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Anime Info

Creators: Isao Takahata, Hisaichi Ishii
Genre: Family Comedy
Length: Movie (1:44)
Purchase: Here From Amazon.com

Summary

+ The family themes cross ethnic, cultural, and national bounds.
– Music and poetry between segments feels repetitive
+/– Composed of several short episodes and vignettes
+/– Animated entirely by computer in comic strip style

Overview

A thoughtful look at contemporary family life, My Neighbors the Yamadas is funny, serious, insightful, cynical, and sentimental all at once. For those who can look past its minor falls it may prove to be a fun family comedy as deep as or deeper than many similar films produced in the United States. Similar in sensibility to the American comic strip Peanuts, and with only minor references to specifically Japanese culture, it could almost be set in any city in America rather than Tokyo. We've all met and even perhaps loved people like the characters depicted in My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Public Rating

Our Rating

Score of 3.5 out of 5
3.5 out of 5

My Neighbors the Yamadas Movie Review

Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 12/9/2006

Introduction

Released in 1999 the family comedy, My Neighbors the Yamadas, was the first all digital animated film from Studio Ghibli. Directed by Isao Takahata from the comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii, it depicts events, both funny and sad, in the life of an average Japanese family living in the Tokyo suburbs. In a departure by Studio Ghibli, the film's characters are designed in looser cartoon-y style associated with newspaper comic strips rather than their more usual semi-realistic anime style. Composed of series of vignettes rather than a sustained narrative, My Neighbors the Yamadas relates a number of truthful observations about family life in the contemporary world.

Review

The animation of My Neighbors the Yamadas is often drawn in a style reminiscent of a child's crayon sketches and is occasionally narrated by the Yamada family's daughter, Nonoko. The film doesn't follow a specific plot or story line but rather like memories, it is episodic in nature, each episode relating some aspect of family life. The opening scenes introduce the main family members from Nonoko's point-of-view. She begins with her grandmother stopping to admire a neighbor's flowers (or so it seems). The followers are the gentleman's pride and joy and grandmother claims she has never seen the like. When she asks, "What species?" the neighbor begins giving the names of the flowers – the camera angle moves to grandmother's point-of-view and revealing a caterpillar nestled among the blossoms. Grandmother points to the caterpillar and replies, "No, I meant the caterpillar." Just before departing she adds to the caterpillar, "Grow up into a beautiful butterfly as gaudy as these flowers." The other characters are introduced in similar comic scenes of Japanese domesticity – mother, pondering what to make for dinner determines to make a "special" curry in spite of the fact that curry seems to be a regular staple in the Yamada household and dad, expounding the virtues of education to his son, gets so tongue tied that his speech amounts to little more than eloquent gibberish.

A smart and funny film with many insights about the nature of life, My Neighbors the Yamadas inter-cuts fanciful fantasy sequences with more straightforward narrative devices. In one early scene, the family's son, Noboru suffers a minor existential crisis after reading a manga; he insists that if he had different parents his life would be different. His parents fruitlessly point out that if they hadn't married, Noboru and his sister wouldn't exist to which Noboru argues that if he had cooler parents he'd just be their kid. Meanwhile, Nonoko suddenly realizes there was a time when her mom and dad were not married. In a fantasy sequence, which I suppose, is meant to be her imagination, mom and dad are seen riding an Olympic bobsled while wearing traditional Japanese wedding garb. The bobsled track becomes a wedding cake as an off-screen voice intones about the wonderful life the couple is embarking on. As the speaker continues, the bobsled becomes a sail boat on the ocean.

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The ocean begins calm but soon grows stormy and fierce and in a moment reminiscent of the painting "The Giant Wave", the little boat is tossed about by huge waves. And as the subject of children is brought up the boat crashes to the shore and becomes a tractor passing through a cabbage fields, farmers' wives plucking babies from the cabbages as storks fly overhead. The sequence depicting the birth of the Yamadas' children first shows mom and dad plucking a giant peach from a stream, when the peach is opened the pit is their son. Floating further upstream the Yamadas come to a bamboo forest, when dad cuts down a stalk of bamboo, he finds his daughter inside. The background art of each sequence of the fantasy is drawn in a different style ranging from Chinese brush painting and Japanese ink prints to children's book illustration. The characters, however, remain the sketchy style introduced in the opening frames.

Although the animation is whimsical and often fantastical, the dialogue and narration, no doubt taken from real life conversations, and at turns funny, cynical, and heart warming, is realistic, and conveys many truths about family life. For example, one of the speakers at the Yamadas' wedding reminds her listeners of the many joys and sorrows of family life. Comparing life to a voyage by ship or boat she reminds them that families can weather any crisis as long as they hold onto one another, it's in the times of calm that families can be torn apart as each individual looks out only for himself and forgets about the other members of the family.

This point is driven home for the Yamadas when, driving home from the mall they realize that their daughter isn't in the car. In all the hustle-bustle and bickering, they left Nonoko by herself at the mall and went on their selfish, grumpy way. While they make their way back to the mall, to find her, bickering all the while, Nonoko looks after a smaller kid named Toshio, who is also lost. From Nonoko's perspective it's her family who has gotten lost. The Yamada family has trouble even getting back to the mall due to the Tokyo area's infamous traffic, Nonoko on the other hand proves she's extremely resourceful when she helps Toshio track down his mother. The Yamada's arrive at the mall just as Nonoko departs with someone else. Everything turns out happily when it is discovered that Nonoko has gone home with her auntie instead of waiting at the mall.

Other episodes deal with home economics, marriage woes, bonding between father and son, parenthood, adolescence, mortality and other issues of family life. Although the film has its own distinctive feel, its sensibilities are similar to those of Peanuts' creator Charles Schultz if Charles had grown up in Japan. The observations of family life are wry, witty, funny, sad, cynical, true and yet warm and sentimental. And although the viewer is always aware of watching animation, the characters have more depth and humanity than any number of American made live-action "family comedies". Although some themes of the film are rooted in Japanese culture, it is for the most part a universal film: no matter the culture we've all known and maybe even loved seemingly inept and put on fathers such as Takashi; hard-working if occasionally forgetful housewives like Matsuko; rebellious but well meaning teenagers like Noboru; cute kids who are sometimes wise beyond their years like Nonoko; and gruff but lovable grandparents like Shige.

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Conclusion

For those familiar with Studio Ghibli’s body of work such Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies or even Pom Poko, the visual style of My Neighbors the Yamadas may come as a surprise. My Neighbors the Yamadas In fact the comic style art, created entirely on the computer may be jarring and even off putting to both casual anime viewers and hardcore anime geeks. Thematically however, with its emphasis on the culture and foibles of contemporary Japan, the film is almost pure Takahata. It even uses narration in a similar fashion to Pom Poko – adding further insights beyond the dialogue and occasional Haiku poetry from masters of the form such as Basho.  Where the movie wears thin, even becoming grating are the annoying musical interludes between segments. The music in and of itself is not terrible, the singers voice is pleasant and it is a charming and catchy tune. However, the tune is repeated over and over with little variation. That observation aside, those who overcome the jarring difference in style and the repetitive music will find My Neighbors the Yamadas a charming, witty, and even insightful family comedy.

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