ANIME REVIEW: Takahata’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas” – Animation Scoop

ANIME REVIEW: Takahata’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas”

Although it’s technically a feature, Isao Takahata’s droll My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999), which is receiving its first release on Blu-ray, plays like a collection of comic sketches. It’s based on Hisaichi Ishii’s “Nono-chan,” a popular manga that may remind Americans of “Hi and Lois” or “Baby Blues.”

Blandly middle income and middle class, Takashi (James Belushi) and Matsuko Yamada (Molly Shannon) live in Tokyo with the their son and daughter, Noboru (Daryl Sabara) and Nonoko (Liliana Mumy), Matsuko’s cranky mother Shige (Tresse MacNeille) and Pochi, their lump of a dog.

Although both families drive each other crazy, the Yamadas are much less violent in their quarrels than the Simpsons, and their lives are far more ordinary. The crises they face rarely rise above a lost umbrella or what to have for dinner. But if their existence lacks drama, they find ways to introduce it. The struggle for control of the TV remote becomes a stylized battle that spoofs martial arts matches. When a girl who’s given Noboru chocolate for Valentine’s Day (a sure sign of affection) telephones, his mother and grandmother circle him like pair of sharks, hungry for information.

Takahata and his artists enrich these mundane events with references to traditional Japanese culture: Noburo’s birth spoofs “Momotaro,” the story of the Peach Boy. Nonoko’s arrival plays off the ancient fable “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” which Takahata would animate as The Tale of Princess Kaguya in 2013. Many of the Yamadas’ adventures end with a haiku in elegant script. Does Basho’s “How cruel, a grasshopper trapped under a samurai’s helmet” really describe Takashi Yamada? He probably fears that it does.

During production, Takahata commented, “The setting is the space in which we live that is familiar to all of us. For this reason, we have drawn only the bare necessities so as to leave space as an implicit presence.” The Yamada’s home is even more minimal than the McCloy’s house in Gerald McBoing-Boing. Takahata’s artists use a piece or two of furniture over a water color wash to suggest a room. Nothing more is really needed, and after the every-detail- rendered-within-an-inch-of-its-life look of recent CG films, the simplicity feels welcome.

The character designs are equally simple—loose, rough lines that delineate their blocky bodies and simple expressions. Producer Toshio Suzuki recalls Takahata talking about “the inherently fun aspect of animation of making circles, triangles and squares move.” The Ghibli animators manage to imbue the simple designs with a sense of personality, much as Bill Melendez’s artists did in the early “Peanuts” specials. Takashi’s walk suggests his general discomfort and dissatisfaction. But despite the peculiarities and peccadillos, the Yamada family is essentially a happy one.

My Neighbors The Yamadas was reportedly the first completely digital feature from Studio Ghibli feature. Ironically, CG technology was require to achieve the hand-painted water color look. Despite good reviews, the film was not a huge success, although a 61-episode broadcast series of Nono-chan animated by another studio followed in 2001. (Neither it nor the original manga are available in English.)

Takahata’s “Director’s Statement” concluded, “I am not aiming to create a ‘fantasy’ by representing a finely detailed surface reality to enclose people in another world. Rather, I want to have people recollect the realities of this life by sketching ordinary human qualities with simple props. I want to have the wind blow freely between the reality of our daily lives and what we see in the film.”

And a cool, refreshing wind it is.

My Neighbors the Yamadas
Gkids: $19.95 2 discs, DVD and Blu-ray

Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen,The Making of Peanuts Animation, and Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Disney Beauty and the Beast .
Charles Solomon
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