By the late-’90s, Studio Ghibli had firmly established itself as one of the top animation studios in the world, perhaps second only to Disney. With 10 films under its belt near the decade’s end, the studio displayed its craftsmanship, creativity, heart, and imagination in every single one. While co-founder Hayao Miyazaki pushed what the boundaries of his traditional animation style with his 1997 feudal fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, the other co-founder Isao Takahata was about to shake things up considerably, making a film that looks wholly unlike anything Ghibli had made before, even if the story continued the director’s slice-of-life looks at contemporary Japan.
1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas is immediately an outlier among Studio Ghibli movies. Every one of their movies up this point had approximately the same distinct visual style, personified by realistic backgrounds and the same basic character design, thanks in large part to those unmistakable Ghibli eyes. Yamadas is not only different, it’s completely unrecognizable. It features very minimalist backgrounds (often just blank white for anything not directly needed for setting or plot) and the characters all have an exaggerated comic strip style, which completely fits the quick vignettes and stories that feel as though they came from a three- or six-panel comic strip.
The film features a lengthy series of short stories regarding the continued comedic problems surrounding the Yamada family. The family unit consists of an overworked father, a plucky optimist mother, a constantly high-strung 13-year-old son, a cherubic and wise-beyond-her-years 5-year-old daughter, and a grouchy grandmother. They are trying to get by on very little, and whenever one of them tries to do something, the rest of the family seems to foil it, usually unintentionally and without malice. Each of the family members get their own series of vignettes which showcases their particular weirdness.
What’s lovely about this film, as with all of Takahata’s movies, especially with Ghibli, is that he mixes the mundane with the magical, and the silly with the tragic. This feels like a comedic version of Only Yesterday. The beginning especially feels like a fantasy, as the Yamadas decide to have children. They’re flying around in various things and then we see the patriarch chop down a bamboo chute to reveal his daughter, a reference to Japanese folklore that Takahata would continue in his next film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 15 years later. This is coupled with scenes of them all underwater in a submarine, chasing each other on bikes and on the back of giant creatures, and just generally being together.
As I mentioned, this movie is split up into very short vignettes, probably close to 30 of them, each signified by a title card with things like “Father as Role Model,” “A Family Torn Apart,” or “Patriarchal Supremacy Restored.” The travails depicted within are incredibly relatable to anybody who’s ever been in a family (which is most people, I’d reckon). One early on is about how the daughter gets left at a mall because the other four are too worried about their own stuff, and then it takes them forever to get back to get her. Another has the father watching TV and the mother wants to change the channel. A martial arts-like battle ensues with the mother trying to use the remote and the father blocking her with his body or newspaper. It’s really hysterical!
One of my favorite scenes demonstrates Takahata’s mastery of the visual style with which he’s working. Occasionally in the film, the scenes and characters are drawn much more realistically. They still appear with the pencil scratches and without much definition in the face, but they’re proportionally more realistic and the backgrounds and settings are more detailed. This happens when the family encounters “reality,” or something a bit more harrowing than most. In one instance, the grandmother is attempting to get the father to shoo away a trio of motorcycle hooligans who’ve been causing trouble and had even run over an old man. When he goes outside to talk to them, the scene shifts to this more realistic style, and it looks particularly dangerous. Then, the mother and grandmother come out and begin acting strange, and eventually the grandmother addresses the hooligans and says weird things, but ends up asking them to leave and not come back. Through the course of her speech, everything begins to shift back to the cartoony style, signifying the danger had gone away and the Yamadas had weathered another storm. It’s subtle but incredibly effective.
My Neighbors the Yamadas was fairly well-reviewed upon its release but failed to get much of a box office reception, faring much poorer than other Studio Ghibli releases. I think that’s rather a shame, because if Takahata has done anything throughout his career, it’s not repeating himself. You can look at Miyazaki’s movies and see him working out different proclivities and passions and troubles, but they all seem very much of a piece. Takahata made his war tragedy; he made his reflection on youth, memory, and squandered potential; and he made his surrealist allegory about ecology and conservation, so why should he continue down any of those same paths? He wanted to make a family comedy about the bonds of love, and by golly he did it. Just because it doesn’t look like all the other Ghibli movies is no reason for it to be shunned.
As I mentioned previously, this was Takahata’s last directorial effort for nearly a decade-and-a-half. In 2003, he wrote and directed a tiny segment in the collaborative movie Winter Days, but it wasn’t until 2013, while Miyazaki was making his final feature The Wind Rises, that he came back to make his long-gestating, watercolor folktale movie, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. We have only one week left in our Isao Takahata retrospective, so let’s go out with a bang!
Images: Studio Ghibli
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!
Tagsanimation, anime, isao takahata, Kyle Anderson Review, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata Textbook
Japanese Title: Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki, Seiichiro Ujiie and Takashi Shouji
Originally Released: July 17, 1999
If someone were to ask you about your family, what would you say? Would you call them normal or would they fall under the slightly unhinged, zany category. If you answered unhinged and zany, congratulations, you will easily relate to the family which takes center stage in our next film, My Neighbours the Yamadas. In many ways, the Yamadas might be considered the all Japanese family, the way we think of the the Simpsons as the all American family. Their lives, hopes, dreams and failures are all deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and in many ways this might make it one of the harder films for Western viewers to get in to.
