Studio Ghibli #11: My Neighbours The Yamadas (1999)

It seems I’m falling into a trend with these pieces, everytime I get to a new Isao Takahata film I haven’t seen before it’s the same excuse, the art style looked bland or the lack of discourse surrounding the film never stirred me to sit down and watch it, and yet again I can only offer the same measly excuses as to why this is my first time watching My Neighbours The Yamadas. But if anyone out there reading this is like me in having slept on this gem, I am pleading with you to go watch this film as soon as possible! It’s easily one of the most charming, and visually rich, Ghibli films in the studio’s history, even if it may not seem like it.

Always an innovator, Isao Takahata insisted the film be completely digitally composed to achieve the art style of water colours, over the traditional hand-drawn animation that the company was known for. This is a big side-step in the company’s development of animation as with this film coming hot on the heels of Princess Mononoke, which if you read my review you’ll remember me talking about how it was a massive improvement in its use of fluid animation that Spirited Away would go on to perfect. Not only is a completely digitally animated film an important historical moment for Animation as a whole, considering Ghibli’s place in the canon, to venture into it with a style coming straight out of left-field it encapsulates Takahata’s drive for innovation that can be seen throughout his career. While on the film’s surface the animation feels very simple, with its rounded edges and minimal detail, that successfully evokes the feeling of the source material’s newspaper origins. But Takahata makes it known from early on that this choice was a deliberate choice; one of the first vignettes of the film features a gorgeous and lavish journey that takes the parents through their life as a married couple through fields, rivers and skies, each with their own creative and striking images. All while riding rafts, planes, and a giant snail, as the couple develop and give birth (portrayed both times in a very whimsical way) to their children and eventually move in with the families maternal grandmother. The use of colour and complex imagery moving into one another seamlessly creates this almost psychedelic journey through time that is paired wonderfully with Akiko Yano’s serene soundtrack. Another great moment in the film, although this comes much later on, is when Takashi, the father, is urged to confront the noisy and disruptive biker gang that has been causing havoc in the area. In this vignette the style changes to that of a high-octane action manga, with lots of coarse focus lines that make the scene pack a punch. The composition of this scene is also fantastic to create this tone, the way the camera is angled makes it feel like it has been lifted out of DragonBall Z or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, in the moments right before a climactic fight. Not only are these scenes brilliant on their own merit, but they also highlight to any skeptics that the simpler style used predominantly in the film is a purposeful one to match the tone that Takahata is attempting to achieve, and even in their simplicity the animation still feels bouncy and fun making the collection of misadventures even more charming than they already are.

One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this film, and why I can easily see myself watching this over and over again, is due to the structure of the narrative. Composed almost completely of short-form vignettes, the longest single section in the film doesn’t last longer than 20 minutes from what I could tell, it’s the perfect film to relax you and bring a smile to your face. The film doesn’t care about long form character arcs, or world building, everything you need to know about the characters is present and unwavering throughout the run-time, but as you watch Takashi and his son, Noburo, bond over games of catch, or Matsuko, the mother of the family and my personal favourite, trick her husband and son into doing the chores she would normally be left with, you can’t help but feel an attachment to the nuclear family and reveal in their joy. One moment which almost had me tearing up comes in a vignette when Takashi is returning home from work without his umbrella while caught in the rain, and after purchasing a new umbrella after hearing the unwillingness of his family, over the phone, to bring him his one, is faced with his wife and children decked in waterproofs in the street having come to join him on his rain-soaked walk home. It’s one of the most memorable and moving moments in the film that really capture the idea of familial love in such a profound and simple way.

Is My Neighbours The Yamadas, the most profound film to come out of Studio Ghibli? No, not by a long way, nor is it the best, but it still remains, in my eyes, one of the more underrated and overlooked gems in the canon. The style of the film is something I’ve not seen in any other film, and it gives a great insight into a Japanese portrayal of “ordinary family life”, which for a Westerner is very interesting to see in a film, that remains a really funny film despite the cultural differences (I found myself constantly laughing and giggling during the film). The film really is infectious and if you enjoy the first ten minutes or so, I have no doubt that the rest of the film won’t disappoint. If I’m ever feeling a little down, or just need a pick me-up, even if I’m not planning on watching the entire thing in one sitting, this film has jumped up my list for comfort films and I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes one of my most watched Ghibli films in the near future!

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