133: My Neighbors the Yamadas Review

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It’s always going to be an uphill struggle for anime to get a foothold in popular culture these days. While a lot of it can be a cultural barrier that holds back the Japanese-style animation, but there are definitely common tropes, writing, design choices, and so on that will hold back the medium, unless they start treading past the common anime quirks. When it gets past those hurdles, and ends up focusing on stuff that can be more universal, people can become more open to anime. I’m not saying it should get rid of everything that makes anime, well, anime, but if you want more people to take it seriously, you need to do stuff like My Neighbors the Yamadas. Directed by the late Isao Takahata, My Neighbors the Yamadas stands out among much of Japanese-animated features, due to its less-than-typical anime design and art style. While the rest of the world didn’t get it until 2005, the film won a couple of film awards and positive praise, but I feel like it slipped under the radar for Ghibli fans. I decided to end Far East Animation Month on this film, because I felt like it needed more love. Let’s get started!

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The story follows a quirky family named the Yamadas. This includes Takashi, dubbed by James Belushi, Matsuko, dubbed by Molly Shannon, Noboru, dubbed by Daryl Sabara, Nonoko, dubbed by Liliana Mumy, and Shige, dubbed by Tress MacNeille. We follow them through small little stories that are full of comedic laughs, touching moments, and relatable situations.

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I think what might throw people off about this film is the pacing. While it is a comedy, it’s more dialogue-driven, with some wacky antics popping up at times. There is also no real story or overarching conflict. No one has to meet the forest spirit to cure their cursed arm that’s slowly going to kill them, or find some magical floating castle in the sky before an evil government gets there first. It’s just short segments with little self-contained stories. Personally, I don’t mind that as long as the characters and the jokes work. Sometimes, a three or five act structure doesn’t mean the movie is going to be good. I think it was very interesting to see a film with more of a focus on slice-of-life situations, even if it was nothing new to the studio that made Whisper of the Heart or My Neighbor Totoro. I found the skits throughout the film to be cute, charming, and funny. That last word “funny” is surprising, since a lot of Japanese comedy is tough to translate into other languages that would make sense. I think both the filmmakers and the dub did a good job keeping it all grounded, and the humor is kept more universal, so that everyone can get behind the antics from the family. Much of the humor does come from the situations they are put in, and due to jokes being understandable outside of a Japanese audience, plenty of them hit.

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I know I said there is no real story-focus, but if there was an overarching theme to the film, it’s that families will have struggles, but if they push on through them, they can overcome any hurdle. While the only major struggles are in the skits in the final part of the movie, the film is full of instances where the family is thrown into a challenge, and while panicking and getting into small spats with each other, accomplishes the mission. It also helps that the family is pretty likable. They are fairly simple characters, but the sub and the dub for the film are quite well done for what was needed. I think this is one of my favorite English dubs that has been used for the Ghibli films, because it’s comedic, but more grounded. James Belushi is great as the father, Molly Shannon brings in a charming quirky vibe to the mother, Tress MacNeille is pretty much the perfect voice actor to get for sassy grandmas, David Ogden Stiers has a charming and soothing voice for the narration, and I was surprised by Daryl Sabara and Liliana Mumy’s performances as the kids.

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As for the animation, there is a reason why this one stands out. Way before we would get the likes of Benjamin Renner’s Ernest & Celestine and Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Takahata used a more simplistic design for everything. It’s all beautifully water-colored, and smooth with its movements and frames, but it’s drastically different than what Hayao Miyazaki, and most other directors were doing at the time. It’s so rare when you can find an anime or Japanese-animated feature that has its own identity in its visuals. However, while simplicity can sometimes really hurt a film or series, with the tone of the story and the comedy, it really works here, and I was not distracted by the change in art direction at all. It’s very dreamlike, and similar to how the flashback sequences were done in Only Yesterday, where the backgrounds were water-colored, but unfinished and blurry.

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If I did have to complain about something, while I love the film’s slice-of-life story, I wish there was a bit more creativity with the animation. It opens and ends on some of the best looking surreal animation Ghibli has ever put out. It still looks fantastic and is fun to watch, but it would have been nice if there was more of that stuff subtly thrown in as the film went on. It’s also a bit long for me. Sure, I love the film, its story, its comedy, and characters, but 104 minutes was pushing it. I say this also, because while a lot of it translates well into English, one or two of the skits definitely felt like they were more rooted in Japanese cultures.

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In general, I understand why people aren’t super fond of this film, but I really liked it. When you are about to go into a month of comedies, seeing such a laid-back film really helps break up the US animation scene. If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly recommend picking up the GKids rerelease. If you want a film that’s vastly different from the rest, the Yamadas have you covered. Well, while Far East Animation Month is over, that isn’t going to stop me from reviewing another animated feature from Japan. Next time, we shall watch and review Metropolis. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!