Isao Takahata brings us a sweet, unassuming taste of everyday family life in this animated comedy-drama.
“If one of you were normal it would unbalance the rest.”
Studio Ghibli is known for a particular style of animation. Like all the best anime studios, generally speaking, you can tell from a screenshot or two whether the film is a Makoto Shinkai production or something by Hayao Miyazaki. But every so often, the studio will provide something that’s just a little bit out of the ordinary. Ghibli founder, the late Isao Takahata brought us The Tale of Princess Kaguya in 2013. The movie made waves for its unique visual style, but this was not the first time Ghibli stepped out of its design comfort zone. Over a dozen years prior, Takahata also brought us this little gem.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is a film consisting of a dozen or so vignettes that deal with the everyday life of the titular Yamada family. Takashi is the head of the household: a typical salaryman whose pride tends to get the better of him. He is married to Matsuko, a cheery but sometimes ditzy maternal figure who spends a lot of her time with Shige, the sharp-tongued and no-nonsense grandmother. The two Yamada children are Noboru, a teenage boy who only wants to succeed and do well in school, and Nonoku, the youngest whose bright and cheery disposition and level-headedness contrasts with the rest of the family.
The vignettes don’t really delve into great drama, instead choosing simple slice-of-life moments such as Takashi attempting to bond with his son, Noboru attempting to talk to a girl, and the relationship between Matsuko and Takashi as the two fight over TV channels, run errands for each other and generally work their hardest to be the best parents they can be. Each little story stands on its own and the film contains no overarching plot. I hear the dubbed version contains a narration by David Ogden Stiers, but frankly the stories speak for themselves and don’t need anything other than themselves.
The movie doesn’t really have a main character, either, instead going for more of a freeform approach. At first, it looks like Nonoko might be – especially considering its source material – as she opens the story with some narration about the world and her grandmother. But she then takes a backseat to the rest of the family and by the time we get to the story about the time she was left in the mall, it is apparent that the movie will be more of an ensemble piece. This is a smart choice on behalf of the filmmakers as it allows every viewer to find a character to relate to and thus it reaches wider to all audiences, and allows for a variety of tales.
Splitting it up into several vaguely-defined sections doesn’t do a tonne for the film but does help in keeping the entire thing held together. With little structure, a production like this can easily fall apart, but by giving the audience little title cards it feels less like a random selection of stories and more like a well thought-out narrative. Tie it all together with haikus here and there, and the result is a film that doesn’t feel fractured in the slightest. This links to the visual style (and the music, which I’ll talk about below), which changes whenever Takahata needs to get across another feeling, usually something taking place in the imagination of a character. Sometimes we dive into inventive fantasy sequences complete with a fresh new style which helps pace out the whole picture.
In keeping with the picture’s attempt to differentiate itself from the typical Studio Ghibli style, Takahata hired jazz musician Akiko Yano to compose themes that are sprinkled throughout. Yano brings with her a different approach to soundtracks, and her short piano pieces reflect the briefness and whimsy of each short vignette. It’s a style that works well with the simplistic, cartoonish art style. The combination of music, design and storytelling results in a flawless, if completely basic anime film that is an absolute delight to watch from beginning to end, and shows that no matter who your family is, que sera sera.
Verdict: My Yamadas proves that a studio doesn’t have to rely on its tried-and-true format to achieve great results.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Slices of Life: Lots
Princess Kaguya Foreshadowing: One
Forgetfulness: Everyone in this film is in a rush because they forgot something
Spelling: I cannot bring myself to type “neighbors”
My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
Also known as: ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん(Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Hisaichi Ishii (manga), Isao Takahata
Toru Masuoka – Takashi Yamada
Yukiji Asaoka – Matsuko Yamada
Hayato Isobata – Noboru Yamada
Naomi Uno – Nonoko Yamada
Masako Araki – Shige Yamano
Akiko Yano – Fujihara-Sensei
Kosanji Yanagiya – Haiku Reader