Thursday, 25 August 2011

My Neighbours The Yamadas Review

My Neighbours The Yamadas  (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん)  (1999)
After my extensive log of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, many have asked about my opinions and interpretations of the other Studio Ghibli films. But one that many fail to list is one of my favourites of the studio’s backlog, My Neighbours The Yamadas. Quickly overlooked, there is a common apprehension towards the art style and the dramatic contrast from the adventure, fantasy traits of many of Studio Ghibli’s work. However, directed by Isao Takahata, who has a realistic approach to animation (Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies), the film presents the simplistic nature of family life into a very funny and endearing drama.  
The film narrates the concept of a ‘family’, and the successes and pitfalls that are experienced. Starting off at the wedding of Matsuko (Mrs Yamada) and Takashi (Mr Yamada), they are “educated” by the enlightened elderly about the ‘ups and downs’ of marriage. We are then introduced to the rest of the family; Noboru the son, Nonoko the daughter, and Shige, Matsuko’s mother. There isn’t a definable storyline, but a ‘sitcom’ style of structure, with an intro and outro, that shows the Yamada family’s everyday life.
Being based on Hisaichi Ishii’s four panel ‘yonkoma’ manga (Nonochan), each chapter takes a similar form;  a setup, an expansion on the scene, an unexpected development, and then ending on a humorous note. While this may sound formulaic or repetitive, My Neighbours The Yamadas manages to retain the sharp and entertaining characteristics of the source material. The ‘slice of life’ fiction is very much in the same vein as Only Yesterday’s focus on adulthood, however Takahata takes a more light-hearted approach. The film explores ‘marriage’, ‘child-rearing’, ‘father-son relationships’ and other stages of a family, all in a comedic yet charming manner that both an adult audience and a younger one can identify with. While similarities can be drawn with The Simpsons and the millions of sitcoms, Takahata never lets the film fall into recycled and cliché waters. 
Takahata also employs a strong Japanese cultural commentary throughout his film. The prominent use of brief haiku (short poetry) from the likes of Matsuo Bashō and Natsume Sōseki act as segues between each ‘chapter’. An example: “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn”, gives a poetic sensibility to the film and to everyday events. There is a fantastic sequence which follows the magical/ fantasy ‘adventures’ of Takashi and Matsuko, as they travel across the length and width of Japan to “find” their children. Its a amazing scene which involves the Japanese folklores ‘Momotarō’ (Peach boy) and the ‘Taketori Monogatari’ (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), which are cleverly used to represent Noboru’s and Nonoko’s “fairy tale” entrance into the world. 
However, it’s the animation which is the massive step away from the typical style of Studio Ghibli. While detailed backgrounds and top-notch character design have become the standards of Ghibli’s artistic legacy, Isao Takahata has been brave in his unique visual departure. My Neighbour The Yamadas uses a watercolour style of sketching that while looks minimalist, manages to convey a surprising amount of detail and emotion. 100% digitally constructed, the simplistic character designs and flowing colours of the backgrounds, help define the characters and allows for each scenes’ personality to be beautifully displayed.
The Japanese voice acting is superb, really suiting the visualisation of the characters. For a film that relies on the construction of a realistic family, the actors really put in great performance. Touru Masuoka is great as the busy, hard-working Mr Yamada. His constant bickering with his mother-in-law, and unenthusiastic reaction towards work, create a character that represents the general consensus of fathers. Yukiji Asaoka plays the childish and clumsy housewife, that while scorns her children’s behaviour, has a low tolerance for chores and general laziness. Hayato Isobata plays the typical teenager boy, a slacker yet strong-willed and not afraid to question the reality of his family. In comparison, Naomi Uno adds cuteness and normality into the chaotic family as Nonoko. While she doesn’t get enough screen-time, her character still remains memorable. Meanwhile, Masako Araki puts in a splendid performance as the grandmother. The critical and fearless voice of conscience, she finds the ‘joys of life’ in the smaller things. Its a fantastic cast of actors and actresses that create a very believable household. 
The soundtrack, composed by Akiko Yano, is made up of short jazzy piano tunes that perfectly merge with the orchestral pieces from the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. Its one that perfectly manages to match the jovial and charming visuals, story and acting. 
Overall, My Neighbours The Yamadas is a fantastic animated film that definitely competes with many of Miyazaki’s works. Its realistic and humorous perception of ‘family’ is endearing and highly entertaining. While many will be unconvinced by the visual style and a ‘disjointed’ narrative, Isao Takahata’s film proves that a great animated film doesn’t require snazzy and meticulous animation, but requires a funny and smart story, script and characters. This is one not to be missed. 

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