My Neighbours The Yamadas

May 5, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

This little-known gem from Studio Ghibli is out on double play (Blu-ray & DVD) next week.  Pick it up when you buy the more famous and equally ace Laputa: Castle in The Sky…which I can’t reviwe here ’cause I’ve done one for Total Film!

My Neighbours The Yamadas
(Isao Takahata, Jap, 1999)

The bare minimum of animation sparks an abundance of wry humour and warm emotion; beneath the radical style the Ghibli ethos is unmistakable

Animation studios are defined by their house styles. You can tell a Pixar movie from a Dreamworks, and both from old-school Disney, simply from their character design or background textures, even before you factor in voices, music or narrative. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has one of the most pronounced visual identities of all, thanks to the fluidity and richness of founder/boss Hayao Miyazaki’s hand-drawn panels. Yet Gihbli isn’t all about Miyazaki and My Neighbours The Yamadas breaks with protocol in a big way.

This is anime as spare and bare as it can go with, with much of the screen left as a literal blank canvas – a white void on which the slightest chalk line or splash of pastel colour feels like an intrusion. It’s animation as pure and abstract as haiku, and it’s no coincidence that the film’s incidents (action is too strong a word) are broken by recitals of that ancient gnomic poetry. Nothing beyond what is essential is finished. Crowds are an undulating mass of faceless bodies, backgrounds taper off without definition, and barring hair little is coloured in.

Of course, the Yamadas are a four-panel cartoon strip, a Japanese Andy Capp or Peanuts, and the film is apparently faithful to the presentation of Hisaichi Ishii’s original (albeit the effect is achieved, ironically, via digital animation). But there’s something radical about the act of translating a newspaper strip to moving pictures with so little augmentation that makes you concentrate on every single detail, because the slightest movement registers. This isn’t the ersatz hyperrealism of Sin City, where the film is merely perfecting an original that had cinematic ambition to start with. This is a reverent attempt to make cinema bow to the wisdom of a contained, compacted medium – and it’s as far away from Miyazaki’s leaping fantasy worlds as you can.

In narrative terms, this is normality… or a version of it, anyway. The title is the giveaway. Regardless of the fact that the Yamadas eat miso soup or slide open the doors in their house, the suburban milieu is global, its family archetypes universal. The father is stern but hapless; the mother dreaming of domestic perfection but thwarted by the entropy of daily routine; the son a sarcastic slacker; the daughter a daydreamer; and the grandma a sobering, snarky voice of conscience. This is the stuff of a million sitcoms, most pertinently The Simpsons, but it’s to Takahata’s credit that he never lets things slide into cliché.

Instead, this is keenly observed, retaining the short, sharp shock of the four-strip format by presenting events as vignettes. Viewed individually, the sketches are a marvel of timing, the editing and voicework delicately balanced to replicate the 1,2,3,4 beat towards the punchline. Subjects are everyday (balls thrown over fence, family members leaving the house without essential belongings) but the concentration mines everything for greater truths.

Viewed en masse, though, the sharpness is countered by the benign flow of life, an impressionistic mosaic that seldom needs incident. Only a few scenes develop into full-blown set-pieces – the daughter going missing, or a confrontation with biker louts outside the house – because it’s only those moments that register as out of the ordinary. Otherwise, it’s only in dream sequences that the film soars into familiar Ghibli territory – but in Takahata’s topsy turvy vision, those are the bits that feel the most trite and obvious.

My Neighbours The Yamadas (and Laputa: Castle in the Sky) are released by Optiumum on Blu-ray 9th May.

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