Meet the Yamadas, they are an interesting everyday family that lives in a nice quiet suburban district of Japan near a city. There is Takeshi, the hard working yet sometimes lazy father who has a very serious attitude when the situation becomes big. Matsuko is the conscientious and caring mother, a woman who can tolerate the attitude of her peers and is very protective of her children. Shige is the traditional grandmother, very serious towards her daughter and son in-law, although she has never left her attitude from her childhood. Noboru is the problematic teenage son, who like many young teenagers has a bit of a problem when it comes to schoolwork and girls his age. Then there is the young and sweet daughter Nonoko, who is childish and innocent but can be the occasional nightmare as well. In this story we see the daily lives of this wild family, too see what problems they face either as a whole or an individual level, and how they cope with heads holding high.
Production for the film began on October 1st 1997, Isao Takahata, who hasn’t directed a film since 1991’s Only Yesterday, was assigned the task to direct the film, which was based on a popular four-panel gag strip Yonkoma manga. Since Isao Takahata has been known for his extreme faithfulness to the source material, a drastic change to the production methods that were standard for Studio Ghibli were done. This change was to use computer animation to produce the film, so the film would have a watercolours effect that some of the original comics had, making My Neighbour the Yamadas the first ever Studio Ghibli production done entirely using computer animation. The film had a small release in June 1999, and while not being as financially successful as previous films, has kept a nice following.
Now I cannot deny that I thought this was an odd film when I first saw it, and I cannot deny that the main reason for this was the animation and art style. When you do watch the film itself however, it’s not a major problem. This film was based on a four-panel gag strip, also known as a Yonkoma manga, and it is very faithful in design, so the characters look all cartoony and weird, but I would at least give good credit to Ghibli for using their source material well. My only problem is that for some reason, the art style completely changes on this one scene where Takeshi encounters a biker gang, the colours are dark and rough, the character designs are more realistic and it feels very out of place.
Despite that scene I love the art style, it is very calm and light in colours and is very simplistic and clear in character design and settings, and it really fits the mood of the film.
The music isn’t really memorable, with a few exceptions, but it is very fitting to the film. Most of the music is calming, quiet and simplistic. The main theme is the best track in the entire soundtrack, and the Moonlight Rider is a personal favourite, while both aren’t composed in the same style like the other tracks, they are just as brilliantly put together as the rest of the soundtrack.
This is a film where I highly recommend the Japanese dub, mainly because the cast does a really good job, putting the right sort of character in their voices. As for the English dub…I do give my respect to James Belushi and Liliana Mumy for their efforts in the film, doing a good performance for Takeshi and Nonoko respectively. The other cast members are hit or miss, and I mean their voices work some of the time but fall short the rest of the time. The worst role in the dub in my opinion is Noboru, portrayed by Daryl Sabara, who despite voicing a 13 year old and at the time of the dub’s release was 13 years old himself, sounds like a 10 year old, and it is really off putting when compared to Hayato Isobata, who actually sounds like a teenager.
Now we get to the main problem of this film, the story. The film is a slice-of-life comedy so unless you are a fan of Azumanga Daioh or Lucky Star then this is going to be a love it or hate it film. As a slice-of-life, it is very basic, almost each scene has a joke which would give you a chuckle, since despite not being cliché or predictable, they aren’t entirely that funny to me. However, the main problem is that since it was a Yonkoma that was practically made for newspaper and magazine articles, it struggles as a film since there is very little character development, unlike fan following anime series of the same genre such as Azumanga Daioh. The development does appear here and there but with the exception for Noboru and possibly Takeshi, it doesn’t really progress or seem useful later on after the scene is over. Another issue with the story is that it while it is a very relaxing film that still somehow keeps your attention, it feels underplayed. Since all of scenes, long or short, have very little connections with each other, you easily forget them. The finale is one of the main examples of it, and despite being one of the best animated scenes in the film besides the opening sequence, and it is complete with a large ensemble score, it ends back on a simple scene where the whole family goes down a street, and if it wasn’t for the screen fading to credits I wouldn’t have realised that the film had ended. Then again not many slice-of-life films I know of end in any different fashion so I guess that might be normal.
Overall, My Neighbours the Yamadas is a very calm and simplistic film that has a nice essence of comedy without being overblown. You might be put off by the unusual visual style, but I believe that despite its flaws, it is a very nice change of pace from Studio Ghibli’s epic masterpieces with great animations and well written storylines, by relaxing you to a tension free experience that like any Studio Ghibli film, is still worth a viewing.
My Neighbours the Yamadas is available from Walt Disney and Optimum. The original manga of the same name by Hisaichi Ishii, which was later titled to “Nono-chan” to focus more on the most popular character in the series, Nonoko, has not been either translated or released for western audiences. A 61-episode anime series which was based off the manga and also called Nono-chan has also not been released for western audiences.