Isao Takahata

133: My Neighbors the Yamadas Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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!

127: Only Yesterday Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

It was incredibly depressing to hear that Isao Takahata, one of the cofounders of Studio Ghibli, passed away this year. While unfortunately being under the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki, in terms of being the face of the studio and Miyazaki’s films getting more of the spotlight, Takahata deserves to be just as well-known as his friend. If it wasn’t for Takahata, we wouldn’t have Ghibli, because he convinced Miyazaki to join up with him and Toshio Suzuki to make the studio. He is just as important as Miyazaki, and his films definitely deserve more recognition. This is especially true when he has films like Only Yesterday under his belt. Directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Toshio Suzuki, Only Yesterday is unique for its time, because while animated, it was a film aimed at an adult female audience. While we have recently seen more adult-focused stories in animation, you simply never saw that back in 1991. It was a commercial and critical success, but unfortunately, the US never got this film. You had to either import a copy, or watch a subtitled version online through questionable individuals. Thankfully, for its 25th anniversary, GKids decided to bring it over stateside with an English dub. If you saw my Worst to Best Animated Films of 2016, you know I love this movie. Let’s dive into this classic film from Isao Takahata.

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The film follows a woman named Taeko Okajima, dubbed by Daisy Ridley in the US release. She is turning 27 and pretty happy with her life, even though her mother is annoyed that she hasn’t been able to find a guy. Taeko decides to take a trip to the countryside to help out a family with their safflower farm. As she takes this trip, memories of her younger self start to pop up in her mind. She then starts to think back about her life and her relationship with her family, and with the family she is helping on the farm.

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I think what might turn off some people about this film is that it’s not as whimsical as Ghibli’s other offerings. It’s not really all that fantastical in its setting. Not to say there isn’t some whimsy, but it’s mostly kept with the flashbacks. This is a very grounded film, and you can see that through its themes and its visual style. Something I noticed about this film, and it’s probably because of Takahata himself, who made this decision, he adds a bit more detail in how the humans are designed. When it comes to designing human characters in animation, you can afford to sacrifice some details. It’s why many times when you see animated properties turned live-action, the added detail to the designs were not meant to look good in live-action. You can see this in a lot of the live-action Dr. Seuss films. The humans in Only Yesterday have more wrinkles and more detail to their facial movements that you don’t see with other Ghibli films. The more creative visuals come into play with the flashbacks when Taeko is younger. Instead of the gorgeous and highly detailed buildings, leaves, plants, and so on, everything has a soft watercolor style. The backgrounds have an interesting detail that they look incomplete. To me, this was a purposeful artistic decision, because memories can feel incomplete and fuzzy at times. However, do not take any of these comments as the animation isn’t good. It’s Studio Ghibli, and the animation they do is always amazing. It’s all very detailed, expressive, and it does not fall into any of the traps that anime falls into.

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I also love the music selection. While much of the wonderful music is done by Katz Hoshi, there are some foreign song choices that pop up from time to time that fit the tone of the film. If you can find the soundtrack to this film on YouTube or somewhere online, definitely check it out. It’s one of my favorite soundtracks. I also liked the voice cast for this film. While having plenty of great animation voice actors like Tara Strong, Nika Futterman, Ashley Eckstein, Laura Bailey, Grey Griffin, and Stephanie Sheh, I think Daisy Ridley, and Dev Patel, who plays Toshio, a man she meets on her trip, do a good job. While it might be distracting to hear their voices with Daisy holding back the British accent, and Dev Patel not really hiding that accent at all, they do gel into their characters. Even Alison Fernandez who plays Taeko as a young girl is also good.

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So, the animation is interesting and unique among the studio’s work, the music is fantastic, and the voice work/dub is done well, but what about the story and characters? A word I used for this film is grounded. It feels relatable to actual people. I think as we get older, we do look back at our childhood or maybe even a couple years back, and wonder if we are happy with what’s going on right now. Are there any regrets? Do we wish things had gone differently? Are you doing what you dreamed of when you were a kid? Are you doing what you are doing right now, because you want to? I think that’s fairly complex, and to my knowledge, not many films, especially animated films, tackle these types of plots. It’s refreshing to see an adult-themed film that doesn’t rely on cursing, violence, and sex. This film also got me to learn a few things about the Japanese culture. Some scenes might only make sense if you learn about certain parts of Japanese culture, like the scene with the pineapple.

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If I had to criticize anything about the film, I think Toshio, the character played by Dev Patel in the English dub, is not the most interesting male character. He’s likable, but much of his dialogue is about working with your hands, and how it’s different than using machines. I just wish there was more to him than simply that part. I mean, there is, but it’s mostly 80% of him talking about how working with your hands is better than corporate companies doing the work for you. I also wish the ending wasn’t covered up by the credits. It’s really sweet and endearing, but they add credits over it, and they do this with Arrietty, Napping Princess, and I just don’t get why Japanese animated features do that.  You can wait and play the credits after the story literally ends.

Still, I really love this film, and I wish I could have told Isao Takahata how much this film connected with me before his passing. It has a lot of his trademark elements that he likes to use with his films, and I definitely need to catch up on his other films. If you haven’t seen Only Yesterday yet, do so! Buy the movie! I hope more people can watch it. I can sort of see why Disney didn’t originally distribute this one, due to some scenes, including visiting a bath house, and a small story part about periods, but I’m glad GKids brought the film over. I’m sorry for Takahata’s passing, and I hope more people can admire and love this man’s contributions to animation. Well, next time, I think we should go from Japan to the US. We will be looking at Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. Thanks for reading! I hope you liked the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Criterion/Essentials