My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Have been slowly working my way through the Ghibli’s I have not seen.

Cast, crew, etc.

In the suburbs of Tokyo, the middle class Yamada’s live a slyly comic version of an everyday existance. Dad is a grouch, mum is flighty, grandma a curmudgeon, and the kids are dealing with kid stuff. In a series of vignettes, we see them do the most ordinary things imaginable… except when everything explodes in a wildly imaginative fantasy sequence.

Isao Takahata’s tribute to the small joys of family life plays a bit like an animated version of one of Koreada’s gentler movies. While the film is often broadly funny, it is also quietly observational, and a lot of the pleasure in watching it comes from picking up on small details; a gesture, or an expression, a trivial thing that one of the characters secretly loves, fleeting moments that crop up at random.

Like a lot of Studio Ghibli films, there is some overt criticism of modern Japanese society, with its relentless pace and consumerism. Witness the sequence where the father, Takashi, is running late for an important appointment, sprints out of the house and down the street, misses his train anyway, collapses, goes home suddenly feeling unwell, and everyone tells him he should take a sick day.

He agrees, and then immediately says he is feeling better: ‘As soon as I thought about staying home, I stopped feeling sick.’ And then, very sadly, he goes to work anyway. It is the crushing pressure of a modern career, the appeal of simple home comforts, and the forced preference of one over the other, in one short scene.

Sometimes you can live your whole life in one day.

The animation style is very different to other Ghibli’s, and has an off the cuff, throwaway look that belies the enormous effort that must have been required. The backgrounds look like watercolour pastels, and the characters and objects are like sketches. It appears half finished, and this conveys the impression of a series of memories; thinking back to my own childhood, only certain parts of it are really vivid, and the rest is blurry, and fading. The look of the film suits this tone, which is like some bittersweet reminiscence that pops into your head out of nowhere.

Takahata is also happy to cut lose, and runs amuck with several delerious fantasy episodes. The film is bookended by two of these; a wonderful recap of the parents meeting and falling in love, as imagined by the youngest child (involving a boat, a submarine, and a giant snail), and the finale, as the characters sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ to each other, in a parallel dimension where all of their modest dreams have come true. A perfect and most upbeat ending to a warm and gentle movie.

Takahata is a master, and no one has ever made films quite like his.

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