"Whatever will be, will be"—this is the mantra of My Neighbors the Yamadas, a charming collection of vignettes that ring true to life itself. This unique Studio Ghibli film revolves around the daily exploits of the Yamadas, your modern, dysfunctional Japanese family. Together, this atypical (yet typical) family navigates the ups and downs of the mundane. Whether it be buying groceries at the supermarket, curling up under a kotatsu, or getting caught in the rain, the Yamadas set a humorous spin on the drudgery of everyday occurrences. Needless to say, it is effortless to relate to the down-to-earth humanity of these characters. I dare you not to smile at the simple honesty of this heartwarming film (if you win, you are one heartless beast).
With distinct observation and empathy, Isao Takahata explores the "male bonding" between father and son, the elation of first love, the wisdom of age, and the drifting apart of family. The film is a compilation of these themes, and depicts them through various metaphors such as a ship battling turbulent waves or a bobsled race atop a wedding cake. Takahata complements these elaborate animated sequences with humble haikus by Edo poet, Basho, creating a bittersweet (mostly sweet) tale of our ties to loved ones.
However, the heart of this film lies in its episodic nature. Family dinners, hectic mornings, and light bickering are all typical moments in the Yamada household. These tedious times reveal the Yamadas’ humility with great subtlety. When Father Yamada fails to coax his family away from the TV or when Grandma Yamada reflects upon the fleeting beauty of the cherry trees, we are reminded of the quiet sadness that remains unspoken in life’s daily routine. Each monotonous moment in the film finds both the depth and humor of family living. While most anime tend to over exaggerate or preach some complex narrative, My Neighbors the Yamadas is a refreshingly downplayed film with easily relatable themes. All in all, My Neighbors the Yamadas is an uplifting tribute to life's simple beauties and banalities, a rare and unique occasion in anime.
Although My Neighbors the Yamadas has no overarching plot, there is no need for one. The scrapbook storytelling Takahata employs creates a stream of memories that depict life with convincing realism. The film is in essence, a photo album, a collection of snapshots; any attempt to create a continuous narrative from them would only weaken their impact. Thus, My Neighbors the Yamadas does not pitch a linear sequence of events, only the satisfying truth that life is NOT a dress rehearsal. I can’t think of a film truer to real life than the daily dance of My Neighbors the Yamadas.
Drawn in a half-scribble, comic strip style, My Neighbors the Yamadas looks more akin to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rather than mainstream Japanese anime. Notably, the film is the first fully digital movie by Studio Ghibli, incorporating watercolor shading rather than cel pictures. Background panels are half-colored in, bluntly cut off like a chalky pastel on a blank canvas. This creates a soft, authentic storybook feel to both the characters and backdrops. If it were not for the distinctiveness of the animation, one would assume My Neighbors the Yamadas was drawn within the pages of a child’s coloring book. However, the simplicity of the muted art style does not detract from the overall narrative of the film, but harmonizes with its modest tone. Despite its uniqueness, the minimalist art will not appeal to every viewer’s taste.
Both the Japanese and English dub are appropriate and praiseworthy. The voice actors develop distinctly memorable characters with every roundabout conversation and comical retort. On the other hand, the soundtrack is uneventful and bland. The film’s score comprises of either bubbly jingles or Czech Philharmonic symphonies, creating an inconsistent mix of music. The odd toggle between sweeping, classical overtures and late 90’s bebop can be jarring. Only the lyrics to Doris Day’s final thematic piece, "Que Sera Sera", would linger in my mind. In short, the sound aspect of My Neighbors the Yamadas is nothing to write home about.
Meet the Yamadas: there’s Takashi, the family patriarch who struggles to hold the family intact; Matsuko, an endearingly scatterbrained housewife who buys too much ginger; Shige, the sharp-tongued grandmother with wisdom to boot; Noboru, the anxious teenager in the loops of love; and Nonoko, an inquisitive 5-year old whom everyone dotes on. Takahata lovingly crafts these eccentric family members beyond mere household archetypes, presenting both the frustrations of marriage and the complex joys of child-rearing. In effect, this realistic portrayal of skewed family dynamics breathes life into these convincing characters. Moreover, the hilarious interactions between family members create some entertaining dialogue. For example, there is an epic struggle between Takashi and Matsuko for control over that prized possession—the TV remote!
Although My Neighbors the Yamadas dare not break the mold of the traditional Japanese family, their experiences are heartfelt and honest to a fault. These candid moments of familial bonding and breaking all take place within the confines of home—an abode of personal growth and nostalgia. As a result, watching My Neighbors the Yamadas feels like a homecoming in itself—both assuring and awkward with its sympathy and human comedy. More than anything, the film presents an honest message that life is unpredictable and "you have to bear it—you must bear it" in order to survive the challenges that arise. Through the ups, the downs, and the quiet moments in between, Studio Ghibli has created a modest yet poignant collage about taking life as it comes.
Since this Isao Takahata film is purely slice-of-life (a genre which some equate with boredom), I can’t recommend it to everyone. There are no protagonists or antagonists, just your average, run-of-the-mill family living their days to the best of their ability. However, I have never seen an anime quite this frank and sincere. Clocking in at an hour and a half, this slow-paced film will surely resonate with those who have ever experienced an awkward, yet amusing family get-together. If you can appreciate this light-hearted tale of the mundane, you will discover the extraordinary within the ordinary, earthly lives of the Yamadas…
Hmm, I don’t know how to end this eloquently, so here’s another haiku from Basho:
now then, let's go out
to enjoy the snow...until
I slip and fall!
The Yamadas are an ordinary suburban family that enjoy shopping together, watching TV together, and sharing meals just like anyone else. Or so we think! With grumpy grandma Shige wisecracking at the worst times, and Mummy and Daddy Yamada testing each other’s patience at every turn, no family moment ends without a fascinating mishap. But nobody chooses their family, so the Yamadas must learn to savor the joys, forgive each other’s mistakes and, above all, learn lessons that only make them stronger.