My Neighbors The Yamadas

Japan Movie Reviews: My Neighbors The Yamadas

My Neighbors The Yamadas

Bars, Restaurants, Clubs in Tokyo

by Hemanth Kissoon, February 2008

My Neighbors The Yamadas.

In 1985 director Isao Takahata founded Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki. His output is not as large as the legendary Miyazaki but his work is hugely impressive nonetheless. This is the last film he released, almost 10 years ago now, back in 1999, and is one of the most original-looking animated features I have ever seen. Takahata's other helmed movies are: Pom Poko.

Similiarly titled to Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, there seems within Studio Ghibli's oeuvre an interest in community; perhaps a highlight of its deterioration in Japanese and Western societies?

Opening on an image being drawn of the sun, moon and Earth, these then turn into the grandmother of the Yamada family, Shige, and the family's dog. Within the first 10 minutes the audience can already tell this is different to anything from Studio Ghibli, anything from Japan, and anything from anywhere. It is highly stylised drawing with simple strokes and lots of white space, allowing focus on characters, story and ideas. The closest in style I can think of is Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts with Charlie Brown and Snoopy. While formally ambitious and daring, the cartoon still shares the Studio Ghibli whimsy, shared by most of its output (though Takahata's own Graveyard of the Fireflies is the exception).

The Yamadas are made up of elder son Noboru, young daughter Nonoko, mother Matsuko (voiced by Molly Shannon: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Year of the Dog and Marie Antoinette), father Takashi (voiced by James Belushi: K-9, Red Heat and Hoodwinked), the dog and the grandmother. They are the focus of this comedy with many wry and funny observations made about modern families.

After the introduction of grandmother Shige, she narrates an elaborate sequence where she advises her family about life. Takashi and Matsuko ride a toboggan where the camera pulls out to reveal it is sliding down the tiers of a wedding cake, and then it morphs into a yacht sailing on the seas as a metaphor for life. This then turns into a tractor in a field of cabbage-patch children with storks flying overhead carrying baby bundles. The tractor becomes a small boat on a river where Noboru is found in an egg (already wearing glasses!), and moments later Takashi gets out and cuts a bamboo stalk in half to reveal baby Nonoko inside. This toboggan-yacht-tractor-boat sequence is exhilarating for its imagination and drive, as well as its commentary on family dynamics. There is even a sequence using flo-mo or bullet-time (made famous in The Matrix). So much fantastic imagery and thoughts are packed into the first dozen minutes.

Following on from that zinging introduction are chapters or sketches about different aspects of the Yamadas lives, headed up by a title card and voiceover narration, such as "Marriage Yamada Style", "Father-Son Bonding", "Domestic Goddess", "Ginger Morning" or "Age Comes Before Wisdom". Like a neatly tied present, chapters sometimes end with a haiku poem.

"If I had cooler parents I wouldn't have turned out so lame." Noboru.

The film is filled with hilarious one-liners, witty depictions and physical (but not puerile) humour. The film never talks down to its audience. The Yamadas have so much energy and charisma that you want to be friends with them. When was the last time you thought that about a cartoon? Even though it seems at first glance to be simply drawn, don't be deceived, there is plenty of detail artistically (and ideologically), from a fluorescent light flickering and handles in a bus swaying, to eyes blinking after a camera flash and rain splashing on the ground. There is no plot as such, but that is not a criticism. The structure is freewheeling, unpredictable and engaging. The ending ties this exceptional film together to leave an enlightened and heartened glow as the credits roll. My Neighbours the Yamadas is in the top 0.001% of animations ever!

Reviews by Hemanth Kissoon

Black Rain
Castle in the Sky
The Castle of Cagliostro
Cyber City Oedo 808
Grave of the Fireflies
My Neighbor Totoro
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Porco Rosso
Tales From Earthsea
Tokyo Godfathers
Throne of Blood

Books on Japanese Anime