Alright everyone, time to give your best Mary Poppins.
But if you’ve got a taste for something a little bit wacky and a little bit special, My Neighbours the Yamadas might just be for you. While this isn’t the most mind blowing, classic of all the Ghibli films, it easily takes the award for the one that has made me laugh out loud the most. Make no mistake. This is a family comedy that will have you laughing as you imagine your own mother, father and grandmother getting into ridiculous situations.
Life can be difficult at times for a family. Especially on shark week.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is an interesting film. After all, its animation is unlike anything we’ve seen out of Ghibli yet. Though at first glance, it seems very simplistic, there is actually a ton of detail to be found here. Based on a three-cell comic, much like our Peanuts comic strips, The film has a style which looks hand painted like the original comic. Ironically, during the production, Takahata found that the only way to achieve this appearance was to digitally animate the film. Because of this, despite its hand drawn look, My Neighbors the Yamadas was actually Ghibli’s first fully digitally animated films. That’s right, this was made the same way that Pixar films are made. It’s pretty impressive when you think about it.
Want a family photo? Put the camera on top of the television.
The Yamadas are your average family. Takashi and Matsuko live with Matsuko’s mother, Shige, along with their two children 13-year-old Noboru and 5-year-old Nonoko, and their dog Pochi. As the film progresses, scenes play out the same way that a comic strip might. A problem is presented, yet the way that it is concluded always plays out a bit as a tongue in cheek joke and often times, they are very funny. For example, Matsuko forgets to take out the trash. Instead of waiting for the following week’s trash pickup, she separates all the trash into smaller bags and sends the family to different public trash cans around the neighborhood to dispose of it. This is sort of a running theme in the film. Creative solutions to problems caused by either forgetfulness or laziness.
When the bell rings but you haven’t finished the essay section.
It’d be easy to call each of the Yamadas a bit of a mess, but that’s what makes them so much fun to watch. Son Noboru is bad in school and seems to not have very good looks, as pointed out by grandma who can’t believe a girl would call him when he looks the way he does. Thanks grandma. Matsuko is a Mom who wants to be a good Mom and wife as long as it takes bare minimum effort. At one point she makes a ‘real Japanese breakfast’ for her husband, only to have him realize it’s made out of all leftovers. And then there’s Shige, the grandmother who constantly encourages her family and others to do the right thing, even if she inevitably ends up doing the wrong thing anyway. I noticed that as the film ran, I consistently changed my favorite character. That’s because they are all so charming and relatable.
This is why I use kindle. So no one knows when I’m reading naughty books.
The film plays out in little vignettes that act as little skits. And all of them are laugh out loud funny. Yet, inevitably, they paint a bigger picture of a very real family. Its interesting to watch Takashi try to bond with his son, because it’s funny of course, but also because their generational gap is deeply rooted in culture and seeing what they find interesting also goes to show the changing of time and the passing of fads in a real way. In this way, it’s also fun to see the adults make many of the same mistakes as the kids. Sure, Mom and Dad can scold son and daughter for being forgetful but they too are quite forgetful and end up leaving things at home or sleeping in late.
When Grandma’s go to war…
Because of the generational gap, each of these characters also provides a unique perspective within the story. When the family accidentally leaves little Nonoko behind, she wanders the mall and claims to another boy that is lost that parents seem to be disappearing a lot lately. To her, they are the lost ones, not her. Then there’s grandma who is fearless and, despite her age, isn’t afraid to take on a biker gang which has been littering in her neighborhood. It’s incredibly fun to watch this family of seemingly different characters who all clearly share similarities. Despite very stylistic animation, this family feels incredibly real to watch and I’m sure that, if you watch it, you’ll find yourself saying things like “Oh that reminds me of my Mom,” because just like The Simpsons, it’s easy to find real life similarities in these genuine characters.
A scene in which Mom and Dad fight for supremacy over the television proved to be one of my favorites.
Despite tons of great moments and laughter, there’s not much left to say about My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s not a record breaker or a game changer. It’s just a very charming, often hilarious tale of growing up as a family and the trials faced within, which often feel much bigger than they actually are. There’s a sense of wonder through mediocrity here. If I told you we were going to watch a scene about a husband and wife arguing over what program to watch on television, you wouldn’t think that sounded very interesting, but My Neighbours the Yamadas paints it as incredibly fun and captivating.
Pro tip: Don’t talk to a girl on the phone for the first time while Grandma and Mom are present.
It’s like a great sitcom, or comic strip which always gives you a chuckle. I even found myself telling co-workers about some of the little sketches because, to a degree, they play out like little jokes. So no, this isn’t the groundbreaking work of art that is something like Princess Mononoke, BUT it is incredibly enjoyable to watch and it does have an animation style and you will surely not find anywhere else. Of all the Ghibli films I’ve seen, this might be the first one I’ve wanted to make my Mom watch. So it must be something special.
NEXT UP: Spirited Away
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Categories: Vault Ghibli
Tagged as: animation, anime, cartoon, family, film, funny, Ghibli, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Studio Ghibli, Takahata, Vault Ghibli, yamadas