My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

Written & Directed by Isao Takahata

I came into this marathon a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, and very much looking forward to revisiting the few films of his I had seen, and exploring the many others I had not. Miyazaki is a master, that much is sure, and his films are astounding works which I look forward to revisiting again at some point in the future. Early on in this marathon, I was skeptical of Isao Takahata, the “other” Ghibli master. His realism in Grave of the Fireflies is admirable, but for some reason I don’t react that that film like many others. And Pom Poko, while entertaining, was a little bit of a disappointment. I must admit, however, that after seeing Only Yesterday and now My Neighbors the Yamadas, I am fully back on board with calling Takahata a master of animation.

My Neighbors the Yamadas is immediately completely different from anything Studio Ghibli seems to have delivered to this point in the canon. For one, the change in animation style is unavoidable, but the film also takes a narrative stray from convention, not just in the Ghibli world, but in storytelling in general. There really is no plot in the film. Takahata, instead, takes us on a journey with a family, the Yamadas, and their crazy, zany, dysfunctional lives as a loving family by exploring their everyday lives and struggles. This episodic style really succeeds most when Takahata makes the viewer a fly on the wall, and lets the Yamadas just be themselves and entertain us.

I was worried early on that I would’t like the film for its style, as I wondered how long it could keep up the vignettes and have them all be entertaining, but by the end I was amazed at just how much I loved spending time with the Yamadas and their crazy family. But what comes across as the most sincere aspect of the film and Takahata’s approach is that, as weird and crazy as this family is, they’re us. We’re all weird and crazy and do stupid things. For this reason, Takahata’s unapologetic realism really shines through with the comedy that is everyday life with the Yamadas.

I hadn’t seen animation like Yamadas before, but I can say the stylistic departure from much of everything else from Ghibli really works for this film. It’s cartoonish, which is exactly what this story is, and as such, the story, nor the animation, ever take themselves too seriously. This levity makes the journey relaxing and fun, which is quite different from such entries as Grave of the Fireflies or last week’s epic Princess Mononoke. I would look forward to seeing more of this style of beautiful, cartoonish animation, or really any exploration of different styles which may suit the story being told a little better. Miyazaki’s animation, for the record, matches his stories too, but I’ve grown used to it as well, so all I’m really trying to say is that it is refreshing to see something different.

It’s hard for a movie like this to make a deeper impact than simply to entertain me, which is to say it’s hard to classify it as a masterpiece, especially in the face of something like Takahata’s Only Yesterday, which I’m still thinking about weeks later. But that’s my limitation, not Takahata’s. He commits to the delivery and style of story being told and executes it beautifully. I am sure he loves spending time with his Yamadas just as much as I loved spending time with them. And I think that translates to the film. For what amounts to a off beat comedy, My Neighbors the Yamadas is also remarkably heartfelt and loving.

***1/2 – Great

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