“Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.”
At first glance, My Neighbors the Yamadas appears to be the most skippable entry in the entire Studio Ghibli library, but if you do skip it, know that you’ve successfully judged a movie by its cover. Essentially.
Look, I get it. The film appears entirely different from everything else Ghibli has crafted (Kaguya excluded). Well, this film is different. Its soft, watercolor impressions are representations of its lightness and, dare I say, shallowness. What I mean is, if you’re expecting anything like the grand epics Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind with their powerful thematic cores, or if you’re expecting a whimsical and intimate tale of growing up like My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, or a take on reality like Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday, or an action-packed fantasy like Porco Rosso or Castle in the Sky, or even a comedy along the clever lines of Pom Poko, you will be sorely confused, disappointed, and turned off by the Yamadas.
So just don’t demand things from it that it doesn’t aim to satisfy. To call it the worst Ghibli film for that reason alone would be unfair.
I will not go on to say that this is an imminently great film by the studio, but I will say that its dry humor is funny, its smallness is endearing, its episodic nature is fresh, and it doesn’t pretend to have a reach beyond itself. Isao Takahata’s family comedy is indeed different but it’s one you’ll have to decide for yourself whether you liked or not. My point is, don’t believe you’ll dislike it until you’ve given it a chance.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is based on a Japanese comic strip (I’m supposing similar to our Sunday newspaper “funnies”). It’s an adaptation of Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii.
That alone explains a lot of what’s going on in this movie. Heh, it’s even funny to say that, considering it doesn’t seem like “a lot goes on” in this movie, at all. But that’s the way life is, ordinarily.
And life is ordinary for the Yamada family. The father, Takashi, is an average working man and the typical blustery, stern, bumbling father figure in a comedy. He does his best to impart wisdom and retain his dignity but at the same time his family does their best (unintentionally) to embarrass or hassle him. The mother, Matsuko, is forgetful, caring but inept, lovable but maybe just a little lazy. She’s a housewife and she serves her family dutifully while retaining her love for soap operas and sushi.
I think that the virtues and vices of both parents make the Yamadas a different kind of family comedy. Generally all we get here in the States are sitcoms or comedies where the dad is a veritable idiot. They’ll risk burning down the house trying to fix things. They’ll offer advice that’s no more than a confused jumble of half-forgotten proverbs, traditions, placards, and billboards. They’re constantly the butt of every joke and they deserve it, the cretins. You have to wonder how they seriously function, how they even remember to put clothes on.
Fatherhood gets a bum rap in America (probably because a lot of father’s are actually bums) but I thought the Yamadas was unique and funnier because both parents are portrayed as a little dull-witted. Their silliness feeds off each other and they land in all the more ridiculous but ordinary situations for it: Matsuko hands Takashi her grocery list instead of his prepared speech when he gives a formal benediction at a wedding, and Takeshi, sweating, ad-libs about how you can sometimes be betrayed by the one you trusted the most but you just have to accept it. Yeah, that’s not the funniest thing in the world and joking about divorce is a little dark, but by the time you’ve come to embrace these characters as more than just cardboard cutouts, it is pretty funny. Chuckling-funny, not ROFLcopter funny.
Takeshi and Matsuko have two children: Noboru and Nonoko. Noboru is the eldest, 13-year-old boy who is studious but not brilliant, head-over-heels for girls, and critical of his parents for attention and for laughs. Nonoko is the 5-year-old daughter, typically naive, adorable, bright-eyed and honest beyond fault.
Matsuko’s mother, Shige, lives with the family. She’s the typical crotchety old woman with a heart of gold. She’s acts like a child sometimes but she isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. She often argues with Takeshi in front of the children and scolds her daughter Matsuko, even chasing her around with a broom.
They also have a pissed off pooch named Pochi. He doesn’t do anything. He just looks pissed off all the time.
The film is like the comic strip it is based on: episodic, like a sitcom. It’s structured around a series of vignettes in the life of an ordinary, modern, middle-class Japanese family. If you thought that movies like Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were particularly aimless, wait’ll you get a load of this film. The “episodes” are each based around a specific scene or event. They’re like sketches or skits with little interrelation or relevance between them except for the characters who move through them.
