When it comes to showering praise on the astonishing films from Japanese master animators, Studio Ghibli, most attention is given to the iconic Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Howls Moving Castle, and more).
Ghibli’s other primary director, Isao Takahata didn’t make many films (due to being notoriously slow), but every Takahata movie is guaranteed to be different both visually and creatively. My Neighbours The Yamadas is many things, and the word ‘different’ is certainly chief among them.
Simply put: there is no plot. The movie is essentially a collection of vignettes showing everyday life for the Yamada family. Sure, some sections come with a quasi-title card in order to link together a series of bits, but here Takahata indulges freeform movie making to the fullest. The mostly comedic tone delights in bringing little menial family irritations to the fore.
Everyone can recognise such tropes as a son who doesn’t want to study, or a cost-saving grandmother chastising everyone. The cultural divide between east and west is closed considerably in such relatable and universal bickering.
Mixed in with the everyday sniping are other personal moments that are instantly recognisable. When motorbike yobs cause a noise disturbance down their residential street, the Yamada patriarch is shamed by his wife and mother to go out there and talk to them. Whilst the confrontation does not go as expected, his later daydreaming about how it should of gone is anyone of us leaving an argument with the perfect comeback forming too late in our minds.
However, there are also some light touches of gravitas. A visit by Shige (the grandmother) to a sick friend in hospital starts with the pal happily showing off the facilities. Yet when asked what is wrong with her, she slowly crumples into sobs onto Shige’s shoulder. Takahata cuts into the mundanity of everyday life by sprinkling a few such moments throughout.
Using 100% digital animation (the only Studio Ghibli movie to do so) Takahata deploys a watercolour painting style which is intentionally minimal throughout: a technique he would later laboriously transfer to hand-drawn animation for his masterful swansong The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. The detail is minimal throughout, with most scenes fading to nothing around the edges and even the focal points being little more than simple lines. Given the loose subject matter of the movie, this approach apply imbues everything with a hazy nostalgia feel throughout.
Such a movie is never going to be one you just casually put on of an afternoon. In all likelihood, once you have seen My Neighbours The Yamadas once you are unlikely to return to it much. Yet Takahata once again proved here that he was happy to go his own way and even break the rules he sets at the beginning of a movie in order to constantly develop something new.
Now that Isao Takahata has sadly passed away, My Neighbours The Yamadas can be enjoyed as either the work of slow and thoughtful director who didn’t produce many movies, or simply as a light series of very relatable family sketches. He also made Pom Poko.
Words by Michael Record