Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun
- Pom Poko (1994)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Available on Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing.
This is the story about the life of the Yamada family. The father Takashi, who works too hard, the mother Matsuko, who is often distracted, the typical teenage son Nonoko, his little sister Noboru, and the grumpy grandmother Shige. We follow them on their way through life, through the good times and the bad, the ups and the downs, and everything in-between.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is not a film you should seek out, if you're looking for something in the vein of classic Studio Ghibli masterpieces, such as Princess Mononoke (1997) or Spirited Away (2001). Literally every single aspect of this film is different from those landmark films. I'm going to say that again... Every single aspect is different.
There are two major issues at play here.
First of all there's the style of the animation. To call it simplistic would almost be an understatement. What we're dealing with here lies somewhere between stick figures and children's drawings. Apparently the story was originally a series of simple comic strips, and that shows. Many scenes play out with the characters surrounded by white space, while a few lines illustrate the room around them. The more complicated locations are often filled out by using sound, with peripheral characters as grey shapes that barely move. Then there's the restrained color palette, resembling watercolors, rather than traditional colorful animation.
On an artistic level I can definitely appreciate this style, but at the same time I often found it distracting, because the animation never makes any effort to look the least bit real, while we're expected to view the characters as real people, and the situations they go through as real life. That's an unsolvable equation.
The second big issue is the story. There isn't any. Well, perhaps that's not fair. What I mean is that this is merely a series of disconnected vignettes or sketches. There's no overall plot, just a collection of situations, divided into random chapters, with nondescript headlines. The situations primarily deal with the traditional family fights we're all familiar with, and most of them are grounded in reality, but the film embarks on a few selected flights of fancy as well. Some scenes are funny, some are merely goofy. There are some sweet, gentle observations, side by side with bigger issues. In one scene the parents fight about house work, in the next the son races to pick up the phone, when his little sister announces that there's a girl on the line, while his mother and grandmother attempt to listen in. That sort of stuff, but then suddenly we get a scene like the one where the grandmother puts on a hard-hat and picks up a bat to go out and yell at the local motorcycle gang!
Does the film succeed? Absolutely! It perfectly captures the bittersweet nature of family life, and it does so in a decidedly unique style. Did I enjoy the film? No, not really. The animation style put me off, and the lack of a coherent story made the film hard to sit through. Despite a few good chuckles and a handful of awwws, this was a very episodic and uneven experience for me.
My Neighbours the Yamadas was not my cup of tea, but I can definitely see how some viewers could appreciate the simple style of the animation, which removes all bells and whistles, to focus squarely on the characters and the story.
If nothing else, there's a certain comfort in knowing that your family is as crazy as all the other families out there. Including the animated ones.
NOTE: hanks to Optimum Releasing and Edith Chappey for making this review possible.