My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

Based on the Manga by Hisaichi Ishii, My Neighbors the Yamadas exemplifies the relatable eccentricities of the domestic family. Some might find its simplicity too basic or crude, but its generalizable nature and simple storytelling help the finest traits of the film to stand out the most: the delight of spending time with such a crazy and familial cast of characters. 

The film is made up of a good number of vignettes, most not lasting longer than a few minutes. The slices of life approach allow the film to pepper various bits of information and curiosities about each character to unravel in a compressed amount of time. It also allows the film to narrow down on a specific relationship or character for a brief amount of time and tease out some interesting dimensions that would be hard to reveal otherwise.

The greatest strength of the film is the presentation of characters. They are caricatured and exaggerated for comedic effect, drawn in large swaths in order to make a comedic spectacle of their plights. However, this also serves to make them generic and basic enough that the audience can project their own personal family characters into the personas of the film.

Yes, they’re seeped in stereotypes such as the cantankerous old grandmother, the oblivious father, the independent young daughter, the slacker boy and the distraught home-keeper, but the film slowly reveals the details of these characters, giving the audience a fresh perspective and understanding  of who these characters are that makes them much more sympathetic.

The film also boasts a great art style. The pastel colors give the film a warm, earthy tone that ground the film stylistically in domestic life. The pastel drawings have a soft, fragile feel which give it a childlike quality, almost something a (talented) child would draw in art class, or the kind of artwork one might find taped to the fridge.

Some might dislike the style, seeing the drawing as lazily minimal. A lot of backgrounds are basic or kept as white space and while this could have been a budgetary consideration, it aesthetically reinforces the film’s focus on the minutia of this one family. The setting is almost irrelevant; slowly washing out the further away it is from the family. What is important visually and thematically is the family.

This reinforces the film’s overall theme about the resilience and strength to be found in families. As individuals, each member of the Yamada family is plagued with fears, doubts, uncertainties and misgivings. However, when they come together as a group, they’re able to support and sustain each other.

Infectiously funny, sweet and beautiful, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a beautiful love letter to family. Its simplicity and elegance make it all the more wonderful and profound. While some Ghibli fans might be disappointed at such a “basic” film, it’s a testament to the studio’s ability do something new, creative and different while retaining the spirit that makes them loved by fans of animation, filmmaking and art.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing