By the late-’90s, Studio Ghibli had firmly established itself as one of the top animation studios in the world, perhaps second only to Disney. With 10 films under its belt near the decade’s end, the studio displayed its craftsmanship, creativity, heart, and imagination in every single one. While co-founder Hayao Miyazaki pushed what the boundaries of his traditional animation style with his 1997 feudal fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, the other co-founder Isao Takahata was about to shake things up considerably, making a film that looks wholly unlike anything Ghibli had made before, even if the story continued the director’s slice-of-life looks at contemporary Japan.
1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas is immediately an outlier among Studio Ghibli movies. Every one of their movies up this point had approximately the same distinct visual style, personified by realistic backgrounds and the same basic character design, thanks in large part to those unmistakable Ghibli eyes. Yamadas is not only different, it’s completely unrecognizable. It features very minimalist backgrounds (often just blank white for anything not directly needed for setting or plot) and the characters all have an exaggerated comic strip style, which completely fits the quick vignettes and stories that feel as though they came from a three- or six-panel comic strip.
The film features a lengthy series of short stories regarding the continued comedic problems surrounding the Yamada family. The family unit consists of an overworked father, a plucky optimist mother, a constantly high-strung 13-year-old son, a cherubic and wise-beyond-her-years 5-year-old daughter, and a grouchy grandmother. They are trying to get by on very little, and whenever one of them tries to do something, the rest of the family seems to foil it, usually unintentionally and without malice. Each of the family members get their own series of vignettes which showcases their particular weirdness.
What’s lovely about this film, as with all of Takahata’s movies, especially with Ghibli, is that he mixes the mundane with the magical, and the silly with the tragic. This feels like a comedic version of Only Yesterday. The beginning especially feels like a fantasy, as the Yamadas decide to have children. They’re flying around in various things and then we see the patriarch chop down a bamboo chute to reveal his daughter, a reference to Japanese folklore that Takahata would continue in his next film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 15 years later. This is coupled with scenes of them all underwater in a submarine, chasing each other on bikes and on the back of giant creatures, and just generally being together.
As I mentioned, this movie is split up into very short vignettes, probably close to 30 of them, each signified by a title card with things like “Father as Role Model,” “A Family Torn Apart,” or “Patriarchal Supremacy Restored.” The travails depicted within are incredibly relatable to anybody who’s ever been in a family (which is most people, I’d reckon). One early on is about how the daughter gets left at a mall because the other four are too worried about their own stuff, and then it takes them forever to get back to get her. Another has the father watching TV and the mother wants to change the channel. A martial arts-like battle ensues with the mother trying to use the remote and the father blocking her with his body or newspaper. It’s really hysterical!
One of my favorite scenes demonstrates Takahata’s mastery of the visual style with which he’s working. Occasionally in the film, the scenes and characters are drawn much more realistically. They still appear with the pencil scratches and without much definition in the face, but they’re proportionally more realistic and the backgrounds and settings are more detailed. This happens when the family encounters “reality,” or something a bit more harrowing than most. In one instance, the grandmother is attempting to get the father to shoo away a trio of motorcycle hooligans who’ve been causing trouble and had even run over an old man. When he goes outside to talk to them, the scene shifts to this more realistic style, and it looks particularly dangerous. Then, the mother and grandmother come out and begin acting strange, and eventually the grandmother addresses the hooligans and says weird things, but ends up asking them to leave and not come back. Through the course of her speech, everything begins to shift back to the cartoony style, signifying the danger had gone away and the Yamadas had weathered another storm. It’s subtle but incredibly effective.
My Neighbors the Yamadas was fairly well-reviewed upon its release but failed to get much of a box office reception, faring much poorer than other Studio Ghibli releases. I think that’s rather a shame, because if Takahata has done anything throughout his career, it’s not repeating himself. You can look at Miyazaki’s movies and see him working out different proclivities and passions and troubles, but they all seem very much of a piece. Takahata made his war tragedy; he made his reflection on youth, memory, and squandered potential; and he made his surrealist allegory about ecology and conservation, so why should he continue down any of those same paths? He wanted to make a family comedy about the bonds of love, and by golly he did it. Just because it doesn’t look like all the other Ghibli movies is no reason for it to be shunned.
As I mentioned previously, this was Takahata’s last directorial effort for nearly a decade-and-a-half. In 2003, he wrote and directed a tiny segment in the collaborative movie Winter Days, but it wasn’t until 2013, while Miyazaki was making his final feature The Wind Rises, that he came back to make his long-gestating, watercolor folktale movie, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. We have only one week left in our Isao Takahata retrospective, so let’s go out with a bang!
Images: Studio Ghibli
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!