The film has an opening narration with a montage of scenes about how the family came to be and the film ends with a closing musical number. The vignettes generally begin with a title that defines each one as its own entity, such as “Yamada Family Chronicles”, “Patriarchal Supremacy Restored”, “Father as Role Model”. Then the vignette will close with a bit of Japanese poetry read by a narrator that ties in the meaning or focal point of the scenes before it.
Joyful laughter / Breaks the silence / Of an Autumn eve
Haikus seem like the perfect kind of poetry for this purpose, since haikus evoke brief, often singular images just like the momentary scenes of family life in the Yamadas. These verses sometimes turn what would just be a funny, insignificant scene into a poignant reflection on family, joy, what it means to be a parent, and so on.
A lone figure / back turned / receding into the mist.
My Neighbors the Yamadas may impress you, then again it may not. Basing a full length theatrical film on a family in a comic strip is at the very least unusual. Whether it will hold your interest in this film and make you laugh is as hard for me to ensure as anything. Everyone has their own taste, not the least of which in comedy. Maybe you should just watch it yourself to find out.
The 8-bit Review
Believe it or not, My Neighbors the Yamadas is the first completely computer generated film. Nothing could be stranger given the extremely hand-drawn appearance of this film. But it is only an appearance. It may look like unfinished storyboards but nothing could be further from the truth.
The watercolor effect was something which couldn’t easily be achieved through traditional animation so Takahata turned to the digital process. It is actually very subtle. Next to Toy Story and Frozen graphics for computer animation, the Yamadas seems trite and visually meaningless.
Upon closer inspection, however, it’s almost like an experiment in available technology and it is carried out masterfully. Characters and extras who look like they’re no more than a few crude strokes of a pencil move with startling realism. I was shocked at how much effort went into something as simple as a baseball game on television where the barest curves and lines evoking human form moved about with a perfect imitation of athleticism. Characters in the movie seem to have weight, a center of gravity, a if they’re tangible creatures in spite of looking like children’s drawings. It’s really an incredible optical illusion.
Another aspect of its visuals is the fact that they change throughout the film. The opening and closing segments have some of the most colorful animation, perhaps indicating their importance as bookends of wisdom upon family life, while another scene in the film turns Takeshi into more realistic human proportions as he goes out to confront a biker gang in his neighborhood. Careful uses of color, shading, lighting, perspective all point to the Yamadas being quite far from what it appears to be. This is no simplistic cartoon. A lot of work intentionally went into making the film look the way it does.
Pop and jazz musician Akiko Yano composed the score for My Neighbors the Yamadas. As with the visuals, the soundtrack is mostly light and cute. There’s a recurring musical trend throughout the film when characters do things which are silly or stupid, it sounds like a short toot-toot on a flute. The music really gives the film a lighthearted and cheerful feel, with a song or two being particularly catchy.
The soundtrack also contains several songs Yano did not compose, such as selections of classic music like Chopin, Mendelsson, Mahler, and Mozart. The film also contains Que Sera Sera as a kind of closing song for the film. I think it plays into the Yamadas acceptance of life the way it is: ordinary, sometimes mundane, but full of mutual love.
Given the structure of the film, there isn’t any traditional narrative here. Being broken down into individual vignettes means there’s no rising action, climax, falling action, or any discernible first, second and third act. I mean, maybe someone who closely analyzed it could find some kind of rhyme or reason, but I couldn’t. No film strictly needs to stick to the classic trappings of “narrative” and “plot”. There have been many movies which don’t. This is just one of them.
Family life is the central theme conveyed through all of the misadventures, moral lessons, reveries, and reflections. The family forgets Nonoko at the shopping mall. Takashi struggles to teach his son manners which don’t make sense. Shige teaches children about honesty but learns she shouldn’t give things away that aren’t hers. Noboru gets a phone call from a girl and the family is suspicious. Takashi tries and fails to get his family away from the tv for a portrait in the snow. All of these individual moments convey the same thing but in different ways and from different angles.
Personally, there are some moments that stand out more than others. Takashi and Matsuko fighting over the tv remote and what channel to watch, then engaging in this elaborate dance is just plain hilarious.
But there are other moments that are a little more profound. After Takashi goes out to confront the biker gang, grandma Shige comes to the rescue and scares the boys off with talk of being heroes, and Takashi feels embarrassed and ashamed that he didn’t save the day so much that he has a daydream on the spot where he is the superhero the Moonlight Rider and he swoops in to rescue his wife and mother-in-law from gangsters. When the dream is over, we see Takashi sitting alone thinking on a swing set in an empty playground. I just thought that encapsulates how every good father wants to be the hero for their family and how fatherhood at times means loneliness and letting oneself down for the bread winners.
