My Neighbors the Yamadas
Working as a teacher, I know that each Fall, I will catch a cold or the flu from one of my students. It’s just part of the cycle of the year: the colder, damper weather sets in, the kids get the snuffles but not badly enough that their parents keep them home, and they come in and infect everyone they meet. Sometimes I feel like Invader Zim, surrounding by encroaching germs. This year, I caught both in quick succession, and ended up home sick for two weeks. As often happens when I’m ill, I found myself drawn towards some of my comfort books and movies, rather than anything new or potentially challenging. There would be no Grave of the Fireflies, Watchmen or House of Leaves for me during those two weeks; Mystery Men, Top 10 and Artemis Fowl were more my speed. That’s also why I decided to review My Neighbors the Yamadas as the second in my three picks from director Isao Takahata, even though it was produced after Pom Poko. Both have many comedic elements, but My Neighbors the Yamadas (Hoohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun) is an easier movie; gentle, funny and light, with far less cultural baggage. However, as I discovered, it does not hold up as well to repeat viewings, as despite its charm and the love with which it was made, it has some fundamental flaws as a movie.
Isao Takahata proved himself as a director with the moving and powerful Grave of the Fireflies, and while none of his later projects have the impact and scale of that masterpiece, each has something special to offer, laying open aspects of Japanese culture and character for viewers to appreciate and even come to understand. For example, Pom Poko dealt with Shinto, Buddhism and modernization, while coming of age in a country with such a sharp gender divide is a major aspect of the romantic drama Only Yesterday. My Neighbors the Yamadas, as befits an animated movie based on a funny four-panel comic strip, does not try to tackle any major issues, instead focusing on aspects of art and everyday life.The comic strip is currently called Nono-chan, by Hisaichi Ishii, and it is in a similar vein.
The movie has no main plot. It is a series of animated shorts about the Yamada family, each centered on a different situation and ending with an amusing moment, joke or wise statement. Between each short, there is a still: a piece of Japanese art with a short poem by one of Japan’s great poets. The shorts do not need to be watched in order, or even all in one sitting, as the family dynamic is self explanatory, and the situations self-contained. Traditional and modern Japanese lifestyles are explored in an amusing way, from the simplest of customs, like not allowing outdoor footwear to touch the floor of the house proper, to the big questions of life and love. There is even an episode dealing with gang violence, with the suggestion that the gang may be yakuza connected.
The main problem with My Neighbors the Yamadas is that it does not have enough substance to hold the attention. The episodic nature and lack of an overall plot aren’t an issue in themselves, but unless you are interested in the minutae of Japanese life, there are whole sections that fail to engage. This is very apparent when it is watched a second time. There is also little more to discover upon a second viewing, especially if you already had an awareness of Japanese culture and art before your first. The shorts are simple stories with simple resolutions, the humor is light and fairly obvious, and the art is in the style of the comic strip, clean and uncomplicated. The characters do not develop, other than to confirm what the viewer already knows: the arguing members of the family do care for each other, and no matter what, they’ll come together in the end.
The comic strip-styled animation is not like that in any of the other Studio Ghibli movies, but the movie is clearly a Ghibli. As in Only Yesterday, the characters have dream sequences and flights of fancy that defy all logic and physics, and as in Pom Poko, Japanese myths, legends and art are referenced. When the characters find themselves adrift on the sea, it is the sea of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kangawa. The parents finding their children inside a peach and a bamboo stalk refer to two Japanese folk tales. The whole effect is stylistically coherent and pleasing to the eye, but never stunning, and unfortunately not original either. Unless this is your first Takahata movie, or your first Studio Ghibli production, you will probably have a feeling of having seen things before. The dream sequences are also a little lengthy, and despite being inventive, do not really intrigue.
If you do decide to watch this movie, watch it with the original soundtrack and English subtitles, and under no circumstances with dubbing. This is one of the worst dubbing jobs I’ve seen, both in terms of translation and casting: it sounds like the voice actors weren’t even sure what they were reading, or what movie it was for.
My Neighbors the Yamadas is good, but not great, amusing, but not hilarious, interesting, but not fascinating. If you are studying the Japanese language or culture, you should certainly watch it. If not, it’s still worth a look, but there are other movies that can give you the same information with more of a plot and more to offer. Pleasant, comforting and forgettable, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a comfort movie from a director who’d shown himself capable of far more interesting work, an ordinary animated movie from someone who’d shown that animation could be much more.