My Neighbours the Yamadas was written and directed by Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli with his long-term colleague Hayao Miyazaki. It is a definite change in genre from the popular 1988 film that was his first with the studio, Grave of the Fireflies, a war drama. My Neighbours the Yamadas is a comedy focusing on the lives of a Japanese family who experience many adventures and misadventures. It was released between Studio Ghibli’s international successes Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001).The film received an Excellence Award for animation at the 1999 Japan Media Arts Festival.
My Neighbours the Yamadas has a unique visual style, very different from the other Studio Ghibli films. It is the first 100% digital movie created by the studio and uses a nicely drawn sketch-like animation technique with pastel watercolour-style artwork that results in one of the most visually simplistic Ghibli animations. It was inspired by the Japanese ‘Nono-chan’ comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii.
The film has no continuing storyline; instead it is comprised of a compilation of scenes that depict the daily life of a somewhat dysfunctional Japanese family. Takashi Yamada (superbly voiced by John Belushi) and his wife Matsuko live with their teenage son Noburo, young daughter Nonoko, the children’s grandmother Shige and the family dog Pochi. These are relatable characters and the entertainment comes from the heart and humour that they provide.
The collection of short vignettes is like a number of individual four-panel comic strips, usually ending with a funny outcome. Each segment is introduced with a descriptive title, like ‘The Iron Chef’, ‘Dynamic Duo’, ‘Beauty is Fleeting, Life is Long’ and ‘Age Comes Before Wisdom’. Japanese Haiku is also used at certain points in the film. Examples include, “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn” and “Turn toward me. I’m lonely too. The autumn dusk.” These serve to elevate the events above the dull, daily grind, into something more poetic and fantastical, suggesting we should try to see the magic in our everyday lives.
The film won’t appeal to everyone because some may be put off by its disjointed format as it takes some getting used to. However, it does grow on you after you’ve settled into watching it. The visual and narrative styles are different from what people have come to expect from a typical Studio Ghibli film. Also, the dramatic moments in some of the sections don’t work as well as the jokes.
Overall though, the bickering family and the amusing situations they’re presented with are both charming and endearing. Although it follows a typical family in Tokyo, the themes circumstances are mostly universal so there is no problem with a lack of knowledge about the Japanese culture. My Neighbours the Yamadas is a feel-good comedy about the many adventures life throws at you, even if you’re just an ‘ordinary’ family. It celebrates everyday family life and the entertaining ups and downs.
[DVD screener provided by Flickering Myth. Review originally posted here]