Japanese Title: Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Produced By: Toshio Suzuki, Seiichiro Ujiie and Takashi Shouji
Originally Released: July 17, 1999
If someone were to ask you about your family, what would you say? Would you call them normal or would they fall under the slightly unhinged, zany category. If you answered unhinged and zany, congratulations, you will easily relate to the family which takes center stage in our next film, My Neighbours the Yamadas. In many ways, the Yamadas might be considered the all Japanese family, the way we think of the the Simpsons as the all American family. Their lives, hopes, dreams and failures are all deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and in many ways this might make it one of the harder films for Western viewers to get in to.
But if you’ve got a taste for something a little bit wacky and a little bit special, My Neighbours the Yamadas might just be for you. While this isn’t the most mind blowing, classic of all the Ghibli films, it easily takes the award for the one that has made me laugh out loud the most. Make no mistake. This is a family comedy that will have you laughing as you imagine your own mother, father and grandmother getting into ridiculous situations.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is an interesting film. After all, its animation is unlike anything we’ve seen out of Ghibli yet. Though at first glance, it seems very simplistic, there is actually a ton of detail to be found here. Based on a three-cell comic, much like our Peanuts comic strips, The film has a style which looks hand painted like the original comic. Ironically, during the production, Takahata found that the only way to achieve this appearance was to digitally animate the film. Because of this, despite its hand drawn look, My Neighbors the Yamadas was actually Ghibli’s first fully digitally animated films. That’s right, this was made the same way that Pixar films are made. It’s pretty impressive when you think about it.
The Yamadas are your average family. Takashi and Matsuko live with Matsuko’s mother, Shige, along with their two children 13-year-old Noboru and 5-year-old Nonoko, and their dog Pochi. As the film progresses, scenes play out the same way that a comic strip might. A problem is presented, yet the way that it is concluded always plays out a bit as a tongue in cheek joke and often times, they are very funny. For example, Matsuko forgets to take out the trash. Instead of waiting for the following week’s trash pickup, she separates all the trash into smaller bags and sends the family to different public trash cans around the neighborhood to dispose of it. This is sort of a running theme in the film. Creative solutions to problems caused by either forgetfulness or laziness.
It’d be easy to call each of the Yamadas a bit of a mess, but that’s what makes them so much fun to watch. Son Noboru is bad in school and seems to not have very good looks, as pointed out by grandma who can’t believe a girl would call him when he looks the way he does. Thanks grandma. Matsuko is a Mom who wants to be a good Mom and wife as long as it takes bare minimum effort. At one point she makes a ‘real Japanese breakfast’ for her husband, only to have him realize it’s made out of all leftovers. And then there’s Shige, the grandmother who constantly encourages her family and others to do the right thing, even if she inevitably ends up doing the wrong thing anyway. I noticed that as the film ran, I consistently changed my favorite character. That’s because they are all so charming and relatable.
The film plays out in little vignettes that act as little skits. And all of them are laugh out loud funny. Yet, inevitably, they paint a bigger picture of a very real family. Its interesting to watch Takashi try to bond with his son, because it’s funny of course, but also because their generational gap is deeply rooted in culture and seeing what they find interesting also goes to show the changing of time and the passing of fads in a real way. In this way, it’s also fun to see the adults make many of the same mistakes as the kids. Sure, Mom and Dad can scold son and daughter for being forgetful but they too are quite forgetful and end up leaving things at home or sleeping in late.
Because of the generational gap, each of these characters also provides a unique perspective within the story. When the family accidentally leaves little Nonoko behind, she wanders the mall and claims to another boy that is lost that parents seem to be disappearing a lot lately. To her, they are the lost ones, not her. Then there’s grandma who is fearless and, despite her age, isn’t afraid to take on a biker gang which has been littering in her neighborhood. It’s incredibly fun to watch this family of seemingly different characters who all clearly share similarities. Despite very stylistic animation, this family feels incredibly real to watch and I’m sure that, if you watch it, you’ll find yourself saying things like “Oh that reminds me of my Mom,” because just like The Simpsons, it’s easy to find real life similarities in these genuine characters.
Despite tons of great moments and laughter, there’s not much left to say about My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s not a record breaker or a game changer. It’s just a very charming, often hilarious tale of growing up as a family and the trials faced within, which often feel much bigger than they actually are. There’s a sense of wonder through mediocrity here. If I told you we were going to watch a scene about a husband and wife arguing over what program to watch on television, you wouldn’t think that sounded very interesting, but My Neighbours the Yamadas paints it as incredibly fun and captivating.
It’s like a great sitcom, or comic strip which always gives you a chuckle. I even found myself telling co-workers about some of the little sketches because, to a degree, they play out like little jokes. So no, this isn’t the groundbreaking work of art that is something like Princess Mononoke, BUT it is incredibly enjoyable to watch and it does have an animation style and you will surely not find anywhere else. Of all the Ghibli films I’ve seen, this might be the first one I’ve wanted to make my Mom watch. So it must be something special.
NEXT UP: Spirited Away