My Neighbors the Yamadas
This film is a series of a humorous glances at the daily life of the Yamada family and all of their adventures and foibles. These vignettes take us through the ups and downs of family life, work, and marriage, showing all the while that there is love even in frustration and that the worth of a loving family long outlasts petty squabbles.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is not a film that will strike one over the head and impress itself, for it is the opposite of dynamic and marked by a style that, while humorous, is more likely to tickle and amuse rather than bring one to fits of laughter. Its dry and subtle brand of comedy remains consistent throughout, and yet it functions more akin to the comic strip it was based on than a movie with a unifying plot, as the various vignettes pay relatively little attention to one another and the piece may easily be watched in small doses with the segments broken apart. My Neighbors the Yamadas is a pleasant film, one in which the aforementioned lack of "purpose" proves to be a refreshing treat rather than a strike against the film and whose identifiably "typical" family is charming in all of their foibles. It's best warned, however, that this is a quiet movie meant to be enjoyed for its own sake: those who approach it expecting to be challenged or somehow swept away will miss the purpose, and it is best appreciated with the mindset that while not every joke may succeed, the subtle but tangible sense of bemused enjoyment that this film leaves is the best possible payoff.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is animated in a computer-generated watercolor style that retains the "wobbly" appearance of newspaper comics and hardly resembles most of Ghibli's other feature films, though safe to say, its visual appeal is hard to deny. The degree of distortion present gives mobility and flexibility to the film's style of humor, and in the particularly lovely opening, the narrator (who happens to be Nonoko, the family's young daughter) describes a sequence of unrelated shapes that an unseen "artist" gradually composes into her grandmother, thus beginning the film proper. The quality of the animation and art is of the sort that will make pleasant if not awe-inspiring viewing, but it suits the movie's tone perfectly: a few characters, especially Nonoko and the family's lackadaisical dog Pochi, are simply adorable, and even the adults have a certain degree of cartoonish cuteness about their appearance that makes the entire family rather charming to look at. During one segment, the film seamlessly alternates between the fantastical and the down-to-earth as an off-screen narrator tells a quiet story of family life, with the alternations suiting the metaphorical imagery perfectly, while the short poems the movie places at the end of certain other segments add a welcome sense of summary to each. Pianist and songwriter Akiko Yano, meanwhile, makes a welcome foray into the anime world with a score of bouncy piano music and quietly orchestrated pop songs, and the combination of a strong performance on the part of the Japanese voice actors gives the ears as much to enjoy as the eyes.
As strange as it may be to say, however, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a movie I have relatively little to say about and yet in which I don't mind that fact in the slightest. The film is utterly unpretentious, with its complete lack of a unifying plot, avoidance of gimmicks, and refusal to make its cultural brand of humor immediately accessible to a foreign audience allowing it to glide by like clouds on a warm summer afternoon. True to its name, the movie's characters might easily be the family living next door: there's nothing to distinctly set them apart in one's memory and nothing that would make them at all strange to live next to, and yet while those in need of adventure could dismiss them as being boring, they would make a pleasant batch of neighbors, this film's series of humorous vignettes telling us what life next door to them might be like and perhaps making one's thoughts linger pleasantly on their own family life (this reviewer's hope being that the reader's is pleasant). My Neighbors the Yamadas is neither a movie that I found to be outstandingly funny (though I did get a fair number of good laughs) nor one that inspired contemplation: it was simply enjoyable in its casual bliss and familial frustration, gratifying if not necessarily exciting to watch because of the sense of comfort it brought.
It's sometimes a nice change of pace to divert my attention with a film that makes none of the attempts at depth that anime falling under my "usual" taste does, and one such as My Neighbors the Yamadas is perfect for those moments. The world is full of knowledge to seek and things to accomplish, and yet sometimes, it's simply nice to fall back on the grass and rest for a bit. My Neighbors the Yamadas is just that, presented in movie form.
Though not a masterpiece, it's a quiet joy and the perfect alternative to the sometimes overwhelming noisiness of life. Those who desire nothing besides action films would be best skipping this. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: It's a fairly tame piece, as the content that Americans would find most "objectionable" (e.g. Mr. Yamada's constant smoking and some onscreen corporal punishment) is commonplace in Japan. Tellingly, even a brief encounter with a motorcycle gang ends with nobody hurt and no profanity exchanged: those raised on adrenaline-heavy media may not appreciate the measured pace, but there's really nothing here that young children shouldn't see.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
My Neighbors the Yamadas © 1999 Ichii Hisaichi/Isao Takahata/Studio Ghibli
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