nature provided, the way they kept the beaches clean – all make stories of nostalgia, and of a missed potential the Russians didn’t know how to build upon.
The place has natural baths, spectacular views of the ocean, and magic landscapes, all seasoned with regular earthquakes typical to the region. The idea of developing and driving tourism to the island is just that, an idea. No money comes from mainland Russia to make that truly happen. So people leave or wait. The waiting in the shadow of the past, a lifestyle on its own.
The stories of a failed present and the memories of the past – poetically illustrated with archival photos – are the identity of this forgotten place. Feeding on it, the official narrative of military power is only put forward by the few officials there, a story that is quite unclear as to how much they themselves believe. But without it, without the reenactments of the island’s conquering, and without a bittersweet dream of creating a museum of weapons around it, what’s left is a reality with no perspective, something the locals live with every day and hardly anyone finds as a source of hope or enthusiasm.
Decades have passed since 1945, but on Kounachir time is standing still.
Beyond its beauty and the time standing still, Kounachir is a living example of what remains of the Soviet past. It’s also an illustration of the old and still unchanged Russian ways. A thirst for domination, the pride of WWII that still feeds nostalgic nationalistic narratives, a territorial presence marked by people with no compass – the sharp contrasts of living life scrapping for existence do nothing to truly keep the people believing there is something to hope for, something yet to come.
What’s left at the end of the film is just a sense of sadness – inspired by the poetry and atmosphere the island’s sights offer, and from a simple question: what does it truly mean to win a war? Because when looking at the past and present, the former is still alive with everything the latter has to offer, just an illusion in its shade. The narrative of being winners is all shallow, a sense of hopelessness replacing it, and the bitter realization of how the story of Kounachir is just the story of ego. A drama in which the Japanese have lost, but the Russians living with this island’s beauty and remoteness did anything but win.