The Yamadas are as typical a dysfunctional family as you could ever expect. Father Takashi, mother Matsuko, children Noboru and Nonoko, and grandmother Shige all live in a quiet little house in the suburbs – but it’s hardly quiet in this household as they all try to surive being in the same family.
Another entry into the Studio Ghibli Collection, My Neighbors the Yamadas is directed by Ghibli number two Isao Takahata. To say it’s a film is deceptive; it’s more of a collection of shorts portraying life from the family’s point of view, punctuated by the occasional haiku or metaphorical fantasy sequence.
This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, as it’s not the format that matters – it’s the characters. Fortunately, Takahata does a great job of bringing the family members to life, and as each of them display their own distinct personality traits, they become a rather loveable bunch. When you couple that with the charm and style with which each of the tales are presented, you have a hugely enjoyable film.
Although the almost random method of storytelling may throw some people off, it actually works very well.
Instead of having a single plot thread to follow from start to finish, it keeps the audience interested by constantly changing the subject at hand. The switching of character focus also helps, and every member of the family gets plenty of screentime. It must be said that this isn’t a film with a strong plot or story – it’s about family values and ideals.
Much of the films charm comes from the way everything the family does feels so familiar, despite the more obvious cultural differences. It’s all too familiar when Noboru’s is struggling with his exams, for example, or when Takashi staggers in after a long slog at the office. It’s also fun to see traits of someone you know portrayed in one (or more) of the family members, and it’s this sense familiarity that gives it a broader appeal than most. The fact that it’s bloody funny aids matters no end, with a whimsical and optimistic sense of humour that is reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes.
As is to be expected from a Ghibli production, the film looks wonderful, if rather unorthodox. Drawn in a simple and almost child-like manner, with simplistic lines and soft colours, it’s very much like watching a moving watercolour painting. The backgrounds always manage to set the appropriate tone and mood, but are very minimalist, with only a few shapes and lines here and there to set the scene. Some may argue that this makes it feel unfinished, but this approach serves to make the audience focus on the characters all the more. The animation is just as unconventional, presented in a simple, squiggly style like that of the old Roobarb and Custard cartoons. This “less is more’ approach works better than you might think, as the family members are usually the only thing moving on screen, and their subtle movements and mannerisms helps make them feel that bit more real. That’s not to say it can’t move when it wants to, though, and there are a number of sequences where this writers’ jaw was left hanging agape (the whole wedding sequence is a particular favourite). It’s certainly one of the most unique looking titles to fall under the anime banner, but it shows that anime doesn’t have to conform to the “girls and guns’ stereotypes.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is a great film about the importance of family values. It’s not for everyone though, and those with a craving for action or drama should look elsewhere. But those in search of something a bit different will find a lot to like, and this lighthearted look at family life and values is sure to win over many fans.