Often considered a minor part of the mighty Studio Ghibli canon – due in part to the departure from the traditional animation and narrative style of other Ghibli films, as well as the fact that Hayao Miyazaki didn’t have a hand in it – My Neighbours The Yamadas is still a charming and wonderfully entertaining examination of family life.
Told through a series of comic-strip style vignettes, My Neighbours The Yamadas mines its comedy from the pitfalls of family life and the way that family members interact with each other and the expectations therein. The main characters are all fully rendered and realistic – the mother and father (Matsuko and Takashi), the two children (Noboro and Nonoko), and the grandmother (Shige) all act, look, and talk just like real people. The sparse art style, often eschewing unimportant details and keeping a tight focus on the characters and action, is difficult to explain without seeing the film. It is the bare minimum one would need to show the action and the film works all the better for it. This style means that the film doesn’t ever have a WOW moment, in which you are completely overcome by the beauty of the images (like in Spirited Away or Ponyo), but the roughly drawn images have an immature charm about them. This is especially evident in the second vignette, in which Nonoko goes missing from a department store.
Another notable feature of the film, which establishes it more clearly as a Ghibli film, is a streak of casual surrealism that runs throughout. Often the family will float into the air, or will ride giant snails, or will find babies inside cabbages. This works because it contrasts nicely with the extremely realistic dialogue and actions of the characters and their keenly observed traits.
The film’s basic style also looks fantastic in Blu-Ray – a short scene involving Takashi journeying into work through the (literally) faceless Japanese crowds looks particularly beautiful. The scene at the end of this vignette, in which Takashi makes a congratulatory speech to a workmate, sums up the entire thesis of the film – that it’s important to keep going, be happy with what you have, and accept those around you for who they are.
While the epilogue is the weakest vignette, spilling occasionally into childish mawkishness, this isn’t enough to ruin the film. The simple, loving humour of daily life that the film shows that no matter what country you’re from, people go through the same things and find themselves in the same slightly absurd situations.