Meet the Yamadas, a normal family trying to live a normal life. Well when we say normal we mean that married couple, Takashi and Matsuko who live with their two children Norubo and Nonoko, grandmother Shige and their dog Pochi, have an amazing ability to turn life’s everyday incidents into seemingly overwhelming crises. Life’s hard, well salaryman Takashi thinks so, certainly harder than that of his notoriously lazy wife – although in all honesty he doesn’t really seem to do much either. We learn how the family came together and then peek in on their day-to-day living. Leaving Nonoko in the department store becomes a major kidnapping crisis while the thought of separating out the weekly rubbish turns into a clandestine mission to flytip in public waste bins. Matsuko has to find increasingly devious ways of minimising the time spent in front of the stove. And then there are problems with the local Bosozoku (biker gang) who will insist on revving their engines into the night. At least Takashi has the time to refer to Haiku, although he’s not as adept as the film’s inter titles!
Based upon the four panel comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii that appears daily in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper My Neighbours the Yamadas takes the short cartoon format and converts it into a feature film – albeit one that takes four panels and uses a combination of techniques to create 150, 000 separate cells (or rather drawings) for their realisation – a huge amount for an animated feature and greater than any Ghibli film up to that time. Also interesting is the inventive way it uses computer-based adaptations of the hand created designs on every one of these frames. The results are unlike anything you’ve seen in animation – its depth and modernity a striking contrast to its apparent hands-on approach that literally creates a moving comic strip. The old fashioned drawing and design mixed with the modern approach and innovation works not only in the realisation of My Neighbours the Yamadas but also the way that it is constructed to form a social comedy that is about generation gaps. The film approaches these short stories in a way that is both different and yet familiar. Rather like The Simpsons it is basically a comedy about an outwardly dysfunctional family but one that sticks together. Takahata cuts between the scenes using illuminated haiku from poets like Buson or Bashou. This provides a link between the modern-day Yamadas, with their video games and convenience food, to a rich tradition in Japanese art and culture.
My Neighbours the Yamadas was directed by the less famous name at Studio Ghibli – Isao Takahata – and seems a world apart from the more obviously fantastical output of his colleague Hayao Miyazaki, although the earlier segments feature variations on fairy stories and myths that combine contemporary recollections with traditions that verge on the fantastical… but only just! Takahata has always been one to experiment with different styles – the real life aspects of Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991), contrasts with the stunning fantasy realism of Goshu the Cellist (1982) and also the hilarious social contemporary humour of the Osaka set social comedy Chie the Brat (1981).
My Neighbours the Yamadas has been one of Ghibli’s less accessible films partly because of its release after the internationally successful Princess Mononoke (1997) but also because of its very unusual style in both structure and animation. Although the DVD is eminently watchable, the Blu-Ray shows the individual realism of the cell designs and the defined use of distinctive colours. Also included is a contemporary documentary that explains a lot of the process of constructing the film after the success of Princess Mononoke while showing the development process, both with the animation and the voice acting. There are also interviews with Miyazaki where he talks about the variances between his adoption of fantasy styles and his perception of Takahata’s realism and also takes a look at their careers from their involvement in union activity at the Toei animation studios to the creation of Studio Ghibli.
Essential viewing, My Neighbours the Yamadas is a more unusual form of anime than you may be used to and is certainly very different to any of Ghibli’s other output but its quality and artistry is as excellent as would be expected of Studio Ghibli and it is also both funny and socially relevant.