The opening monologue describing the nature of life as a married couple summarizes the movie which follows:
“Life, as they say, has its ups and downs. At times, the waves may taunt you, tossing you in their swells. But take heart. It’s hard to stick with it and make it on your own. But even a couple of losers can survive most things if they’re together. So listen, take some advice and have children as soon as you can. Children are the best reasons for riding out life’s storms. Nowadays, people say child-rearing is challenging and difficult, but we’ve done it from time immemorial. Children grow even without parents. So hold them close to your heart as they crawl, then walk.”
The remarkable thing about the Yamadas is how relatable the family is. Maybe the tiny segment of animation perfectly sums up this thought: It’s clearly the famous woodblock ukiyo-e print The Great Wave off Kanagawa yet even people who aren’t familiar with Japanese art can recognize the metaphor being told in this scene of married life being like a boat on the sea.
Sometimes the storms come and we must weather them. So even though there are several things the Yamada family does which is particular to their culture, I can tell that the moments in their family life are relatable. They could be anyone’s neighbors.
Family Friendliness: 10/10
Uhm… characters smoke and drink. That’s about it. Considering this is so “cartoony” in appearance, I’m not sure that this would be any more offensive to anyone than, say, Looney Tunes.
Two Saturday Night Live headliners voice the parental figures of the Yamada family: Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon as Takashi and Matsuko. That seems appropriate, given the segmented nature of this film. It’s similar to an episode of SNL with its unrelated skits.
Belushi is absolutely the perfect cast for Takashi, able to conjure up the stern growls and phlegmy grumblings of the overworked man of the house. He is able to sound like a grouch but lovable at the same time. Shannon’s Matsuko has the perfect lilt to her voice to keep her sounding competent enough and authoritative enough to be the mother of her children, but she manages to add in layers of empty-headedness through her voice that makes Matsuko more believable, as if she were real.
Tress MacNeille appears in a Ghibli film again here as Shige, and she channels the crusty old woman with a penchant for scolding and sarcasm well. It’d be easy to voice the character in such a way as to be completely unsavory, yet as it is she’s the funny “straight man” of the film, never joking but occasionally funny in her honesty.
Noboru and Nonoko are voiced by Daryl Sabara and Liliana Mumy. I thought that their voices were age-appropriate for their characters. A lot of times voice actors are too old for young characters, as in Grave of the Fireflies, but here it’s pretty spot on. I’ve heard some complain about Sabara sounding too young for Noboru and I can see that but it didn’t distract me.
The narrator and reader of poetry was David Ogden Stiers, who long history of veteran acting lent a richness to the verses being read.
This is certainly the most unique of the Ghibli films, in its own way. Being fully CGI, episodic, visually different and odd in terms of narrative, this is going to be one of the most distinct films you may ever see. No wonder it has created a sharp divide between those who liked it and those who did not.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Even though I grew up on American comic strips, even learning how to read from them, this movie had me baffled. The first time I saw My Neighbors the Yamadas, it was yet another Studio Ghibli film that I was checking off my list. Just like Whisper of the Heart, I was watching it just to watch it, not really because I wanted to. I thought the characters, humor (in the trailers), and haze of animation was off-putting. So I didn’t like it the first time.
Now, seeing it a second time, I am a father. I have a son. I’ve been married for a few years. I’m not suggesting that one needs to be a patriarch of their own clan, nor even a member of a family of sorts, in order to appreciate the Yamadas, but for some reason I did enjoy it much more now. I had many a guffaw when before I thought I was going to have to force myself to watch it for the sake of this review. This movie is seriously funny. I had a good laugh when Takashi comes home and sees the light above his doorway burnt out and just says “What…”. I can relate to that.
Or maybe it’s about who you watch it with? Seeing it with my wife this time and hearing her laugh, maybe that was contagious. Either way, I enjoyed it much more now.
I’m not sure that this is going to be anyone’s favorite Ghibli film (in fact, I’ve yet to meet anyone who says it’s their favorite) but for what it is, it’s got all the earmarks of what make Ghibli films special in their whimsy, their accessibility, and their heart.
Aggregated Score: 7.4