My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)
Director: Isao Takahata
Screenwriter: Isao Takahata
Starring: Toru Masuoka, Yukiji Asaoka, Hayato Isohata, Naomi Uno, Masako Araki
If you watch the Studio Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (and you really should), you’ll be introduced to the three fathers of Ghibli – directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki. Whereas Suzuki and especially Miyazaki serve as the public faces of Ghibli, Takahata was a far more reclusive and private creative force before his death in 2018. His films feel just as unique, but very different from Miyazaki’s. My Neighbours the Yamadas is a quintessential Takahata film.
We follow the Yamada family – dad Takashi (Toru Masuoka), mum Matsuko (Yukiji Asaoka), children Noboru and Nonoko (Hayato Isohata and Naomi Uno) and grandma Shige (Masako Araki) – through the everyday trials of life, including marriage and children, work, school, chores and many, many family arguments.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is a low-key family sitcom with the most exaggerated, dreamlike visuals imaginable, particularly in its opening stretch. The bulk of the animation is rough and storyboard-like, but it is also very energetic and expressive. It’s surprising to learn that this was Ghibli’s first fully computer-animated feature as it feels even more handmade than their usual output.
Wondrous, surreal imagery is threaded throughout this anthology. A newly married couple climb onto a motorbike which morphs into a bob sled traveling up a wedding cake, which in turn transforms into a boat to sail up a Hokusai wave. Babies are born from cabbages, peaches and bamboo stems. The family rides a giant snail in the street which turns into a submarine when it hits the water before popping to the surface as a pirate ship. The family float into the sky by umbrella singing “Que Sera Sera”. Dad briefly dreams of becoming a scooter-riding superhero after failing to stand up to some thugs in reality.
The film is made up of a succession of stories in the life of an ordinary family – amusing vignettes that don’t amount to much on their own but, when put together, make for an attractive social tapestry. Watch Mr and Mrs Yamada in a determined duel of the TV remote; see Grandma tooling up to take on a noisy biker gang disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood; peer in at the family refusing to stop watching TV to take a picture of the first snowfall, so dad has to place the camera on top of the TV and stand in the snow alone outside behind his family to get them all in. Everyday domestic scenarios are given just a little sprinkling of the absurd logic of dreams.
The film runs a little long admittedly (a common Takahata trait), and while you’re not clamouring for jeopardy exactly in a family sitcom, a little conflict wouldn’t go amiss. The biggest and worst things to happen to the Yamadas while we share their company is that, at one point, they leave their youngest child Nonoko at a shopping mall, but she’s fine; a neighbour spots her a takes her home, so no harm done. Dad struggles at work and Noboru battles with his hormones, but again they just get on with it with few ill effects. Mum seems a little forgetful but it’s just a character trait and not a sign of anything to worry about. Grandma visits a very ill friend in hospital, but they just talk about how bad the coffee is.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is a soothing balm, a leisurely and pleasant look at domestic mundanity, at an ordinary family who are endlessly fond of each other despite petty squabbles. It’s ideal viewing for these uncertain times so far from the normal, and it doesn’t hurt at all that throughout it is really warm and funny too.