If your only experience with Isao Takahata is his earlier films for Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poroporo, My Neighbors the Yamadas(となりの山田くん), for better or for worse, will be a surprise. While those mentioned films were quiet, realistic, humanist dramas, the (at first glance) cartoonish nature of My Neighbors the Yamadas might be off-putting, despite a whiff of Takahata’s neorealist-influenced style. Looks can be deceiving, of course, and while Yamadas is certainly a divergence from Takahata’s earlier work, it shouldn’t be dismissed without a chance.
The content of the film is fairly simple – the every day lives of the Yamada family. It is an adaptation of a comic strip, and while typical adaptations of such material involve dragging the characters into some epic storyline beyond the scope of their origins, this one takes a different, more faithful approach. This is literally a comic strip in animated form – what we get are a collection of vignettes about the Yamada family. Some are long, while some stretch only a minute or two. Some are comedic, while others simply portray a recognizable moment of familial interaction.
It’s an interesting way of constructing a film, and I could have predicted that it would not appeal to everyone. Indeed, there are many reviews of this film which state that boredom seeped in somewhere after an hour of these short stories. I do think that the extreme lack of continuity tends to wear thin for a movie as long as this. I can picture Yamadas working fairly well as sketches on television or something of that nature, and the benefit is that this approach probably would have netted a greater audience. But having said that, I personally did enjoy it. There were certain sketches that may have been a bit too long (relative to the content contained within) but the film has a certain charm which won me over in the end.
The Yamadas are given enough personality to be distinctive as a family, but purposely not as detailed in definition as in a typical family drama or even sitcom. They are clearly supposed to be caricatures of a modern suburban family with the audience filling in some of those blank details on their own, and while the film does contain many cultural idiosyncrasies, I found it to be quite a universal depiction. There is a certain sense of warm familiarity that I felt while watching the clumsy Yamada family navigate through life. While you should know that this recognition doesn’t reach that of Omohide Poroporo and its depiction of childhood in terms of emotional depth, it exists nonetheless.
One brief example is a scene where the father is returning home from work and it begins to rain. He calls home to ask someone to bring an umbrella, but at home, the comfortable family groans at the introduction of this new chore. Angrily, the father hangs up and goes to a convenience store to buy a new umbrella and make his way home himself. As he steps outside and starts home, however, he finds his family waiting for him, umbrellas in hand, and they walk home together in the rain. It’s a short and very simple moment, but it put a smile on my face. There a lot of gently contemplative moments in the film, and one recurring aspect that I enjoyed was the way that the film would occasionally display a poem from Japanese literature between vignettes, offering a wry perspective of the events on screen, presented with a touch of dry humour. While such moments stick out the most in my mind, I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I would classify it as a fairly light-hearted film overall, with plenty of comedic moments. But the comedy is less cartoonish and more observational.
The Yamadas diverges from the rest of the Ghibli canon in artwork, as well. For one thing, the entire film was digitally animated, which, to Ghibli purists, may seem like an unforgivable offense. But this technical detail is overshadowed by the very unique look of the art itself – it really is a moving, animated comic strip. The characters look like caricatures more than they do realistic people, but you’ll find yourself overlooking this within a few of the film’s segments. I, for one, really appreciated the stylized look, though I think that many might find it too simplistic to sustain a film of such length. Of course, Takahata does introduce some more colorful, fanciful moments, such as a very “adventurous” depiction of marriage near the beginning.
Although it’s a favourite pastime of mine to praise the fact that Studio Ghibli has massive commercial success in Japan while not compromising on artistry, Yamadas apparently failed at the Japanese box office. It’s a fairly unusual film for any market, and I can imagine how Ghibli fans as well as Takahata fans may have had certain expectations going in, resulting in disappointment when they saw it. My Neighbors the Yamadas is a good film as long as you don’t go into it expecting to be moved to tears and appreciate it for what it is. I still don’t know if a feature length film was the best choice of medium for this project, but when all is said and done, it gets a recommendation from me.
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