My Neighbors the Yamadas by writer/director Isao Takahata may be one of Studio Ghibli’s least mentioned films, but it ranks right up there with the universally loved My Neighbor Totoro by his colleague Haoyao Miyazaki. This light-hearted family comedy, which is unusually presented in a comic strip style and drawn with the visually mesmerising watercolour, also positions itself as Studio Ghibli most unique production. With Yamadas, Takahata proves that he has so much more to offer than just a heart-wrenching war drama known as Grave of the Fireflies.
Directed as a series of gentle yet heart-warming vignettes, My Neighbors the Yamadas follows the Yamada family as they navigate their way through the many ups and downs of life. The Yamadas are an average family in Tokyo who have to deal with all the tedious activities we all have to live with on a day-to-day basis. They consist of the cool opinionated grandma Shige, the diligent working father Takashi, the caring stay-at-home mother Matsuko, the clumsy teenage son Noboru and the precocious baby of the family Nonoko. Their issues can arise from such trivial occurrences as arguing about who has the control of the television to more dramatic events as losing Nonoko in a department store. In another words, they are an extremely human clan whose flaws and mistakes make them all the more endearing for the majority of audiences experiencing similar day dramas.
What further sets My Neighbors the Yamadas apart from most other Studio Ghibli films is its style. If you are tired of the traditional anime style and the strong shojo-esque female protagonists frequently featured in Studio Ghibli films, Yamadas might be a refreshing departure for you. The alluring minimalist visual style is instantly loveable, the sparse background artwork and fluid outlines compliments perfectly the tender feel of the film, and many compelling sceneries are thrown in to bring you to the land of fantasy without straying too far from the realistic world of the Yamada family. The best sequence in the Yamadas has to be where the marriage and the family are metaphorically portrayed as an intriguing adventure in a lifetime – who other than the imaginative mind of Takahata could have visioned the bobsled run that becomes Mr. and Mrs. Yamada’s wedding cake, the safari which leads them to their firstborn son hatched from a giant peach and an island with a cabbage farm where their little girl is delivered from the cabbage and delivered by a crane?
Just in case you are deterred by the absence of superpowers or epic battles, a wonderfully controlled mix of humour and poignancy is right there to entice you. No slapstick, no tear jerker, My Neighbor the Yamadas tells about familial life as naturally as it occurs, gently coercing audiences to laugh, smile and sometimes shed tears at the diverse range of daily occurrences. And most importantly, the film doesn’t wind up looking like insurance TV commercials. An upbeat family film told in an impressionable minimalist watercolour style, My Neighbor the Yamadas is the true hidden gem of the film-making world. However, with the lack of accessibility of Laputa, the social message of Princess Mononoke and visual feast of Spirited Away, it’s fair to say that this film isn’t for anyone. But it’s most likely to captivate and resonate with foreign audiences who are open-minded enough to see domestic life isn’t so different on that mystic nation island.