Monday, May 30, 2016

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)


Looks can be deceiving.  If you saw My Neighbours the Yamadas (HĂ´hokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun) on the shelf you might pick it up and go "hmm...  looks interesting" and then pick up a different Studio Ghibli release that catches your eye more.  Its cover shows us a family smiling and gives no other clues as to the joy it contains.  Putting this down for something else would be a crime against art-based entertainment and you would be depriving yourself of one of the most entertaining animated features out there.

What is it about getting a glimpse through a window into the lives of another family that is so compelling and interesting to us?  Are we looking to see if we are dull, average or a bit crackers?  Popping in the Blu-Ray (or DVD) of My Neighbours the Yamadas gives us a view through another window (with all of its cultural references) and shows all the fun that families can bring, no matter what the circumstances.


First of all a confession.  Whilst I appreciate the importance of Studio Ghibli and the love that people have for their films, many of their work that I have watched has left me quite indifferent.  This is likely based on the level of hype the film was given and the time of my life I watched them.  Yes they were pretty but something just failed to connect (though I love Porco Rosso).  I was introduced to My Neighbours the Yamadas from an Anime News Network Anncast from many years ago (5 perhaps?) where it was described as looking like "digital watercolours" and from that description I had to have a look at it.  

My Neighbours the Yamadas is directed by Isao Takahata, who also brought us The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies (to name a few of his more well-known productions).  He is most known for his work at Studio Ghibli but he has had a long and varied career.  To date I have yet to be disappointed by any of his works.  

From consulting the Anime Encyclopedia it would appear there are a few different entries in this series over the years. I'm only considering the movie here but would love to watch any of the other entries if I was to be lucky enough to find them.

My Neighbours the Yamadas is a series of vignettes and short stories showing the life of the Yamada family.  We have Takashi (the "man" of the house), Matsuko (the long suffering wife), Noboru (the teenage son), Nonoko (the daughter and youngest member of the family) and Shige (Takashi's prickly mother).  Through each of the vignettes we build up a more complete picture of each character and the family dynamics.  The closest thing I can liken it to is Peanuts.  It has a similar whimsical quality, pacing and everyone has a distinct personality.  It also does similar things with the characters when it breaks body lines for comedic effects.

Through the short stories we are given a glimpse of the Yamada life. Every character gets time to shine with stories being grouped into sections like "Father as role model" and each section is often finished with a haiku or proverb. The feature opens with a series of short stories to introduce the whole family and uses some familiar Japanese references in the process. These references included Hanafuda, Momotaro, the bamboo princess (!) and Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa. This is all narrated by Takashi and Matsuko's wedding speaker. I'm sure I missed many more references and every watch reveals something new. I love how their mode of transport changes throughout this section and how natural the change is.


There are some truly charming and very funny shorts. Too many to mention in fact and if I did, what would be the point in watching? My favorites include Noboru buying his first age-inappropriate magazine, a family photo in the snow, what happens when you give a man a list of things to get at the shop, how unobservant a man can be, a walk in the rain and finally a fight over the TV channel. This final one is utterly brilliant. It reminded me of one-on-one samurai battles and highlighted the levels of artistic detail it reaches. The detail and fluidity of what is being shown on the TV is remarkable.


The art style feels unique and as far from the stereotype of anime as you can get. It has a distinctive hand-drawn pencil sketch style for all of the lines. This extends to shading, hatching and coloring.  For the colouring it looks like, for each frame, someone mixed the colors up as needed for that image so the shades and tones are slightly different.  This combination of lines and colour creates a real sense of energy and vibrancy on the screen.  It suggests that each frame has been drawn just for you and that it is your own private view of the life of this family. At the beginning we are treated to the lines being drawn and shaded in front of our eyes which for me set the tone that it was something a bit different. 

The style of art here is very similar to Princess Kaguya.  The main difference is that whereas Kaguya looked like charcoal and pastels and been used to draw and color (creating a very strong set of lines and vivid colors), the Yamada's is more soft sketch pencil and watercolours which gives it a more dreamlike quality. 

I cannot begin to imagine how challenging this production was. Creating that sense of energy through what appear to be sketches seems to break all of the normal rules. On the Princess Kaguya documentary (Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2015) it was said that the Yamada's nearly broke Ghibli and that it was a real mindset change for the animators who were used to much cleaner and crisp lines. 

I first watched this on Blu-Ray with the English Dub which I found entertaining.  The voices really captured the personalities of the Yamada family, especially  James Belushi as Takashi and  Molly Shannon as Matsuko.  You really got a sense that he (Takashi) was trying to hold on to his position as head of the household and that Matsuko was the glue holding it all together.  The tone that is struck by the younger members feels natural, not high pitched squeaks or a sense of trying to make it sound like children speak.  Had they tried that it would have seriously dated the film and also ruined it.  The dialogue is very country neutral - you know it is set in Japan by some of the visual references but it could be set anywhere.  I have also had the pleasure of seeing this sub-titled on the big-screen when the BFI (in London) were holding a Studio Ghibli season.  It was a different experience especially as the voices didn't match but once I had re-calibrated I thoroughly enjoyed the original presentation.  Takashi come across a bit gruffer and reading the subtitles didn't interfere with watching the animation.  

The audio track, outside of the dialogue, is good.  It feels quite sparse, highlighting the tones of each section.  In general is has quite a jaunty, happy, slightly dream-like feel which really sums up the whole of the Yamada movie experience.  This is epitomised by the opening music and one of the repeating themes throughout which, if either myself or my other half hum, the other will fill in the next bars.   

For me, this is a near perfect piece of animation and entertainment created by Isao Takahata. It does have a couple of flaws which may put some people off. The first is that it is a series of shorts and vignettes so you don't get the same experience as a long-form story. (The flip side is that it is easy to dip in and watch the bits you really enjoy.) The other is that some of the stories can go on a bit for their central ideas.  These points are trivial though.


My Neighbours the Yamadas is a must see for everyone.  It is charming, funny and heart-warming in equal measure.  It shows the rich nature of family dynamics that we all experience at some point in our lives.  The stories and humour are universal, where both can be appreciated by all members of the family.  It has a visually unique art-style (showing that anime is not all big eyes and power-ups as a lot of my peers think) that creates a sense of energy and "blink and you'll miss it" transience.  It is as if each frame is being created for you for that one moment and then it will be gone forever.  If you have knowledge of Japanese culture then you will get an extra sense of appreciation of what you are watching.  Without it, it is still a wonderful entertaining experience that I cannot recommend enough.

My Neighbours the Yamadas is available on DVD and Blu-Ray (or Double Play) in the UK through Studio Ghibli.  In the US it is available on DVD from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.  


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